Troubled Waters is a documentary about fishing activities in Africa, born out of a Cable News Network (CNN) Freedom Project. The project “travels to Ghana’s Lake Volta,” where it claims that “thousands of children are sold into slavery.” What emerges is a carefully crafted documentary that preys upon serious issues of child labor and child abuse—which problems must be eschewed—but which paints these issues in the light of the white savior trope for a tantalizing western consumption.
Why the need, one may ask, to paint every negative human condition in Africa as some sort of slavery? Is it perhaps to assuage the guilt of the west for the gross atrocities they have committed in Africa, or to divert attention from the extraction of wealth from Africa by European companies? Is this narrative perhaps to ease white people’s culpability for their mass kidnapping, and centuries-long enslavement of Africans in the Americas, upon which all their primary wealth in the west has been built? Why the need to paint every issue of abuse in Africa as some sort of slavery?
The documentary stars a white woman from Poland, Dominika Kulczyk, who claims that she is a human rights advocate, and George Achibra Jr., who works for PACODEP. George is the CEO of sorts for PACODEP, which is an NGO operating in Kete Krachi. George claims the following on his website:
“Children as young as five are sold to human traffickers and made to work as fishermen for up to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are beaten. They are abused. They eat scraps off the table and sleep on the dirt. Many of these children drown when forced to dive under the water to untangle fishing nets. These forgotten children become yet another anonymous corpse, resting at the bottom of the lake. No one, it seems, grieves for them and no one is punished for enslaving and endangering them. The only loss is a financial one. The fisherman who bought the child had paid the price of a cow to turn him into a slave.”
It is to this end that a white woman from Poland, Dominika Kulczyk, arrived in Ghana to see for herself, and broadcast to the world the unique atrocities happening in Ghana. She asks George, on a trip to see children working on a boat: “This is slavery. Why are you not rescuing these children right now?,” while she litters the hands of a boy sitting in one of the boats with a plastic bottle of water to drink for the pictures. George replies that he is not law enforcement and that even if law enforcement rescued the children, his PACODEP could not house them, and the children would have to be returned to their respective families. George maintained that the children would be “trafficked” again by their parents.
What to do?
A so-called “enslaver” is quickly found and questioned as is the norm in western-styled questionnaires in an African ethnographic study. A man, who is identified as Gideon explains how he is able to bring several young boys to help him in his fishing occupation. He explains that he pays a price—the equivalent of between 250 dollars and 500 dollars—to acquire the services of boys from their parents for a maximum of three years. In fact, Gideon goes on to show that he maintains contact with the parents of the boys for hire, and when anything happens to a child, he and the parents of the child sit and discuss how to remedy the situation.
Gideon affirms—probably having been asked about a situation in which a child may have drowned—that because fishing on the Volta Lake is dangerous work, in an event that a child drowns, he sits with the child’s family and takes all the steps necessary for compensating the family and arranging for the funeral rites of the child.
In one instance, Dominika Kulczyk, asks Gideon how he felt about hiring children for work when his own children were busy with school work. “Are you sending your children to school?” She asks Gideon. Gideon replies “Yes, my children are in school.” Dominika Kulczyk, the white savior, continues, “I wonder, how you feel about putting in danger children who are not yours in order to buy food and pay for school for your children?” Gideon replies that: “This is a difficult question. I need to think carefully before I answer it.” Gideon pauses for a moment and recollects himself. “In order to live you need to find a way.” Gideon goes on to explain that the children’s parents understand that they need to live, and they understand that fishing is dangerous. These are difficult decisions for parents to make for their own children.
What becomes clear from the interview is corroborated by some fishermen as far as Ntoaboma. When I asked one fisherman in Forifori, Dawa, if he had seen the CNN documentary, he affirmed that his son had shown it to him and that he wasn’t particularly pleased. I pressed Dawa for his thoughts.
