My comment to this effect elicited a scathing response from my translator. This was not a family trip. They were enslaved as teenagers and their youth were loaded on the lake during the pre-noon workday. It cut me short. As a photographer who has traveled to more than 150 countries to document forced labor and human trafficking in often dangerous conditions, I thought I was well aware of the social and human horrors of modern slavery. .
However, unlike some of my other campaigns, nothing was secret. I didn’t have to enter a Nepalese brick kiln factory to see workers stacking and loading dozens of bricks on their heads in 100+ degree heat. Or climb 200 feet down an abandoned mining exit to photograph slave gold miners. No, here was child slavery on Lake Volta, the world’s largest artificial lake. There was no attempt to hide anything: in front of me children as young as five were forced to work for 18 hours a day without pay in dangerous and dirty conditions. The sheer audacity surprised me.
According to the non-profit organization Free the Slaves, more than a third of the 1,620 households surveyed on and around Lake Volta had a child trafficker or held someone in slavery. However, this is not an old and entrenched tradition at this site: Lake Volta was only created in 1965 when the forest was flooded during the construction of a hydroelectric dam to supply electricity to Ghana.
Often these traffickers take these children from all over Ghana. Traffickers cleverly manipulate vulnerable families who cannot adequately feed their children two meals a day. They make false promises of education for the child if the young person only comes to the home of a trafficker’s “relative” in another city for help. Children are sold as soon as they leave the villages. Other traffickers buy children from their parents out of desperation or trade them for farm animals.
Children are not taught to swim. Many of them drown. I remember a boy, maybe eight years old, whose whole body was shaking with terror as our boat approached him on the lake. He was afraid that the waves would pull him out of the boat or worse, we would take him to an even scarier place. During my stay at Lake Volta I did not meet a child, not one, who did not know someone else who had drowned.
In 2021, designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Child Labour, it is fitting…