The volunteer stages of my adventure ended with the departure of group one; I said my goodbyes to Anthony, Jess, Kian and Kali as they set out for a weekend away down the coast. Louise and I decided to stay at the house to plan for the coming weeks.
As the rain belted down on the roof signaling the first rains of the wet season Johnbull, Stacy, Joseph and I stood around a map of Ghana spread out on the kitchen table and discussed the areas which I should visit and how best to depict the story of human trafficking in Ghana. The Photo For Freedom project was now underway.
The first stage had Joseph and I visiting the coastal region of Ghana where many of the trafficked children and fishermen working on Lake Volta originate. Our aim was to photograph and meet with the communities in the fishing villages to gain a better understanding of the children’s background, environment and to get a grasp of how a family can get desperate enough to sell a child into slavery. Apart from conducting my photographic project Joseph was to gather information for the database and to educate vulnerable families on the realities of human trafficking. We were due to set off in two days time.
Joseph Brabi is Johnbull’s right hand man. On multiple occasions I heard John say he would trust him with his life. Apart from being my guide for the next two weeks Joseph is the ‘house daddy’ for all the children at CORM. Together with his beautiful wife Mama Teresa they oversee that all the CORM children are cared for, bathed, fed and above all loved. Their devotion for the children is evident 24 hours a day. Joseph is a middle-aged man of average height and has the typical round facial features found in Ghanaians, which contrasts to Teresa’s slim long frame. He scatters his speech with soulful grunts of agreement “ahhuaaa” and the occasional “oooohhh” at the end of a sentence to emphasize his point. During my four weeks in his company I never saw the slightest hint of discontentment. The sincerity and tolerance he showed to all we encountered and myself left me humbled to be in his company.
The second part of my project had me revisiting Lake Volta with the intention of documenting the work, environment and communities in some of the most remote fishing villages along the Volta region, only accessible by boat. Joseph was to gather information on trafficked children for the database and speak with fishing masters and the chief of each village we visited.
Most of YGAP’s group 2 arrived the following morning. An all-star line up consisting of Lou, Jaci, Phoebe, Elena, Lucy and Carllye arrived and quickly found home within the walls of the CORM house. In the evening we visited the sight of the new school (which was very muddy due to the rains). They got the grand tour and I was happy to see how quickly the walls were going up. We pilled ourselves into the CORM mobile but found ourselves seriously bogged in a foot of mud. The girls jumped straight into action grabbing clumps of dirt, grass, sticks and anything they could find. We were not having much success and Carllye even jumped in the mud and started trying to push the bloody vehicle, which didn’t last long although I loved the efforts. Much to my dismay I ended up pulling down a small tree to free us from our muddy trap. After the bogging fiasco we were now officially a team. We called it an early night and got ourselves ready for the arrival of the rest of Group 2, the Ride West Africa boys.
After 4 grueling months on a pushbike covering a distance of 7600km Ride West Africa boys (Sean, Pat, Jim and Cam) were due to arrive in Doryumu (www.ridewestafrica.com.au). The boys managed to raise a staggering $30,000 to add to YGAP’s contribution to the new school. I was asked to document their last day of riding. Considering we are fundraising for the same cause and their superhuman efforts I was more than happy to oblige. I accompanied Lou, Johnbull and Stacy to Accra to meet the boys. We met the boys as well as Danielle, Mary and John (Sean’s girlfriend, mum and dad) at a hotel and quickly got chatting. I was happy to find that they had not only done an amazing thing with their ride but were also a top bunch of guys. I photographed the boys setting off on their final ride which saw many narrow misses with traffic, flat tires and a police escort from Temma-Doryumu. Two kilometers from Doryumu the boys got a surprise appearance from all the CORM kids who were waiting with their bikes. Together they set off to finish the ride. The emotion was written across their faces as they fought to hold back tears as they rolled over the finish line.
