In October 2011, prize winner James Kofi Annan visited Grinnell
College to receive his 2011 Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize
award and share his experience with the Grinnell community and the other
On Oct. 26, 2011, he presented "Passion, Commitment, and Innovation:
The Critical Success Factors in Community Project Sustainability" followed by a question and answer session with the audience.
>> QUESTION: So where did that [passion for education] come from? That you realized that that’s what you wanted?
>> JAMES KOFI ANNAN: Thank you. There are a few reasons. I will just take two. I remember my mother, who I loved so much, who was not educated and did not have what it takes to take me to school, was always talking about, “she just wanted me to be able to speak English.” Because she was very pleased when she heard people spoke English, she is dead and gone. So that as a child had resonated, has been with me always. It was at the back of my mind. I wanted to please, to do something for my mom to be happy. I mean, one woman having given birth to 12 children and all her wish was that her last born should be able to speak English. I just wanted to fulfill that wish. So that was there.
The second thing is, the only way to prevent myself from being sold back into slavery was to go to school, because the more I was idle, the likely my father had every reason to put me back. It would interest you to know that when I refused to go to school because I was so much into going to school, when I refused to go back to the lake, he got married to another person, and gave birth to another boy and sold him after four years. Which means that the need for my work to subsidize the home was so urgent. Therefore that was a very important thing to do, to go to school to avoid going back. But beyond this, I had this very strong feeling, energy, desire to go to school. Probably the explanation has to do with my mom’s wish. But the desire was there. And it would interest you to know that when I escaped and I came back to my community, I didn’t know how to write 1-2-3. I did not know how to write a-b-c-d. Not even how to recite them at the age of 13. And so the natural thing to do was, that, I was too old to go to school to join small children, to go to school but I was still insistent on going to school. I am sure when my book comes out some of these details will come out. But that’s the reason for wanting to go to school, and I am glad that I did.
>> SARAH PURCELL: Other questions?
Come ahead. You can line up, too. Come ahead.
>> QUESTION: Thank you very much for speaking with us today. It’s been very powerful. One of your goals in Challenging Heights has been rehabilitation, and I would like if you could say some more about what you do with the boys that you rescue and the young girls that you rescue. What is involved in the rehabilitation in addition to education?
>> ANNAN: Thank you. The rehabilitation process is looking at trying to create an atmosphere for those children to heal. I know that even as of now, some of my childhood psychology constitutions live with me, because I never had the opportunity to be rescued by anybody or to be helped through my process of life. So we are looking at helping these children to de-traumatize, to have some healing, physical healing. They come with a lot of diseases, they come with a lot of psycho-social problems, and they are not educated. They don’t go to school. And so we have our rehabilitation center which is the Hovde House, we have a psychologist, we have a medical practitioner, we have teachers, we have nutritionists, people who cook, and other stuff. As soon as a child is brought to the shelter, all this stuff goes into action. They take turns, one-by-one, to screen these children—what are the statuses of these children in terms of their health, in terms of their education, in terms of their psycho-social status, everything. They document these things as the baseline information for interventions to happen. All these professionals would then provide interventions. This goes on and they monitor them again, the baseline information that has been taken from the time they were admitted until we are sure that they will be able to conveniently re-integrate into their community. Because so many children, some of whom were children with me, who also escaped later, who were not going to fit into their communities so they went back. They could not fit because of the kind of situations that they go through. Sometimes it also brings a lot of conflict between them and their families. So you need to take them through all these processes to make them fit into their community, into their homes, and into school. That is what we do.
>>QUESTION: I have two questions, one a follow-up to your earlier presentation. Obviously there’s been a very traumatic experience and how do people deal with that, especially forgiving? Particularly their parents who sell them into slavery despite the fact that the situation (inaudible)?
The second question, completely unrelated, is: What support, apart from the law, have you gotten from the Ghanaian authorities, or the (inaudible), for the work that you are doing. And are Ghanaian people rallying behind you as you do this work, or has it been an uphill battle to try to get people involved in what you’re doing?
>> ANNAN: So the first one is forgiveness. I personally forgave my father before he died. I did that because, well, because of my faith and because I felt called to do that. I think doing that also helped me to progress in the work that I’m doing. But it was a very difficult thing to do. Knowing that your own father put you in that situation and even after I’ve come back, instead of he helping you to achieve your goal to go to school which is the right thing to do, he then rejects you and makes sure that the whole community rejected me and made sure that my mother did not have access to any resource to take care of me. That was a very difficult thing to accept that my own father could do that to me. But eventually, I did forgive.
And this same forgiveness we preach, and I say preach, we are like, in our work to the children we support. That there is always a need to reconcile. That is development—that is development, so there is always a need to work on it. We don’t always have it this way. A lot of our children refuse to go back to their own families so we have to find foster parent for them to live with because they feel betrayed by their own families. And in fact, when it comes to the girls, a lot of the families themselves refuse to accept the girls back. So a lot of our time, too, is spent on conflict resolution, trying to bring families together. So we do that but it is not a hundred percent success because there are two individuals involved who are refusing to see eye-to-eye. We are always only the mediators or facilitators of that peace. Which I am sure my friend and colleague Melissa will have more to say over how to bridge the gap.
