Imagine being so desperately poor that you have to sell your child into virtual slavery to survive. It happened to James Annan when he was six years old and, as you read this, it’s happening still to many children in his homeland of Ghana.
“We should never allow any child to suffer the same abuses that I went through.”
James spent seven years as a child laborer in Lake Volta, forced to dive deep into muddy waters to untangle fishing nets, enduring sickness, starvation, and torture at the hands of his ‘masters,’ watching some of his young friends drown for their efforts.
Today, more than 180,000 people in Ghana are trapped in forced labor or slavery; many are children – some as young as two years old -- given away or sold for an average of $50 to traffickers who promise parents they will feed, clothe, educate, and care for them. But once removed from the arms of their families, the children often live in appalling conditions with little hope of escape.
James did manage to escape at the age of 13, angry and illiterate, but smart enough to know that the path to true freedom rests on education. He worked his way through basic schooling and rose to become a top university graduate and manager at Barclays Bank of Ghana. But he could not forget the nightmare of his past. So in 2003, using his own money, James helped two children from his village go to school. One year later, 52 children had received his help, and Challenging Heights was born, an organization dedicated to fighting child trafficking in Ghana.
“The role in society that has to do with the impoverishment of children, exploitation of children, putting children in slavery and child labor must be corrected,” says James.
To that end, James resigned from his lucrative banking career in 2009 to dedicate himself fulltime to the mission of Challenging Heights.
“We must resolve this issue, then I can go about my business; otherwise we will still fight and fight until every child has received this justice.”
Each year, Challenging Heights says it rescues about 70 children enslaved in the fishing industry. The organization works to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society, while raising community awareness to prevent the trafficking of children.
The organization also operates a K-8th grade school which provides students with subsidized enrollment, as well as free remedial education, a community library, computer courses and leadership training. The school admitted 181 children in the first six months of operation.
“We can save so many other children from the clutches of slavery and give them a voice, and give them a life and (allow) them to be children once again.”
James advocates for every child’s right to education, freedom and a family life with government agencies, civil societies, and national and international policymakers. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the recent World’s Children’s Prize, and the IF Hummingbird Foundation’s 2015 “Be The Spark” award at the Ashoka Future Forum.
An interesting sidenote: James Kofi Annan is not related to, nor named after, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Their last names are a coincidence. However, in their native Ghana, children may be named for the day of the week on which they were born. Both James and Kofi Annan were born on a Friday.