Lake Volta, Ghana: the world's largest man-made lake sustains thousands of lives - but its fishing industry is built on the backs of vulnerable children.
18 Apr, 2019
The world was dark when Uncle's stick came rattling at the door.
Forced up from the depths of sleep, Ebenezer broke the surface of his dream and rolled to his feet before the man could whip him awake.
He followed the line of boys out of the grimy compound and down to the water's edge; their slender shoulders ropy with muscle beneath thin t-shirts; their feet slapping and squishing in the mud; their eyes already on the lapping dark lake.
They pushed the boats out on the black surface: long, heavy canoes that rocked as the boys scrambled aboard to perch like birds among the nets and buckets of bait.
As the engine coughed to life, the stink of diesel and fish blood stuck in Ebenezer's nostrils. He lifted his chin; breathed the cool air rushing over his face.
He closed his eyes. It seemed forever since he had seen his grandmother.
Formed at the collision of the Black and White Volta rivers in Ghana, West Africa, Lake Volta stretches for 8500 square kilometres; it's the largest human-made lake in the world.
For more than 50 years, the Akosombo Dam at the lake's southern end has played a major role in meeting Ghana's needs for drinking water and electricity. The lake is the source of life for scores of small settlements that cluster at its banks: entire communities make their living on the boats or in the fishmarkets.
But hundreds of fishermen - or, more accurately, fisherboys - are not there by choice.
Ebenezer was six years old when a strange man appeared at his grandmother's house in New Ningo.
"Call me Uncle," he said, but he was no uncle the boy had ever seen. He was full of promises, this man. Promises of income, opportunity and regular meals. He smiled too easily and shook his grandmother's hand too hard. His arm, draped around Ebenezer's shoulders, was an iron chain.
"You will see her soon," he promised, when the boy looked back.
His promise was as empty as his smile.
For three years, Ebenezer worked the lake - rising before the dawn, falling into sleep in the small hours. Every part of his world rocked with the rhythm of the water. He cast the nets and heaved them in until his shoulders burned and his hands cracked and bled and thickened with callouses and cracked again.
The men who had created the lake had drowned a forest. When the dead trees' fingers snagged the nets, Ebenezer was forced to drop into the murky water to untangle the rope. As he fumbled in the dark - eyes stinging, lungs burning, panic rising in his gut - he prayed he would find his way back up, would breathe again.
That God would let him survive where so many others had not.
"Child trafficking is a poverty issue," says Henry Tetteh Amanor, centre director of the GH-0209 New Ningo Good Shepherd Methodist Child Development Centre and a powerful advocate for children.
"If [you had] three children who are not in school because of lack of funds and someone takes one away to be put into school - and even gives you money with which you can register the other two - why [wouldn't you] do it?" he says.
"So caregivers give their children away for an amount as little as 300 cedis, about 78 US dollars."
New Ningo is in Greater Accra, 60km or more south of Akosombo and the lake. But distance is no protection for children who live in poverty.
"Sometimes, the recruiters name towns very close to the child's community as the destination," says Henry. "But in actual fact they take them very far away, where the child can never find his or her way back home."
Lake Volta's fishing industry is a significant element of Ghana's economy - but it's built on the backs of vulnerable children, most of whom are younger than 10. Those trafficked to the lake endure conditions that are even worse than local children's - they're given the most dangerous and difficult jobs; they're subjected to more intense violence; they work longer hours and have their food - and pay - withheld.
As the months fogged with exhaustion and slipped away from Ebenezer, he prayed for deliverance.
"I used to sit by myself and think of my future," says Ebenezer. "I wanted to leave, but I couldn't. I had no money for transport. I used to pray that God would help me leave that man."
In the few hours he snatched for himself, thoughts of his grandmother crushed his chest with a physical longing and squeezed cries of fresh misery from his throat.
For Ebenezer's grandmother, Comfort, options were limited and every choice loaded with consequence.
"I take care of nine grandchildren," she says. "Their fathers have abandoned them and even though their mothers have not left them, they are not gainfully employed … I feel that, since I am still strong, I can do some menial work to send them to school."
As a petty trader, she walked for days in all directions around New Ningo to gather fruit and vegetables from local farms, lugging her stock to the markets to sell for a profit of a few dollars at a time. When age meant she was no longer able to cover the distance, she began working as a street sweeper with a local company. Her pay was low, and unreliable.
"I [don't] have the financial means to provide for [my grandchildren] the way I really want, but God gives me the energy to labour to feed them and myself."
Ebenezer was newly orphaned when Comfort came to his house and gathered him up.
His was another mouth to feed, but his mother - Comfort's daughter - had died not long after his birth. He was abandoned. What else could she do? Through her charisma and determination, God's provision, and the generosity of her neighbours, Comfort scraped a living for her grandchildren. Yet the brutal hours took their toll.
