James Kofi Annan, Challenging Heights
A survivor of child trafficking and child labor, James Kofi Annan established Challenging Heights in 2003 to provide education and support for children who have returned from slavery and horrific forms of child labor. Now age 37, Annan leads Challenging Heights as president. From the age of six through 13, he worked as a child fisherman in more than 20 villages. After escaping slavery as an illiterate teenager, he befriended kindergartners and used their schoolbooks to teach himself to read and write. Despite severe poverty and abuse, he rose to become a university graduate and now holds a Master’s degree. He eventually became a manager at Barclays Bank of Ghana, but resigned in 2007 to promote the mission of Challenging Heights full-time. More information on James Kofi Annan is available on the Challenging Heights website.
See James' full presentation, "Passion, Commitment, and Innovation: The Critical Success Factors in Community Project Sustainability" - presented on October 26, 2011 in Herrick Chapel.
>> SARAH PURCELL: Good afternoon everyone. I'm Sarah Purcell, I'm the director for the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations and Human Rights, and I'm a member of the history department at Grinnell. Welcome this afternoon to the first of our more formal lectures in the first Grinnell Young Innovators for Social Justice Prize Symposium. We have already been extremely blessed, I will say in this chapel setting, to have our prize winners with us for all of yesterday, and for many sessions and class visits, and for a wonderful prize award ceremony last evening here. Now we are anxious to hear more of their personal stories, their stories of organizational success, and innovation. We will start that this afternoon.
As a member of the history department, I teach 18th and 19th century U.S. history. One of the topics which I focus a lot of time on with my students is the topic of slavery in the United States, in the Americas. That is a topic that draws a lot of vivid imagery and is a very searing legacy in the history of the United States. Whether stories of children being separated from their families, forced labor, incredible political and social activism to liberate people from the conditions of bondage, or whether it was political and social activism to get rid of the institution of slavery in the United States after 1865, these are things which I spend a very large amount of my time focusing on. In my more contemporary garb as director of the Rosenfield Program, I would like to think that the institution of slavery had completely disappeared and that was something that only my historian persona would ever have to focus on 150 years ago plus in the past. But we of course know that is not the case.
While slavery today is not the same institution that it was in the United States 150 years ago, we always have to remember that the place and the time and the historical circumstances make a difference. Though not the same kind of institution, there is still a thriving practice in human trafficking in very many places around the globe, not just in Africa but also in the United States. Just this week at Iowa State University, there is a symposium going on at the same time on human trafficking, and focusing in some sessions on human trafficking in Iowa in addition. You can look at the Des Moines Register over the last few days to see reports of that. So as much as we would like to think this is a practice long ago and far away, it is not necessarily the case. We should be reminded that acts of every day heroism -- like we are going to hear about today -- both can seem unfamiliar but are very dearly needed in all parts of the world where this kind of practice persists.
But we'll be extremely lucky today to hear from James Kofi Annan, who will tell us about his own personal journey from being a child slave, a victim of child trafficking, a survivor of child trafficking in the country of Ghana. Then his escape from that institution and his struggle to become educated, from learning to read after the age of 13, to entering college, and then getting a masters degree in Ghana, and then working for Barclays Bank. But his commitment did not end with his own personal improvement. He then turned his passion for social justice, as we will hear, to helping other children who were in the same conditions he had once lived in himself, as anti-slavery activists have done for many hundreds of years.
James founded the organization Challenging Heights in 2003 to provide education and support for children who have emerged from human trafficking and to prevent children from being sold into slavery in the country of Ghana. His organization is really remarkable. As president, he provides for more than 500 children in a Challenging Heights school as well as education and support for survivors who go through a reorientation process and are physically, literally saved from forced labor. He is going to tell us about all of that today. I can think of no better place and no better time for us to ponder this. Grinnell College of course was founded by abolitionists who were anti-slavery activists in their own time. We can see some of their names in the back of the chapel on our own memorials.
