Holy is a young boy who enjoys normal activities like most boys his age. He is a bright child who goes to school, plays with his friends, and goes swimming in the local pool. Yet, unlike other boys, Holy goes swimming for different reasons – some so dark that other little boys could never summon those visions – not even in their worst nightmares.
Holy was one of the thousands of children trapped in the nefarious child labour outfit that operates at Lake Volta in Ghana. Holy goes swimming – not because he needs to learn to swim – but to ensure that he no longer associates being in the water with his formidable past. Following the death of both of his parents, Holy slipped through the gaps until he was another statistic that the lake had claimed for its child trafficking ring. Holy never speaks about his past, about the memories that plague him, or about the faces of the other trapped boys whom he had to leave behind.
Yet, Holy was one of the fortunate few to have escaped the murky clutches of that lake. He was rescued by James Deacon, a British volunteer, who was teaching in a nearby fishing village at the time. Deacon befriended the little boy after noticing that he was always working on the lake instead of attending school.
Lake Volta is the largest human-made lake in the world and has become a significant part of Ghana’s fishing industry. Yet, it is a trade that has been built on the abuse of young lives – a lot of whom are under the age of 10. It is estimated that 1 in 3 children in the region are child labourers, who are subjected to chronic violence, gruelling work hours, and starvation.
Holy’s Home for Children, a charity set up a mere 15 minutes drive from the edges of the lake, offers a safe home to orphaned children so that they can attend school. Deacon, who became its founder after being inspired by Holy, said:
“When you go to the lake, you’ll see plenty of young boys hanging around, untangling nets, and playing on the boats. At first glance, you might not even realise what’s going on. There are no horrific scenes of slavery or outright abuse that you see, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a whole industry working there at the expense of these kids. That’s just one town that I’ve witnessed. The size of the lake is monumental, making it a tough issue to track.”
Work conditions for the boys are highly dangerous; many drown because they are often sent into the shadowy recesses of the lake to untangle nets that become entangled in the branches and stumps at the bottom. And if the net is torn when they set it free, they risk getting beaten from their “master”. Apart from that, they are also exposed to a wide array of diseases that could be contracted from the water.
“Physically, this kind of tough manual work will, of course, have damaging effects on their growth and development. The children don’t have the opportunity to learn, focus on school, adhere to a normal routine, or enjoy free time with friends and family. Working as a child in Ghana is not uncommon at all; many children will help their parents farm, or sell items after school or at the roadside. In my opinion, that can be a fulfilling task and teaches them plenty of transferable skills. But, no child should be made to work and particularly not under such conditions,” Deacon said.
Deacon believes that, considering the large scale of the problem, there is not enough awareness being brought to the situation – inside or outside of Ghana. As such, many people remain oblivious of the system.
Unlike a lot of other exporting industries in Ghana, such as cocoa and gold, which are governed by more stringent regulations and international oversights, there are fewer measures in place for the fishing industry. As such, it becomes easier to use vulnerable children for work. Ghanaian children can be sold for as little as 200,000 cedis (£12) into a world of exploitative labour, malnutrition, abuse, and no education.
“There are some NGOs working very hard to limit the practice and take children to places of safety, but as with any large-scale issue, resources will always be a problem. The government of Ghana should encourage a more focused investigation into the practice, drawing on support from NGOs and external organisations, who can implement new ways of fishing. The fishing industry impacts the lives of thousands and is a much-needed resource, but it should not be done like this,” argued Deacon.