— By Theodora from Ghana
As a fresh journalism graduate, I was enthusiastic about my future. I envisioned myself addressing thousands of crowds, hosting talk shows on national television and authoring bestselling books. This dream of mine was so real in my mind that I looked forward to seeing it in reality. Being the 5th child of 6 children and the only child who had successfully navigated through tertiary institution, it felt like heaven on earth. Ready to storm the media landscape, I was shocked at the news I received few months after completion from the citadel of communication – The Nigerian institute of journalism.
It was a sunny afternoon. I was on campus to check my name for national service postings as was the norm in Nigeria and surrounding African countries; National Service is a compulsory one year service to the nation upon completion of tertiary education. While I was seated in front of the Student Affairs officer, inquisitive about why my name was not on the board, I received distressing news that my name wasn’t inclusive since I’m a Ghanaian citizen. My heart sank like a ship sinking right in the middle of a deep sea. I had looked forward to serving in the northern part of Nigeria. I had planned to learn to speak Hausa – a northern language.
I couldn’t bear the pain of not experiencing the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) orientation camp. The three-week camp is aimed at preparing ‘corpers’, as they’re known, for the year-long scheme. Being a corper is a part of the Nigerian experience. It’s seen as the last stage of tertiary education, the final hurdle and the key to the world of employment. I took solace in an African Proverb from the Hausa Tribe which says that “However long the night, the dawn will break”. And just when the caterpillar thought life was over, it began to fly. All hope was not lost as I got the chance to serve in Ghana a year later in a foremost child rights organization. I served as a field support officer.
One cold morning at about 4:30. I set off with a team of field officers on a 14 hours journey to the popular lake Volta. Volta Lake is the largest reservoir in the world by surface area and a main destination for trafficking children; an estimated 7,000 – 10,000 child slaves work in the fishing industry.
After a 14 hours ride, we had to travel for another 2 hours on the Lake to Tomato Akura – the village where we hoped to rescue trafficked children. It was my first time travelling on water in a boat and I was the only female. Stephen, the field operation manager had made sure to coach me well about the mission prior to our take off so that I did just fine.
On arrival at Tomato Akura, everywhere was dark, no electricity. I had to use my phone light. There was no hotel to lodge. No internet connections. Our host family who lived in a tiny hut made from palm fronts willingly sacrificed their wooden bed for me. I was thrilled by the show of hospitality but I had to refuse since they had three children. I couldn’t let them lay on the bare floor while I lay on their bed. I spent the night at the lake side on the boat with the worst experience of discomfort I had ever been through. At dawn, I met Kwesi, a 6year old boy who had gotten up as early as 4am to start fishing. Kwesi, along with his master and other children, would toil the lake from 4am till 3pm. Kwesi was unclothed on that chilly lake where I, at 25 years old, struggled to sleep even with quilts and blankets. He ate garri and smoked fish once a day and the same meal every day of the week.
I had to refrain from crying. The look on his face, his skinny and malnourished body, his innocent and pure countenance, the cold and freezing mornings he worked all day and the silent cry I heard in his voice as I spoke to him were moments that turned my life around. Kwesi is one out of many children who had been trafficked to engage in hazardous child labor. His face particularly left a scar in my heart. Just then, I realized just how lucky I am even though I had always thought other kids who lived with their parents had better care and opportunities than me. Prior to my experience with Kwesi, I thought the worst thing that can happen to any child is to have his or her parents separated.
With indefinable resentment in my heart over my parent’s separation, my encounter with Kwesi thought me that no pain could compare with what a child slave had to go through without both his parents. Kwesi told me that his only dream was to go back home to his parents.