A Good Enough Life

She said it is “good enough” for me. I wasn’t sure what she meant and considered the possibilities. Good enough for a child? An African child? Or, perhaps she was talking about the fact that I am a girl. But then again, the boys are forced to work as equally hard as the girls are, and I had also witnessed many boys beaten until bright red blood spilled from their skin.

Then I thought maybe it wasn’t any of those things at all, because I had watched with envy as boys and girls dressed neatly in their school uniforms passed me on the road each day; they carried their books proudly while I balanced the large bowl of water on my head. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I had been sentenced to this life that I should consider “good enough” simply because I was discarded by my mother and left at an orphanage.

We walked along the dusty road lagging behind the other children. It was hard to see our way before sunrise, but I had walked this road so many days now that my feet took me automatically where my eyes could not. I pondered on her words for several minutes and then broke the silence, “Yayra, what is it that you mean by ‘good enough?’”

“Only that it could be worse, so it is not wise to complain,” she whispered.

“Worse?” I raised my voice, “But how? We are forced to work long days, my body hurts, and MY stomach cries while all this work we do makes HIS stomach grow fatter and fatter!”

“Shh! Lower your voice, Mawunyo,” Yayra was shaking her head back and forth and making a smacking sound with her lips that underscored her disapproval of my behavior. Yayra was four years older than me and though I generally looked up to her, I was confused by her acceptance of what had become our life at the orphanage.

“But help me to understand, Yayra,” I implored in a lower voice. “It is bad enough that my father abandoned me when I was four years of age, and I haven’t heard from him since. It is bad enough that my mother put me in this orphanage because she does not want to care for me. And, now you say that it is good enough for me to be here? I don’t want to collect water and carry cement blocks. I want to be in school like other children. Not just part of the time, but all of the time.”

“Then you must pray that the volunteers come soon,” Yayra stated matter-of-factly.

“But then they go away again,” I replied.

My mind began to run through the faces of the volunteers I had met over the years. Susan and Bill from Texas, who played the guitar and sang songs with us; Miriam from Sydney, Australia, who painted my fingernails green; Phillip from Connecticut, who loved to play soccer; Chloe from New York, who let me take photos with her camera; Adelina from Milan, Italy, who taught us about the stars and the planets; Catherine from California, who let me brush her silky blonde hair; Salvador from Barcelona, Spain, who taught me a new card game, and so many more. I had memorized their faces and all the names and cities scribbled on the walls of the volunteers’ bedroom.

Life is better for us when volunteers come to the orphanage, especially if they stay at the compound in the volunteer room. The director often hands out rubber sandals to the children who do not have any and feeds us three times per day, because he wants the volunteers to think that their money is being spent to take care of the children. He smiles, laughs, and accommodates their every need, but behind their backs he refers to them as “stupid white people.” He even forces us to sing a song to the volunteers in our native language about how we are going to take their money and make him rich. The volunteers have no idea what the words mean, and as we mock them to their faces, they are swept up by the sound of our sweet voices and rhythmic drumming.

“All of the children keep silent, but none of us have any true respect or love for Daddy. Fear is our only motivation to comply.”

The best part about when volunteers visit is that we are able to go to school. It’s important that the volunteers think that we are always in school because then they believe they are giving us a future. They witness us learning in the classroom during their visit but don’t realize that when they leave we are taken out of the classroom and forced to work. Sometimes we are woken in the middle of the night to work, even when volunteers are in town. Then we must try to go to school after work. It is very difficult to stay awake in school on those days.

The worst part of the illusion is the relationship we must pretend to have with the director. We are taught to call him “Daddy” to show our respect for the great care he provides for us. I shiver when Daddy holds us in his lap and pretends to love us. We must smile and hug him back when all we really want to do is run away from him. I remember one day Daddy scooped me up, sat me on his knee, and pressed me against his hard, protruding belly. I sat quietly and listened as he told the volunteers that both of my parents had died and that I did not have any aunties and uncles. It was difficult to listen to his lies, watch the volunteers’ mouths twist into a frown, and feel their eyes gaze upon my face with pity. Then, he would boast about his sacrifice to care for the children — “I do all that I can for my childrens to give them a bright future.” It took all I had to be silent when inside my head I was shouting, “He is lying! My parents are alive! He does not take care of us! He uses us to make money.”

All of the children keep silent, but none of us have any true respect or love for Daddy. Fear is our only motivation to comply. I felt a terrible fear that day I sat on his lap — his fat fingers gripping around my waist, and occasionally poking my stomach to coax a smile from me.

“We know from the moment he takes one step in the room and glares at us with his bulging black eyes and furrowed brow that someone will be beaten that day.”

“Yayra! Keep up,” Mawunyo shouted. I shook my head and the memory of that day evaporated. As my focus came back to the present, I barely noticed the repetitive motion of my sluggish footsteps against the crunchy and dusty earth.

“You are falling behind. Unless you want to hear the bell when we return to the compound, I suggest you walk faster.”

