For the first 11 years of his life, Promise Akwetey spent most of his time accompanying his father on his fishing expeditions, which is the main source of income for communities living along the river banks of the Volta Lake. Among the Ewe tribes living here it is the norm for fathers to pass on their trade to their sons and ensure that they learn it well. Hence, children as young as four years accompany their fathers on their fishing trips in order to become conversant with the trade by the time they reach their teenage years.
A typical fishing expedition begins at the early hours of the day, around 3.am to 4. am and by nine to ten o’clock, most of the fishermen would be at the river bank with their catch where the women would be waiting to buy the fish to process and sell on the market. Once he arrived from his fishing expedition, Promise would help his parents with odd jobs around the house and would normally also spend hours helping his father to mend his fishing net for his next trip.
But while Promise never complained about the kind of trade his life had given him, probably because he saw no hope of escaping from this daily life of drudgery and monotony, deep in his heart, he harboured dreams that went beyond fishing. Thus, three years ago, when word got to him that a school had been opened in his community by an organization that wanted to help children to go to school, Promise seized the opportunity immediately. Now a class three pupil at the age of 14 at the Kortokope D.A Primary School, Promise dreams of entering the medical profession one day. Promise is not alone in his dreams. His school mate, Tokoli Adinortey 13, also harbours dreams of becoming a medical doctor one day. Unlike Promise, Tokoli was given out to another family by his parents to assist them in fishing. Narrating how he spent the first eleven years of his life, Tokoli said he used to go on fishing expeditions with other children in his foster family. One day, Royal Health Organisation visited his community and distributed school uniforms, schoolbags, exercise books and other school items to children in the community. Even though the community had already put up a school block, Tokoli and other boys in his foster family were not attending school but this gesture by Royal Health Organization was enough to whip up their enthusiasm in education. “School is good, it is better than fishing” said Tokoli who has been a school boy for the past two years.
While the school children seem just content with the opportunity to school, perhaps, because most of them have never had that experience and there are no other schools in the vicinity to compare with, their head teacher, Clement Oklu thinks otherwise. “The children normally fish in the morning before coming to school hence they come to school late and exhausted and sleep in class instead of paying attention to their teachers” he complained. He said the school has a population of 163 children, out of which 120 were once child fishermen. “But despite their enrolment in school they still continue to fish to assist their parents to make ends meet because of the abject poverty prevalent in this area.” He was of the view that, the only way to wean off children totally from fishing is to provide alternative means of livelihood to parents to augment what they earn from fishing. He said the school lacked adequate structures for teaching and for accommodation. The classrooms have no furniture and children sit on the floor to study while teachers have neither tables to lay their teaching materials nor chairs to sit on.
Felix Komla, a native of Ablogah, whose two sons used to fish along with him which was the normal practice in the community until recently, said they no longer accompany him on his fishing expedition and are now in school. He said in the past he and his sons used to set off in their canoe at 3.30 am at dawn and return at 10.am. But unlike other parents who insist on their sons joining them to fish before going to school, Mr komala says “I have totally stopped my children from fishing since I have come to realise it is child labour, which is an abuse that would not benefit them in future. I do not want my children to do that kind of job again. When they wake up in the morning they go straight to school. I stopped them because we the old men have been doing the fishing; we have not been getting anything from it.”
Mr Komla attributed his decision to stop his children from fishing to the intervention of Royal Health Organization which organized
a series of courses for them. “Through these courses, we were made to realize the folly of sacrificing our children’s future by engaging them in fishing instead of sending them to school.” He said the absence of his children from his expeditions has not affected his “catch”. He is also able to support them in school with proceeds from his fishing and from farming cassava which is processed into gari and sold on the market.
Madam Comfort Amusu, who collaborated Komla’s story said her own son used to go fishing with her husband. However, following the intervention of Royal health Organization, her son is now in school. “My son did not have the necessary school materials. It was Royal Health Organization that provided him with a school uniform, school bag and some school books to enable him to go to school.” She said the organization also trained some community members in hairdressing and tailoring to enable them have alternative sources of earning an income.
Promise, Tokoli and the sons of Felix and Comfort are a few of the 600 children who were enrolled in school following an intensive education on the Rights of Children and Responsibilities of Parents by Royal Health Organisation, an NGO working to promote the welfare of children among other things with support from IBIS. A 1000 others were prevented from being contracted as fishermen through the interventions of the organisation.