"How do we eat? How do we eat? It is only [by] the grace of God!" she says. "There have been many times when we woke up and I did not have any money to buy food for my family - but we never went to bed hungry."
So when a relative visited years later and offered to take three of the children to work on his fishing boat, she was torn. They were so young. They belonged in a classroom, not on a boat risking their lives for another man's fish.
But they would have something to eat, and somewhere to sleep, and she would have a little more to care for the children who remained with her.
She made her decision.
She let them go.
Most caregivers who entrust their children to the lake's embrace believe that they will be cared for and live in decent conditions.
"[Parents] love their children," says Henry. "They try their best, but the by-product of poverty … they don't know the consequences because the recruiters lie to them. And when you are poor, you are vulnerable."
Many think learning the fishing trade is in their children's long-term interests, that it will give them skills and the opportunity for a better life.
The reality is that the children on Lake Volta are cheap labour - and entirely expendable.
Trafficking is illegal in Ghana. But on the water, there is no law. Children are routinely beaten with paddles, heavy ropes, electrical cables. Many have spoken about sleep deprivation, malnutrition, sexual assault and abuse, and grievous injuries; they give dark testimonies of witnessing unspeakable crimes. They are deprived of medical attention, education and recreation.
When they refuse to dive to free the tangled nets, they are pushed or bludgeoned overboard. When they fall asleep or move too slowly to do their masters' bidding, they are beaten. When they complain or try to escape, they are denied food and water.
There is no other word. They are slaves.
Comfort's fear for her grandchildren wouldn't let her rest.
As the months stretched into years, her doubts about the children's safety grew. She was plagued by the worry that she had made the wrong decision and that her grandchildren would be - must be - better off at home with her.
"One day before I went to sleep, I was praying and reflecting, when the thought just hit me: 'I did not go to school; why then will I allow my grandchildren also to be in Akosombo without going to school?' So I went to bring them back," says Comfort.
When she spoke with Henry, he explained that Ebenezer and his cousins could receive support through the local church and the Compassion centre. The grinding poverty that had pushed her into her fateful decision wasn't insurmountable if they confronted it together.
Spurred by a fresh hope, Comfort enlisted Henry's help and set out for the lake to save Ebenezer and his cousins.
The storm swooped across the water like an enormous bird of prey.
The boys screamed as waves swept over the boat. Ebenezer knew they couldn't make it back to the shore. He clutched at the wooden seat, half-blinded by rain and choked with fear. The wind tore at his face. The bow rose up; the canoe stood like a rearing horse and crashed down.
He was in the water.
Around him, his friends were floating by whatever flotsam they could grab and kicking desperately for the shore. The muddy strip where the lake met the land was blurred by the sheeting rain, but one by one the boys staggered away from the water, away from death.
The boat was broken beyond repair. Uncle was ruined.
When Comfort tracked her grandson down, she wept with relief that he was still alive. When she learned of the abuse and despair he'd suffered through, she wept again.
With Henry's support, she negotiated Ebenezer's release.
"If not for Henry's support to bring these children back from the Volta Lake, their lives would have been destroyed," says Comfort. "There is no life where they were taken to; there is nothing there for them … There is no hope over there."
For more than three years on the boat, for thousands of hours of labour and heartache, for over a quarter of his life to that point, Ebenezer was paid US$50.
Now in the final years of high school, Ebenezer hopes to become a mechanical engineer.
He has suffered through great trauma but survived. In the years since he left the lake, Ebenezer has been registered with the Compassion program, protected by his grandmother, nurtured by the love of his local church, and encouraged by his sponsor, Daniel.
He says he wants to pursue a career as an engineer in order to provide for Comfort, his mighty grandmother, who never gave up on him and rescued him from death with her bare hands.
"I have suffered enough in my life and so I don't want my family or my children to suffer. I want them to acquire some knowledge so they can lead a better life," he says.
Henry continues the fight against trafficking to this day.
He travels far and wide to educate parents and community leaders about the brutal reality of life on Lake Volta and the coercive methods traffickers use to prey on the innocent.
Some of his most important work is done at the Compassion centre, where he teaches children to know their rights and to recognise the risks of strangers or family members who try to persuade them they will have a better life on the boats.
"It is the right of children to be protected," says Henry. "More children need to be sponsored [through Compassion] so that we can empower [them] - and they, in turn, can impact others all over the country.
"So that children will be free, and free forever."
Compassion works to transform the lives of individual children and encourage their long-term development. The Child Sponsorship Program connects one sponsor with one child living in poverty so they can invest into that child's future.
Sponsor a child and give a hope more powerful than poverty.
Please note: The children pictured do not work in the fishing industry; they recreated scenes of life on Lake Volta willingly and with permission.
Words by Richard Miller
Photos by Helen Manson
Provide Emergency Help
Help protect vulnerable children from the devastation of COVID-19. Learn more