“I don’t know exactly what happens in Kete Krachi but I know how hiring boys on the lake works. Some of us need helping hands on our farms and fishing boats. Some of us have the money to pay for that help. Some parents neither have farms nor boats, and they too must make ends meet. Where we find a balance as a society in such difficult times is not an easy thing—it’s difficult for everyone. That means not all our children can go to school, some have to help their parents on the farm or on the fishing boat doing dangerous work. I had to help my father on the boat so that my younger sister and brother could go to school. Others have to work for those who have a little more to pay for their services. The fishermen who hire other hands pay for three years for a child’s services and when anything happens to the child they renegotiate the terms of that contract. It is not slavery. One may call it child labor depending on where one stands.”
I pressed Dawa to expatiate more on what he meant by “It is not slavery. One may call it child labor depending on where one stands.”
“If you wake up early morning in the city of New York, or Chicago, or wherever that Dominika crawled from, where all the African slave boys that the US Army uses as mercenaries have been massacred in Afghanistan, or Libya, in order to assure that your daughter can drive out a brand new Mercedes Benz anytime she wants, then sure, to you, this is child abuse in Kete Krachi. What you can’t call it is slavery. We don’t kidnap the children, we don’t put chains around their necks, and we don’t send them to distant lands to go and die; we certainly don’t give them different names; they don’t work for us forever or do they work for free; we don’t lynch them, nor do we force them to bear us more children into slavery as was done in the United States for four centuries and on. As a matter of fact, why is CNN not making documentaries about Saudi Arabia and about Israel and their human rights violations? Why is CNN not making documentaries about the Mass Incarceration of Black men in America? Why is CNN not investigating the New Jim Crow, in which a population of only 5 percent of the world incarcerates more than 25 percent of the world’s prison population?”
However, since CNN was bent on describing what is transpiring in some fishing communities along the Volta Lake in Ghana as slavery at all costs, the enlistment of George came in handy. After all George is the Ghanaian confidant who comes along to stop what he called “Child Trafficking” and “Slavery.” George manages to convince one fishermen along the lake to opt rather for farming. At least so he claimed in the documentary. The whole idea would be a simple joke had Geroge not stated his logic rather plainly for doing so: “We have managed to convince the fisherman (“Gideon”) to release the children to their parents. Giving him fishing nets, or fishing tools would only make him go and get more children. But giving him tools for grounds work, that is farming, he would no longer need children to do the work (Paraphrased).”
George’s reasoning is fascinating: Fishing is more involved than farming? And that’s when you know the man has never fished or has never farmed, else he would have quickly realized that farm work is just as involved as fishing. Perhaps one can argue that farming is less dangerous, but not any easier. We are made to believe that this CNN help, together with Dominika, a white savior of sorts, have resolved the situation as simple as that in this fishing community by giving this man “Gideon” farming incentives instead of fishing incentives.
What’s more troubling is that George himself reveals that even when these children return to their homes, the parents simply do not have the means to afford them and end up giving the same children up for hire again to other fishermen and farmers. In one school where CNN claims has been built as a sanctuary for the village for trafficked children, one quickly realizes that the school is private. A private community grade school by PACODEP, where other children receive their education as well.
What results in the conclusion shots of this documentary is the sudden re-appearance of Dominika Kulczyk interviewing one mother who had collected a sum for her son to help a fisherman on the lake. When she was asked why she did it, her answer was simple: Poverty. Which brings back the issue of the socioeconomic construction of poverty by western nations in Africa. The entire French nation is a welfare state dependent on French Africa for every need. The model can be generalized across the west’s relationship to Africa. The forces of colonization and neoimperialism in Africa continue to extract the wealth and they artificially create such socioeconomic centers of gross poverty in places like Kete Krachi. It is not that a mother would ask her young son to go out and work for money, but the necessity of the wealth extraction from Africa by Europeans remains the one major factor.
What she cannot be said to be doing is selling her son. She never sold her son as the CNN documentary, as the parroting Polish girl, Dominika Kulczyk, and her friend George would like the world to believe. She asked a son, too young to work, to go out and bring in money. This is harsh, this is troubling, in the same way that the extraction of African wealth from the continent by Europeans without direct compensation is harsh. One cannot stop one before the other. Both must stop. But I doubt CNN dares make a documentary about European extraction of African wealth from Ghana. I doubt it.