My friend Madam Amy and I took a trip to Yeji, a fishing community that is one of the destination points for children who are trafficked into child labour. The main road to Yeji runs straight into Lake Volta – and the fishing industry that developed after the Akosombo Dam was constructed and flooded 3,000 square miles of land.
Working at Challenging Heights, I have often come face to face with the “after.” A sullen teenage girl who won’t allow anyone to comb her hair and doesn’t smile for weeks after being brought to the shelter. A re-integrated 10-year-old whose hair-trigger temper is constantly getting him in trouble at school. A too-small, too-calloused seven-year-old boy.
Now, I was hoping to get an understanding of their “before.”
We made arrangements with Uncle Isaiah to leave early Saturday morning to go on the lake. Or, to be perfectly frank, Aba made arrangements – “He is our uncle, soooo, he must to take you people.” Whether Uncle Isaiah had much say in the matter is doubtful, but he was kind and accommodating. Maybe Aba put the fear of, well, herself in him but I think it more likely that he’s just a really nice man.
With a steaming hot polyten of Tom Brown in one hand and an utterly delicious hunk of bread in the other, I boarded Uncle Isaiah’s wooden canoe. Aba, Ama, Amy, and . . . iiiii! I have forgotten his name! Anyway, Uncle Isaiah’s canoe assistant – let’s call him Joseph – completed our motley crew.
If you’ve never had breakfast out of a bag in a wooden canoe on a cloudy Saturday morning while enjoying the company of old and new friends . . . Hey! I’m recommending that one a lot.
Uncle Isaiah stood at the front of the canoe, his black and grey striped sweater and tan trousers blowing in the breeze.
Amy and I took turns bailing water out of the bottom of the canoe with a sawed off jerry can.
Ama sat quietly gazing out at the water.
Joseph operated the outboard motor, cutting it back and lifting it out of the water often so we didn’t accidentally severe the many fishing lines crisscrossing the surface of the lake.
Aba kept up a running commentary of commands, directives, advice, and observations.
The first fisherman we met attended Isaiah and Aba’s church. He and his sons had gone out on the lake at dawn to check their traps: 4-foot long lengths of bamboo. Tied to fishing lines, the bamboo was submerged in water the day before. As each length was pulled up and tipped upright, fish flopped into the bottom of the canoe.
The next canoe used nets to haul in fish. Another used cages.
“Won’t you ask them any question?” demanded Aba. “We thought you people would have something to say so that is why we brought you here.”
The fishermen showed us how they baited the cages with ground cassava bits mixed with oil. They answered our questions about how many fish they caught in a day, how many hours they spent on the lake, what they would sell the fish for at Yeji market.
Yes, the boys working with them were their sons.
Yes, they went to school. But on Saturdays, they came to help their fathers.
The answers were always the same.
There were stories that seemed true – like the three boys who told us they were brothers. Their father gave them free use of the canoe/motor/fuel on Saturdays and they were allowed to keep the profits of all the fish they caught and sold.
There were stories that you wanted to believe – the two boys who pointed off into the distance and said their father and other brother were working “over there” and they only came to the lake after school and on weekends.
There were stories you knew couldn’t be true – the fisherman who said his sons went to school, of course. Meanwhile, the three small boys working to painstakingly mend the blue-green net never once looked up, never smiled, never said a word.
Boys who were naked. Boys who wore tank tops and shorts. Boys who wore only small knicker or a dirty t-shirt.
Boys who looked you in the eye and smiled. Boys who were growing into men, unable to speak English. Boys who always, always kept their heads down.
Boys who were small and thin. Boys who were robust and active. Boys who looked exhausted.
Canoes that were rough, unfinished wood. Canoes that had been pitched to prevent leaks. Canoes that were brightly painted with Fantse phrases, pictures, or Bible verses.
The fishermen were mainly friendly and willing to talk. They applauded our attempts to speak Fantse or Twi. They laughed with Isaiah and respectfully greeted Aba. Basket after basket of freshly caught fish poured into our canoe.
Could I have passed any one of on the streets of Yeji and said, “There – that one is a slave master”? Probably not. They didn’t look like cruel men. Some were work worn and sun weathered, yes. But they didn’t look “evil.” And yet, it’s almost certain that some of them were the causes of those “afters” I keep meeting through Challenging Heights.
“Are you the only one who can fish in this spot?” Amy asked one of the fishermen.
Yes, for now. But if the fish are not coming, and he decides to move to a different area of the lake, another man can come.
“Does anyone ever come and take fish from someone else’s traps?”
No, they cannot do! If they do that thing and they are caught, they will have to go before the chief. This, it seemed, was a code of ethics few – if any – fishermen would willingly breach.
Only one fisherman that day appeared to be intent on avoiding us. As our canoe turned towards his, he began paddling rapidly away from us. I don’t remember what he said to us when we caught up with him. But I do remember the small, naked boy who silently crouched on the side of the boat.
It seems wrong to say I had a wonderful time at a place that is the site of so much suffering, but I did. I feel guilty just typing that.
In spite of my knowledge of the dark side of the area, I can honestly say I fell in love with the place.
The entire morning was a case study for the sometimes tricky nature of abolition.
Is a child whose mother sent him to work for her brother a slave – or simply “helping out the family”? Is it so bad that he is learning a trade – gaining skills that can support him in the future? It can seem so clear from a distance.
A good friend is constantly reminding me, “We Africans – the more you look, the less you see.” Sometimes it feels that way – the closer I get, the murkier the issue – murkier even than the clay colored waters of Lake Volta.
But I will always believe that if you look hard enough and long enough you can find the truth. Does the child have the opportunity to go to school? Is he well fed? Does he feel safe enough to lift up his head and look you in the eye?
The reality will be there, as sharply delineated as a brightly painted canoe cutting across the waters.