Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Why do children work? ‘To become big men and women’

Schools are assumed to be the path to success, but what if the schools are bad, cruel, or don’t exist?

5 April 2022, 6.00am
Hayford Telli. All rights reserved

This story is part of a series of child worker voices that Beyond Trafficking and Slavery gathered in the Lake Volta and Brong Ahafo regions of Ghana, areas frequently targeted for intervention by people seeking to end child labour. The children were asked to describe their work, why they do it, and how the country's decision-makers could help them. Their answers were translated out of the local Twi language and edited for clarity.

I am 17 years old. I work on the lake. I am not from this village, but I have lived here for eight years.

My parents passed away when I was a child. I grew up with my grandmother, who was very frail. She had a problem with her heart. She needed expensive medical attention, and the little money my uncle occasionally sent us was never enough. Sometimes we didn’t even have food to eat. I was going to school then, and my uniform, shoes, and other things looked like rags. I was always hungry and had a hard time understanding what they were teaching, so I didn’t want to go anymore.

One day a fisherman who had worked with my grandfather passed through the village. My grandmother asked him if he would train me like my grandfather had trained him when he was a boy. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my grandmother. But I wasn’t going to school anymore and there was nothing for me in the village. I was about 10 or 11 years old that time. I have been living and working with him ever since.

My grandmother passed away last year. I am very sad about that, but I am also happy that she benefitted from me before she died. For the last three years I was able to send her some of the money I had earned. I feel very proud about that.

I am very grateful to this man. I don’t know what would have become of me now if I hadn’t stayed with him. I found fishing very hard at first. I missed my grandmother every day and wanted to go back home; all the more so because he would hit me if I did something wrong or he thought I wasn’t working hard. That’s one thing fishing and school had in common. The teachers used to hit us with heavy canes if we couldn’t say the times table or the words on the board, or if we didn’t know the answer to the questions they asked us. It was a reason I didn’t like going to school.

What would have happened to me if he had said no to my grandmother?

Coming here has helped me to become a man. I now know everything about fishing. I can do all the jobs, and I often go out by myself to work on the lake if he is not around. Right now I am saving up to buy my own boat and then I will go my own way.

When that happens I will work with children if they have no help like I did. It’s true I didn’t like the work initially – nobody likes hard work or being beaten. So I will not beat a child who works with me or say things that kill their spirit. I will also make sure they don’t do difficult activities until they are strong enough. It was the same with me. Although he was very strict, he didn’t push me to do heavy work because he said that’s not how my grandfather taught him to train an apprentice.

I know that they have started arresting people who work with children in this region. I even know some of the people who were arrested. It makes me afraid of what might happen to me if I work with those who are not over 18. But I also think about my own situation when I was a child. I had nobody to help me. If a parent comes to me and begs me to work with their child, like my grandmother did, it will be hard for me to refuse them. How can I say no when I know their situation? What would have happened to me if he had said no to my grandmother?

Nobody says, ‘I want my child to suffer.’

Everybody in this country wants their child to go to school. Nobody says, ‘I want my child to suffer.’ As children we also want to become big men and women so we can help our parents and families, who took care of us as children. The problem is the hardship we are in. Look at the village we are in now. We don’t have electricity. Our water is not good. The only thing we can do here is fishing, and if you don’t train your children to fish they will find life difficult.

Some people are leaving because of it. I went back to my grandmother’s village a year before she died and many of my friends were not there. They had migrated to Accra, Cape Coast and elsewhere because there was nothing to do in the village. One boy who had returned from Accra told me he sells yoghurt and ice cream on the streets. He came back with nice clothes, a mobile phone, and other things that made the other boys want to try their luck there too.

The government needs to give poor people in the villages more help if they want to change any of this. Life in the big cities is hard, but it is harder for those in the villages. Our schools, clinics, water, and electricity aren’t good. If they support our families and fix these things nobody will want to leave the villages.

I also think that it would be good to provide more training opportunities for young people. My head wasn’t good enough for school. I was lucky my grandmother sent me to learn this work, or maybe I’d be weaving through traffic in Accra selling ice cream and yogurt too. Training programmes would give us more options. If there was a chance to become a carpenter, mechanic, or electrician many young people working dangerous jobs could get their own trade. Right now, if our canoe motor is faulty we have to go a long way to get it fixed. But we have many young people who aren’t in school. I know most of them would be happy to train in these areas so they wouldn’t have to hustle anymore. This is how I think the problem can be solved.

About the Artist

My name is Hayford Telli and I'm a self-taught artist in Accra, Ghana. At 11 I was inspired to draw by the cartoon series Captain Planet, and my first sketches were of the show's characters. I continued to develop my skills by doing portraits of friends. Eventually I began to earn income by busking as a sketch artist on the street and by selling my own work. Art has opened up my life opportunities after much adversity as a child. I am now an entrepreneur in street art and digital designs. I also offer other youth life chances by giving them training and employment. We hope to extend our services and horizons beyond the borders of Ghana and welcome anyone who is interested in working with us.

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