The orange flesh of a papaya is like an oval gash in the landscape at Agbogbloshie, Ghana’s vast dumping site for electronic waste, where everything is smeared and stained with mucky hues of brown and sooty black. A woman kneels among the carcasses of discarded computer monitors, scooping the fruit’s flesh for workers hungry from a morning’s work scavenging to eat.
If the appliances at Agbogbloshie were not being dismantled – plucked of their tiny nuggets of copper and aluminium – some of them could almost be technology antiques. Old VHS players, cassette recorders, sewing machines, computers from the 1980s and every period since lie haphazardly on large mounds in the dump, which stretches as far as the eye can see.
See photos of electronic waste dumping in Ghana here
“Electric waste comes here from all over the world – but especially from Europe,” says Karim (29) who, like almost all the scrap dealers at Agbogbloshie, originally comes from northern Ghana but has been salvaging, buying and selling at the dump for 10 years. “We get a lot of health problems here, but we manage, because we need the money.”
Last week, the UN’s “Solving the E-Waste Problem” initiative (Step), which was set up in 2007 to tackle the world’s growing crisis of electronic waste, warned that the global volume of such refuse is set to grow by 33% over the next four years. Much of it will be dumped in sites such as those in Agbogbloshie, increasing the risk of land contamination with lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants.
Agbogbloshie seems chaotic, apocalyptic in places, but there is an order to the large, desolate, rubbish-strewn site. At one side, boys and young men gather in groups, picking their way through piles of old hard drives, untangling wires, and breaking up old air-conditioning units and even irons.
Abdoullaye (19) and a group of other teenage boys sit under makeshift iron shelters on the upturned cases of old PC monitors, working at a pile of e-waste with chisels and pliers and by hand.
The boys are surrounded by rows of rusty chest freezers, each one dangling a heavy padlock. Inside them, they store the fruits of their labour – piles of copper and aluminium – until the metal is bought by traders.
“I came here from Tamale five years ago,” said Abdoullaye, who wears turned-up blue jeans and a blue and white striped polo shirt smeared with dirt. “I make between two and five cedis (£0.50 to £1.30) each day, and each month I send 50 cedis (£13) back to my family in the north. I would like to go back home, but my family needs the money, so I stay. We get too many problems here – sometimes I have to go to the hospital. It’s not good for us.”
Deeper into the heart of Agbogbloshie, huge plumes of foul-smelling smoke rise up from three large fires, where the dismantled items are burned to remove traces of plastic, leaving the metal behind. The fumes are head-pounding, but the men, women and children weaving in and out of the fires seem oblivious. Goats sleep deeply beside the upturned remains of a tree, now strewn with plastic rubbish.
Roles are gender divided at Agbogbloshie. Women and girls wander the sprawling site, hawking peeled oranges, water sachets and cooked food. Many have tiny babies wrapped in cloth tied tightly to their backs, all inhaling the toxic fumes. There are special jobs for children, who trawl the site with magnets tied on to the end of a piece of string, picking up any tiny scraps of metal left behind in the dirt.
In the centre of the dump, a clearing has been turned into a football pitch, and two teams are in the midst of a match. Agbogbloshie is not just a site for trading, burning and dumping electrical waste; it’s also home to thousands of people, who carry on their lives and raise their children in the midst of its filth and fumes. There are shacks dotted throughout the central area of the dump. In the doorway of one, next to a large heap of discarded computer hard drives, is a large, grubby cloth poster of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Ghanaians have nicknamed Agbogbloshie “Sodom and Gomorrah,” after two condemned Biblical cities, but its residents take a less hostile view.
“This is not a good place to live. But we don’t want the people in Europe and all those places to stop sending the waste,” said Karim. “This is a business centre, and we are using the money we make here to help our families to have a better life.”
The Rex, a single-storey, slope-roofed movie house was once the hotspot for film fans in Ghana, but, like many of the country’s cinemas, it hardly shows movies anymore.
The building is now abandoned, except on Sundays when dozens of evangelical Christians cram through its century-old walls for weekly, boisterous prayers sessions.
The Rex’s fate is part of a wider decay of film-going culture in Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence and which become the hub for the continent’s film industry in the immediate post-colonial era, experts said.
But a 29-year-old Ghanaian-American filmmaker, Akosua Adoma Owusu, has launched a plucky grassroots effort to save the picture house and fight the trend.
The “save-your-local-landmark” campaign is commonplace in the West but remains a rarity in some developing countries like Ghana.
For Owusu, the motivation behind “Damn the Man, Save the Rex” was partly personal: after building a reputation abroad as a maker of short films, she realised there was nowhere to show her work in the country of her birth.
“Whether it’s short films or performance or anything, you have to kind of pay a venue to screen your work,” Owusu said.
Owusu, who won the best short film award at the 2013 African Movie Academy Awards and whose productions have been added to the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum in New York, managed to raise $9 000 online.