The following day Joseph and I set off for the coast. We arrived at Pram Pram in the morning only to find that the fishermen don’t go out on Tuesdays due to superstitions, which set us back a day of shooting. Instead we spent the day walking through the village and speaking with the communities. Pram Pram looked like the aftermath of a war zone. The blistering sun intensified the smell of the open sewerage and burnt its way up my nostrils. We navigated our way through the maze of semi permanent structures being careful to dodge bits of debris and the odd goat or chicken running through our path. In our short walk we came across a huge amount of children. We found our way to a clearing and Joseph got talking to a few ladies, it wasn’t long before we had quite the crowd around us. A disconcerting amount of the women were in the care of other people’s children. We came across a huge amount of grandmothers and aunties (with no income) caring for children due to deceased or deserted parents. I met with Georgina, 24 years old, and caring for 2 children that belonged to her sister who had passed of ‘illness’. The father had also died of ‘illness’ a short time before. I got blank looks as I asked what kind of illness they passed from. Joseph explained the stigma HIV/AIDS brings. It is considerably worse for somebody to be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and to be outcast from the community than dieing of the disease in silence. Georgina was an example of an easy target for the fishermen. Much of the time the fishermen know these families personally and offer the promise of a better life/education for the child as well as payment. I felt a measure of embarrassment walking into Pram Pram with the importance of my project in mind. I was feeling like the realities Joseph was communicating to people, like Georgina, were infinitely more important than my project. I had to suck it up keep telling myself that the story I am trying to show will help spread the truth of human trafficking. We heard stories like the one Georgina told us for the whole afternoon. I was exhausted when we jumped back in to the car to find a hotel.
The next morning we were up before the sun and ready to get a solid day of shooting in. When we arrived back at Pram Pram I was blown away at how the beach had transformed from uninhabited to what awaited us. Approximately 200 fishermen were waiting on the shore for the boats to roll in over the waves to take them far out to sea. I jumped out the car with my three cameras over my neck and shoulders feeling very sheepish. I was the smallest person on that beach by about 40kg and felt very out of place. I was getting some seriously unfriendly looks and rightfully so, I had about $10,000 worth of camera equipment draped over my shoulders while the fishermen were dressed in rags and about to do a days hard labour for scraps. I was half expecting to be robbed on the spot, without Joseph by my side I have no doubt that would have been the case. I steadied myself and raised the camera to my eye and got carried away with the imagery that unfolded before me. The morning light spilled over the horizon as the boats came gliding towards the shore. Waves crashed sending whitewash over the deck while men battled the currents to steady the boats and scrambled to hoist themselves on board. It was an amazing sight and I was so happy to have my Hasselblad Xpan with me to capture the action in panorama. I noted many children jumping on board these fishing boats to go out for the day. The following hours were spent talking further with the communities around Pram Pram.
We jumped back into the cab and Ivan (our driver) took off east along the coast to our next stop Ada. A fishing community positioned at the delta of the Volta River. This fishing community was home to some of the children CORM rescued from Lake Volta. Apart from fishing the community also relies on income from harvesting salt. The beach was a long way from a resort with rubbish scattered everywhere, like Pram Pram the beach is also used as a toilet. We met and spoke with the community sorting through the nets and got to see the rewards of the days fishing. The catch could hardly feed the mouths that caught it let alone feed a community and generate a profit at a market. I was starting to piece together how desperate these communities are. The promise of money, education and better life for the children is clearly too good to refuse considering the deplorable conditions they find themselves in.
Joseph and I found some shade from the blistering sun, got some drinking water. A man approached us with two young girls. News had gotten around the village about Josephs arrival and the man sought us out. The two girls brought before were called Happy and Susannah. Happy is an orphan with both her parents passing from ‘illness’. She is in the care of her grandmother (with no income), getting no education and lives off one meal a day. Susannah’s mother passed also passed of ‘illness’ and her father had abandoned her leaving her in the care of her grandmother. She wore a deep scar across her chest where an older child had stabbed her. The expression on the faces of these girls from the moment we met them till we left Ada can only be described as hollow. These girls had seen much more than they should have for their age. We met with their grandparents and Joseph took the details of the girls and explained the realities of child trafficking to the grandmothers. Moments before I took a portrait, the grandmother of Happy admitted she wants to sell her to a master. I felt completely shattered as I photographed the two girls, I would have been glad to empty my pockets and give any money I could if it were to help the girls but in reality the grandmothers would have pocketed the money and the girls would be no better off. I had no choice but to trust that the first steps had been taken to help Happy and Susannah. These were the most difficult pictures I have ever taken. I felt ashamed being a visitor and having the option to leave Ada.
I felt huge relief coming home to the safe house and the comfort I found in the company of my friends. The following days were filled with playing guitar, painting murals for the new school, eating, cooking and some heated games of soccer. Joseph and I prepared for our trip to Volta.
