Friday, May 29, 2009

E waste. aka Agbogbloshie. aka "wo ho ye fe paa"

My last and lasting memory from Ghana... (links to e-waste info, news, and video at the bottom)

Sunday, December 14, 2009

It was the day before our flight back to the US and Miriam and I had one last adventure ahead of us. She had read about an E-waste scrap yard, aka dumpsite, in Accra and wanted to see if we could find it. We once again jumped in the back of a trotro, not really having any idea where we were headed, but as usual people we met on the way pointed us in the right direction. We went from one trotro station to the next, finally figuring out which one had cars that would drop us off near the waste site. We told people we were trying to get to Agbogbloshie – the name of the scrap yard (yeah, try saying that three times fast!). We were directed to a trotro in the far corner of the station. It was a trotro unlike any other I had ever been inside. The doors opened in the back of the van and there were no windows and no way to communicate with the driver. There were benches rigged to both sides of what felt like the back of a cargo container. The van was full except for one seat. We had no idea when the next car would come so we told the mate that we could make it work. He seemed slightly amused as he watched Miriam and I climb over the other passengers and squeeze ourselves into the tiny space left in the middle. Their faces changed from confusion to surprised approval as I sat down and motioned for Miriam to sit on my lap.

Once we were on the road, I finally had a chance to survey the other people in the car. There was a man in long pants and a tattered dress shirt, an older women with crocked teeth smiling at us, a baby strapped to the back of its mother – head bobbing up and down with the movement of the car and of course a number of beautiful women. There was one woman in particular that I literally couldn’t take my eyes from. She was breathtakingly beautiful. She wore a typical full length Ghanaian dress, tight around her hips and flared at the ankles. Her head was covered with a piece of matching cloth tied up and knotted around her hair. I remember thinking that she looked so calm and glamorous sitting in the back of that car. I imagined where she was going – it wasn’t Sunday so it couldn’t have been church. A party? Maybe a wedding. Ya, that’s it, a wedding. The trotro came to a stop and brought my daydreaming to a halt. One by one we filed out of the van, thankful for the fresh air. Now what? We had no idea where we were going and we weren’t exactly sure how to tell people we were looking for a waste site. We decided to wander. We walked only for a couple of seconds before we noticed trash piled alongside the road. I glanced across the street at what looked like a river of sewage lined with trash and metal parts. We had found it.
We walked into the scrap yard – a mixture of dirt and broken computer parts under our feet. The smell of burning trash and plastic welcomed us. We were both in sandals. Maybe I should have worn shoes? A little boy running around with bare feet interrupted this thought. There were broken motherboards and CDs, discarded bicycle frames, refrigerators, broken cars, rusting piles of metal, and rejected ovens and computers. We walked past a group of young men behind a gated off section of the yard. The sound of hammering and work stopped as they saw us approach. A couple of the braver ones came running out to greet us. I wasn’t sure how we were going to be received – as foreigners? intruders? I should have known we would be treated like friends. We couldn’t communicate with words and as we held out our hands to greet the young men, they hesitated. One of the men showed us his palms – they were covered in filth from working with the scrapes and wires. My heart sank a little as I glanced at my own perfectly Purell-ed hands. He didn’t want to get them dirty with his own. Instead they smiled and waved as we continued further into the yard.

The river of sewage seemed to separate the site into two parts: the side on which the e-waste was dumped and kept, and the side on which the people live. On the side opposite of where we stood, shanties lined the ‘river’. People actually live here. Raised their families here. This was their backyard. We noticed a small makeshift ‘bridge’ (slats of wood) connecting one side to the other. As we got closer, another group of young boys motioned for us to follow them across. Needless to say we both hesitated, imagining ourselves falling in the smelly river of human and manmade waste. We carefully balanced on the first board. One of the boys looked back and said encouragingly “It’s okay. Go small small” translating into take it slow, one step at a time. We made it across the bridge and climbed up the edge of the embankment. We walked along the front of the shanties. Some images that stuck with me: a small boy defecating on a pile of burned trash, a group of women sitting around a table playing a board game, a little girl rummaging through a mound of waste – a red streamer around her neck.