Today we are very pleased, of course, to hear from James Kofi Annan who was one of the recipients of the first Grinnell Young Innovators for Social Justice Prize. I think that it really brings in some ways, the history of our college and our commitment to those issues into the present and it will allow us to hear an incredible tale of personal courage and also just organizational perseverance. Social justice is something that lives and breathes and still matters in unexpected ways. I won't take up any more time. I will present to you James Kofi Annan who will speak on "Passion, Commitment, and Innovation: The Critical Success Factors in Community Project Sustainability." Please welcome James.
>> JAMES KOFI ANNAN: Thank you. Thank you Sarah. I'm grateful that today to address an opportunity for me to interact with you. Before I start, I would like to recognize my friend, my brother Mr. Jeffrey Boyd, if you are here, thank you so much for being there as a friend, as a brother, always going around with me and trying to encourage me in this enterprise of and effort to ending slavery. The second thing I want to talk about, I usually do my presentation free flow. Today because of the topic that I have chosen, I have taken the liberty myself to read it. Of course, once in a while I might go off a little bit just for us to have that intimate engagement but I hope that I will be able to read well for your hearing.
The title as Sarah mentioned is "Passion, Commitment, and Innovation: The Critical Success Factors in Community Project Sustainability." I deliberately chose this because it aligns perfectly with the award and the work that I do. I see this award as a perfect match for my own creation in the communities that I work. In 2003, I founded Challenging Heights, an organization whose mission is to end child slavery, and the worst forms of child labor in Ghana through education, rescue, rehabilitation and advocacy. The component of the work that I do -- rescue. Just a couple of weeks ago, we have rescued nine boys. I was privileged to have my brother Jeff with me during the process. We also do the work through education. We have various forms of educational programs. We have our own school which is home to about 500 kids at the moment. We have remedial schools, vocational schools, and so on and so forth. We have the rehabilitation program which is being funded currently by Hovde Foundation. It will be home to 65 kids at any point in time. And then we have a lot of preventive activities including human-rights training, micro-financing for all woman, literacy and community-awareness-raising.
Of course to end slavery means also that we have to work with government. Therefore, we hold government institutions accountable through advocacy, trying to change laws and training of children to speak for themselves. Now I stand on this platform deeply humbled by this honor. I received this prize on behalf of the unsung heroes of my organization. These heroes are the boys and girls who make up Challenging Heights. To them I dedicate this award, this fantastic award that I received yesterday. Presently, I wondered what I have done to bring me to this platform. The road this far has been anything but easy. I have been taunted several times, I have been harassed a couple of times, but I have persevered and found successes along the way, including the fact that I'm still alive today to talk to you in this room.
The institutionalized slavery that we have all learned about in our history books has gone, replaced by a new disjointed brand of black market servitude. Today the term slavery is defined as forced labor with little or no pay under the threat of violence. Although it affects a relatively small portion of the world's population, there are a greater number of people suffering under slavery now than ever before. This criminal enterprise affects up to 27 million people worldwide. 80% of those are woman and children. Global profit derived from modern-day slavery practices account for over 30 billion dollars annually. And while modern slavery is usually associated with developing countries, it will shock you to learn that over 250,000 people are enslaved in America alone. It is hard to pinpoint the exact number of children caught in slavery, in forced labor in Ghana. The estimate is that there are 250,000 people in forced labor in Ghana. Of those, there is a greater number who are found in fishing, the area that I'm working. The largest man-made lake in the world is Lake Volta, and that is where our bulk of work is.
It is a huge, remote lake with thousands of tiny villages dotted along its shore where traffickers and masters can apply their violent and repressive practices without repercussion. I know. I was sold into slavery on the lake at the age of six, and trafficked to and from many villages. The story of many of the children trapped there is similar to mine. I was born to a coastal community of less than 400 people. A community without electricity. A community with over 50% of children not in school. A community with over 70% illiteracy rates. A community with high level of ignorance. A community with more than 80% of adults living under $1 per day. And a community with so much pain, hunger, and injustice, and a community with mass school drop-out. That is the kind of community that I originally came from.