It was enough to hire out the old movie hall for a night and show her latest work.
But she has bigger plans and wants to convert the Rex into a dedicated artistic space.
If “Save the Rex” succeeds and the structure built in the early 20th century by Lebanese immigrants becomes a permanent film-screening venue, it would double the number of functioning cinemas in Ghana’s capital.
Currently, the only working movie theatre is an American-style cineplex embedded in an upscale shopping centre.
But more are planned to serve the country’s growing consumer class, with Ghana boasting one of the world’s fastest growing economies, fuelled by gold and cocoa exports as well as a nascent offshore oil industry.
Experts voiced frustration at the current state of film culture in the west African nation, recalling a time when the head of state personally oversaw the industry.
At independence in 1957, when Kwame Nkrumah was president, “Ghana was the hub for filmmaking in west Africa and generally Africa,” said Anita Afonu, a director and expert of Ghanaian film history.
Nkrumah believed he could shape opinions in the new nation through indigenous films and personally read scripts and viewed pre-release cuts, she added.
The former president, ousted by the military in 1966, had set up the Ghana Film Industry Corporation, which helped aspiring artists access film and editing equipment.
“His ability to change the mindset of Ghanaians … to tell them (they) are equally worth what the white man thinks he is worth… and to be able to teach them to do things for themselves was very, very paramount,” Afonu said.
After the coup, Ghana’s once-burgeoning film industry crumbled. Military rulers imposed curfews in the capital, keeping people indoors and away from cinemas.
The film corporation’s properties were eventually sold to Malaysian investors, who sloughed off the movie theatres to private owners who gradually converted most of the halls to churches.
As in other countries, the proliferation of DVD technology also devastated historic movie houses such as the Rex.
But the impact has been more acute in Ghana, which is flooded by straight-to-DVD productions from Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, which pumps out more than 1 000 titles per year.
Mark Amoonaquah, owner of the Roxy in Accra, said he held on as long as he could, showing movies to the dozen or so people who would sit on the outdoor cinema’s faded blue benches.
Ultimately he had to close temporarily, he said, because unless “a strange movie or a very interesting movie” came out, Ghanaians had effectively abandoned going to the cinema.
Owusu’s films bear little of the shaky camerawork and screaming matches that typify Ghana’s current indigenous productions.
Her latest film, Kwaku Ananse, is a semi-autobiographical imagination of an old Ghanaian folktale and was awarded best short film at this year’s African Movie Academy Awards.
Owusu organised a special screening a local French cultural institute for the film’s debut.
Her next work, she hopes, will open at a renovated Rex.
“I think it would be like the mecca, the place to be,” Owusu said. “Who knows? Perhaps it could make a trend of reviving cinema houses all over that are abandoned.”
Johnson Amenume (45) and his son Kingsley, (14) busily sort through a scrap heap. With their bare hands and a couple of large stones, they break open a television set.
Next to them smolders a pile of cables they have set on fire in order to burn off the plastic coatings. Thick black smoke billows, but father and son go about their work unperturbed, caked in soot and dust.
They work on one of world’s largest electronic garbage dumps, located in Agbogbloshie, a slum near the central business district in Ghana’s capital Accra.
More than five million pieces of second-hand electronics arrive in the West African nation annually, mainly from Europe, the United States and China, according to a 2012 report by Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Those not in working condition – about three-quarters of the shipments docking at Accra’s main port – are dumped at Agbogbloshie, the EPA says.
Over the years, the landfill has morphed into a toxic graveyard containing tens of millions of discarded electronics, or e-waste.
It has also become a source of income for the poorest of the poor who search for recyclable metals, like aluminium, copper and iron, that they sell to scrap dealers for a few cents.
Environmental and health risks More than a quarter of Ghana’s 25-million people live under the poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day, according to World Bank data.
About 40 000 of them, including young children, live in the slum next to the dump and eke out a living from toxic e-waste.
“I lost my job as a security guard five years ago. The only way I can feed my family is by sorting through scrap. My son stopped going to school to help me,” explains Amenume, who hails from the village of Alakple, in the country’s north-east.
“We know we can get sick from the smoke. But if we stop working here, we won’t have anything to eat,” he adds.
Burning the plastic off wires and cables releases dangerous chemicals that pose serious environmental and health risks. Some of the toxins interfere with sexual reproduction, while others can cause cancer and hamper development of the brain and nervous system.
John Essel, a medical doctor at the Tano clinic just two streets from Agbogbloshie, says he examines at least a handful of people who work on the dump each day.
“They report with skin rashes, abdominal pain, sleeplessness and fatigue. We also see cardiovascular diseases,” he says.
Ghana is a popular high-tech dumping ground because it has no laws that prevent the import of e-waste.
It usually enters Ghana marked as second-hand goods for resale or donations, but “some foreign traders label broken goods as second-hand to avoid high recycling costs in their home markets,” the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned in July.
Legislation Ghana’s EPA is now demanding the practice be halted.
