Scraping a living on a digital dump
Agbogbloshie looks like hell. It is a scorched wasteland of cartoonish heaps of scrap in the heart of Ghana’s capital, Accra.
Hello Ghana, where offshore oil and a tourism boom offer hope to help lift the economy of this West African country known for its friendly people. For those who live in the slums of Accra, the capital, any improvement in their lives cannot come soon enough.
Agbogbloshie looks like hell. It is a scorched wasteland of cartoonish heaps of scrap in the heart of Ghana’s capital, Accra. On my way to the banks of a river that’s turned black with pollution, I walk past mounds of old computer towers, stacks of smashed French slot machines, and lane after lane of rusting old chest freezers. By the river, dozens of boys set fire to huge bales of copper cable, melting the plastic off the metal.
I see 14-year-old Kwesi Bido cautiously tending his modest little bundle of flaming wire. The fire flares as his best friend, 13-year-old Inusa Mohammed, fuels it with chunks of yellow insulation foam ripped out of an old freezer. Everybody else here is tending a massive roaring blaze, but Kwesi and Inusa are small scale. They just come here on Saturdays like this to make a little money. During the week, while everybody else is smashing, burning and generally making a career of it, Kwesi and Inusa are in spotless uniforms at a school down the road.
I see wealth all over Accra: $100-a-head sushi dinners; sprawling mansions painted orange and green; and more luxury car dealerships than a $48billion economy could possibly sustain. But I have only really started to understand how people work their way out of poverty here, in the guts of the second-biggest economy in West Africa. Between the gleaming towers rising in Osu, and the derelict World Heritage sites on the coast, there are welders turning scrap metal into Samsung billboards and carpenters turning out hundreds of wooden bowls and key rings for trendy souvenir shops like Wild Gecko and Global Mamas. There are vast, modern factories; two-man foundries where Coke cans are melted into solid blocks of aluminum, and miles of markets like Makola, where you can buy everything from toothpicks to timber.
Agbogbloshie wholesale market is the least picturesque: a kilometer-long stretch almost constantly choked with overloaded wooden cattle trucks. They deliver onions, watermelon, used air conditioners and occasionally actual cattle from as far as Togo and Benin. For two decades, everything that did not sell at the market got dumped on the marsh behind. There has been so much trash that parts of the neighborhood sit on meters of landfill: from a notorious slum, to an immaculate mega church to the infamous electronic waste dump.
The scrap ends up in processing plants down the highway
Up to 80 percent of the electric appliances we throw away probably end up in places like Agbogbloshie, where they’re smashed, stripped and burned for scrap by kids like Kwesi and Inusa. They sell it on up the chain, through older boys and Nigerian middlemen in cowboy boots, until the scrap ends up in processing plants down the highway in the port city of Tema, or as far away as Nigeria and China.
I spent a year in this part of Accra, reporting on why people flock to this crowded, chaotic and dangerous area. I followed Kwesi and Inusa as they worked in one of the world’s most polluted hellholes and I spent countless days in Sodom and Gomorrah: the slum nearby they call home. There, I met people who were willing to do anything to hustle their way out of poverty: a woman who lived on a dump; a girl who sold her body and a slumlord who trafficked in raw sewage.
I first meet Blessing Gigenue on my commute into Sodom and Gomorrah. To get there, I cross a toxic lagoon on a concrete track with a one-meter drop. I am trying, the whole time, not to fall in. The water is shallow with about three stories of silt and trash but, when people fall in, it is almost impossible to get them out.
I am reluctant to admit it, but working in Sodom and Gomorrah is often disgusting. Horror movie disgusting. Especially when I walk through clouds of fat, black blowflies, or my shoes sink into caustic green puddles that burn. But I cannot be visibly horrified: I am already an interloper, hanging out in people’s homes and businesses for hours, demanding answers. Dropping my poker face would be an insult. They know – better than anyone – that the slum is not fit for human habitation.
