Children playing at the Challenging Heights school in Sankor, Ghana
Children playing at the Challenging Heights school in Sankor, Ghana © Rosie Hallam

The jagged six-inch scar on Joseph’s right leg is ugly evidence of the four years he spent as a child slave. A couple of months ago, the quietly spoken 15-year-old was rescued from Lake Volta, a remote watery expanse in eastern Ghana where thousands of children are sent by their parents in search of a better life but, instead, find themselves trafficked into the fishing industry.

Joseph paddled a canoe, baled water and hauled nets for a man he was not related to but whom he called Uncle Bob. This was tough, risky work for which he received no pay but got plenty of harsh treatment. In new clothes provided by his rescuers and speaking through a translator, he says: “He hit me with the paddle on my head, on my back and hit me so I fell into the lake. When I fell into the lake, he would move away and I had to swim [to get into the boat].” On the day he sustained the scar, Joseph was sick in bed but his master called him to help unload a haul of fish. As he got out of the boat, a nail dragged across his leg.

Former child slave Joseph at Challenging Heights rehabilitation centre near Winneba
Former child slave Joseph at Challenging Heights rehabilitation centre near Winneba © Rosie Hallam

Joseph recounts his story at a shelter in Ghana’s central region run by Challenging Heights, which rescues and reunites children such as himself with their families and seeks to educate them. Challenging Heights, set up in 2003 by James Kofi Annan, a 38-year-old former child slave, is supported by The Global Fund for Children (GFC), a charity that backs grassroots organisations that work with vulnerable children and is the Financial Times’ partner in this year’s seasonal appeal.

Since 1997, the GFC has given almost $26m to 500 organisations in 78 countries, reaching 8m children. It was set up in 1993 by Maya Ajmera, a 25-year-old American who was planning to go to medical school but turned to development work after being inspired by the sight of a classroom for impoverished children on a railway platform in India. GFC’s strategy is to find nascent organisations set up by local people and give them small amounts of cash and expertise for between five and seven years.

Eight of the charity’s programme officers travel the world scouting for non-profit groups with annual budgets of less than $200,000. Often the first international funder for such organisations, the GFC opens a door to other backers and widens their exposure. Kristin Lindsey, GFC chief executive, says: “We want to be a partner that can provide catalytic resources. That is why we look at these groups at that stage.”

The programme at Challenging Heights, which has received nearly $77,000 from the GFC since 2007, now has 58 staff and includes a rescue team, shelter, school and runs community awareness schemes, as well as providing loans and training for poor parents. Annan recalls the meeting that helped him build his organisation. “Until GFC came on board, I was the only person financing Challenging Heights,” he says. “I was financing it from my salary and other businesses. That single decision they took to support my work – that has led to all of this. From there everything has followed.”

Rich in gold, cocoa and newly-found oil, with an economy forecast by the IMF to grow 8 per cent this year, Ghana is, perhaps, an unlikely place to find trafficked children. Growth is real, Annan tells me, but “the gap between the poor and the rich is widening more than ever”. Accra, the capital, may boast glass-panelled offices, sushi restaurants and western-style shopping malls but there are still people so poor they will sell children as young as five into labour sometimes for as little as £12.50.

The children form part of a large and low-tech fishing industry, which sprang up after the construction of the Akosombo dam in the 1960s, built to power newly independent Ghana’s aluminium industry. The dam’s flooded hinterland became Lake Volta, one of the world’s largest man-made lakes. Soon, fishermen from the coast, frustrated by poor catches and erratic tides, were regularly travelling inland. This migration over time led to a trade in children from poor fishing villages on the coast to Lake Volta, the corruption of a tradition whereby poor families look to better-off relatives to care for their children.

In the weeks before the FT’s visit, a Challenging Heights rescue team scoured Lake Volta for trafficked children. Negotiations with local chiefs, slave masters and traffickers, those who trade people for profit, can be long and fraught but the rescuers returned with about 40 children, including Joseph, who have been brought hundreds of miles south to a shelter near the coastal town of Winneba.

Joseph knows more than most about how this trade works. He has been sold not just once, but twice, both times by his mother. When Joseph’s father left, refusing to provide for their four children, his mother struggled to feed, clothe and educate them. Her situation is not uncommon for parents of trafficked children.

When she first suggested Joseph leave their home near Winneba to work on the lakes, he didn’t want to go, but neither did he want to let her down. Though only about 10 years old at the time, he knew she needed the money and he wanted to help her look after his siblings. Even now, he does not know how much money she received. All he knows is that if he had stayed for the agreed four years, “Uncle” Bob would have given her a lump sum.

In the end, he stayed three years. His days started as early as 4am and finished around 1pm. He often considered escape but the remoteness of the lake and the expense of travelling across it proved an effective deterrent. Eventually, the abuse became so bad that word reached his mother and she travelled to bring him back.

Delighted to be home, he returned to school. But his mother’s finances remained precarious. Within months, the conversation resumed about going back to work on the lakes. Still desperate to help and reluctant to tell his mother how much he didn’t want to go, Joseph agreed.

Last year he went to Lake Volta again. This time he knew how much money she received – 150 Ghana cedis, or £50. His mother gave him 30 cedis for himself, 20 of which he used to buy an MP3 player. He recalls that the second time around, his master was less abusive, though he still worked hard for no pay. This year, he was located in the village of Betsenase by Challenging Heights.