“The bell,” I thought. I almost didn’t care because I was so tired, and yet, deep down I knew I cared very much about hearing the tin sound of the bell echo across the compound. My mind drifted back to my daydreams.

All of the children feel afraid at the sound of the meeting bell. We never know when we are called into a meeting if Daddy will deliver good news or a punishment. The good kind of meeting involves an announcement that a volunteer will be arriving soon. This news always makes our bodies relax with relief, as we know that life will be temporarily better in the coming days. Daddy shouts the usual reminders — smile brightly, sing sweetly, and capture the hearts of the “white people” so that they will line his pockets with money. If we do not follow orders, we will be beaten, he warns.

We always know when it is going to be the bad kind of meeting. Daddy’s face changes dramatically according to his mood. Volunteers only see the good man — the round-faced, jolly man with a huge heart who opened an orphanage to take care of children.

Behind closed doors, the monster appears. We know from the moment he takes one step in the room and glares at us with his bulging black eyes and furrowed brow that someone will be beaten that day. His thunderous voice can be heard across the compound, “Kosi, ring the bell!” Our bodies stiffen and hearts pound as we wait nervously for the inevitable. Any little thing makes Daddy angry — a toddler who soils the sheets, a shoe left outside on the lawn, a toilet that was not flushed — things that normal children do but that should not be punished with such ferocity.

In Daddy’s eyes, the worst offense is if a child leaves the compound without permission, or tries to run away from the orphanage. The most evil punishments are delivered for those wrongdoings. These are memories that even if I live to 70 years old I will remember in vivid detail. I pray to God to make me forget, but every time I close my eyes the nightmares are clear as the day they happened.

Sometimes, the memories appear as flashes of visual fragments and a confusing jumble of sounds that whir through my head — my hand on a foot, the wooden board, the little sharp metal pieces, a child wailing, voices singing, blood, Daddy’s roar, hot tears streaming down my face. Other times, the pieces are connected together in one horrific and vivid memory that makes me wake from my sleep drenched in sweat.

“Whap!” the wooden board landed on my friend’s back, followed by his piercing wails. The little metal pieces on the board left punctures on his skin, and every time the board landed forcefully on the soft tissue, the skin ripped more and sent droplets of blood into the air. Daddy roared, “I am the boss and you will obey me. You need to pay for your sins.” As instructed, my trembling hands clutched tightly onto my friend’s left foot, as he lay stretched out face down on the table. Others braced his right foot and hands. We sang a song of shame — some through anguished tears, others through clenched jaws and spiteful glares at Daddy.

My friend, Justice, was punished and was supposed to feel shame for his offenses — leaving the compound without permission from Daddy and giving away a bit of our food to a hungry child who lives just outside the orphanage. Instead, it was I who felt shame for having to hold down my friend, witness his suffering, and taunt him with singing while he was being tortured. I knew I had no choice in the matter, as I would be beaten the same if I objected.

“I have witnessed my friends curled up in little balls, weak from hunger, their bruised bodies finding no relief on the cement floors.”

The convoluted feelings of fear, shame, sadness, and anger welled inside me and spilled out of my eyes in streams of hot droplets. I have shed many tears for my friends who writhe in pain for days to come after the beatings and are left with scars for a lifetime. I have said prayers for some of my other friends who have been locked in a room for three days without food, water, or toilet. I have witnessed my friends curled up in little balls, weak from hunger, their bruised bodies finding no relief on the cement floors.

Sometimes, to witness a friend being beaten is worse than taking the beating yourself. If six lashes have been ordered on a three-year-old for soiling his sheets that morning, often an older child will step in and ask if he could take four of the six lashes for the child. If Daddy is shouting at the group demanding to know who failed to pick up a shoe on the lawn and silence is the only answer he receives, most often an older child will claim responsibility to protect a younger child. On many days, some of the children take care of each other that way, with exception to a few of the older boys who have taken to preying on both girls and boys for their sexual pleasures. Daddy knows about this and looks the other way. We endure and pray for more volunteers to come.

When volunteers arrive, Daddy is always more careful. He doesn’t drink as much or take drugs freely like he does when they are not there. He restrains himself, or at the very least takes care of his business outside the compound in the darkness of the night while volunteers are sleeping. He pretends to love his white woman who lives at the orphanage — his “Queen” — while he is secretly married to three other Ghanaian women. She is his steady income after all.

The White Queen is not like the other volunteers. Although Daddy fools her too in some ways, we do not find solace in her, because she does, in fact, know some of the secrets about the beatings and how the money is taken and spent. She is not innocent, and therefore, cannot be respected or trusted by the children. She is viewed as his partner in all of it.

Volunteers are bittersweet to the children at the orphanage (now called a “charity school”). Their short visits are appreciated and provide momentary solace, however, giving funds to the director of the charity school has a devastating long-term impact on the children. Financial support gives the director power and imprisons the children in a life of labor and abuse. One solution is to pay for the child’s education at a local private school.