So I do what they do: I develop the ability to ignore the more unpleasant aspects of life here. But I do not realize just how far this has gone until I get dangerously close to the exact point where most of the raw sewage generated by Accra’s four million residents is dumped in the ocean. I fall ill almost instantly. This place is why the water off the coast of Accra is brown for miles before abruptly turning azure. Fortunately, the city’s best beaches are west of this ghastly place, and the current in the Gulf of Guinea flows east.
I dodge the bawdy men on motorcycles
Once I have crossed the lagoon on my commute into the slum, I get to a gate. If I am lucky, it is open. If I am not, I brace myself, grab the fence post and throw myself around it, simultaneously dangling over the water, and ducking under the barbed wire. So far, I have made it every time. Then I hop over the pools of sucking mud and dodge the bawdy men on motorcycles on my way to the south side of the dump.
Blessing lives behind a six-meter mound of rubbish populated by grazing cattle and rutting pigs. It is a bustling business district: there are freelance trash men who will pick up your rubbish for tips; scavengers searching for premium plastic and aluminum cans; and boys who dive into the tip looking for treasure and occasionally come up with carefully wrapped gold jewelry and fat silver rings.
These people need water, loose cigarettes and gin, and Blessing is there to sell those things to them. Her husband started the hustle with almost no money when she got pregnant and they moved to the rent-free dump to save cash. He bought a few cheap packets of gin, which he sold for twice the wholesale price. They kept buying low and selling high, sometimes skipping meals to double their money. In a short time, she went from a street hawker to a business owner with a fully stocked kiosk.
Now, she is saving up to send her son to kindergarten. He is almost two and she wants him to learn English immediately, she says. Most Ghanaians speak a local language, Twi, and varying degrees of English, from pidgin to PhD. She is determined to make sure he has a future and has sent him to live with her grandmother in a nice, working-class neighborhood across the city.
But she is not going back home just yet. Leaving Sodom and Gomorrah means paying for more than food for her family, which she can just about afford right now. It means bills, and rent, and planning, which she cannot do until she gets a real job or a proper business. So she plans to stay here, on the dump, until she makes something of herself.
He has not made much, and it is getting late
Back on the electronic waste dump, Kwesi and Inusa get a disappointing seven cedi (about $2) for their small bundle of charred wire. Kwesi is convinced the copper dealer is a cheat, but he sells up anyway. He is confident they can make more. Inusa, on the other hand, looks worried: he has not made much, and it is getting late.
Inusa wants to join the air force and Kwesi plans to join the army. Both mean prestige, travel and money, so the competition is stiff. This means getting good grades, which means staying in school. So they have to pay for school supplies, shoes and exams, and endure a whole host of random fees that add up, making a decent education almost unaffordable for the poorest Ghanaians. For Kwesi and Inusa to have any hope of making it to the armed forces, they have to earn money on days like today.
Angela did not manage to pay her way through school. She lives in a dusty pink, single-story boarding house in Sodom and Gomorrah, downwind of Blessing’s dump. There is enough space in her tiny room for a small, thin mattress covered in a flower-patterned sheet, and a big old tube TV plastered with stickers of hearts and flowers. There is a Nollywood movie on, loud.
Like many girls in Ghana, Angela was expected to earn money to help keep herself in school. This became impossible after her mother died and she had to pay for everything on her own. She moved to Accra from Northern Ghana by herself too. Her father already lived in the city, but she did not get along with her stepmother, so she knew she was going to be on her own.
Ugly men can sleep with the ugly girls
She makes the most money at Jokers in Osu, a bar teeming with new money and tourists. She makes enough now – up to 100 cedi (around $30) on a really good night – to be selective about her clients. Ugly men can sleep with the ugly girls, dirty men can sleep with the dirty girls.
“It’s not the best thing for a girl to do,” she says. “It’s just not good.” But she does not have many options. She tried to learn to be a hairdresser, but apprenticeships are not paid, so she could not afford to keep doing it. Her current line of work brings in enough to pay rent, buy food and keep her and her friends in weed. She cannot take a pay cut now. She does want a future doing something else, though: she dreams of being an actress. So she is working as an unpaid extra in local movies, rehearsing in a place where nobody knows she is a prostitute.