His relief at being rescued is palpable. In the shelter, he gets to go to school and he loves playing football. His favourite player is the Ghana international Dédé Ayew. Now, he says, he wants to be a teacher and a rich man. He remains uncertain about his future, though since our interview his mother has received seed capital and training from Challenging Heights, and is investing the money in selling food items and firewood.

The traumatic tales of children such as Joseph have a particular resonance for James Kofi Annan – their story is also his. The youngest of 12 children, his family sent him to work in Lake Volta, aged six. “It was very risky, very painful, very demeaning, very torturous,” he says. He often worked from 3am until early evening, with just a short break to shovel down some food. “There was no telephone or radio. I was completely cut off from the rest of the world,” he recalls. When, after seven years, he escaped – hitching a ride on a truck back to his home town near Winneba – his father refused to take care of him.

Annan lived in his family home but put himself through school and university with the help of government loans. “I had to combine fishing and farming with schooling,” he says. In 2002, he got a job at Barclays bank in Accra, as a direct sales manager, where he worked for five years. He also began working at weekends in his home community in 2003 to raise awareness about trafficking. In 2007, Annan left the bank and now runs Challenging Heights full time, determined that no child should have to endure what he went through. “Education is number one. For me, it is what made all the difference,” he says.

At the school run by Challenging Heights in Sankor in Ghana’s central region, about half of the 700 children have been rescued. Those I speak to express their relief at being able to resume their education but the switch from fishing boat to classroom can be difficult. For Samuel, now 17, the hardest thing is being in a classroom with younger children. “I think my master should be arrested,” he says. “He seems to know education is important – that is why he sent his own children to school and used me for the fishing business.”

Annan’s own trajectory – from slave to university student, bank manager and now campaigner – should offer hope. But he has no illusions about how long rehabilitation can take, stressing that Challenging Heights continues to offer rescued children counselling once they are in school. “To fully recover, I think it would take a lot of time. I am 38 years old now, and it has been several years since I escaped. Of course, I didn’t have anyone to help me recover but I still live with some of the flashes of torture and pain that I went through,” he says.

The work by Challenging Heights and others, as well as a 2005 law that criminalised human trafficking in Ghana, have contributed to anecdotal evidence that the numbers are falling – at least in the areas in which Challenging Heights operates. Still, prosecutions so far have been rare. Just 29 traffickers were convicted in the past year, according to the 2012 Trafficking in Persons report, commissioned by the US State department.

Yet grounds for optimism exist. This year, more than 25 unaccompanied children were pulled off a bus heading to eastern Ghana by Challenging Heights community liaison officers, put in school, and their parents helped to start small businesses so they could support their children financially. Increasingly, parents are coming to Challenging Heights with details of where they sent their children, asking for their help to find them. “I believe in our lifetime we will be able to end it,” says Annan.

Since that first meeting with the GFC, Challenging Heights has grown and flourished – GFC’s ambition for all the grassroots groups it works with. “Our long-term aim is to make sure work grows strong and bigger and it lasts beyond our final investment,” says GFC chief Lindsey.


Letter from the editor

The staff of the Financial Times have chosen The Global Fund for Children, a pioneering charity helping some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children, for our 2012 seasonal appeal, writes Lionel Barber. Thanks to the generosity of our readers, the FT’s seasonal appeals have raised more than £9m for good causes since 2005. We aim to make this year our most successful yet.

The GFC’s conviction is that even small amounts of money, when given to enterprising local community leaders, can make a lasting impact on children’s lives. To this end, since 1997 the GFC has invested about $26m in 500 grassroots organisations in 78 countries.

The FT’s worldwide staff, who voted for the GFC as this year’s charity, were particularly impressed by the fund’s vision and dynamism. Over the coming weeks, FT correspondents, led by Orla Ryan, will report on the GFC’s activities in west Africa, Haiti, India, Brazil and the UK. Some of the social entrepreneursthey have met have inspirational stories to tell about how they are bringing practical help and, just as importantly, hope to destitute children.

This year’s seasonal appeal is already off to a racing start, thanks to a successful photographic auction in London that raised £56,600. Together with matching funding from Pearson, owner of the FT, and the GFC’s sponsors, the total raised in one evening came to £169,800.

The GFC has received $2.3m of corporate matching pledges. They include: $1m from Mount Kellett Capital, the hedge fund founded by Mark McGoldrick; $500,000 from the Sarah and Ross Perot Jr Foundation; $500,000 from Hillwood, a global property development company chaired by Perot Jr; $100,000 from Indus Capital Partners, an investment firm co-founded by David Kowitz; $100,000 from Earthport, a financial services company; and $100,000 from Crown Family Philanthropies.

As in previous years, we will also be auctioning off lunches, with the FT’s star writers and columnists, generously hosted by some of the world’s leading restaurants. This year, Nicholas Lander, our inventive restaurant critic, has dreamt up a new fundraising scheme. Sommelier in Your Cellar will be auctioning the services of leading wine experts.

You will be able to find details of both auctions and read our reporting of the GFC’s activities at We hope you will rally behind a great cause.

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