From Our Own Correspondent
The Repentant Trafficker
By Jane Labous
Agram Assekou is slight and tense, quivering with nervous energy. All week he sends me sidelong glances as we film in the village of Bago in northern Togo, where the mud buildings rise from the red earth and the teak flowers form lacy silhouettes in the blazing dusks. He seems relieved when I finally sit down with him on a ledge outside an earth house, and speaks urgently, as if at confession. ‘May God forgive me,’ he says, ‘but they were like little slaves.’
He hangs his head and clicks his teeth regretfully. ‘‘What a business. It was no good. We were living off the blood of children over there.’ His eyes well up, this ex-trafficker, and I sense, somehow, that he needs my forgiveness, that he needs everyone’s forgiveness.
Agram, now 45, used to traffic children for a living. He was 19 when he first took a group of ten year-old boys from Bago to Nigeria via Benin, making detours all the while to confuse the crying children so they couldn’t run away. The bus broke down and, after they had walked more than 50 kilometres and the children’s feet were ripped to shreds, Agram treated them until they could work again.
So you cared, I interrupt, hoping for a chink of redemption.
‘No, no,’ he exclaims. ‘If they can’t work, you don’t get paid.’
Agram lived with the boys in a hut near the fields where they worked. During the day he’d drive them on with a stick and harsh words. At night they’d sleep on the floor, crammed in with other masters and their children. For each small boy labouring away, Agram earned about £2 a day, £3 if he pushed them hard enough.
But this is no story of bad guys and good, and I find myself with a conflicted sort of sympathy for Agram as he tells me that he himself was trafficked when he was a teenager. You see, this is not about children being taken by strange men in the dead of night. The traffickers – known as ogas – are men and women, close relatives or family friends, and here in the villages la traite, or trafficking, doesn’t surprise anyone.
Most trafficking happens with the consent of the child, bewitched by a murky spell of familial obligation, promises and hope. Female ogas promise girls money, schooling or a holiday, then put them to work as domestic servants in Lomé, Lagos or Accra. Male ogas promise motorbikes and four-battery radios if boys come with them to the cassava, cocoa, cotton and tobacco fields of Benin and Nigeria.
It was Agram’s uncle who lured him to Nigeria, vowing that he’d make enough money to replace his parents’ straw roof for a zinc one.
‘The ogas,’ winces Agram with another click of his teeth. ‘It’s like alchemy when they speak.’ In the end, he received a bicycle and a four-battery radio for months of gruelling work in the cotton fields. He was trafficked back and forth for three years, and then? “I thought, no, he’s exploited me, I’m going to exploit others.”
We stare across the square to where the girls are drawing buckets from the well, the tinkling of water mingling with the scent of dry savannah, and I wonder how many of these children will one day be enchanted by an oga. A motorbike zips past, a teenage boy hunched atop in the billowing dust, and I know he’s made the same journey as Agram and is now riding his only prize.
Agram sold the Vespa motorbike and video player that in the end were the only spoils of his trafficking career. He now lives on a minimal wage as a village educator, talking to families and children about the dangers of trafficking. He says that he must have seen half a dozen ogas just that afternoon, and reckons there are about 100 in total operating here.
“Child trafficking is a contagious disease,” he adds angrily. “You can fall into it so easily, and you risk losing your life and your morals.”
Agram sees his current poverty as a punishment. Sometimes he spots the boys, now grown men, whom he trafficked. One sometimes brings him gifts of clothes or food, a Togolese way of saying, ‘you did me harm, now see how successful I am despite you’. This too, Agram considers a punishment.
But his eyes light up when he mentions his own children, four girls and a boy. ‘I want them to be something.’ He smiles for the first time. “I tell them, think of your future. Trafficking is not your future.”
By Jane Labous
The Repentant Trafficker was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, presented by Kate Adie, on Saturday July 18th 2015, and on BBC World Service From Our Own Correspondent, presented by Pascale Harter, on Saturday August 1st 2015.
All words and images copyright Jane Labous.