VIEWPOINT: The politics of rights and representation – how CNN reported on Ghanaian ‘child slaves’ who were not enslaved

VIEWPOINT: The politics of rights and representation – how CNN reported on Ghanaian ‘child slaves’ who were not enslaved

Samuel Okyere, Kwame Agyemang and Betty Mensah

On March 1 2019, CNN aired a video titled, Freeing the child slaves of Lake Volta, which followed a succession of similar docufictions and media reportage elsewhere alleging that many “thousands of children are sold into slavery” and trafficking in fishing communities along the Lake Volta in Ghana. Our (two academics who have studied this issue and a Member of Parliament whose constituents overwhelmingly live on and around the Volta lake) extensive field research and in-depth understanding of the dynamics of children’s involvement in fishing on the Lake Volta show that this is a complex issue which requires careful and critical analysis in place of the melodramatic, sensationalised and simplistic narratives of slavery and trafficking presented in these reports.

Many of the islanders and riverine communities face abject socio-economic deprivation, with the most remote ones lacking water, schools, hospitals and other basic infrastructure. In the absence of a formal economy or job sector, fishing on the Lake represents the primary (if not sole) subsistence opportunity for most residents. Indeed, a person with the most advanced formal educational qualification may find it of limited use for their livelihood on the most remote islands. People must know how to work on the Lake in order to be able to fend for themselves. Thus, in these communities learning this crucial livelihood and survival skill constitutes part of a normal childhood. Parents take their children out on the boats from a very young age to impart their fishing skills and education.

The Lake also serves numerous important functions for the communities; virtually all economic and social activities take place on or around it. It is not only the main employment source, but it is also the highway connecting different islands, the children’s playground, the communities’ marketplace, among other functions. It is, therefore, not unusual to find children fishing, commuting by boat to other islands or playing with their peers and siblings on the Lake.

Those unfamiliar with such socio-cultural and economic dynamics may wrongly translate the sight of a child in a boat with an adult as a child being exploited or forced to work or an enslaved child. And, in fact, it is instructive to note that such allegations are predominantly made by Western-based or funded NGOs, journalists and their local partners who may not have a presence on the islands or gloss over the complexities of the islanders’ social lives and child upbringing norms in pursuit of headlines that fit with pejorative tropes on the backwardness of Africans, or in pursuit of funding opportunities. It is a truism that NGOs who make such claims are not neutral or disinterested parties in the narratives they present to the public. These narratives are often tied to calls for financial support to rescue alleged child slaves and run orphanages or pay salaries and office costs.

A point often raised in support of the allegations of widespread child slavery and trafficking is that many of the children working on the Volta Lake do not originate from the islands but are trafficked from other parts of the Ghana. It is certainly the case that not all children working on the lake do so with their biological parents. We argue, however, that this is not due to rampant child trafficking of child slavery. The fact is that the extended family system is still highly valued in Ghana as it an important pillar in the informal social welfare system.

It is, therefore, entirely normal to find children living with non-biological parents or guardians who can offer educational, apprenticeship and other developmental opportunities. Many islanders and riverine community members are migrants who have kinship ties with people from other areas of Ghana. This, coupled with the islanders’ expertise and knowledge in fishing, means it is not unusual for families from coastal and other fishing areas of the country (such as Winneba) to place their children in apprenticeships and tutelage agreements with relatives or fishermen on the islands who may not be blood relations. From our research, many children and youth become self-sufficient adult fishermen through these arrangements and, in turn, also train other children and youth.

We acknowledge that these fosterage and tutelage arrangements can be fraught with complications, particularly surrounding the mode of remuneration for child apprentices. Some fishermen give the agreed wages for the child upfront to their parents, in cases where the child’s family may be in dire need of money or makes such a request. The children themselves may not therefore get direct access to the income generated from their labour, which can be problematic. However, the transfer of money from the fishermen to child apprentices’ parents does not constitute ‘sale’ of the child, contrary the tendency by NGOs and journalists to cite this as evidence of children being bought or sold.

It is also true that some children are exposed to abuse or exploitation, or actually experience these, during their apprenticeships or placements. These cases of child abuse and exploitation must of course be addressed. But they also very likely represent the exception rather than the norm and should not be used as basis for condemning the entire Ghanaian indigenous child fosterage or placement system.

To raise this point and question the turn on child upbringing practices in the specified communities does not amount to overlooking harm or to accept ‘child slavery’, as Manful says about our argument. Child abuse, child exploitation or slavery and child trafficking do not constitute part of authentic Ghanaian child upbringing practices. Aberrations or deviations from the Ghanaian fosterage and placement systems should not be used as the basis for denigrating and delegitimising the entirety of virtuous socio-cultural child upbringing institutions in much the same way as one would not call a defense of the British fosterage system as ‘overlooking harm’ because many thousands of children have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused by this system.