I remember as a young child that there was only one half-educated person in the community. Everyone who wanted to write a letter had to go to him for the letter to be written. He wrote every single letter, including those very personal ones. Beebe (sp?) as we used to call him, was the person who knew the story of every single family because he wrote every single letter in that community. Given the poor conditions of the community and our experience in fishing, it was common for families to sell their children into forced labor. The fishing community that we are talking about is about 10 hours away from my community. Children were sold for $30-$40 per child for that child to work two years. Tragically, most of those sold never returned to their families, as their terms were renewed by traffickers and their parents were too poor to commute to the lake to retrieve their children. At the age of 6, I was thrown into the similar situation that other children found themselves on the lake. At that age, I became an infant breadwinner, taking care of the needs of my family because I had to work to feed them and that was the only alternative they had to feed the entire family. Truly I'm here to entirely forget the outrage of slavery. Working for an average of 17 hours a day. Forced to dive deep into the lake even at the peril of my life and having very limited access to food. In doing this, I endured situations, I had no voice. I did not have access to medical care and was never going to school. My portion was a daily dose of abuse, physical or otherwise, as a method of control. These persons that controlled me were not worried about my life. They were more concerned with their businesses that they were having and how they were going to build new houses and feed their children and take their children to school. That was their main concern. My life of daily torture was a source of pleasure for masters who felt important as they inflicted pain on me. The shackles of slavery had totally dominated me to the extent that I had accepted pain as a corporate part of my personal life. That it had me rejected it in the process of control. The more the pains were visited on me, the more I became used to it; therefore, that pain was no more having effect on me. This was the point when I -- no matter how small I was -- had to tell my masters in their face that enough was enough. The pent up anger, the betrayal, and the eye for revenge had stored in me a sentimental energy that manifested itself in a breakfree turmoil that no matter what you do to me, I'm prepared to face you, even at that small age. With this, acquired energy and backed by my community I had seen virtually every single thing wrong. When I returned to my community, I had seen everything that was happening in my community after I had escaped that it was wrong. It was wrong to deny children access to education. It was wrong to deny children the family opportunities. It was wrong to deny children opportunity to access medical care. It was wrong not to put children in school. Everything was wrong. That the children did not have voices.
To correct this social injustice, it had to start with myself. I was seeing everything that was wrong, what was right with me? Or what was wrong with me? That is a question I ask myself. The best way to do this or correct this wrong was to put myself in school. So, going to school and paying for my own education from the age of 13 was a very difficult one. But it was even more difficult not to go to school. School being the single most important way to correct those injustices that I'd seen in the community. Well, my efforts finally paid off. That is where finally, through it all, through very difficult, hungry, situations, I was able to go to the university after several years.
It was, therefore, not surprising when I chose the motto, "To whom much is given, much is expected." I chose this motto because, though the community rejected me -- and I'm sure we will have opportunity to discuss this more -- though the community rejected me, I felt by virtue of the fact that I had opportunity to go to school, a lot had been given to me. Not everyone has opportunity to go to school. Many of those children who are poor and who were enslaved on the lake with me never had that opportunity of life or never had opportunity of going to school. Therefore, the fact of life itself was a lot that had been given me and the fact that many of them did not have the opportunity to go to school, in itself meant that me going to school and having gotten to the level of being a graduate was a lot that has been given to me. So I have to give back to the community.
This phrase has resonated within me for years and driven my commitment to ending slavery in Ghana. I obviously come from a place of personal commitment but I act through a sense of global commitment to others. Everyone should recognize their own commitment and use both their God-given and learned skills to fulfill the larger need in the world. That is my challenge to all of us here. That yes, I have my personal commitment, that commitment is the fact that I have seen something wrong in my society, or in my world and I want to change it. What is your commitment? All of us need to challenge ourselves, our commitment will come from. Even in a place like this, Grinnell College. What is the commitment of all of us? To help and to change things for the better. That is what we are after ourselves. I have asked myself and I know that in our world, I need to help to make the world a better place for everybody. That better place is to ensure that I'm part of the movement, the global movement, that will end slavery once again in my lifetime.