The second thing has to do with support. Support from the communities. These communities are really disadvantaged economically in several ways. So yes, they give us the support by facilitating our work. We have a lot of committees formed within the community to serve us: vigilante groups, to ensure that any child who is trafficked, they are able to track that child and bring that child back to us or report to us for us to go and rescue them. So to that extent, they support us a lot. They also support us because they are always looking for us to prosecute because they believe that is the only way that people will be deterred from doing what they are doing. So it means they are behind us.
But the minor people, the minute people who are carrying out, who are benefitting from this situation, do not support us. They are in the region of about 5%. They believe we are destroying their businesses by taking the children away from them, of course. Once they use the children, they don’t pay them. They only pay $40 or $30 to their families, and that’s all, for the two years they will be using these children from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. So they benefit from this, so they are not in support, that is why I face a lot of death threats in the work that I do. But that’s okay.
>> QUESTION: I’m interested in how you are able to successfully negotiate with the child abductors to obtain the children back? You mentioned that you use the law as a last resort and of course you aren’t supposed to pay ransom, so how are you able to convince them to give the children back?
>>ANNAN: Of course, I mean, we have laws that prohibit them from using the children. So that our first cut is to explain the laws to them. How many years in jail can they go if they continue holding that child. And what the benefits that will come to the community and themselves if those children are released to go to school. And alternative ways of doing the same businesses that they do. These are the kind of the options that we give them, the kind of entireties that go on between us and them. So sometimes they see eye-to-eye with us, therefore, they easily release the children. And we also do a lot of advocacy with the government; therefore a lot of the time when government is bringing some benefit to fisherman, they go through us, they consult us, so they know that if for instance there is an distribution of outboard motor at a subsidized price, we will then go to fisherman who are no more using children and link them out to the governments to access that benefit, so all those things are made known to them. Then they will say okay, we want to benefit from it or we want the children access to these benefits in the society, and so on and so forth. Some of them will say no. In fact, in almost all the cases, the first answer is no. No because somebody has paid money to have that child to himself. And without that child, he has to pay hundreds and hundreds times more than what he has paid for that child. So his first answer will be no.
But we have done this work over and over and over again. A lot of them know me as a child when I used to work with them. So we try to gradually, sometimes it takes about six months, four months, maybe a year. We had a case where negotiation dragged out for one year because you need to go to that as a first option. If you don’t do that and the person has more children, maybe he is holding about five children and you have information on one, and you take that child by force and prosecute that person, you end up endangering the lives of the other four. And remember, at the same time, once there is a sale involved, the parent of the child who also sold him, has also wronged the law. He’s gone against the law. So when you are prosecuting the fisherman, you should also prosecute the parent. Now the question is who would take care of the rest of the children when the parents are in jail. We don’t have enough social safety net to take care of these children. So all these things inform us in the work we do, and finally we are able to release them. It is only those who consistently prove recalcitrant that we prosecute as a way of protecting our work, the communities, the families, and the work that we do, the traffickers themselves.
>> PURCELL: We have one more.
>> ANNAN: So, one more. And I think that will be the last.
>> PURCELL: Okay, that’s fine. We’ll give Rabbi Melissa Weintraub the final question.
>> ANNAN: Rabbi, I will ask you a question when you come up. [laughter]
>> QUESTION: What would you do if someone wrote you a check for 10-million dollars?
>> ANNAN: WOW! Please bring it first. [laughter]
I think that the work that we do, we need a lot of resources and the resources that we need come in different forms: cedis, dollars, in kind, and so on and so forth. As I speak to you now, we have a need for classrooms for our school which is home to 500 kids. So if you give us 10 million dollars, some of it is going to do that. Our rehabilitation center needs a lot of support. Because these children, they eat a lot. They have been denied food for years. So when they have access to it, they want to do justice to it. Always have to feed them. So we need money for their rehabilitation or medical bills. Some of them have every available sickness that you can think of—ear sickness, eye sickness, nose sickness—everything. Almost every week they go through our resources, so we need funding for that also. We need resources to build capacity in the communities. These families, it’s not like they are lazy. They want to work. But they need…they don’t have the means to work. They don’t have access to land to farm, they don’t have access—they are illiterate. So we need to support them in an alternative way to be able to earn income rather than sending their children to school. So yes, we will give some to these families, too. Of course, the work that we are doing apart from we sending so many children, last year alone we supported over 1,000 children. So far we have supported over 10,000 children in our work. So, luckily, we are doing the work. But there is a global movement going on, to end slavery in our lifetime once more. So some of that would have to go into that work of me being involved in that global movement. So your money will be used profitably, and of course we know that you have to invest, sometimes we need to invest. So that the work is sustainable, we cannot always continue to chase after donations. What other ways can we generate our own resources to making sure that our work goes on or continues even without your donation, and so you are welcome.