An Enduring Privilege to Serve
By James Kofi Annan, President, Challenging Heights
The winners of the first Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize were announced in May 2011. According to the college, The Grinnell Prize honors individuals under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change. Yours truly, 37 years old, became one of the first recipients of the maiden awards. According to Grinnell College, the 2011 winners were selected from more than 1,000 nominations from 66 countries.
As I celebrate this coveted prize, I am deeply humbled by the road thus far. Seven years of forced labor, and 15 years of raw hunger and deprivation did not stop me from becoming a university graduate, nor did it stop me from becoming a banker. In fact, it still has not stopped me from continuing to aspire. It has only succeeded in bringing me to a point of thinking, day-by-day, of the essence of life – the lives of others.
So this prize, $100,000 in total, means to me that more boys and girls will be saved from slavery, and more of them will have the opportunity to go to school.
Ghana is a country of origin, transit, and destination for children subjected to forced labor and trafficking. Despite the provisions in the country’s constitution and its Human Trafficking Act, which prohibits all forms of trafficking, many forms of trafficking still exist.
Trafficking of children within Ghana is more common than the transnational trafficking of foreign migrants. It involves the movement of children from rural to urban areas or from one rural area to another, such as from farming to fishing communities, and from one fishing community to the other. Underserved boys and girls are subjected to conditions of forced labor within the country in fishing, domestic service, street hawking, begging, pottering, and agriculture (TIP report 2011).
It is estimated that over 240,000 of Ghana’s 6.3 million children are caught up in forced and exploitative labor, majority of whom are below the age of 13. In 2010 Challenging Heights urged the Ghana government to declare child trafficking a crisis situation. This was due to the alarming rate at which cases were being reported.
A number of reasons make this practice flourish. For instance, my father was a peasant farmer whose work never went beyond his daily bread. My mother was a petty trader who gave birth to 12 children, and whose income was never enough to feed her 12 children. In order to be able to meet the needs of the family, I had to be sold into a forced labor at age 6, similar to several of my other siblings and relatives, with the expectation that I would eventually return to my family. Instead, I worked as a child fisherman in several fishing villages on Lake Volta of Ghana until I escaped at the age of 13.
There are hundreds of children whose stories are similar to mine. The agony of children who have to pay the price of poverty has been an embarrassing albatross on the necks of several Ghanaians in recent times. For many rural illiterate Ghanaians, selling their children into forced labor has been the option that enables them to have less number of human mouths to feed, and they do not have to pay any monies in school fees.
Several years ago, it used to be the case that almost every single home was affected by child trafficking in my home community of Sankor, in Ghana. One of the things I have remembered to date has been the 6 of us who were trafficked together on the eve when I was pushed into forced labor. One is tempted, sometimes, to think that these families are excited about the exodus of their children.
Enduring slavery has never been a good memory for me. I have lived with its post-traumatic experience for several years. I have survived its impact largely because I adopted positive, competitive and committed attitude toward life. The challenge for me was not only the fact that I was lagging behind school. It was not only adolescent illiteracy. It was the combination of both, as well as never-ending hunger, rejection from community, and a deliberate attempt to stigmatize my person. These contempt treatments were enough to clog any good in me.
Somehow, the same denigrations kept me going. For me, I was accountable to not giving up the fight to succeed. My very life, my meaning and strength depended on the turnover of my never-ending pursuit for success – successively keeping the day’s achievement as a challenge for the next day’s race of life.
Obviously, this self-imposing competitive tendency was good for me for a number of reasons. First, I did not have role models who could have challenged me to aspire for higher heights, and there seemed to be very weak competitive environment in my community. So the only benchmark was myself. Therefore it was very easy to have slack had I not inspired myself. Secondarily, the challenges of life were so dire that I needed such a high level of self-discipline to carry on, and to take my mind off hunger, deprivation and rejection. And thirdly I desired to satisfy my mother’s wish for me to be able to speak English.
Today, I do not only speak English- I write English. I speak to large audiences in English. I hold a Bachelors degree. I hold a Masters Degree. I have been a senior banker, and I feel imbued with an amazing overflow of divine gifts of creative energy that sustains itself in amazing excitements.
Most affected Ghanaian families are eager to send their children to school. In September 2007 when Challenging Heights began its school in my home community, we were shocked to have admitted 181 at-risk boys and girls within 6 months, many of whom were below the age of 9, and 85% of them had never been to school before. The realities of exclusion of children from classroom work stared in our faces as we struggled to look for resources to contain the interest that our school had received from the community. It is exactly four years now since the school was established. Is it too soon to boast of over 400 boys and girls in the school, with over 100 of them being survivors of forced labor?
I have never been more fulfilled by anything in life than seeing children go to school every day, and taking so much interest to acquire knowledge. In 2003 when I started Challenging Heights, I had intended for rescuing children to remain a calling on my life, a sacrifice from my heart, having devoted 60% of my salaries from my employment with Barclays Bank of Ghana as the only source of funding the project. It was always a joyous moment, knowing that the financial resources I had (a very rare opportunity in Ghana) would allow me the privilege to serve these children!
Our current needs at Challenging Heights include new classrooms, increased teacher salaries, better security, a new vehicle for field work, and simple items like desks and books for the students. Because of this need, I have decided to commit my personal half of the prize money towards these needs as to ensure the continued success of the children of Challenging Heights, as well as those waiting to be rescued.
Today, Challenging Heights supports over 1,100 at-risk and vulnerable children across its programs each year, and provides further protection for over 50 former slaves annually. It is even gratifying to note that community men and women, fathers and mothers alike, have become our allies. In the face of all the challenges, these children are excited about acquiring knowledge, and are happy to be free from labor exploitation. They struggle to feed themselves and they struggle to meet their school needs. The road to achieving their educational goals is challenging, but because they are determined, we believe they are able to reach any height of their choice--the spirit of Challenging Heights!