All volunteers receive a send-off when they leave the orphanage — an elaborate celebration of the children singing and dancing. Tears flow freely by both volunteers and children on these gloomy days. Daddy is pleased when the volunteers cry, because he knows this means that they feel connected to the children and it might bring him more money and goods. What the volunteers don’t realize is that the children are crying not only because we have enjoyed our time with them and will miss them, but also because we also know our days and nights will return to hard labor, regular beatings, and one meal per day when they leave.

The worst part about this life we are living is that in spite of having so many friends at the orphanage, each one of us feels truly alone. There is no adult to help us. I have wanted to tell the volunteers many times about how we are imprisoned and abused. I have wanted to tell them that behind our smiles is deep sadness, pain, and fear. I have wanted to tell them that we cry when they leave, because we want them to stay forever to protect us. Every time I open my mouth to say those words, my heart pounds and I stop myself from speaking. They would never believe the truth. I know this to be true. I watch them talk and laugh with Daddy and the White Queen. I see them give more gifts and money, and I know they believe the illusion. Why would they believe me, just an abandoned child whose life should be considered “good enough?”

We also wouldn’t dare seek help from a police officer or social welfare officer, because we have seen the director slip them gifts and money. He has bought power for many miles around, and we feel trapped with no way out.

“Mawunyo! Mawunyo!” Yayra shook me. “Put your bowl in the water.” I snapped to and realized we had come to the stream. I submerged my large bowl beneath the murky brown water to fill it up. I placed it upon my head and began walking carefully back to the building site, which was going to be another hotel for Daddy paid for by donors who sent money to care for the children.

“Yayra, is what the director does to us permitted?” I asked.

Yayra smacked her lips again in disgust. “Permitted, or legal?” she asked.

“Isn’t that the same?” I questioned.

“Beating a child is against the law as it is written. Allowing children under your care to be raped is against the law. I believe that taking money from good willing people who THINK their money is serving the children but is building homes and businesses for Daddy must be against the law. However, the volunteers don’t know any better, so they keep giving. Police officers and social welfare officers are supposed to protect us, but they look away.”

“Yes, I see this too, but, what about the other adults? The people in town. It is known that Daddy is a bad man, but they do not speak,” I searched for an answer.

“They look the other way too, because they are afraid of Daddy just as we are afraid. So, yes, it is permitted…until someone will be strong enough to challenge and uphold the laws,” Yayra explained.

“I don’t understand, Yayra,” I questioned, “If you know this to be true, then why do you say that our life is ‘good enough’?”

“Because most believe it to be true. The volunteers don’t question why we are progressing slowly in class. They think that it is just Africa. It is good enough for who we are. They don’t expect more from us. They don’t know we could do more if given the opportunity to attend a good school. They play with us, receive an experience to share with family and friends, and then go home to resume their lives. Ghanaian adults believe it is good enough because maybe it’s more than they had or more than they can give. So this is what we must accept — that it is good enough.”

“Yayra?” I said as I poured my water into the cement mixture.

“Yes, Mawunyo,” she replied.

“I am better than good enough,” I said with conviction. “And I will find someone who will see this in me and help me. Then one day, I will become a lawyer and I will make it so that this kind of life for other children is NOT permitted. I want this kind of life for children to be finished.”

I bent over to stir the mixture, the water having settled on top of the gray powder. I saw my reflection in the murky water, but I did not see myself as I was — the thin girl with a straight body, shaved head, flat chest, and sculpted arms from hard labor. I saw a stronger version of myself with long hair, clean business suit, a full figure, rounder face, and eyes that sparkled with confidence. I saw a proud, educated woman. I jabbed my stick into the water and began to stir it into the powder that would soon be the concrete foundation of the newest building being added to Daddy’s monopoly. The image disappeared into the concrete mixture, but was held firmly in my memory. I would see it for years to come in every window, wall, blackboard, dirt road, and every night in my dreams.

This story is based upon actual events as told by many children who were rescued from an orphanage by Orphans’ Heroes and Enslavement Prevention Alliance-West Africa, as well as others no longer living at the compound. Testimony and evidence have been collected and documented by the Ghana Police, the Department of Social Welfare, and medical professionals.

Mawunyo was rescued from her life of labor, neglect, and abuse, and has been attending school joyfully for over three years. She is now in senior high school. The director continues to operate at the same location in Ghana. He has now changed the name to a “charity school” and although he no longer has the license from the Department of Social Welfare to care for orphaned children, orphans still board at the compound.

The director continues to use children for labor and physically abuse them. Volunteers with good intentions continue to donate money. These funds are used to help the director strengthen his empire of businesses for personal gain and government and private sector support while the children endure a life of suffering.

Several months ago, the director attempted to run for the political office of Assemblyman in his community. During the campaign, his participation in unethical and criminal activities was exposed publicly and the director withdrew his name from the race. Many government officials who are in a position to put a stop to the criminal activity taking place at the charity school — even some involved in the initial investigation — continue to look the other way and enable his abuse. Why?

All names have been changed to protect the children.