So I accepted this call to duty, transforming my childhood energy into concrete action was the natural thing to do. Everyone will have to go to school. Every child, with no exception, will have to go to school. That was my message. The pill those families needed to swallow in order to put their children through school was denial of the process of the sale of their children, the same sales process which ended me up in slavery. I my mind, until every child completes at least a basic education, every educated person would be a sacrificial lamb. And I'm prepared and available to be the first sacrifice for that cause. That explains the reason why I devoted 60% of my salary and all my energy while I was working in the bank to my personal commitment of ending slavery. Commitment has also led me here to Grinnell. This monetary award will not only continue to educate the children rescued by Challenging Heights, but this award will hopefully allow my wish here, today, to bring a new or renewed sense of commitment to the world around you, including the continued fight against forced labor and trafficking for children. Children will have the right and resources that you are fortunate to have. I have had a lot of interactions with some of you here and I realize that wonderful opportunities that children have in this country is so enormous compared to the kind of situations that other children find themselves. That is something that all of us will have to address our minds to.
As you can see, my passion to ending slavery comes from the close personal connection to child labor in my own life. Passion has led me to fight for children's rights in the midst of personal threats on my personal life by those who stand to lose economically for the liberation of other children. The success of our organization is fueled not only by my individual passion but the shared passion amongst our donors and partners. So we have the passion to take on an active role to fighting child slavery, and we have the commitment to follow through in our efforts. But in order to develop a solution that will prove to be successful, we need sustainability. To us at Challenging Heights, there are two types of sustainability. The first sustainability of course is financial sustainability. Which means that we must diversify our sources of income. Because whatever your vision is, whatever your goal is, you need resources to run. The work that we do needs to be faced from different angles. And therefore the kind of activities that are supposed to be run to tackle this program, is enormous. It requires a lot of financial investment. Therefore, at Challenging Heights, we have diversified our sources of income. Just recently we bought equipment to make manufactured blocks. The machine is meant to produce blocks to build our recently-commissioned shelter, the Hovde House.
The intention of that was to ensure that the project itself was sustainable, so that after we have manufactured the blocks to supply the building of the house who then sell to the local market for them to be able to buy from us. In order that we will be able to make money doing the work that we are doing. Perhaps less often considered but equally if not more important there is a social sustainability.
We are tackling the problem of child trafficking from all angles: prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, economic empowerment of families at risk, advocacy at all levels of society, and prosecution of offenders. Because, they must also face justice. A complex issue demands a complex solution. In a country like Ghana, where child labor has long been a cultural norm, we can't just rescue. The solution, of course, for us to advance our effort on many fronts, and we are seeing great results. The worlds' social problems today need critical thinkers, like you, like me, like everybody. Problem-solvers are also needed in this world where problems are bound. Courageous leaders, people who are not afraid to face the challenges of life and innovation to fight social ills that have grown more prevalent and troubling during our generation. Often times through technology and globalization and moral relativism.
I recently heard that innovation no longer exists, that everything had been tried before. In my understanding of the word innovation, it refers to the creation of better or more efficient procedures, product, policies and ideas that lead to substantial positive change. I have to argue that innovation is indeed possible, so everything has not been done yet. A lot of things have been done. But once there is a problem in our world, it means that we need to provide solution. There could be several ways of providing solution to the problems of this world. Although I believe that an idea in one place can be more innovative than the same idea in another place. In Ghana, there was no law against human trafficking until we lobbied for its passage a few years ago. Last year we saw the country's first conviction of trafficking of minors, and I might say that the country's human trafficking law which was passed in 2005, was never tested, until in 2009, 2010, when some of us started testing it. The law was there but it was not working, so we had to find ways of testing this law. I'm happy to announce that we were the first group to ensure the prosecution of a local offender in human trafficking in Ghana. But the government's procedures for rescuing children involved arresting the traffickers and snatching the children, yet due to resource constraint, this rarely happened. Before any raid could occur, word would go around to the traffickers that the government is going to do raid so the traffickers would then vanish with the children, they would flee with the children. We take an innovative approach to rescue; diplomatic and negotiated. We don't pay for the children to be rescued. We go through diplomatic means negotiating with that trafficker to release those children. It is only when these traffickers prove recalcitrant, it's only when they refuse the children to be rescued that we use the law to ensure that those perpetrators are punished, so that they serve as example to others. We have been able to rescue over 200 children through this diplomatic means.
