Pushed Out: Poverty and Education from Philadelphia to Senya

Today is the last day of my 3-month internship with the Cheerful Hearts Foundation (CHF), a Ghanaian NGO based in Kasoa. Over the last 3 months, I have worked on CHF’s Child Labour (they use the British spelling here) and Trafficking project. Most of my time in the “field” has been in Senya Beraku, a coastal fishing community about a 1-hour trotro ride from the Kasoa office. Of the communities where Cheerful Hearts works, Senya has been the hardest hit by child trafficking. Extreme poverty is the cause.

Economic activity and opportunities in Senya are limited and inconsistent. Like many of Ghana’s coastal communities, fishing is at the heart of Senya’s economy. Many men are employed as fishermen and the work of many women is tied to some area of the fishing industry such as selling fish (either at the shore, at the market, or on the roadside), preparing fish to be sold or cooked, or selling prepared fish as food (either in small shops or on the roadside). As a result, the welfare of many of Senya’s households is mostly or completely dependent on the amount of fish being caught in a given period of time. As seasons, tides, and other environmental factors change and fluctuate, so too do household incomes. For example, it is not uncommon for a given household to gross 100 Ghanaian Cedis (GHC) of income one week, gross 20 GHC the next week, have no income the following week, and then make 40 GHC the next (One Ghanaian Cedi is worth approximately $0.53 US Dollars).

As a result of meager and inconsistent earnings, many families are forced to borrow on a regular basis to meet basic needs. As access to traditional banking institutions is limited and most families do not have substantial forms of collateral, members of the Senya community borrow from friends, family, neighbors, and community members with more substantial and consistent sources of income. For the most part, this borrowing is part of a communal way of life in which those with access to one resource share it with others in exchange for access to something else. As fishing yields fluctuate, a family forced to borrow one week may be in a position to lend the next. In many instances, however, because of the inconsistent and unpredictable nature of this lending and borrowing system, many families find themselves in serious debt and emotional distress.

In addition to community debt, the schooling system in Senya is in crisis. Schools are in disrepair and overcrowded. In some cases, classes are held in hallways and one could find as many as 60 students in one class. This overcrowding takes place in a context where many Senyans cannot afford to send their children to school. While there are public schools in Senya, all of them charge fees for food, supplies, books, and uniforms which many families cannot afford. Unable to afford school because of the associated fees, many children are left idle.

With idle children and a need to service their debt, some Senyans have elected to illegally lease out their children. While some instances of trafficking are cases of “deception” or kidnapping, it is much more common for a family to lease a child willingly. In many cases, the contract is negotiated by a trusted family or community member who then takes the child. Trafficked children are usually (but not always) boys between the ages of 6 – 12 who are taken to work in the fishing industry in other regions (within Ghana, Yeji, a fishing community along the Lake Volta, is the most common destination for trafficked children) or countries (usually Côte d’Ivoire). Children are usually leased for a period of about 1 – 3 years for between 40 – 100 GHC. However, it is often difficult for families to locate their children once their term of service has expired and children are left stranded in their trafficked destination, forced to continue working with the fishermen. Payments are also often not forthcoming; in some cases “upkeep” charges of food and housing are subtracted from the agreed upon payment. I learned of one case where a boy worked in Yeji for 10 years and received just 100 GHC at the end of his service.

The work is dangerous. Many children are seriously injured or killed (usually drowned) while working. In an interview with a boy who had spent just one year in Senya he told us that he had known 4 boys who died during his time there.

Prior to my trip to Ghana, I had spent 3 years working for Youth United for Change (YUC) in Philadelphia. I worked with YUC’s Pushout Chapter; a group of out of school youth and students at alternative schools working to improve the quality of education in Philadelphia to prevent other students from being pushed out. As the name suggests, we found that the reasons for many “dropouts” leaving school had little to do with students’ personal choices and more to do with the failings of individual schools and the School District of Philadelphia as a whole. The District’s plans to close 37 schools this year and more in the years to come is a perfect example of administrative decisions that lead to youth being pushed out of school. YUC youth wrote a whole report on the pushout crisis in Philadelphia so I won’t go into great detail here.

But through the research, we learned that in addition to school based factors, poverty is also a significant factor contributing to pushout. Like in Senya, family problems and economic hardship often trump school attendance or, maybe more accurately, make attending school untenable. As a result, many Philadelphia youth are forced into the workforce prematurely. As in Senya, the work available to these young people is often illegal, dangerous, and minimally economically rewarding.

While Senyan children go to the shore, Philadelphia’s young people go to the streets. While Senyan youth risk their lives in lakes and oceans pulling in fish, young Philadelphians are put at risk as a result of their involvement in the drug trade or other sectors of the underground economy. In both places the money that the youth earn is still barely enough for them or their families to keep their heads above water. And in both locations, the youth and their families are often desperate for a way out of their dangerous work and back into school. The response from government and law enforcement is also similar in Senya and Philly. Ghanaian authorities largely turn a blind eye to trafficking practices while the most common response from the powers that be in Philadelphia is to lock the youth up, further reducing their chances of ever completing school or finding legal employment.

As different as Senya and Philadelphia may look at first glance, they are really facing slightly different manifestations of the same problems. A lack of economic opportunities forces many families into dire poverty. Divestment in the education system discourages students from attending and pushes them out. As a result of pull factors (poverty) and push factors (educational divestment), disconnected youth seek employment in the sectors of the economy that are open to them; these are often illegal, dangerous, and yield little by the way of monetary rewards. Those who have the power and the resources to change things don’t. Many young people are the casualties of this process. And as our youth die, so do our families, communities, and futures.

As part of its work to end trafficking, CHF identifies trafficked children and sponsors them, paying for their school fees. But charity falls short. Just yesterday I learned that the brother of one of CHF’s sponsored children had recently died in Yeji. While 100 cedis here and 200 cedis there will help to keep some children in school and out of the water, it is not enough to budge the system that is funneling youth out of school. In both Philadelphia and Senya, serious change is needed. Economic development and investment in education are crucial in both places. But in order for that to happen, and even beyond those types of solutions, only a great deal of love, determination, and community action will save our young people.

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