Somewhere in a hidden Community near Swedru in the Central Region of Ghana, Linda Osabutey, a 28 year old Social worker manages the Challenging heights Shelter in Ghana.
The Shelter is the only rehabilitation facility for trafficked children who were lucky enough to be rescued by the organization from slavery and child labor on the lake Volta.
Linda joined Challenging heights in 2011 and before she became the shelter manageress, she was a rescue officer, a member of a team that does extraordinarily well at rescuing young and innocent victims from the hands of boat masters who would rather have for themselves some cheap labour.
The Challenging heights foundation was founded by James Kofi Annan, winner of the 2013 World Children’s Prize. James himself was a child slave who was also subjected to child labour on the lake. Recounting his story, Mr. Annan said “I worked on the boat doing a fisherman’s job in more than 20 villages. I wasn’t that grown when I was first trafficked.
I was only 6. And I think I served on the lake between the ages of 6 and 13. I spent 7 years on the lake before I finally escaped and returned home”.
Explaining the treatment he was exposed to, James said he was “tortured and abused in many unimaginable ways. “On a daily basis, my working day started at 3am, and ended at 8pm and even sometimes beyond that And the work I did was no joke even for a grown up. I was usually fed once a day and would regularly contract painful diseases which were never treated as I was denied access to medical care”.
After James escaped, he found a way of putting himself through school and vowed to help bring other Children out of such misery.
“That is why I set up this foundation. What happens to those children out there is scary. Six of us were trafficked from my community and only three of us survived. The three others died from abuse and exhaustion.”
According to James, the members of his team at Challenging Heights are his greatest support system.
“I appreciate the support of comrades like Linda Osabutey the lady who manages the rehabilitation shelter”, James said. “Her work on those Children is just impressive. She has a strong team out there to work with. The house mothers, volunteers and counselors are all great people to work with.”
Linda studied Social Work at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. She joined Challenging heights as an ‘investigations, rescue and response’ team member right after school and has been with the organization since. She said she loves her job.
“The work we do here is very fulfilling…Initially I went on rescue missions with the rest of the team. We rescued children who were bound to serve ‘boat masters’ for the rest of their lives and I must say, these rescue missions are not easy at all. We actually put our lives at risk trying to save these children. ”
The children who come under her care are often timid and paranoid. According to her, “the fishermen always instill in them the spirit of timidity in order to ensure they don’t find the courage to escape”.
Taking a tour of the facility with Linda, I noticed how happy and relieved many of the Children look on the outside yet, very scared to go close to, or even talk to someone they are not very familiar with. Linda said their reaction to my presence is due to their past experiences.
“All of these young ones were handed off by and to people they thought they could trust. Over time, that trust got broken and they learned the hard way not to trust others, strangers especially. A lesson they are not ready to give up”.
But Kofi John, a shy looking lad reluctantly agreed to speak to me. Kofi was in a grey T. Shirt and black trousers folded up to give a three-quarter trousers look.
Like many of the boys, Kofi had made several attempts to free himself from slavery but each attempt landed him in more trouble than before. He would always get caught and subjected to some severe punishment which sometimes came in the form of a double shift on the lake. This meant no sleep, no food.
“We only ate one meal a day where I served. And that meal was just gari in water plus sugar. And our sleeping place was made from palm fronds and we made our own beds out of straws. Anytime it rained, we had no sleep because the wet sand was uncomfortable to lie on. And when they punish you to work double shift, you don’t get the gari or sleep at all. You stay awake sometimes five days continuous”.
Kofi however said over time, he stopped running. He found a reason to stay and serve his time.
“Our master brought a new girl to where we stayed. Her name was Adwoa and she was very beautiful. He told us the person who worked hard and completed his time on the lake without misbehaving would marry her and eventually get his own boat too”
Linda confirmed this angle. She said some of the girls who were rescued were only trafficked to perform traditional female roles.
“Sweep, cook, sing to motivate the men as they draw their nets and sometimes even sleep with the boys or the masters, depending…”
8year old Lizzy was lucky to be rescued early. She was quite the talkative and had answers to every question I had for her.
Lizzy said her duties included cooking for the master’s household, scooping water from the boat, helping sell the fish in the market and performing other house chores. She was sent to Yeji together with her younger sisters when she was only 5years. She said they were all sold to the same household and she was faced with the responsibility of taking care of her 4 and 2year old sisters.
“The woman we stayed with was cruel and mean to us. She will hit my sisters and I every little chance. That woman rained abuses on us always and her real children always framed us for wrong doings we knew nothing of” Lizzy said impatiently in Twi.
The little time I spent with Lizzy made me realize how bitter some of these children turn out. According to her she will never forget the master’s wife and how she treated them. Sounding angry and vengeful she said “everything they put us through is recorded in my head. I cannot forget the way they treated my younger siblings either. They called us smelly girls and useless too. Plenty insults everyday.”
Madam Osabutey’s work is cut out for her as she has to deal with these damaged children.
She says most of them come in with different kinds of infections. “Hepatitis ‘B’ for instance, malaria, typhoid, rotten finger and toe nails, STD’s and about ninety percent come with Bilharzia”.
The rehabilitation program that Linda supervises at the shelter is intense and highly effective.
First, a physical assessment is done on the children after they are rescued and brought to the shelter, then there is the medical screening which informs their dietary needs and health watch processes. There is also a mental health assessment to determine what interventions will be appropriate for the child. And finally, the educational assessment which helps education officers at the shelter put each child in a class based on their individual literacy levels.
The educational program has four stages or classes in all and by the time a child gets to the fourth stage, she/he will be ready for re-integration into a proper school system on the outside.
Each child stays a minimum of three months and a maximum of six months at the Shelter. There are however some exceptional cases that require more attention. Children who are very slow in their recovery and those whose families are not ready to take them back.
“…These ones get to stay at the shelter for at least a year and beyond”
At the moment, Linda oversees 35 children and 20 staff members all of whom are happy to be part of this one big family.
Millicent Amoah, the officer in charge of art therapy at the facility said a great deal about Linda’s commitment to her duties and the bond that they all have.
“We are all so united and Linda makes sure it stays like that”
As for young and newly married Linda Osabutey, it is her calling and her husband “very well understands” why she has to stay away from their marital home six continues days every week.
By: Juanita Sallah