While we were on our trip to Liberia last October, there were many experiences that moved me deeply. There were some that lifted me up, and gave me hope and faith in humanity. There were others that were nightmares- and this is one of them.
Our schedule for the fifth day of the trip was overbooked. We planned on visiting a school, a local cookhouse, a high-ranking government official, a hospital, one of the worst slums in all of West Africa – and its mayor, a former warlord and his reformation camp for former child soldiers, and yet we were getting another call – a call that would give me an entirely new perspective on Liberia and life.
We started early in the morning that Wednesday, in an attempt to fit everything in. We skipped breakfast, which was hard to come by anyway, and loaded up to visit a school where most of the children needed scholarships. By the time we arrived, we were already running behind. So, unfortunately, we had to rush through our meetings. We got to greet the kids and then we split up. Half of us met with school administrators, and the others pulled some kids aside to get their stories. That’s when we got the call.
Our local guide had gotten in touch with Law Law Lawrence. Law Law was a semi-volunteer social worker that created his own position with the Liberian Department of Education. He developed the unpaid position himself because he was astounded by something frequently hushed by government officials and the local media – childhood slavery.
The next few appointments were a blur…and by early afternoon we finally were able to catch up with Law Law in downtown Monrovia. Standing in the sun, in front of a shop at the edge of a busy street, he told us his story.
As a truancy officer for the department of education, he quickly discovered that most kids in Liberia don’t attend school.
One of the first kids he approached about going to school told him a startling story. The child was young, selling goods in the streets. Her parents had given her away for the price of a promise. She was from the jungle. When a fast-talking-city-dweller told her parents that she would take their little girl into Monrovia to get an education, they jumped at the chance. Their daughter said goodbye and was whisked away on a motocab to the big city. When she arrived, she was told that she would have to earn her school fees by working – peddling goods on the busy sidewalks.
This young girl was forced to work long hours and was given only one meal each day. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. She couldn’t remember how long she had been working, but she had given up hope on going to school. With no money and no education her only option was to work and try to stay alive.
Law Law asked the girl to take him to her captor. But without any money to return the girl to her parents his only option was to leave her there…at least she would be fed there.
Law Law witnessed the same story over and over again. For four years he documented the names and locations of the children. He has information on hundreds of children who’ve been enslaved in exchange for a promise. With no resources at his disposal, the only thing he could do was make lists.
He invited us into one of the slums to introduce us to one of the captors…an old woman who has over a dozen children working for her – earning her a living. We weaved through ally after ally, between shacks and over streams of human waste. Ultimately we ended up at a small cement building where children were busily cleaning up the meal-of-the-day and preparing to go out peddling.
She wouldn’t talk with us, but there were a few neighbors that wanted to tell their stories. We focused on the kids and began rounding them up. We wanted to see how we could help.
That’s when we met Zoe Colmoua (age 6) and her little sister Baby (age 5). They showed us what they were going out to sell. Zoe carried a plastic bucket of homemade cookies. Baby carried a metal bowl filled with spices. They were scared to talk to the white people with big cameras – and so the neighbors helped tell their story. They’ve been enslaved “a long time” according to Zoe. They call their captor “grandma.” The only other information we got from them, was that Baby believes if she were able to go to school she could become President. The neighbors told us that they were brought to Monrovia about a year ago. Since then they’ve been working and peddling every day. And that’s all they would ever do.
With no resources to return these adorable children to their families, their future is certain. But what shocked me the most about our meeting, was that unlike so many other children we met, no matter how much I smiled or tried to win them over, Zoe and Baby remained stoic. They wouldn’t smile back. They had no time for such nonsense…they had work to do.
We asked Law Law to capture as much information about them as he could. He got as much information as he could about the girls, including the village they came from, and we promised to return with help some day.
After that experience, I noticed every child selling something in the street. I wondered if they were working for their family, or if they were slaves. The image has haunted me ever since.
My hope is that we can come together and make a difference. I know that we can’t afford to return every enslaved child to their family, but do know that for each child we return to their family, it will make a world of difference.