In some parts of the world, $20 can barely get you a steak dinner, and in others, it can purchase a live, human child—a child who will most likely be sold into slavery. Welcome to Ghana, and welcome to Lake Volta—the largest man-made reservoir in the world where almost 50,000 children—some as young as four years old—are working under unthinkable duress in the fishing industry.
In June of 2017, I traveled to Winneba, Ghana with the non-profit organization, Beauty for Freedom (BFF), a New York City-based anti-human trafficking organization founded by the passionate human rights activist, Monica Watkins, which works directly with NGOs and communities around the world, bringing creative workshops and art therapy to victims and survivors of human trafficking and/or slavery. On this project, we were working closely with the local Ghanaian organization, Challenging Heights.
Beauty for Freedom’s mission is to empower children with expressive outlets and to give them creative and educational opportunities they would not normally have. They offer platforms for the children to create prideful paintings that gets exhibited in big city art galleries and to take photographs that get published as coffee table books, all sold entirely for the profit of their schools and programs and to give the kids the opportunity for personal development and achievement. On many occasions, the children are also taught sewing, music, videography, and other skills that could help their future careers.
Over the past 10 years of working with underserved communities around the world, many have torn my soul with heart-wrenching stories. And yet, the traumatic reality about Lake Volta’s trafficked children are worthy of the worst of nightmares.
Most of the time, it’s the child’s poverty-stricken family itself who voluntarily sells their child or children for as little as $20, usually after being misled into thinking they will be given a better life on the lake, or the child is simply kidnapped and then trafficked, and sometimes at an age as young as three years old. The young girls are traditionally thrown into housework and into meeting explicit sexual demands, and the boys are used as laborers, forced day-in and day-out to catch the fish and man the nets, baring the brutal wrath of corporal punishments, facing the risk of death at any given moment. The children are malnourished and easily contract diseases from the slave owners themselves or the filth of the lake, and they cannot escape. Most of them do not know from where they come or even what their real names are, as their owners tend to rename them once in their possession to keep them from fleeing. The kids are usually so traumatized that they have no ability to conceptualize living a better life beyond the one they endure.
Some, thankfully, are able to break free, such as James Kofi-Annan, the founder and incredible force behind Challenging Heights. James was forced into slave labor on Lake Volta at six years old, working from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day for seven years, tortured and abused, malnourished, deprived of medical care and education. He was able to escape at 13 years-old and put himself through school, paying for his uniform and books with the money he collected from the menial work he picked up. With his will and determination to receive a proper education, he became a banker, and committed over half of his monthly income into setting up the organization that would eventually be responsible for rescuing 1,600+ children.
Challenging Heights, founded in 2005, is dedicated to saving the lives of trafficked children and offering them the support and education they need in order to transcend their past and empower their future. They closely and personally advocate, rescue, rehabilitate, educate, empower and reintegrate children back into their communities, offering them therapy, nutrition, shelter, schooling and medical attention. The children are then monitored for two years, to also make sure they have not been re-trafficked.
While in Winneba, I worked at Challenging Heights‘ Friends International Academy School for two weeks, teaching photography lessons to teenage boys and girls. One of our interactive photo projects was in collaboration with French artist, JR and his Inside Out Project where the kids shot portraits of their peers and teachers, which were then printed in large format and pasted onto the walls of their school. Other photographs they took will soon be curated into a published coffee table book called “Illuminate Ghana,” which will be sold internationally to raise funds for the organization.
As we combed the village, we watched a group of women and their daughters make soup for their family and a man chop away at what seemed like small pieces of wood, but could have easily been leftover bones from a carnivorous lunch. We observed an elderly man mend a fishing net as his dog kept him company, a seven year-old do the daily dishes over a pile of rocks, a chuckling woman braid another’s hair, two young boys attempting to sell dried fish from perfectly balanced metal platters resting on their heads, and a pair of baby goats posing against a blue wall.
