Trafficked child was forced to entertain crowds three times a day

“I am ready to go home. I am a new person. I am ready to tell my brother and sister, mother, friends and community members about my story. This exploitation must end.”

These are the words spoken by a 12-year-old boy who has been freed from a child trafficking ring operating in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

Buddy* was aged 10 when he was trafficked from his small village by a man purporting to be a teacher. He was one of 13 children who were exploited for forced labour, made to work long hours, dancing and performing in concerts, for which they would receive no pay. They were forced to live in one house, sometimes surviving on one meal a day, sometimes going without food.

Florence Soyekwo, Uganda Country Director at Hope for Justice, said: “Child trafficking is on the rise due to an ever-increasing demand for ‘dancing kings and queens’ in Uganda. This kind of trend breeds both sexual and commercial exploitation but scant information is known about this nationally.

“A number of these karaoke dancers are made to act illegally, or are exposed to crime, or are otherwise placed in a situation where they are at huge risk. Often these situations present a threat to their lives.”

For Buddy, it was the lure of a “brighter future” that led his “desperate” mother to give him up to a stranger. His mother was a widow, with deteriorating health, three children to care for, doing all that she could to keep her children in school and to provide for their basic needs.

She depended on subsistence farming and therefore had no source of stable income. So, when a friend told her about a ‘coach’ from Kampala who was identifying children to place in his school, this seemed a “big blessing.”

Buddy told our team that the first three months were particularly gruelling; he found it difficult to master the dance techniques and moves that the children were required to learn and perform during exhausting training sessions which often resulted in punishment.

He said: “If I failed to learn fast enough, I was physically beaten by the coach. Anyone who messed up during the dance was given little food.

“We were overworked and made to perform three times each day. During some performances and live concerts in bars we were exposed to things we should never have seen – drunkenness, explicit dress, sexual abuse, immoral behaviour.

“We frequently missed school and there was little time to do personal reading in between the endless training and performances. And we didn’t receive any pay for our services even though the coach collected money from every single performance. All of the small tips were taken from us too.”

A Community Child Protection Committee, that Hope for Justice had previously trained to spot the signs of modern slavery, reported the suspected case of human trafficking to the police earlier this year.

Buddy and 11 other children were referred to the global anti-slavery charity by the police and a government social welfare officer following the rescue operation in February.

The children were enrolled at Tudabujja Lighthouse – one of the charity’s aftercare centres – where they have received safe shelter, protection, food, care, counselling, treatment and catch-up education.

Buddy engaged in various rehabilitative activities including life skills lessons, health talks and sports. Through individual and group counselling, he was supported to gradually build his trust and relationship with others.

Social workers have worked with him to develop a care plan that incorporates his goals and objectives, as well as working towards restoration. He has enjoyed participating in brass brand lessons, Bible classes and art therapy.

In March, the charity organised a pre-visit with Buddy’s family.

At this initial meeting his mother said: “This world is so cruel! I had lost hope of seeing you again! God has, at last, remembered me, a poor widow, and brought you back to me.

“Thank you, Hope for Justice! May God bless your work. We are so happy with the support Buddy has received and so thankful to Hope for Justice for everything they have done.”

During the visit, social workers informed the family about child trafficking to increase their awareness, provided positive parenting skills, and discussed potential avenues for improving the household income.

Buddy remains in the care of Hope for Justice staff at Tudabujja Lighthouse, where he has taken on the role of secretary to the Children’s Council.

He is continuing to engage in the rehabilitation programmes at the Lighthouse and will be reunified with his family after the lockdown.

Police have arrested the suspected traffickers, who are currently being detained and are due to go on trial in court. However, due to COVID-19, the case has not yet been heard.

Florence said: “Painfully, Buddy was handed into a stranger’s hands by his mother after the assurance of a bright future and in a bid to meet his basic needs. At an early age, Buddy was exposed to all sorts and forms of abuse and exploitation which continued for almost two years until one day a bright light shined into his dark world.

“He is eager to go back to mainstream education to continue with his learning, and to pursue his dreams of becoming a doctor.”