We walked past a group of men and women sitting on a bench. To my amazement one of them was the beautiful woman from the trotro. I was shocked to see her in her stunning dress and jewelry sitting in the middle of the scrap yard. She motioned for us to come and join them. We sat down on the bench and spent the next couple of minutes trying to remember as much Twi as we possibly could. After we ran out of greetings I clumsily blurted out “Wo ho ye fe paa” – you are very beautiful. The women smiled and blushed. Her friends laughed but agreed. We waved goodbye and continued on. There was a large truck overflowing with men and flags – red, white, back, and green. The sound of a bullhorn told us it was part of an NDC rally (the presidential election was still going on at this time).

I’m not sure what I had expected, but as we walked through this waste town I felt more and more confused. I couldn’t see the toxic chemicals, the chlorinated dioxins, or the phthalates that were slowly poisoning these people. All I could see was life. People doing the best they can with what they have. People welcoming strangers into their home. I don’t know when in my mind these people whom I had heard about, burning electronic cables, started being casualties instead of people. While Miriam and I walked out of the scrap yard I made a promise to myself: No matter how awful or unfair someone’s situation, no matter how hard people fight and fail to change it, never again will I assume that a person is a casualty, a victim, or a martyr. Never again will I assume that a person is anything less or different than a human being living his life the best way he knows how.

I am reminded of my Cameroonian friends Flynn and Brian and how they didn’t know me, but they took care of me. “You are my sister and I am your brother” was the only possible explanation I received or needed. Reflecting on this almost two years ago, I wrote, “We are family because we are human beings - we share a world, a history, and a vision.” Today I am a little more pragmatic and maybe a little less naïve. I have such mixed feelings on what actions foreigners, especially westerners, should take in order to “Save Africa” (See previous post). However, I do hope that someday we can stand up to the electronic companies in developed countries that are poisoning Ghanaians in Agbogbloshie, not because they are helpless victims, but because they are people, which make them family.

For more information:
Download full Greenpeace document here
Ghana's growing e-waste trade, BBC
UK's e-waste continues to be dumped in Ghana, Nigeria despite public outcry, Ghana Business news

More videos

Do you do voodoo?

Saturday Dec. 13, 2008 (cont.)

Miriam and I had heard that there was a Voodoo market in Accra. Some of our friends had even tried to find it a couple of time. There was apparently a voodoo section at the “Timba market” in Jamestown. Without thinking too much about it, we decided to ask around and see what we could find. The man who led us to the top of the lighthouse pointed down the main road leading through Jamestown. We asked if we could walk but he told us the market was too far – we needed to take a cab. But we felt empowered after visiting the slum fishing village and decided to at least walk as far as we could. We strolled down the road getting lost in deep conversation (a definite theme when we are together). We asked a couple of friendly faces if we were headed in the right direction. Before we knew it a women had offered (through a third party since she didn't speak English) to take us there.

She walked quickly. Miriam and I must have looked like two straggling ducks trying to keep up with their mother. The women looked back at us every so often to make sure we were still behind her. She stopped in front of a dirt area connecting two larger buildings that faced the main road. There was a tall wooden fence between the buildings and a couple of cars parked in front. She motioned with her hand that we should follow her. I looked at Miriam confused and uncertain. She motioned again and disappeared through a small cutout in the wooden fence. As we got closer we could see the sign hanging above the cutout doorway. “No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.” Miriam and I shared another quick glance and a mischievous smile. One after the other we ducked through the doorway and hurried to catch up with the woman who was quickly gliding through the small passageways.

It was the most astonishing thing – there was a whole market community behind that fence. We walked through the narrow dirt paths that were lined by wooden stands. People were selling everything a person could possibly need. Our curiosity couldn’t keep up with our legs. We thanked the women for her help and said goodbye. We were on our own, completely lost in the middle of the market. We figured we would start asking around about the supposed voodoo section. We weren’t quite sure how to ask someone if they knew where we could find gigi charms? Did they even call it voodoo? Would that be offensive? We were surrounded by bags of nuts and bolts - the home depot of Accra. The men were eager to help us find whatever we were looking for. I got the feeling it wasn’t every day that two oburoni women came to visit. After the appropriate greetings and a little bit of flirting, we tested the water – “do you know where we can find voodoo?” The men looked at each other, thought for a moment… “Medicine. You are looking for medicine. Follow me” Before we knew it we were off and clumsily chasing another graceful Ghanaian who had probably grown up weaving in and out of market passageways (I almost got knocked out multiple times by men carrying wood on their heads). As we moved through the market there was a buzzing sound that kept getting louder and louder - the sound of electric saws cutting wood. There was sawdust everywhere, the cutting of Timber. All of a sudden it made sense… “Timba Market” = Timber Market.