One of my all-time favorite things to do in life is just that: to explore unknown exotic territory, connecting with the most human of strangers, photographing them in their environment, watching how they love to be photographed and given attention...or conversely, how they pretend to not totally hate it, just to complacently please me. Discovering new ways of living and experiencing the planet vicariously through those who live so differently than I do are the height of traveling to exotic places.
Watching kids take photographs for their first time ever is a very gratifying experience. Seeing how some can get so lost in thought over composition, proud to show me a reflection they captured in a puddle of water or a silly face their friend made—it’s as if I get to relive my first moments with a camera again, when I first understood how immortalizing a simple moment could be so powerful or just plain fun. When I asked “my kids” what they enjoyed most about taking photographs, many replied as I would, that they enjoyed interacting with people and connecting with their community... some things are simply universal.
Working with children from around the world is always a very interesting—and many times quite challenging—experience that tends to drum up a unique set of feelings during each project. First, I have to gain the respect, like and trust of a tough crowd of strangers; teens having suffered some extremely abusive situations. This part can be tricky when communication breakdowns often happen due to basic language barriers. If I’m not understood, then it makes it a bit more difficult to relay my thoughts and teachings, so I tend to rely on general positive energy and compassion to gain access through the first door.
Then, it’s a challenge to find creative ways to teach the actual course—Photography 101 that needs to basically encompass everything from the physical mechanics of the camera, to composition and
lighting, while providing inspirational imagery that they can connect with—and all this in a limited amount of time, so they have as much time as possible to shoot and enjoy themselves. During some projects, we have more time to work with smaller amounts of kids. In this one, we had a pretty large group of kids to satisfy, so the pressure was on, but I liked the challenge.
This work is very fulfilling and, as much as I do it for the kids, I can’t help but also reap some of the emotional rewards. Being able to even help give one discouraged child a day of newfound creativity, laughter, and hope makes all my physical effort that goes into the projects worthwhile. There’s nothing like our bus pulling up to the school in the morning and having a group of adorable, smiling kiddos grabbing at our pants, wanting our smiles and to hold our hands, calling out incessantly, yet endearingly, “oburoni” (aka “white person” or “foreigner”).
The photography workshops were only one aspect of the work we did at the school. The street artist, Travis McCann, worked tirelessly on creating large murals that the kids were to also decorate. Artist Zephy, stylist Shannon Macardhail and co-founder, Jerry Chu taught several groups of children to paint with watercolors, creating beautiful patterns that fashion designers will eventually use for clothing designs, again part of the fundraising efforts. Monica Watkins and the entire Beauty for Freedom team worked compassionately and passionately by the sweat of their brow, putting the kids’ needs before anything, making sure as many as possible of the 600 school students were able to enjoy the workshops.
It’s impossible for me to claim knowledge over the way some of these children might feel, but as I watched their little eyes light-up as they painted with focus and took pictures of everything they could, all I could hope for is that these transient moments would give them lifelong power, a voice, and the opportunity to feel proud of themselves. In a world dependent on the younger generations to secure mankind’s future evolution, all children need to be heard, seen, given a chance, and most importantly, protected and loved.
In partnership with JR’s Inside Out Project and Challenging Heights, on February 2nd, 2018, Beauty for Freedom and The Flat NYC Present The “Project Ghana” Exhibition (8-10pm at The Flat NYC - 23 W 24th St, New York, NY 10010), featuring 15 renowned artists in collaboration with the young survivors and at-risk youth of Challenging Heights, and produced by founders, Monica Watkins, and Jer- ry Chu. Exhibiting Artists Include: Nick Walker, Cope2, Erica Simone, YDA Lopez, Mark Wagner, Laura Anne Brooks, Jose Castillo, Alfredo Martinez, Michael Raeuschl, Zephy, Travis McCann, Jerry Chu, and Sophie Bartsich. 100% of the proceeds of the artwork sold will benefit the rescue and recovery programming for CH and BFF’s arts therapy programming.
My featured artwork on auction in the exhibition on February 2nd at the Flat NYC
You can also personally help these children here by making a direct donation to Beauty For Freedom and/or Challenging Heights. One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go directly to helping victims of human trafficking.