Agbogbloshie looks like hell. It is a scorched wasteland of cartoonish heaps of scrap in the heart of Ghana’s capital, Accra.
In Accra, Ghana, 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. The boys 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.