The alarm went off at some unholy hour and I fumbled around the dark to get my photo gear together. I stuffed as much film as I could manage into my backpack, slung it over my shoulder, grabbed my tripod and a garbage bag with a few clothes in it (which had become the fashion) and set out the door dodging the sleeping bodies scattered on the floor. The sun had only started poking over the horizon when I sat on the front porch of the compound waiting for Joseph. I was enjoying watching people going about their morning routines and greeting my neighbors when I saw Joseph come down the road rocking his Photo For Freedom T-shirt. We greeted each other and set out down the road and stopped at small crowd at the bus stop. As the tro tro (public bus) pulled up in front of us, I got my first glimpse for the day to come. The tro tro was designed to carry about 10-12 passengers but as I was soon to find out could hold closer to double. I could tell by a couple of spots the rust had managed to miss that the van had once been white. As it rattled and coughed its way to a stop in front of the crowd I felt myself pushed forward with the current of people and managed to find a spot behind the driver’s seat. The man collecting the fare didn’t manage a seat but seemed content half hanging out of the moving vehicle. As any room for baggage was being occupied by people, I put my bags on my lap. We arrived at a depot and changed to a slightly larger tro tro, I was pleased to see many empty seats and hopped aboard hoping to make a hasty departure. This was not to be the case. We waited around for some two and a half hours as the driver refused to leave until he had crammed every square inch of chair full of bums. By this stage it was getting ridiculously hot and getting out of the tro tro wasn’t as option as it would mean sacrificing our hard earned seats. Joseph may be the most patent man I have ever met. He didn’t show the slightest sign of discomfort or frustration the whole day. After a very long two and half hours the driver jumped in and we set off for another never ending drive which included highlights such as a man next to us guzzling whisky straight out of the bottle and stuffing his face with dried fish as well as a token flat tire. We arrived at our next stop to once again change vehicle and climbed onboard of the new tro tro for the next 7 hours. By now the heat of the day was in full swing and bloody hot even for Ghana. I found myself squashed between the driver and Joseph while the sun beamed down through the front window. I was in the hottest temperatures I have ever experienced. The next part of the journey is a complete blank but I remember opening my eyes and lifting my dizzy head from a pool of sweat. My brain was swimming in my scull. We arrived at Dumbai well after dark. We hoped to get a ride across with the ferry but soon found out it had finished crossing for the night. Joseph had just finished informing me that we would have to sleep outside until the first morning crossing when a man approached us with the proposition to cross with his small fishing boat for a small fee. Joseph started haggling over price and before I knew it we were in the narrow boat and the engine roared to life. I watched the lights on the shore fade into the distance and the darkness of the night swallow us, soon the lights of the stars flooded over our heads. It felt eerie to see such a huge body of water completely calm with no current or waves. The water was black as oil. The ride was amazing and a relief after the heat of the previous 16 hours. After another even more dodgy tro tro ride and an amazingly refreshing ride on the back of a motorbike we arrived back in Benjamase.
Dinner was very limited that night and consisted of moldy bread and coke. As I lay down to sleep my head was still thumping from the heat and lack of water from the days travels, my t-shirt clung to the bare concrete floor as I stretched out under my mosquito net. Not being able to retreat to the comforts of my ipod, shower and bed gave me a sense of satisfaction, I felt glad to feel some level of discomfort considering what the people I am photographing experience.
As daylight broke over Benjamase and the sounds of the morning chores and the exotic waft of Ghanaian cooking woke me up, I felt all the feeling from my first visit rushing back. I was pleased to see some of the kids I had played soccer with on my last visit were now poking their heads out of their mud huts with excitement. Nowhere I have been to can match the smiles of the people of Ghana. Breakfast looked somewhat familiar when the moldy bread made a second appearance. I felt much further from civilization than my previous trip to the lake without any other volunteers with me and felt famous walking around Benjamase to the sound of Obruni Obruni!
The only way to access some of the remote villages that surround lake Volta is by boat. The smallest boat with a motor we could acquire held about 20 people (the alternative was a small 5 person boat but would have a child doing the paddling for us). The following days our routine was to get out on our boat at around 6am-11am then a short rest from the sweltering heat and then an afternoon trip form 4pm-7pm. The middle part of the day was just too hot; at some of the villages purified water was unavailable I was also worried about the extreme temperatures damaging the film.