Angela’s landlord is well aware of what she does for a living. Nobody else in Sodom and Gomorrah can afford his extortionate rents. The 25 cedi (just over $7) a week he charges is not much in the grand scheme of things but most people pay that kind of money for a month in this part of town. His tenants, however, pay a premium to be close to the main road.
I first meet Kingsley Boahene outside Angela’s building. He is visibly frantic. He thinks I work for the city council, which is threatening to demolish Sodom and Gomorrah in yet another ill-fated attempt to turn the toxic lagoon into a tourist attraction. He looks almost relieved when I tell him I am just a writer. But no pictures, he says: “People come here, take pictures of the area looking nasty, then the next day you see them on CNN.”
People from all walks of life come here
I have wanted to talk to Boahene since I first met his son. Boahene junior was in the slum collecting the day’s takings from his father’s chain of public bathrooms: 420 cedi (around $127) in high denomination bills. I asked him what a middle-class family was doing running businesses in the slum. People from all walks of life come here, Boahene junior told me: “It’s like that Jay Z song, ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’.”
Boahene senior originally made his money manufacturing uniforms for big Ghanaian companies: the local brewery where they make super-sweet, West African recipe Guinness, and the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation. Then he almost went bankrupt importing second-hand clothes from Canada, which forced him to sink everything he had left into the slum. Now he owns three toilets, a few showers and two boarding houses. The best money comes from running the tanker trucks that ferry raw sewage from his toilets and thousands of septic tanks around the city to that dump on the shore. Investments in Sodom and Gomorrah bring quick returns, Boahene says, the only downside is a whole load of dirty work.
I ask why a legitimate businessman would sink all his money into illegal businesses on land he will never own, and he points out that neighborhoods all over the city, like Nima, started like this. “They were threatened with eviction, people sold their property and left,” he says. “Only those with lion hearts stayed there. Those who had the courage to stay now have property.”
Back at Agbogbloshie on that Saturday afternoon, Kwesi and Inusa decide to go scavenging. They have a quick, whispered consultation, then Inusa turns to me with a serious look: I can’t go with them. I’d slow them down and time is money. “You’ll make us late,” he says. I promise to keep up. “You can just pretend I am not here,” I say.
They do. They race from one end of the electronic waste dump to the other, dragging rusty, magnetic stereo speakers which attract anything of value in their path. They find nuts, bolts, springs, screws and too many random bits of metal to count, a dizzying array of parts discarded after the world’s electronics are ripped apart for scrap.
People yell at me to stop taking pictures
They go past little girls selling water; a scrap dealer counting a large wad of 20s and 50s; a guy knocking the plastic insides out of a refrigerator; and past two other boys scavenging, which erupts into a brief turf war. They drag the speakers past a bright yellow bulldozer, an abandoned transformer and a heap of stripped televisions.
As we dash about, people yell at me to stop taking pictures. Three different men claim Inusa is their son and demand I pay them for taking photos of him. People demand I take pictures of their scrap, then demand payment. One guy sees me running full tilt to keep up with Kwesi and Inusa, and tells me to slow down before I do myself an injury. “Cool down!” he shouts.
Then Inusa breaks a flip-flop: disaster. Kwesi scrambles for something to fix it, and finds a black plastic bag and a metal rod. He starts to fix the slipper, tying the plastic around the thong and poking it through the hole in the base with the rod. Then he gets distracted and starts to pick up scrap. Inusa picks up the flip-flop and finishes the job: crisis averted.
When we get back to the scrap dealer, they weigh in at about six kilograms but Kwesi is adamant it is at least seven. He insists on rebalancing the scale before they weigh up again. They bring in almost 20 cedi for the day (just over $6) and divide up the cash. Kwesi takes most of the money – he found the copper wire they burnt, after all – and Inusa is deeply annoyed when he only gets a few cedi.
He keeps complaining as they walk back through Agbogbloshie. They stop along the way to chat to the other kids they know working on the electronic waste dump: other boys dragging magnets. Tomorrow is Sunday: no work or school. It means church and homework and time to play around. By the time they get to the main road, Inusa is smiling again. The money is still too little, he says, but he is a bit closer to paying for his exams.