Friday, December 2, 2011

The acceptance of truth: Child Slavery

JD wrote a very touching post today about a little boy we had to leave behind. I encourage you to read it.

This experience, going to see modern day slavery for myself, has turned into a processing experience like none I have ever known until this point. As I explained in my last post, even coming up with analogies is hard because it is so unlike anything I have ever seen. And we want, so desperately, to believe that it doesn't happen or it isn't "that bad". But the fact is that it IS that bad.

So today I am going to attempt to show you a bit of our experience of exploring slavery on Lake Volta. This is the part that gets hard for me. It was such a personal and deeply felt experience that a lot of me doesn't want to let out the vulnerabilities I have surrounding it. But I know what is required of me and that is to be an advocate for child slaves.

 It was actually quite a nice day. On the lake its much cooler and has a pretty decent breeze. It was the coolest I had felt the whole time I was in Africa. We boarded the boat and our navigator (shown above) untangled the boat from some trees and stuff that we were kind of caught in and we set off on our first experience on Lake Volta
It did not take long until we saw our first boat with trafficked children in it. How do we know they are trafficked? Well there are several ways... the vast majority of the kids you see are trafficked. Slave masters don't often put their own kids on the lake for 16 hrs a day and make them go without an education.You can also tell by their physical appearance. Underfed, over developed, apparent and frequent scars laid across their bodies. The fact that the children absolutely are not allowed to respond to us if a master is with them (they may ruin the lie of "hes my nephew" "he is my son").

We approached several boats and spoke with masters about the children they had. George Jr. was flawlessly making arguments and asking questions about the children. He was trying to have the real picture painted for him by interviewing and befriending these slave masters. An approach I had never really understood but that I was starting to come to cherish (but it took me and is still taking me a long time and a hard road to get there).
And another boat. Two boys diligently working on the nets and bailing water out of their boat. Thin frames and over developed muscles belie their age a bit. The master is on the left just out of the picture... paddling and watching. The kids know what we know... because they have been at the end of the beating several times. If they make a wrong move, punishment is on the way as soon as we disappear into the horizon. My heart aches as I think about my sweet sons doing work like this for 16 hours a day on little to no food. Tears start to form in the corners of my eyes but also anger starts to seethe a bit in my heart.
We approach boat after boat meeting the trafficked children of Volta. I ask nearly silent questions to the children that are just as silently translated to them. I am at the end of the boat and all the commotion and conversation is going on on the other side where the master is. How old are you? 8 Where are your parents? I don't know. Have you eaten today (they get up at 2am and it was will into the morning by now)? No. Do you want to go to school? Yes.

One boy was sold to his master several years ago. He is now a teenager (maybe 15) and impregnated the masters daughter. So, the master went to his parents and told them to give him his brother since he committed such a horrible act. Now two children with no education and no way to escape are working the lake. And it is like that. I met orphans and I met siblings of the children who have already been rescued.

Eventually boats started running from us not wanting to have us confront them. Again, I felt angry. How could people do this to children? One boat in particular had several (SEVERAL) children in the canoe and he hightailed it to the island. We watched him unload a boat full of kids and tell all the other children to run and hide (the apparent message was that we were the police). And they all fled.

As we pulled up to the island, there were a group of people working on the shore. I immediately (as did my friends) noticed a little girl in just panties. We rustled through the bags of dresses we had brought and pulled on out for her. She had longer hair than normal (well for little girls in Ghana anyway) which is often times associated with trafficking because trafficked children are not taken care of. I do think she had parents on the island though. I just can't remember well. Anyway I took the dress and went up to her. At first, I handed it to her. She gave me a shy grin. My hands then took over. I spoke softly to her as I told her how beautiful she was. I unfolded the dress and gently slipped it over her head. The blue looked amazing next to her brown skin. I looked down at her and told her a few more affirming words and she let me take a picture.
Be still my heart, beautiful girl. I gently rubber her sweet cheek and patted her head and we went on. The trail of people at the shore following along.

And we went... we went into the village where the children outnumbered the adults and where little tenderness and love was given to the trafficked children (which were most of the children on the island). And we loved. We passed out clothes and cherished smiles and patted heads.

JD also made a trade with a little boy. She gave him 2 pairs of shorts for his pair of old, worn out, holy shorts. A reminder of where we have been and testimony to people that these children exist and have real, tangible needs. A way to say, this is our story and here is what we have to show for it. I still tear up when I look at those shorts.
Eventually we met up with some of the people, masters, we needed to see. We also found a pile of handsome, sweet boys. Some as young as or even slightly younger than my Kolt. My heart sank. All of them... every last one of the boys we met there... were trafficked. I asked if they had eaten today... none of them had. They get up at about 2 am and it was 10 by this time.
This handsome young guy was very muscular and well defined. Lots of scars (face, neck chest, arms) and wear from working on the lake. The most surprisingly built child that I saw. His muscles were very overdeveloped and you can tell that he does a lot of the "hard work" on the lake. He has a beautiful smile.They all do if you can get them to show it to you.
Next we met our sweet Richard*. The face of slavery and the face of hopelessness that has been haunting me since I left him. Very poorly taken care of. Dirt covered, red tinged hair and most devastating of all...
Photo credit: JD Richardson

Hope Lost Eyes. I don't know where this sweet child has retreated to and I am certain that knowing would scare the hell out of me. But he is not present, doesn't respond, doesn't connect. His eyes are empty. His soul is buried under hurt and fear and hopelessness.  I had no clue what to feel other than despair and hopelessness at the obstacles ahead myself. I just wanted to give him tenderness and love and care but had no clue how to do that for him. This is what captivity does to the human spirit. This is what slavery turns you into after long enough.

I had grown up in an abusive home. I had been beaten and molested. I had felt like I could never speak out. I had felt angry and lost in myself. But I had never seen a face like this before. I had never seen despair so blatantly written on anyone's face. As I walked away from him, I felt grief. I felt struggle. I felt overwhelmed. I cried quietly as we walked to the next place. Prince was talking to me and I was half listening but not able to focus. How can I ever forget this child? I can't. I can never go on acting like I don't know about him and the thousands of other children on the lake in Ghana.

The last stop of the day was to meet Innocence* and Patrick*. Innocence was sitting in the boat busily working on the net when we approached. I was positively shocked to learn that she was a girl. She had some shorts on but that was it. Her lean, muscular body fooled me quickly into believing she was yet another young boy. Her half brother, Patrick, was hauling heavy nets across the shore. Hanging them up and various things. These were the children we were negotiating for on this day. They had been promised before to the team. The master said we could pick them up on monday and that he would have them ready for us. My heart sank again... Monday? Dear God, I just want to take them with us now. I don't understand why this is working out how it's working out.

I discuss with the slave master what he is doing with these children. He knows that it is not okay to purchase children and force them to work. He told me he would never do it with his own children. When I proceeded and asked him why he does it, I got nervous laughter. My face was red with anger. My emotions were supercharged from the day and the previous experiences. I stood there red-faced and angry, in silence.

We got into our boat without our children. Without ANY children. I sat solemnly and reflected on the boat ride home. I accepted in my heart the truth I had seen. I had long ago accepted it with my brain but now, it was a heart level truth. The anger slowly faded into grief and sadness as I thought about Kolt and his friends and how so many of the kids we met were his age or not much older. Sadness creeped in when I thought of the sheer desperation and manipulation it must take to sell your child to someone. Grief overwhelmed me as I thought about how many bodies were lost forever under the water we were cruising across. And I let myself cry.

*Child's real name not used

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