Ever seen a poster for a touring boys’ choir from Zambia? The adverts show a collection of cute young boys, grinning from ear to ear. Just in case American audiences wouldn’t recognise that they are from Lion King Land, the boys are encased in some sort of oversized cheetah-print robes and positioned among some tall grass. Well, each of them were enslaved.

A “Christian” non-profit organization based in Sherman, Texas, imported orphaned Zambian boys under the guise of forming a world touring Zambian A Cappella Boys Choir. The story began when Teaching Teachers to Teach (TTT), a charity group from Texas, went to Zambia to help build schools. Hearing an impressive boys’ choir apparently put dollar signs in the eyes of one couple from TTT; they brought the choir – some 67 boys – to the United States to put on concerts, under the guise of raising funds for school building projects in Zambia.

Needless to say, no funds went to the boys, their families, or to any charitable projects. Instead, the boys sang four to seven concerts a day. They even dug a swimming pool hole at the headquarters by hand. They were housed in a trailer; if they complained, their “boss” would cut off the gas so they could not cook. If they were tired or sick, they would be threatened with deportation, and a humiliating return to Zambia. Given Kachepa, a member of the choir who now lives in the US with his adoptive family, speaks about the shame and fear that held them captive: “…a lot of times we were shy to tell people about our situation because we’d been threatened, again with deportation, of going back to Zambia without anything.” Perhaps that would not seem like enough of an incentive to stay enslaved; but I can imagine the fanfare they received when they left, carrying the hopes and dreams of entire villages hoping for a windfall from America. In a way, one could say that the boys were enslaved more subtly by their communities’ demands and expectations, as well as by their more obvious slave masters.

Sandy Shepherd, a resident of Colleyville, Texas, suspected something fishy was going on with the boys’ choir. But even when she dug up information about how the boys were being held against their will without any of the remuneration that was promised to their families, she found that at the time, there were no real avenues for reporting this crime. When Shepherd attempted to contact the authorities, she hit the proverbial brick wall:

“They were listening, but even the FBI said, you know, they weren’t shackled, they weren’t chained. They were free to walk in the area out in the country where they were being housed while they were on tour. But we knew that they were being exploited and couldn’t get anybody to believe that in 1996 through 1998.”

Eventually, after a year of exploiting the boys, the slave owners attempted to frighten them further by deporting a few of them. But their plan backfired: when INS came knocking, the whole scam was revealed.

Listen to the report on modern day human trafficking and slavery in the US on Talk of the Nation, NPR and see the documentary on CNN.