There are an estimated 49,000 children living and working on Lake Volta, Ghana. According to International Justice Mission, approximately 60% of these children were trafficked there illegally to work as child slaves. The work is hazardous, their living conditions deplorable, their nutrition inadequate and health care nonexistent. Needless to say, they don’t attend school, much less have time to play with their friends or even get to be kids.
Every single day is a struggle for survival.
Incredibly, after years of community outreach, education and publicity by local NGOs like Challenging Heights, this uncomfortable truth remains largely invisible for a great many people, even within Ghana itself.
“But there is another truth,” says Setor Fiadzigbey, a Golden Baobab finalist for illustration and head of BZL Studios in Accra, “which is that people tend gravitate toward creative content. Present the same set of information side by side, one in the form of a news article or academic paper and the other in the form of a story, people will inevitably choose the story.” All the more reason, Fiadzigbey suggests, why this difficult phenomenon should be explored creatively, using colorful artwork, relatable characters and engaging dialogue to help get the message across. “We hope the graphic novel will take you on an adventure, right from the start,” says Fiadzigbey.
Indeed, writer and co-creator Kwabena Ofei’s action-packed script revolves around a group of three fiercely determined teenagers, each with a different skill set, who come together to defeat their common enemy. Along the way we learn how the mysterious yet ruthless Slave Master has impacted each of their lives. “It’s an adventure story intertwined with a social cause,” says Fiadzigbey. “The main characters are fictional, but the narrative reflects a tragic yet preventable daily reality on Lake Volta where hundreds and hundreds of children are trafficked every year to work in the fishing industry,” creating a metaphorical Lake of Tears.
Speaking of that evocative title, the creators note how a lake can be different things to different people. To one person, it’s their livelihood. To another, it’s a wondrous sight to behold, full of natural beauty. To the children held captive their, however, it’s also something ominous, harsh and unforgiving.
“To be honest,” says Kadi Yao Tay, co-founder and social media manager of Ghana’s “Squid Mag,” an online platform devoted to African digital art, comics and animation, “until I heard about this project, I had no idea child trafficking was still prevalent. I didn’t even know it existed on the Volta Lake. The way the book is able to reconcile this uncomfortable truth with such fantastic art is truly incredible.”
Unfortunately, it’s true. The shadowy criminal networks that prey upon destitute families with too many mouths to feed or impoverished single mothers struggling to survive, are a kind of open secret. Twisting Ghanaian traditions of kinship, patronage and vocational apprenticeship to suit their corrupt purposes, slave masters and their middlemen buy and sell children as young as five or six years old for less than the price of a new fishing net.
That’s the horrible truth of the underlying economics. When it costs less to buy a child than it does to buy a new net, the child becomes disposable, and there’s always another somewhere to replace the ones who get sick or injured or even die.
Surprisingly, though comics and graphic novels have been used all over the world to educate and inform people about a vast array of subjects, “Lake of Tears” appears to be the first project of it’s kind from Ghana. “I think for those of us behind the project,” says Fiadzigbey, speaking on behalf of the group:
“If readers walk away from this story desiring to know more about the problem and how they can become part of a the sustainable solution then our will be a success. We want to entertain people, sure, but also bring awareness to this important issue.”
About “Lake of Tears”: Set against the backdrop of Ghana’s hazardous inland fishing industry, this beautifully illustrated, imaginatively written graphic novel tells the timeless story of captivity and redemption. Released digitally, in four FREE instalments via Facebook and the Lake of Tears Ghana website, Part One was released in November 2017, with parts Two and Three hitting the web in January and February. The fourth and final chapter will arrive at the end of March.
To learn more about how you can help to end child trafficking at Lake Volta and in Ghana’s fishing industry, wherever you are in the world, download the Challenging Heights Ambassador Toolkit which features social media images to share on your personal feed, a fundraising flyer, FAQ sheet and more.
John Schaidler works as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. He is an unabashed fan of comics and graphic novels who believes in the power of visual storytelling to educate and inform people about social causes. You can follow him @WriteFooted on Twitter.