I first met Dora in February 2011. Joseph and I were visiting the fishing village of Lolonya along the coastal region of Ghana. Our aim was to document the communities and work where so many children working as slaves on Lake Volta originate and gain an understanding of how a family can get desperate enough to sell a child.
The sun was at its highest point in the sky when we were making our way along the shore. I was doing my best to ignore the sweat flooding my eyes and the sunburn that was to follow that evening. We approached a group of people huddled around in a small circle sorting through a net that had just been trawled to shore. Men, Women and children from the village were separating the seaweed from the fish. It was here that we first saw Dora. She wore a dark blue, raggedy dress that barely hung to her frail frame. Her hair was unkempt and longer than typical most girls showing signs of neglect; she wore flat facial features unusual in a Ghanaian. Dora was bobbing and weaving between the adult’s grabbing small silver fish from the nets that were no bigger than an index finger.
Joseph tried to exchange a few words with her but it was soon clear she spoke no English or Twi. Although language was a barrier her cheekiness was immediately evident.
After an hour or so of speaking and with community and taking photos we started our long walk about to the car. After lots of walking and even more sweating and sunburn we turned the corner and ran into Dora. She was sitting with two other children eating rice and smoked fish that she had collected earlier. I took a few frames on my camera and she managed a bit of a giggle when looking at her picture. Joseph spoke with her and she stood up and led the way around a few more corners. She took us to her home where an ancient looking lady was sitting under the shade of a wooden plank. Her deep wrinkles etched a picture of the hard life she had endured. She sat slouched over, her heavy breasts hanging low to the ground. Despite her aged her facial features showed a remarkable resemblance to Dora. From the moment we approached the old lady Dora’s mood had changed drastically. Moments earlier she had been cheerful, now she looked to be fighting back tears and even scared.
Joseph started a discussion with the lady and soon learned that we were talking with Dora’s great aunty. Although they were speaking Twi I could tell that something was amiss with the situation. The tone in which Joseph communicated seemed flat and to the point, unlike previous conversations I had heard. Joseph carefully wrote some notes in his book. He explained to me that Dora was a domestic slave to the great Aunty. A concept I still have trouble grasping. The lady spoke openly about the cruelty she showed towards Dora. A childhood and education was not an option for Dora (even though free government schooling exists in Loloynia). Instead her days consisted of gathering fish from the ocean side and chores. I took a few frames of them as they stood. Their body language reflection their relationship more than my words ever could. Fear and despair was written across Dora’s face. Like other times during my project I had to bite my lip and accept that immediate action was not an option. I put my trust in Joseph and knew that City of Refuge would play its part in Dora’s fate.
Back in Melbourne I was spending another sleepless night in front of my computer staring at the faces that I have grown to know so well. Although my time in Ghana had come to an end my thoughts were constantly with my friends at City of Refuge. I took one more look at the photo of Dora and and e-mailed Stacy to find out the progress on the investigation. After exchanging a few e-mails I found myself on a flight back to Ghana.
As I touched down at Accra for the second this year, collected my bags and made my way thought customs. I was having déjà vu when Johnbull stepped in front of my path followed closely by Stacy. We embraced as old friends. I also met a group of smiling volunteers from the USA (Christie, Amy, Tammy and Victor) and we started our drive to the children’s home.
The next 3 days felt like I was floating on a cloud. I had wanted to return to Ghana so badly I feared my hopes were unrealistic, not the case. Seeing my beautiful friends again was beyond words. To the children I was Uncle Tom and to the staff I was Tommmm Tommmm. Days were spent playing soccer, footy, Frisbee, table tennis, eating, dodgy tro tro rides and other activities the Americans had worked so hard to prepare for the summer camp. Nights consisted of bon fires, smores (amazing Christy!) singing, dancing and watching some unbelievably bad Ghanaian drama films with Lucy, Anas, Lydia and Josie. I treasured every second of being in their company. I also got to share some great conversations with my American friends who challenged my thinking in new ways. I was able to get to know all the children better and was especially thankful to get to spend time and develop friendships with some of the quieter kids.
The day of Dora’s rescue came very fast. John and Stacy made the decision to bring along two of their kids for the trip. D.K and Abigail were rescued only a little more than 12 months ago. Like Dora, the cousins originate from Laloynia. Abigail even knew Dora when they were younger and was very excited about her arrival. They were both orphans in the care of their own grandmother when she made the decision to sell them to a fisherman. D.K worked as a slave to a fishing master and Abigail as a domestic slave. They had both endured unimaginable injustices and hardship but in the past year had come so far. When arriving they both spoke no English (Abigail couldn’t speak a word of Twi either). This made her transition particularly difficult. Now they were reading and writing English and can both speak Twi. They are exceptionally smart, strong willed and leaders amongst the children. As a true testament to their resilience and the home City of Refuge has provided for them they are not only healthy and genuinely happy kids but also of becoming leaders within their former community and living, breathing examples of what can come of former slaves if given freedom. We pilled ourselves into the 4-wheel drive and started the drive o the village of Abuanor Kope where Dora’s parents live.
