Dede (not her real name) lived with her mother and grandmother. She would do chores at home and go to school. Sometimes she would stay home and help her grandmother with her gari business.
However, the life that she had always known was about to change. One morning, a woman from her community visited her mother bearing “great news.”
She told her mother that there was a woman looking for children to live with. She would support their education and they would only help her mend fishing nets for few hours after school.She emphasised that the woman was keen on educating children to live fulfilled lives in the future. The visitor solemnly promised on behalf of the woman who needed an adopted child badly that if Dede joined them, she would be sent to school. Trusting the woman, Dede and her mother decided she should go.
Dede arrived at her new home in the night. She and the woman had travelled by boat to a remote and unfamiliar place.
Apprehensive and afraid, she curiously looked around. Her frantic eyes finally settled on the woman she would work for, following her to her home.
Unfortunately, Dede would soon learn that this woman would not provide the opportunity she had promised. Instead, she was a boat mistress who recruited both male and female children for harsh physical labour on the Volta Lake.
For five years, Dede was forced to risk her life casting nets on the lake and working on a farm. She worked, and suffered, along with other children who had also been trafficked.
Dede remembers their early hours of labour, waking up at 4am and working all day until very late at night.
The conditions were not safe; multiple times, Dede says she nearly drowned. Out on the water, nets sometimes got stuck on rocks or branches of dead trees submerged in the lake. Full of anxiety and with urgency, Dede would dive into the lake, slipping under the water’s surface to try and untangle the net before she ran out of air.
On one such occasion she says she struggled under a large piece of wood beneath the water’s surface. When she finally broke free, a piece of the wood had punctured her and wounded her badly. As she struggled to climb back into the boat, gasping for air, she heard laughter and jeering, rather than words of comfort and encouragement.
“Something really bad happened to me when I was under the water,” Dede tells SheHUB.tv.
The ones who cared for her were miles and miles away. The next time she was instructed to untangle a net hooked on a tree stump, she says she refused although she was afraid to be beaten.
However, the Lake was no place for fear, and mercy. As usual, Dede was beaten severely, with wounds of unbearable but familiar pain yet silence was the remedy to her unforgettable scars.
This was not the first time Dede had been beaten by this very man: the boat mistress’ son.
In fact, Dede shares, it was common for her son, Ashon, to beat the children. He liked to lord his authority over the children and abuse them for his personal gratification. If the children reported this to their mistress, Ashon would beat them harder the next day.
One windy afternoon on the lake, Dede was assigned to keep watch and provide directions as they fished. Her attention was divided as she saw Ashon beating her friend, Kodzo.
As she sat at the edge of the boat, she could feel Ashon’s anger rising, even as the winds around them raced with urgency. Suddenly, a wave lifted the boat, knocking Dede into the lake.
She says she thought Ashon would surely slow the boat, but he did not. He continued paddling on, with no regard for Dede’s life. The strong winds caused the currents of the water to pull Dede under.
As she sunk further down, Dede resigned to her fate pondering, “Is this how my life is going to end?”
However, Dede heard a voice calling out to her frantically saying, “Climb, climb the boat! You will be safe!”
Despite the chaos of the situation, Kodzo’s calls made Dede’s chest swell with the courage she needed to fight her way back into the boat. With her tensed muscles finally relaxing, Dede climbed into the boat and says collapsed briefly.
Upon regaining consciousness, Dede says she is grateful to her friend for keeping her alive. But her peace was shortlived.
Within moments, Ashon was shouting orders again. Unapologetically, he told Dede to return to the edge of the boat and give directions. As the wind died down, Dede and her friends were again hard at work as though nothing had happened. This was their new normal and for five years; this was Dede’s life.
Speaking in an interview with SheHUB.tv about Dede’s transformation, Mr. Emmanuel Asei Kangah, a social worker with the International Justice Mission (IJM) says by the Grace of God, Dede was rescued by IJM with support from the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the Ghana Police Service and the Department of Social Welfare.
He adds that since her rescue, she has been on a journey of recovery from the traumatic and near-death experiences on the Volta Lake.
“Now, transformation is happening in Dede’s life, too. She has unearthed her innate leadership potential and continues to inspire the affection of her peers”, he says.
He notes that, through one of IJM’s programmes dubbed “I Am Worthy Training” which empowers children with knowledge of their rights, responsibilities, self-love and self-worth, Dede and her peers were empowered to stand up for their rights and advocate against injustice.
He explains that, as a leader among her peers, Dede has been able to mobilise other survivors of child trafficking and ensured that they took active part in discussions on issues that affected their wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of other children.
“She would lead most of the discussion sessions and encourage her peers to freely share their experiences and thoughts, enabling a rich and robust healing and learning experience” he said.
Dede is in school and loves to play football. In the safety of freedom, she has room to discover her interests and build a future.
As an ardent believer in hope, Dede has these words to share with children still on Lake Volta: “They should not be discouraged. When the right time comes, they will also be rescued just as I was.”
Dede’s strength of character is very inspiring especially her ability to stay happy and hopeful notwithstanding the terrible experience on Lake Volta.
Philip is our Ghanian correspondent who is keen to share your story. To reach him, email email@example.com.