It's a plight that many of us cannot fathom in this day and age. In fact, it's almost impossible to believe it still exists. Not for James Kofi Annan, 34, who knows all too well that slavery is indeed prevalent among the poorest women and children across the globe. Annan is the founder and executive director of Challenging Heights, a nonprofit organization in Ghana, West Africa, dedicated to educating, enlightening and providing a safe haven for children who are sold into modern-day slavery. Annan has made this his life's work because when he was six years old, his own father sold him into a life of servitude. Seven years later, he escaped, determined to become educated and vowing that he would do all he could to protect the poorest children of his country. His tireless efforts haven't gone unnoticed. This week, Desmond Tutu presented Annan with The Frederick Douglass Award sponsored by the Free the Slaves organization, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works to eradicate slavery worldwide. According to Free the Slaves research, 27 million people are currently enslaved in the world, working on farms, as domestics, and in the sex trade. ESSENCE.com spoke to Annan about his experiences working as a child fisherman, his unyielding drive to educate local children and having the Archbishop Desmond Tutu personally honor him with the first-ever Freedom Award in his honor.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you become a victim of child trafficking?
JAMES KOFI ANNAN: I started my working life early. My parents had 12 children, none of whom were educated. By the time I was six years old, I was the only person my father could control. All the others were older and most of them had already been given away to work. As the youngest, I was the only one still available. My father saw the opportunity and gave me away for fishing work. The way it works is that the person who takes charge of you now has control over you.
ESSENCE.COM: Were you able to keep in touch with your family?
ANNAN: Once in a while I would see my mother because she was always trying to get me back. But once I left the [first] fishing community where I worked, there wasn't a way for her to see me. I saw my father once in a while whenever he would collect money. But as far as my welfare goes, he didn't really bother. Even though he would visit, he would just come and talk to the people who were holding me.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you escape?
ANNAN: The main reason I tried to escape is because of education. One day I heard someone speaking English and I knew it was something I wanted to learn. I tried to escape that same day. I had tried several times before, but I was always caught and beaten. But there was a time when the person I was named after died. It was decreed that all those who were named after this man must attend his funeral. There was no choice but for me to attend and I used that opportunity to escape. I was 13 years old and went back home to my parents. I enrolled myself in school. I was surprised that my mother was actually happy to see me, but my father was so angry. It was hell. They ended up getting divorced over it. I just wanted to go to school, so I started to take care of myself from that stage. When I started school, everyone laughed and mocked me but there was a deep motivation for me to learn. So I didn't mind what they had to say about how I looked or how poor I was. I just concentrated on getting knowledge and learning to speak English at any cost.
ESSENCE.COM: Well then, how did you end up going to college?
ANNAN: I did extremely well in school. Out of 200 students, nine were chosen to attend college so I went to the University of Ghana. When I finished, I got a job luckily with the Barclays Bank of Ghana. I worked there for five years but in April 2007, I decided to resign. I had started my organization, Challenging Heights, in 2003 but I realized that working at the bank was occupying most of my time. Challenging Heights was my true passion. I couldn't imagine another child going through what I had experienced. So I decided that whatever the consequences, I would resign and devote all of my time to my organization.
ESSENCE.COM: What kind of services does Challenging Heights offer?
ANNAN: The main goal is to get children educated. If you educate children, then they will know their rights and the chances of them being forced into labor will decrease, and their future will be brighter because they have a way to avoid poverty. I also use the youth to encourage other children so that they are mentors among themselves. I also try to talk to parents about the dangers of child trafficking, the usefulness of sending children to school and how to take care of their child's health.
ESSENCE.COM: The Free the Slaves organization says there are more people in slavery today than in any other time in human history. How many children are you helping through the Challenging Heights School and other programs?
ANNAN: Our school has 251 children between the ages of 4 and 15, but I would say about 50 of those children would have been sold into child labor had they not attended our school. We look at homes that have a history of child trafficking and we target them with education. If we are getting more and more children from those homes, then it means that the trafficking has been reduced.
ESSENCE.COM: Why is this work so important to you?
ANNAN: I've been there and I know how it feels. If you have been physically abused to the point of feeling like you're dying, you would know what I've felt. I don't want any child to go through that experience. If I should be the sacrificial lamb to protect and rescue another generation of children, then I'm prepared to do that.
ESSENCE.COM: You received the first-ever Frederick Douglass Award from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What did that experience mean to you?
ANNAN: It was very humbling. I look back and see the suffering and pain of so many children who are still in the same position, so I asked myself if I really deserved this award. But the same children I am seeking to assist and protect are the same children who have lifted me up to this level to come face to face with somebody I've admired for years.
ESSENCE.COM: Part of your award is monetary. How much are you receiving and what will you do with the money?
ANNAN: The award is granted over two years. I've received $10,000 personally, which I plan to put into my school building project. There is no point in me using it because someone else needs it more. The other $10,000 is meant for building Challenging Heights even further. I plan to use it to strengthen my administration with computers and the school with furniture. I am also trying to strengthen our alliance with organizations and groups that have knowledge that could help us improve. I went through one of the worst forms of child labor, poverty and abuse. I just want children to know that nothing should stop them from reaching the top, whatever they choose to do.
For more information on Challenging Heights, go to challengingheights.org