In 2017, 674,000 children in state care in the United States were abused. The language employed by NGOs and journalists including CNN when reporting on child rights problems in rich powerful nations is usually more tempered or considered. They do not describe as “child enslavement”, for example, the blatant curtailment of the freedoms of children who are cruelly caged in immigration detention as a matter of state policy in the US, the UK, Australia and other countries. It would appear then, that, in the case of Volta Lake saga, a choice has been made to spin the problem of child labour (and we fully acknowledge that there is a problem to be addressed) into fantastic stories of ‘child enslavement’ and ‘child trafficking’ because this ‘framework of reportage’ is in keeping with fantasies of supposed black ‘primitives’ in pre-modern communities still in the business of enslavement. And, this is a problem that should also be countered.

We challenge CNN, the International Justice Mission (IJM), Free the Slaves and any other actor alleging “widespread” or “pervasive” child trafficking and child slavery in communities along the Lake Volta to provide independent evidence to corroborate these claims. The fact is, cases of child labour are increasingly deliberately being distorted into fantastic stories of ‘child slavery’ and ‘child trafficking’ about supposed ‘primitives’ still in the business of enslaving each other. Most of the available statistics are produced by the same actors who have vested interests in making such claims. The only semi-independent large scale study of children’s involvement in work on the Volta Lake, which was conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2013, is emphatic that the claims of child enslavement are largely without substance.

The ILO study confirms, as we also acknowledge, that aspects of children’s work on the lake takes place under dangerous and exploitative conditions. This is clearly a problem that has to be addressed. We argue that the way in which any social problem is presented determines the treatment or response it receives. In this instance, the slavery and trafficking representations have taken attention away from the socio-economic deprivation which largely drives this issue and instead resulted in the practice of ‘rescue’ or taking alleged child slaves from their alleged enslavers – while very little is being done about the hardships underpinning the work of both adults and children on the lake.

In 2017, a total of 144 children were snatched from their parents and guardians on the Volta Lake by the Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection in collaboration with the IJM and the Ghana Police Service under the suspicion that they were victims of trafficking and slavery. Following investigations, it transpired that the circumstances of only 4 children may be deemed to represent trafficking. The rest were living and working with their parents and guardians when they were purportedly “rescued” from slavery and forced labour. Yet, such unfortunate incidents are still routinely presented by many self-styled contemporary slavery abolitionist organisations as examples of their “success” in Ghana and elsewhere and ‘rescue’ is still the peddled as the main panacea to this socio-economic problem.

The media and journalists have a responsibility to provide a balanced account to their audience. It is, therefore, unfortunate that the views of community residents and leaders are often excluded from these reports. Efforts by residents, community leaders and elected officials to address the problem of exploitative child labour are hidden or undermined. Over the last decade, a number of social intervention programmes, such as free basic compulsory education, free school uniforms, school feeding programmes, livelihood empowerment against poverty (LEAP) and many more have been implemented in Ghana in an attempt to address social problems like those faced by children on islands and riverine areas of the Lake Volta. Clearly, these interventions have not yet achieved their ultimate purpose. This is largely because of the scale of the country’s own deprivation, though this problem and its determinants are rarely discussed in the sensational accounts.

Ghana’s current socio-economic situation and the resultant lived experiences of Ghanaians such as the children and adults who work on the lake may be best understood through the lenses of historical and persistent hardships owing to its colonized past and persistent enforced neoliberal economic reforms over the last four decades. The Volta region has been among the areas worst affected by structural adjustment and other economic reforms in Ghana, as evidenced by the gross underdevelopment, marginalization and deprivation faced by the Lake Volta islanders and riverine area dwellers. Instead of slavery and trafficking, these historical and persistent factors, coupled with the desire to develop vital livelihood skills in the artisanal fishing sector in the lack of other livelihood opportunities, are the primary drivers for children’s entry into labour on the Lake. It is a problem that must be addressed holistically through the provision of developmental and alternative opportunities for families and entire communities instead of stigmatizing them as enslavers of their own children.

Finally, there are ethical questions about the ways in which children are presented in these reports by CNN and other media. To what extent did the children (and their families), many of whom are not familiar with the internet, fully consent to the use of their images in such documentary films? Are these vulnerable children and families whose pictures and videos are taken by journalists and NGOs fully aware that they are going to be used as “poster children” of child trafficking and child slavery?  There are potential abuses of privilege and power here, which do not seem to have been sufficiently weighed up by all actors involved.


Samuel Okyere is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. Kwame Agyemang is Lecturer in Law at Lancaster University, Ghana. The Hon Betty N E Krosbi Mensah is the Member of Parliament for Afram Plains North Constituency in Ghana. A shorter version of this article was published by Al Jazeera on 18.3.2019