Just before 5 a.m., with the sky still dark over Lake Volta, Mark Kwadwo was rousted from his spot on the damp dirt floor. It was time for work. Shivering in the predawn chill, he helped paddle a canoe a mile out from shore. For five more hours, as his coworkers yanked up a fishing net, inch by inch, Mark bailed water to keep the canoe from swamping.
He last ate the day before. His broken wooden paddle was so heavy he could barely lift it. But he raptly followed each command from Kwadwo Takyi, the powerfully built 31-year-old in the back of the canoe who freely deals out beatings. “I don’t like it here,” he whispered, out of Mr. Takyi’s earshot.
Mark Kwadwo is 6 years old. About 30 pounds, dressed in a pair of blue and red underpants and a Little Mermaid T-shirt, he looks more like an oversized toddler than a boat hand. He is too little to understand why he has wound up in this fishing village, a two-day trek from his home. But the three older boys who work with him know why. Like Mark, they are indentured servants, leased by their parents to Mr. Takyi for as little as $20 a year.
An isolated problem? Hardly:
The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, estimates that 1.2 million are sold into servitude every year in an illicit trade that generates as much as $10 billion annually.
Studies show they are most vulnerable in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Africa’s children, the world’s poorest, account for roughly one-sixth of the trade, according to the labor organization. Data is notoriously scarce, but it suggests victimization of African children on a huge scale.
1.2 million. That number is almost unbelievable. Their lives are pitiful, and sad:
Running away is a common fantasy among the boys. Kofi Nyankom, who came from Mark’s hometown three years ago, at age 9, was one of the few to actually try it. Last December, he ran to town half-naked, his back a mass of bruises. He said Mr. Takyi had tied up him and whipped him. George Achibra, a school district official, demanded that the police intervene, and Mr. Takyi was forced to let Kofi go. But before many weeks passed, he had brought in a replacement — younger, more helpless, more submissive. It was Mark Kwadwo.
The problem of course, is that this almost entirely the result of the crushing poverty that many of these children and their parents live in. Without the resources to provide for their children-or even themselves-they are compelled to sell their children in servitude so that the children will be provided for, or so the children can send money home to their parents.
If you can bear to learn more, visit Human Rights Watch.
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