We sat on plastic chairs under the shade of an big tree. It seemed like a very casual setting for such a serious moment. Dora’s parents sat opposite the City of Refuge team while the village chief and family elders looked on. Through discussions learnt that the parents were no longer together. They also had a whopping11 children together. The father had suffered a stroke and as a result was unable to work; the mother sat expressionless holding a small child. I wondered what thoughts she had as John asked her questions about her children’s welfare. We not only heard of Dora’s situation but of her siblings who were also in serious trouble. Dora’s younger sister, Mary aged 8 had been sold to a fisherman in Togo for a measly 30 GHS a month ($18 AUD). Victoria aged 13 was sold and working at Lake Volta. We learnt how she had now fallen pregnant. The meeting came to fruition with the parents handing over the custody of Dora and Mary, the documents were signed by thumbprint. An uncle volunteered to drive to Togo to collect Mary.
We drove the short distance to the neighboring village of Akplapanya to meet the grandmother with the hopes collect Dora so she could begin her new life. We arrived to a large crowd of onlookers, a very disgruntled grandmother and no Dora. The bad blood in the family was immediately evident as the grandmother (who looked a spitting image of the great Aunt) set off in a fit of yelling and aggressive genturing towards Dora’s father. The grandmother had gotten wind of our arrival and hid Dora. The truth of Dora’s situation also surfaced. Dora was working off her father’s debt to the family. When Dora was a small child she also fell ill and went to hospital, the father was unable to pay the hospital fee and according to the grandmother she had to cover the costs. As a result a 9-year-old girl was denied a future and left to carry the heavy burden on her shoulders. Dora was forced to serve first her great Aunty and now her own grandmother and made to literally sleep outside with the pigs. The grandmother’s motives for hiding her granddaughter had nothing to do love or Dora’s best interests; instead the grandmother was concerned who would fetch water for the pigs. She also accused the father was receiving money for Dora’s release, which was not the case. The village chief and one of Dora’s uncles spoke with the grandmother privately and returned and told a frustrated John that he should return in two days time and both Dora and Mary will be here. Although Stacy and John both seemed positive I had an awful feeling in my stomach.
The following night John received a call from the uncle saying both children would be ready to pick up the following day. Despite the good news I still felt anxious when we set off to get the girls. We arrived back at Abuanor Kope mid morning and thankfully Dora and Mary were waiting nervously. The whole process took no longer than 15 minutes and finished with a song. The seriousness of the situation could easily be lost. The release of the girls finished with a song. The girls were visibly confused and distressed when we headed for the car. They walked hand in hand, both crying. Later we learnt that the girls were so badly misinformed about where they were going that they thought that they were going to a place with no other children, how wrong they were! The girls had tears running down their cheeks for the whole drive back to the house. We did our best to console them and describe where we were going but it was no use. They had to see for themselves.
We approached the house in typical fashion, Johnbull honking the horn while we flew up the dirt path towards the big iron gates. Ata opened the gates and we pulled inside the compound. We were home. The two girls hesitantly stepped out of the car still crying, waiting for them was D.K and Abigail. D.K spoke softly to Mary in their familiar language and Abigail took Dora by the hand and led her into the house for the first time. I was so ridiculously proud of both D.K and Abigail and will never forget the love that they so generously gave the two girls. They led them to their new room, shown them their beds and give them new clothes. Before I left to go to bed that night I found Stacy, I wanted to tell her 1,000,000 things but only managed thank-you.
The following two weeks I saw a full transformation in both Dora and Mary. I saw so much of Dora’s mother, grandmother and great aunty in her strong will. I knew that unlike the other women in her family this would be future strength rather than a weakness. Mary is much quieter and softly spoken. Both girls love to dance (and there is no shortage dancing at CORM). I also had the pleasure of getting to teach the girls their fist bit of English. The rate at which they learnt was astounding, I begun to picture D.K and Abigail the same way only 12 months ago and smiled at the realisation of how far they will come.
By the time I left Mary had been treated for mumps, both girls had put on a healthy amount of weight; they were able to count to 10 and say basic sentences in both Twi and English. Most importantly the girls showed signs of being genuinely happy, as children should be. I also saw friendships developing amongst the children and trust with the staff. Mary even started helping take care of little baby John. Not only are these children given the freedom and opportunity every child should have but they they are also part of positive cycle that has a snowball effect. Dora, Mary, D.K and Abigail are the change that Ghana needs.