There’s a museum in Ghana that shows visitors where slaves were kept before boarding ships to the New World. You can touch the old chains and latches and whipping posts. You can read about the evils. Or you can walk down the road and see a different kind of slavery. You can talk to children born in Ghana, some as young as five, who were sold into bondage by their own relatives.

Undergraduate Angela Harper spent six weeks talking to these families, searching for reasons why a parent would do such a thing. At the end she took a break, visiting that museum.

“It was awful and depressing,” Harper says. “I thought, ‘The world is fooled that slavery is something we can put in a museum, something historical.’”

Harper, twenty-two, became interested in child trafficking during her freshman year when she joined Free the Slaves, a UNC student group that tries to raise awareness and money to free child slaves around the world. The more she learned, the more she wanted to see these children for herself.

After a two-week internship with Anti-Slavery International, a nonprofit in London, Harper flew to Ghana. There she met her guide Priscilla, a twenty-year-old college student and volunteer for the Association of People for Practical Life Education (APPLE), a group that works on humanitarian issues, including child trafficking.

From Accra, Ghana’s capital, Priscilla drove Harper three hours to Atitekpo, the first of three villages Harper visited during her six-week stay in the Volta region of southeastern Ghana. Priscilla helped Harper settle into her new home where a large farming family lived in a mud hut with no electricity or plumbing. This family had never sold a child to traffickers, but they knew all about the problem. Harper says that 20 percent of Volta’s child population is sold into slavery. That’s thousands of children.

Harper says that the poorest adults are forced to make a stark choice: keep all of their children — sometimes as many as eight or ten — and go hungry, or sell a child to feed those who remain.

“There are lots of widows trying to work and raise kids,” she says, “or grandparents who take care of kids whose parents either died or jumped the bush, which is what they call it when someone abandons their family. It’s a situation of desperation. It’s not like these people are evil or don’t love their kids. It’s more like they’re extremely poor and have tons of kids.”

Harper says that traffickers, wanting to maximize profits, go to the poorest villages and offer parents a deal. “Traffickers are known to offer a hundred dollars when they take the kids, and then another hundred when they return the child.”

Sometimes the slave owners say they’ll return the child in two years, sometimes four. “But they never return them,” Harper says. No one with APPLE has heard of a single case in which a child was returned.

A lot of parents told Harper that they were honest with their children, telling them they had to go work for a few years. In Ghana, child labor is common and so is apprenticeship. “But I spoke to a mother who tricked her kids into going with a child trafficker,” Harper says. “She told her boys that her uncle was coming and that they’ll get to go play with their cousins. Then the trafficker came in the middle of the night and took the kids to Lake Volta.”

There was no playing at the beach.

Children at work

Lake Volta, the largest man-made reservoir in the world, was created in 1965 when the government dammed the Volta River to generate electricity, little of which makes it to surrounding villages. The lake was once abundant with fish and provided jobs to millions of people. But stocks dwindled because of overfishing, and fishermen started using large mosquito nets with tiny holes to catch more small fish. Fishermen use children, whose hands are small and nimble, to pick fish out of these nets. Harper says that the nets get tangled on tree trunks and branches that lurk in the brown muck just beneath the surface. Children are forced to dive in and untangle them. Many children are injured this way or contract waterborne diseases such as bilharzia and guinea worms.

“So these kids are tired from these parasites living in them,” Harper says, “and then they have to work sixteen, seventeen hours a day.” This can go on for years if no one intervenes.

APPLE staffers go to the villages to ask parents if any of them have sold their children and if they want them back. Staffers collect names and then search Lake Volta. When they find a child, they negotiate a deal with slave owners, typically paying money for a child’s freedom. Slave owners are less likely to release older children because they can work longer, harder hours.

APPLE workers then take the children — about a hundred each year — to a shelter for medical attention and counseling. The children remain there for two months before returning home. These are the children Harper spoke to. “They are all traumatized,” she says. “They say they don’t know why they were sent away and they don’t know why they came back home. Parents don’t explain what’s going on. ”

Untold stories

For Harper, a typical day in Ghana began at dawn with breakfast over an open fire. The meal would include cassava, a starchy root vegetable central to the Ghanaian diet. After breakfast, Harper biked to villages to speak with parents and their rescued children. The stories she heard made her sick.

One girl told Harper, “I cannot count how many times my master raped me.”

For girls of a certain age, if they’re sold into slavery, rape is a fact of life.

Harper met another girl; this one was six when APPLE rescued her from Yeji, the major fishing village on Lake Volta. She was the youngest ever rescued. Her job had been to pick out small fish from nets all day. An eight-year-old boy did the same job.

“He saw a boy drown,” Harper says. “So he was scared of untangling the nets in the water. He refused to dive in, and his master beat him so bad that he couldn’t move for two days. Then he agreed to go in the water.”

His eleven-year-old brother was in charge of smoking the fish. Both boys told Harper that they longed for home. Their mother, who sent them away because she earns just five dollars a week, visited them and was shocked at how poorly her sons were treated. She sought help and APPLE rescued the boys in 2006. These children and the many others that APPLE has interviewed often went hungry and slept little.

Still, Harper heard a common refrain from parents in the villages: “The masters can feed them, while I cannot.”

Harper spoke to a sixty-year-old woman who had worked hard to support several grandchildren until she fell ill. She sent three grandchildren with a trafficker, who agreed to pay her a box of yams and a box of fish every six months. He sent only the yams.

Another woman, unable to feed her children, gave them away without recompense.

At first, Harper was surprised at how unemotional the children and parents seemed. “I guess the parents had already been through all this,” she says, “but if you’re hearing your child talk about all this stuff that you put them through, it seems like you’d get emotional hearing them talk about it. But it was pretty emotionless. I didn’t expect that.”

And Harper didn’t expect that she, too, would become numb to the stories. She never cried, not in front of the families. During her six-week trip, her shock and sadness turned to anger and pessimism.

“There are thousands of kids that APPLE will never save,” she says. “I’m pessimistic because it’s hard to see a solution to end this quickly. Ghana’s government is more interested in economic development. Development is a good thing, but the benefits are not trickling down to the poorest people.”

So far the steps Ghana has taken against child slavery seem meaningless. Ghana was the first country to sign the United Nations Covenant on the Rights of the Child. It signed a regional pact with other African nations, and passed antitrafficking laws of its own. But Harper found that there’s been only one arrest. The only noticeable thing the government has done is put up posters saying child trafficking is illegal.

“Ironically, there’s a child labor office right outside one of the villages,” Harper says. “And there’s a man there in charge of making sure child trafficking doesn’t happen. I told him, ‘go outside!’ He told me that child trafficking is not a priority in Ghana. He was frank about it. He was totally against slavery, but he said there are lots of things that go into this problem.”

Police aren’t trained to identify trafficked children or to know what to do with them, and traffickers pay off police and border guards. Because parents have to pay for school, not all children go. Those who do go eventually drop out so they can work. If there’s no work and relatives can’t help, sending a child away to work on Lake Volta starts to look like an option. Even if that option is slavery.

Angela Harper graduated in May with a dual degree in sociology and international studies from the College of Arts and Sciences. She will attend the UNC School of Law this fall to focus on international law and human rights.