Joseph and I spoke with the chief of each village we visited before we went to each home to speak with the community. My white skin terrified some of the children and even dogs seemed to target me with their barking. It was increasingly hard to determine which children belonged to a family and which were trafficked. Joseph having originated from the Volta region himself had many friends and ties to the communities, which helped finding out the truth. The amount of children in the villages was staggering. We visited one remote village with a community of 50, of the 50 people over half were children under 12 years old. The chief in this village had 3 wives with over 20 kids that supposedly were his. I did my best to keep my mind focused on my job at hand and keep my personal perspective at bay but at times the realities of what I was seeing was unavoidable. Apart from the child slavery, which was blatantly obvious at times, I came face to face with some seriously sick, troubled children. Despite the hardships of these communities I was offered a meal by struggling families many times as well as a fisherman offering to share his daily catch.
On the third afternoon the rest of the YGAP volunteers made their way to Volta with a fresh batch of American volunteers. Spirits were pretty high (apart from the girls finding a scorpion in their room) and I felt a moment of relief from the previous days events.
That Afternoon we all boarded the boat and traveled to a remote village I had visited earlier on my trip. A fishing master had admitted to having enslaved children in his care and requested a meeting with CORM. Nobody knew what to expect as we took the boat on the hour ride across the lake. Any confidence I felt from my time in Volta and previous visits to Ada Kope were snatched from under my feet as we stepped off the boat and headed into the small fishing village. The trafficked children before me had been hidden on my previous visit but now the two young girls and two boys no older than 10 stood before us clear as day. The children were completely expressionless. As I looked into their deadened eyes I wondered what their role had been as slaves on Lake Volta. A labourer on the lake? domestic servant? sex slave? All of the above?
Sweat beads started to appear on the master’s forehead as the discussion begun. The children’s eyes reflected the towering silhouettes that stood before them. They stood dumbstruck; the adults stood around them in a circle and discussed their impending future. It didn’t take long before it became clear that the master wanted money for the release of the children. The children were paying off an alleged debt of their parent’s funeral that the fishing master had covered. This is a common scenario used in slavery worldwide. A debt accumulates which the slaves are required to payoff (eg parents funeral). The slave is said to have an income, however, the income the slave has can never amount to the further debt being accumulated while in the ‘care’ of the master. The debt is impossible to pay off. Johnbull assured the master he wouldn’t see any money for the release of the children. The only way these children would come into CORM’s care was if the master willingly made the decision to do so or police start prosecuting. The next steps were to verify the details of the children given by the master and track down their relatives and make sure that it’s in their best interest to go to the orphanage. Johnbull told the master and children he would be back as soon as possible and with the new information in hand we set off for the boat.
None of us could have prepared us for what we witnessed at Ada Kope that afternoon. On the ride back to Benjamase hardly a word was spoken as we tried to come to terms with what we had just witnessed. I believe we all found it difficult to feel humility towards the fishing master; we had to remember that he was part of a vicious cycle and that we had only stepped into this world for a matter of days, he lived here his whole life. Ghana needs a long-term solution that doesn’t involve paying for the release of trafficked children, threatening masters with prosecution or a vigilante rescue mission. The only way this can really stop is if the communities chose to do so (masters, parents and all). The first steps had been taken towards liberating these kids. I did my best to capture the events but I had a growing doubt in me the whole time that I shouldn’t be taking photos, truth is I wanted to put the camera away from the moment we arrived at Ada Kope. For the second time in two weeks I had taken the hardest photographs of my life. I felt physically sick on that boat back to Benjamase. Slavery is an ugly truth.
Looking back now I’m glad I took the photographs and witness what I did while in Ghana. The photos taken at Ada and Ada Kope are the strongest work for the coming exhibition. The best tool for us to stop the atrocity that is modern day slavery is to bring it to the public eye and to support organisations like YGAP and CORM. Unless we put slavery into light it will continue to fester in the darkness. The faces of Happy, Susannah and the children at Ada Kope haven’t left my mind since my departure from Ghana. I hope to bring their stories to the world later this year through an exhibition and publication of a book. Supporting this project will help trafficked children like the ones mentioned find peace; just as important, funds collected will also help the prevention of child trafficking.