We even tried to have the traffickers or masters find an alternative line of work or teach them how to fish profitably without child labor. While we believe there should be consequences for their actions and want to see more traffickers behind bars, that alone will not solve the problem long term and lead to substantial positive social change. So we press on towards that goal, applying various strategies to ensuring that our work is done effectively and at the same time we ourselves are not in danger, at the same time our workers are not in danger, and at the same time we don't put the children at more risk. Because we might take one child at a time but we leave behind so many children. Those other children who are left behind, that we might not have rescued at the time or at the point of rescue, we leave them more endangered if we always come with a confrontational attitude. That is why innovation is very important in the work that we do. Working with the communities, working with stakeholders, working with government, working with ourselves, and constantly reviewing our activities and making sure that we are at the forefront, not at risk to ourselves, but at the forefront of rescuing those children to have hope for life. That is where I would like to challenge all of us here.
We are lucky to be in an institution like Grinnell. We are lucky to be in the United States of America. We have the opportunity that so many other people do not have, especially my dear students here. The kind of opportunities that we have here is such an enormous one; we need to take advantage of it. And I might say that not too long ago, I was in your shoes. A college undergrad trying to carve out an opportunity for life. One that gave me a sense or purpose and fulfillment of what I felt to be my calling, my obligation. To help others with all that I had been given and thankfully for the support of so many people and organizations like Grinnell, now I have been fortunate to be able to carry out my mission of protecting Ghana's children.
Now, it is also important for us to identify our own mission -- the calling. Why did we choose Grinnell over so many other universities? Why is it that we are so much enthralled or motivated to do the kind of courses that we are doing? That is the question that we need to ask ourselves. And once we have identified our calling, we will find that we are not going to replicate or do the same things that other people are doing but we will be doing the things that we are called to do. And it is only when we are called to do those things that we are doing and it is only when we are doing the things we are called to do, that we will find fulfillment. Fulfillment that comes out of our inner flow of energy.
I remember bad days when I was a child, being beaten, knocked down, pushed under the lake to remove trap nets. And being trapped myself, and sometimes almost dying. And being left to rotten, only for the trafficker to come back and see me alive, and then, immediately send me back to work. Being denied food, and access to any medical care. I have been afflicted with bilharzia, one of the most painful diseases ever lived. And yet, I have to work 17 hours a day.
But because through all of these things there has been a momentum, and I have found my vitality, amid energy, the reason for my existence, that has brought me where I'm today talking to you. Because I ask myself, who am I, to be able to come and stand before you, to speak, a poor man's son. My mother giving birth to 12 children and me being the last born of those 12 children and none of the 12 children apart from me being educated, both parents not educated, very poor, living under $1 per day, never had any dream of travelling beyond my own community, today standing before you. Because I found my calling.
The question-and-answer session following James' presentation is also available.
>> 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.
See the highlights of James' week on campus!
>> SARAH PURCELL: James founded the organization Challenging Heights in 2003 to provide education and support for children who have emerged from human trafficking and to prevent children from being sold into slavery in the country of Ghana.
His organization is really remarkable. As president, he provides for more than 500 children in a Challenging Heights school as well as education and support for survivors who go through a reorientation process and are physically, literally saved from forced labor.
>> JAMES KOFI ANNAN:
I was sold into slavery on the lake at the age of six, and trafficked to and from many villages. The story of many of the children trapped there is similar to mine.
