We follow the villagers into their little mud-brick church. They've clearly already discussed and organized a system, and the kids are sorted according to the list of trafficked children. We are grateful for the preparation that has already taken place by our in-country team before our arrival. By the time I catch my bearings and figure out what's going on, there they are, lined up on a wooden bench – hesitant, uncertain, questioning. Our first group of Mercy Project kids sits right before us. And they are beautiful.
Moments later, I'm standing in the corner, watching as village masters, one right after the next, come forward to sign a contract handing over their children. Many of the masters cannot sign their own names – they've never been taught to read or write – and so they ink a fingerprint signature on the contract. I am reminded that we are indeed in the far remote of Africa. I am also reminded how important an education is for these children. It is essential to breaking the cycle of slavery in this country. Then the village Chief himself comes forward to sign away two trafficked boys. And I know in that moment that these people really do understand what's at stake, what Mercy Project is all about, what this means for the future of their village and their own children. And it is so good.
The following morning, I'm standing on a plastic chair under the mango tree, gazing down at a group of 23 children. They have been called by name and separated for counting. Some of the women leave to gather the few belongings they possess. But wait – there's one more. He's no older than 6 years – smaller than my nephew of the same age – and little Jacob is pushed forward to join the group, making 24. Twenty-four faces who stare at us with wide eyes, unsure what is to come. Likely questioning why on earth the American girl is not only snapping pictures of them but also doing so perched high up on a chair. It is for this moment. And I think, "Yes!" – this is the first of many, many more to come.