The former slave who is setting free other captive children

James Kofi Annan grew up as a child fisherman in Ghana between the ages of six and 13. He was tortured and abused, fed once a day and denied access to medical care. When he finally escaped and returned home, he invested everything on his education. He graduated with a masters degree, and worked as a bank manager. His savings were used to found Challenging Heights, a NGO dedicated to the rescue of other slave children. (Read more….)

James Kofi Annan @ Free The Slaves blog

James Kofi Annan, the Challenging Height’s founder
© Free The Slaves blog

Are you a relative of former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan?

The correct spelling for my surname is Annan [meaning his name is James Kofi]. I don’t have any family connection with the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The only things we have in common are, we both come from Ghana, and we both originally come from the same Region, Central Region, in Ghana, and we both have similar native birth cultures.

You are the “last and the only educated out of 12 children of illiterate parents”, as stated on your organization’s website. Was it a decision of your father or mother to send you to work in a fishing village “nine hours away” from your home?

It was my father’s decision. Culturally fathers make the final decisions in my hometown.

Were you the “price” to pay for family debts?

I’m not sure if I was a price for a debt as I was too young to know what might have happened.

Were other relatives and friends pushed into this inhumane condition?

There were several of other distance relatives who also suffered similar situations. Majority of them go free but could not go to school. Others became free but became traffickers themselves.

How did you travel all the way to the workplace? Were you alone?

I travelled by car, together with other children and adults workers. I was barefooted by I don’t remember what I wore.

All your basic needs (from food to sleep) were denied. The memories of your past are painful, but would you please describe your first day of work, a six-years old slave child?

This aspect of my story is saved for my yet to be written book.

How many children were there with you?

We were initially six children, but later we became more. I had several bosses, some were relatively good, others were extremely cruel. There were several girls who served as both domestics, and sex materials for the older boys.

James Kofi Annan of Challenging Heights in Ghana, West Africa, talks to students at Manchester Junior-Senior High School @ Shaun Tilghman

James Kofi Annan talks to students at Manchester Junior-Senior High School
© Shaun Tilghman | Hove Foundation

Seven years in this hell… why did it take you so long to run away? 

Running away is complex, and even though always wanted to run away, I required a lot of courage and proper planning. Eventually I escaped alone. I did not face death threats, but I faced persecution and rejection.

I did not actively look for protection. I defended myself everyday. I was strong enough to defend myself, at least to protect myself from being armed. I had developed a lot of strength because of the nature of the work.

You’ve managed to enter primary school, excelling as top of the class at high school and graduating from college. Would you explain this process?

I entered school then at the age of 13. I graduated from the University of Ghana. After Junior High School, I entered Senior High School. After Senior High School I entered the University of Ghana for my Bachelors Degree.

Later I entered the University of Education for my Masters Degree. I read Psychology degree for my Bachelors, and read Communication and Media Studies for my Masters degree.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and honoree James Kofi Annan attend the 2008 Freedom Awards at USC’s Bovard Auditorium on September 15, 2008 in Los Angeles, California, US
© Amy Graves | Getty Images for Freedom Awards

When and why did you decide to use your savings to create Challenging Heights?

I decided right from when I gained employment that I was going to use majority of my salaries for Challenging Heights. I therefore spent less money on myself, and spent more money helping the children, and using some for the organization of grass root action.

When I started Challenging Heights, it was for fun. It was my hobby. I just wanted to help, and I did not want it to become an NGO. It was only a platform for community mobilization and awareness for action.

With time, it became bigger and bigger, reaching several children in several communities organically. It became too big for me to manage alone, and that is why I registered it.

How much money did invest?

I don’t remember exactly how much, but I know that I had to sponsor 29 children at the initial stage, pay for books and fees, shoes and dresses and sewing machines, pay for transportation for community mobilization, water, drinks, venues, classroom and meeting structures, paid for publicity materials, medical bills, and many others, all from my own salaries.

Have you got the bank’s assistance?

The first international award I received was from the bank, Barclays Group Chairman’s award in 2006. Later the bank assisted me with financial support both when I was still working, and after I left the bank. [He gained at least seven awards, among them the World Children’s Prize 2013.]

What’s your NGO mission and how difficult is to run it?

The mission of Challenging Heights is to ensure that every child is free from exploitative labor, and that every child completes at least a basic education.

I receive cooperation from the community, although a few people issue death threats to me. I receive funding from both local and overseas sources, and I have some overseas volunteers as well.

The Crown Princess of Sweden presents the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child to James Kofi Annan from Ghana (in 2013). To the left is one of the boys saved from slavery by James
© Jonas Ekströmer | TT

Tell us about your projects…

Challenging Heights has established a school, which is a regular basic school with over 700 children both from the community and also from we have rescued from trafficking. Challenging Heights also runs a rehabilitation center for children we have rescued from slavery.

This center ensures that children we have rescued receives interim care, including medical care, counseling, nutritional repairs, basic literacy, and psychosocial support. We have also established a community library for children coming from disadvantage communities.

We have set up a computer center for young adults to gain employment. We have supported over 1,000 women to gain self-employment through micro-enterprises in order that they will earn income in order that they will be able to take care of their own children, and they will not sell them.

We have so far rescued over 1,200 children from slavery, and help with several prosecutions and advocacy. We need additional classrooms for the children we support. We need a cold room storage facility to store fish for our women beneficiaries. We need a bus to convey our children to and from locations.

Of all the children that you’ve saved, whose story is similar to yours?

There are several of them with similar stories to mine. Those are saved for my book.

What’s the main difference between “child labor” and “child slavery”? 

Child labor involves work that affects the child’s education, health, and general growth and development. For instance, if the child is working, and the work prevents him from going to school, that is child labor. If the work is physically retarding his growth, that is child labor.

Child slavery is where the child is either sold or oppressed to work again his will, and does not have a choice as to what he could do or could not do.

Child slavery is seen to be increasing because it is gaining more reports. More stories are being reported now than ever, and there is greater awareness at the moment so figures are being reported. But child labor is an old known phenomena that is imbued in many known cultures.

Fishing and gold mines are industries in Ghana using children slaves. Are there other national economic sectors doing the same?

The other forms of child slavery are the domestic servitude. This is due to the widening rural-urban economic gap, and the resource imbalance.

Is it possible to eradicate slavery or at least child slavery, at short term?

It is possible to eradicate child slavery soon if we are determined. There is nothing the human spirit cannot do if it is spiced with determination.

[In 2018, James Kofi Annan, founder and President of Challenging Heights, has been appointed a Global Financial Sector Commissioner on Modern Slavery. The Global Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking was established by the Foreign Minister of Liechtenstein and Muhammad Yunu, the founder of the Grameen Bank and a Nobel Prize Laureate, with the support of the United Nations University in New York.]

Parts of this email interview, now edited for clarification and updated, were included in an article posted on the news website REDE ANGOLA,  November 25, 2014

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