I remember bad days when I was a child, being beaten, knocked down, pushed under the lake to remove trap nets. And being trapped myself, and sometimes almost dying. And being left to rotten, only for the trafficker to come back and see me alive, and then, immediately send me back to work. Being denied food, and especially any medical care. I have been afflicted with bilharzia, one of the most painful diseases ever lived. And yet, I have to work 17 hours a day.
But because through all of these things there has been a momentum, and I have found my vitality, amid energy, the reason for my existence, that has brought me where I am today talking to you.
If there is something that you would like to do and you feel like it should be done then you should do it and do it very, very well. And doing things well comes from within. I believe in doing things in an authentic way. And if you are doing things from within, then it comes out naturally and it becomes authentic.
And that’s why I am saying that—focus on your inner man. Find out what are you called to do.
If you are able to identify this, then you realize that no matter the challenges that will come your way, you have a purpose. You have a goal. You have something to achieve, and therefore nothing can stop you.
The progress is being made every now and then. And that there are so many challenges. There’s tricks. Not having resources to operate. So many challenges and yet because something is coming from within, I challenge myself to reach that goal.
Any time I rescue a child I feel I've rescued myself. The reason is that I never had anybody to rescue me. And I truly wish I had somebody to rescue me. Not necessarily from the beatings and the abuses I was going through but to have had an opportunity to go through the kind of healing process that I am giving to these children. To have the opportunity to be counseled, and to be treated medically. And to be given the nutritious food and to be given the basic literacy program that I’m giving to those children.
I never had that opportunity. So I am working to rescue myself. So anytime—one child at a time—that I rescue a child, I feel like I've rescued myself.
An Enduring Privilege to Serve
By James Kofi Annan, President, Challenging Heights
The winners of the first Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize were announced in May 2011. According to the college, The Grinnell Prize honors individuals under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change. Yours truly, 37 years old, became one of the first recipients of the maiden awards. According to Grinnell College, the 2011 winners were selected from more than 1,000 nominations from 66 countries.
As I celebrate this coveted prize, I am deeply humbled by the road thus far. Seven years of forced labor, and 15 years of raw hunger and deprivation did not stop me from becoming a university graduate, nor did it stop me from becoming a banker. In fact, it still has not stopped me from continuing to aspire. It has only succeeded in bringing me to a point of thinking, day-by-day, of the essence of life – the lives of others.
So this prize, $100,000 in total, means to me that more boys and girls will be saved from slavery, and more of them will have the opportunity to go to school.
Ghana is a country of origin, transit, and destination for children subjected to forced labor and trafficking. Despite the provisions in the country’s constitution and its Human Trafficking Act, which prohibits all forms of trafficking, many forms of trafficking still exist.
Trafficking of children within Ghana is more common than the transnational trafficking of foreign migrants. It involves the movement of children from rural to urban areas or from one rural area to another, such as from farming to fishing communities, and from one fishing community to the other. Underserved boys and girls are subjected to conditions of forced labor within the country in fishing, domestic service, street hawking, begging, pottering, and agriculture (TIP report 2011).
It is estimated that over 240,000 of Ghana’s 6.3 million children are caught up in forced and exploitative labor, majority of whom are below the age of 13. In 2010 Challenging Heights urged the Ghana government to declare child trafficking a crisis situation. This was due to the alarming rate at which cases were being reported.
A number of reasons make this practice flourish. For instance, my father was a peasant farmer whose work never went beyond his daily bread. My mother was a petty trader who gave birth to 12 children, and whose income was never enough to feed her 12 children. In order to be able to meet the needs of the family, I had to be sold into a forced labor at age 6, similar to several of my other siblings and relatives, with the expectation that I would eventually return to my family. Instead, I worked as a child fisherman in several fishing villages on Lake Volta of Ghana until I escaped at the age of 13.
There are hundreds of children whose stories are similar to mine. The agony of children who have to pay the price of poverty has been an embarrassing albatross on the necks of several Ghanaians in recent times. For many rural illiterate Ghanaians, selling their children into forced labor has been the option that enables them to have less number of human mouths to feed, and they do not have to pay any monies in school fees.
