When he was six years old, James Kofi Annan was forced to fish for hours on end on Lake Volta in Ghana. Now, at 41, Annan has spent the past 10 years helping child slaves transition back into mainstream society, and received the education of which they’ve been deprived.
Annan, who escaped from captivity at age 13 and returned home, says education was his way to overcome the horrors of human trafficking.
“The number one solution is if we’re able to get every child in school, empowered, with skills, they will be able to resist trafficking themselves, and help themselves in the future. That’s what made me who I am,” Annan said.
After receiving his university degree, Annan worked his way to becoming a bank manager for Barclays Bank of Ghana. He eventually left that position to start his organization, called Challenging Heights, help other children escape from slavery.
Challenging Heights turns 10 next month, and the organization runs a school for former child slaves and disadvantaged children, and a rehabilitation center for trafficking survivors. Since 2005, his organization has rescued 1,200 former child slaves.
Annan said when his organization receive reports of trafficked children, a team of investigators goes to confirm, and identify the victim.
“One we have identified them, we team up with the government agencies such as the police, and the department of social welfare. The child is then taken away from the trafficker. In a number of cases this is done peacefully, but in other times this is met with violence,” Annan said.
Annan, who received the World Children’s Prize in 2013, was recently in the United States to receive an honorary doctorate at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s not named after the former Secretary General of the United Nations, and says the name is common in central Ghana, his home region.
Annan, who now spends most of his time traveling the world raising awareness for human trafficking, says he loves going back to the school a few days each month and spending time with the children he helped save, and are helping to save themselves.
There are an estimated 24,000 child slaves in Ghana, Annan said, though the exact number is hard to determine. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2014 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the Ghanaian government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” Trafficking of children to forced labor, including fishing, domestic service, street hawking, begging, mining, agriculture and prostitution, is more common than migrant trafficking, the report shows.
Annan said although trafficking is a very big problem for Ghana — and countries around the world — communication has helped some children and families report incidents and get help.
“Those days we lived in a very primitive society, no telephone, no t.v., radio, there was nothing,” said Annan of when he was enslaved. “I’m sure there is a reduction (in trafficking), but I don’t think we’re anywhere near good. We have situations where children are coming back with scars everywhere on their bodies.