Next month, President Barack Obama will make his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa, traveling to Ghana, a nation known for its commitment to democracy, orderly government, and civil society in a volatile region. It's also a place where the president can see first-hand the problem of child trafficking that now confronts so much of the world. The problem is especially evident on Ghana's Lake Volta, where we have both been involved in rescuing child slaves and telling their stories to the world at large.
The United Nations estimates that more than one million children are trafficked annually -- often sold by their parents, who are so overwhelmed by poverty that they are unable to care for their children and see no alternative. It's a tragedy on all sides.
Data on child trafficking in Africa is "notoriously scarce," according to The New York Times, "but it suggests victimization of African children on a huge scale." According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than 200,000 children work as slaves in West and Central Africa, and child trafficking is both widespread and increasing, mostly due to extreme poverty. Ghanaians around Lake Volta estimate that the number of slave children on the lake is in the thousands.
Child trafficking is technically against the law in Ghana, but the law is only four years old, not well-known in remote areas, and not enforced in the region of Lake Volta. And the fishermen are dependent on the slave children to make their own meager livings.
Lake Volta is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, covering 3,200 square miles -- more than twice the size of Rhode Island. It was created in 1965 with the construction of the Akosombo Dam, which provides electricity for much of the nation.
When the lake was created, the terrain under it was flooded, and therein lies some of the cause of the child slavery. Fishermen on the lake set nets from primitive, leaky, wooden canoes, and the nets frequently get caught on the trees that still exist underwater.
To survive economically, the fishermen need cheap labor -- hence the slave children, typically young boys, some as young as six years old, who spend their days bailing water out of the boats and diving into the dingy lake to free the nets from the trees. The children work from dawn until dusk, with little clothing, a single skimpy meal at the end of the day, no schooling, and, of course, no family. Many suffer from malnutrition; others drown; none are free. All are literally sold into slavery.
Through the Touch A Life Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit, we have been working with Ghanaian advocates to rescue children from the lake and care for them at nearby residential facilities with houseparents, offering food, shelter, and support, as well as the opportunity to go to school. The slave children can't be returned to their families, because they will just be sold again. The Foundation has rescued 50 former slave children, currently supports 38, is making arrangements for another 10, and hopes to expand its efforts further.
The challenge, of course, is to address the systemic problem, not simply rescue individual children, one at a time. And that's where the United States can help greatly: by addressing poverty in the region, by providing food and other logistical support, by exploring ways of harvesting the trees under the lake, which still have commercial value despite being waterlogged, by providing supplies that would keep the canoes from leaking.
The Ghanaian government supports the effort to end child trafficking. And Ghana's political stability makes it an ideal place to address the problem.
On Ghana's western coast stands Elmina Castle, now a museum but once a trading post where more than thirty thousand Africans were sold into slavery and loaded onto ships headed for America. The museum suggests that it's all in the past, but child slavery still exists in Ghana and in many countries around the world.
On a wall at Elmina Castle are written these words: "In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who returned find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold his."
"We the living" must include us all, for knowing of the problem, we cannot fairly overlook it. President Obama would only need to look into the eyes of one child slave to be moved to action. We know just where to find them.
Pam Cope is Co-Founder of the Touch A Life Foundation (www.touchalifekids.org) and author, with journalist Aimee Molloy, of Jantsen's Gift (Grand Central Publishing, 2009).
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