“We are lobbying government to pass a law to make the import of e-waste illegal,” says EPA deputy director Lambert Faabeluon.
The Bill has been tabled in Parliament. Deputy Environment Minister Adiku Heloo said it might be passed into law before the end of the year.
“We are hoping to find a lasting solution to the menace,” he says.
The idea is not only to regulate e-waste imports but also set up sustainable e-waste management systems that will create long-term employment.
Until then, Ghana’s poor will continue to hunt for scrap metals that earn them a mere 25 dollars per 100kg.
“On a good day, I make about 30 cedi [10 dollars],” says Kofi Adu, while digging in a heap of broken computers.
The 18-year-old dropped out of school two years ago to support his ailing mother. Even if a law was passed later this year, Abu knows it’s too late for him to realise his dream: “I wanted to become a medical doctor, but now it’s totally impossible. – Sapa-dpa
There are some things about public gatherings in Ghana’s capital Accra that are guaranteed. A certain amount of dust and Atlantic spray on the breeze, a sound system blaring Azonto – a local music sensation – just a bit too loud, fearless children lining up to show off their moves, and an orderly row of canopies where the hot and the tired sit down on plastic chairs and take stock.
But if you looked a little closer at the fair in Ako Adjei park on Saturday, you would have found that what appeared a typical Accra event was quietly masking something quite unusual: a farmers’ market. The dozen or so small-scale producers selling their wares at The Accra Green Market were busily making history as participants in Ghana’s first ever fair for locally grown, sustainable, organic produce.
“This is a great way to give exposure to organic, local products,” says Jeffrey Mouganie, 22, founder of Moco Foods, an organic company that produces local forest honey and fiery chilli sauce, guaranteeing a traceable supply chain and hiring workers with disabilities. “The only space we usually get to market our products are at the bazaars of international schools, where we sell to a lot of expats,” he says. “But we need more markets like this – the best feedback we have had for our products is from Ghanaians.”
Moco’s Savannah Honey, on sale here for 10 Ghana cedis – approximately £3 (R45) – is being exported to the UK where it will go on sale at Harrods and Selfridges for what the producers expect to be around five times that price. Also on sale, organic mushroom wine – said to be a treatment for practically every medical condition from sclerosis to high blood pressure, asthma and “sexual weakness” – pak choi, gloriously frothy-leaved heads of broccoli, watermelon, small, knobbly carrots, and tough-skinned, tangy nectarines full of seeds and sweet-sour juice.
The organisers of the market believe they are part of a new trend towards sustainable, organic and local food, which they say goes hand in hand with the growth of Ghana’s new middle class. “Things in Ghana are changing – it is no longer a poor country but a middle-income country. And because of that, people are more interested in what they eat,” says Edison Gwenda Abe, 29, founder of Agripro – a mobile application company that provides farmers with access to marketplaces and which organised the Accra Green Market. “In East Africa, farmers’ markets are already really popular, but in West Africa, there is nothing like this. We plan to take it to different locations in Ghana, and we have had interest from Nigeria too.”
New interest in organic food
Constance Korkoi Tengey, founder of Immaculate Gold Beads, Mushrooms and Snails, is typical of the kind of small-scale grower whose products the market is designed to showcase. An energetic 62-year-old who carefully dishes out mushroom sandwiches, mushroom salad and mushroom gari foto – a veggie version of a popular Ghanaian dish made from cassava tubers – Tengey began growing mushrooms in her back garden seven years ago and says sales are on the rise.
“I eat a lot of mushrooms as a substitute for meat, and I’ve noticed that I don’t gain as much weight, and it keeps me looking younger,” Tengey says. “People in Ghana are becoming more health-conscious these days, they are really showing an interest in my products. It’s a profitable business for me.”
But it’s not only shoppers who are fuelling Ghana’s new interest in organic food. The city’s ever expanding directory of hotels, restaurants and cafes has an insatiable appetite for local products and high quality produce. “There are a lot of new eateries bringing in foreign chefs, and as a result the quality is getting higher,” says Sadiq Banda, an organic grower in Accra who supplies some of the city’s five-star hotels.
“Chefs are always looking for the best produce, and there is a great need for more local food producers to supply them. The Ghanaian middle class is growing too, and becoming more interested in quality. But Ghanaians are still mainly interested in conspicuous consumption – they do not tend to spend money on high-quality things unless other people can see them doing it, and fresh produce is not yet a priority.”
Ghana may still have some way to go in grasping the concept of organic, whole foods. Alongside the organic avocados on one stall were tins of corned beef, canned sardines and mayonnaise, where young women were zealously composing “salad” – a concoction of oily, processed products with a dash of fresh vegetable to top it off. And Ghana being Ghana, there is a strong affection for the deep-fried. My taste award went to Tengey’s “Kentucky Fried Mushrooms” – not blessed with a name that conjures up all things fresh, small-scale and local, but they tasted quite simply amazing.