Several years ago, it used to be the case that almost every single home was affected by child trafficking in my home community of Sankor, in Ghana. One of the things I have remembered to date has been the 6 of us who were trafficked together on the eve when I was pushed into forced labor. One is tempted, sometimes, to think that these families are excited about the exodus of their children.
Enduring slavery has never been a good memory for me. I have lived with its post-traumatic experience for several years. I have survived its impact largely because I adopted positive, competitive and committed attitude toward life. The challenge for me was not only the fact that I was lagging behind school. It was not only adolescent illiteracy. It was the combination of both, as well as never-ending hunger, rejection from community, and a deliberate attempt to stigmatize my person. These contempt treatments were enough to clog any good in me.
Somehow, the same denigrations kept me going. For me, I was accountable to not giving up the fight to succeed. My very life, my meaning and strength depended on the turnover of my never-ending pursuit for success – successively keeping the day’s achievement as a challenge for the next day’s race of life.
Obviously, this self-imposing competitive tendency was good for me for a number of reasons. First, I did not have role models who could have challenged me to aspire for higher heights, and there seemed to be very weak competitive environment in my community. So the only benchmark was myself. Therefore it was very easy to have slack had I not inspired myself. Secondarily, the challenges of life were so dire that I needed such a high level of self-discipline to carry on, and to take my mind off hunger, deprivation and rejection. And thirdly I desired to satisfy my mother’s wish for me to be able to speak English.
Today, I do not only speak English- I write English. I speak to large audiences in English. I hold a Bachelors degree. I hold a Masters Degree. I have been a senior banker, and I feel imbued with an amazing overflow of divine gifts of creative energy that sustains itself in amazing excitements.
Most affected Ghanaian families are eager to send their children to school. In September 2007 when Challenging Heights began its school in my home community, we were shocked to have admitted 181 at-risk boys and girls within 6 months, many of whom were below the age of 9, and 85% of them had never been to school before. The realities of exclusion of children from classroom work stared in our faces as we struggled to look for resources to contain the interest that our school had received from the community. It is exactly four years now since the school was established. Is it too soon to boast of over 400 boys and girls in the school, with over 100 of them being survivors of forced labor?
I have never been more fulfilled by anything in life than seeing children go to school every day, and taking so much interest to acquire knowledge. In 2003 when I started Challenging Heights, I had intended for rescuing children to remain a calling on my life, a sacrifice from my heart, having devoted 60% of my salaries from my employment with Barclays Bank of Ghana as the only source of funding the project. It was always a joyous moment, knowing that the financial resources I had (a very rare opportunity in Ghana) would allow me the privilege to serve these children!
Our current needs at Challenging Heights include new classrooms, increased teacher salaries, better security, a new vehicle for field work, and simple items like desks and books for the students. Because of this need, I have decided to commit my personal half of the prize money towards these needs as to ensure the continued success of the children of Challenging Heights, as well as those waiting to be rescued.
Today, Challenging Heights supports over 1,100 at-risk and vulnerable children across its programs each year, and provides further protection for over 50 former slaves annually. It is even gratifying to note that community men and women, fathers and mothers alike, have become our allies. In the face of all the challenges, these children are excited about acquiring knowledge, and are happy to be free from labor exploitation. They struggle to feed themselves and they struggle to meet their school needs. The road to achieving their educational goals is challenging, but because they are determined, we believe they are able to reach any height of their choice--the spirit of Challenging Heights!
Challenging Heights was founded to help give Ghanaian youth a secured, protected, and dignified future by promoting their rights, education, and health. The organization rescues children from slavery and provides education to those who have returned from horrific forms of child labor. Through education, economic empowerment and community mobilization, Challenging Heights works with at-risk and poor families to explain the dangers of child trafficking and address the root cause of slavery. The program also helps families improve their income levels, allowing their children to attend school. Challenging Heights provides educational support for survivors of child labor and other children in the most impoverished communities of Ghana. More than 400 children between the ages of four and 15 attend the Challenging Heights School. Approximately 50 of them would have been subjected to child labor had they not been rescued by the organization.