We finally reached the section of the market we had been looking for. Skins, bones, hair, bark, shells, coins, and wooden dolls were hung and stacked high inside the stalls. We couldn’t believe that we had actually found it. We walked around and stopped at a stall owned by a woman named Mercy. She explained what everything was used for. She explained how to use coins and red string to make wishes, which dolls were used for fertility, and how to get rid of illnesses. By asking questions, we learned that generally speaking, everything could be used for anything. I asked Mercy what was used for love. I bought some dried up seedpods that are supposed to be brewed into tea and given to a lover - the perfect wedding gift for my sister. We had such a fun time looking around and talking to the vendors. We found our way out of the market. Sitting in the back of a cab as it drove away, we knew we would never be able to explain where the market was located. We probably couldn’t even find it again ourselves. As we recapped the events of the day, I realized once again that it was not just the destination that was inspiring; it was the entire journey.

love from Tustin.

The voodoo section of the 'timba market'

Miriam and Mercy

Monday, May 4, 2009

A day to last a lifetime in the Jamestown slum

Saturday Dec. 13, 2008

The last time we were in Jamestown was during the first week of orientation. We toured Accra in an air-conditioned charter bus – it could barely fit through the streets on the outskirts of Accra’s largest slum town. I remember sitting with the side of my face pressed up against the window watching life go by. Women hanging laundry – torn and tattered yards of fabric to dry. People cooking over open fires – black smoke dancing with the trash and dirt picked up by the breeze. I remember seeing a small schoolgirl in a blue and yellow uniform trip and fall – scattering her books in the street. I was an observer that day – removed from the emotions, passions, and monotony of every day life in the Jamestown slum. We weren’t allowed to get out of the bus and even if we had been I’m not sure if I would have been able to shed my bystander skin. After spending almost 5 months in Ghana, I had learned there was a significant emotional difference between observing and engaging.

Miriam and I decided that with only a couple days left in Ghana it was time for us to go back to Jamestown and explore a part of Accra we had not yet seen. We took a tro tro to Jamestown and wandered around until we found the Jamestown lighthouse (one of the landmarks mentioned in the tour guide). We ran into a man that said he had keys to go to the top. It looked closed, deserted even – except for a group of small kids playing a game of foosball right in front. But we followed him anyway. Sure enough our new friend found the woman in charge. After collecting her fee, she let the man lead us to the top of the lighthouse. What a view.

We could see all the way down the main road and the shanties by the water. A strange juxtaposition – the small confined spaces enclosed with scrap wood and metal. The infinity of the ocean. After observing from the sky, we agreed it was time to engage on the ground. We decided to walk around the slum fishing village right on the water. Everyone stared as we stepped over fishing nets and under hanging sails and tarps, moving further into the heart of the small fishing community. It was uncomfortable and not all of the stares were friendly. I felt out of place and a bit nervous. I couldn’t tell if it was because of my prejudices or theirs. Probably both. I was entering a world i will never completely understand with a life and a background they too do not know. I tried to escape my prejudices and my differences. I smiled at the men repairing the nets and made small talk with the women we passed. Wo ho te sen? Ye fre me Abeena. Once again our limited amount of Twi served us well. I began to feel the tension between my shoulders slowly disappear.

It was as if the more relaxed I became, the friendlier the people treated me. Word spread that there were Obrunis in the village speaking Twi. Before we knew it we were in the middle of the small slum village and approaching the peer. We asked the group of men sitting near by if we could walk on it and “come right back”. They laughed and smiled. Permission granted. Once again we dodged piles of nets, distracted by the young men running and jumping off the small wooden peer. They did flips and tricks, each one flashing a smile before catapulting their naked bodies into the air. We sat on the edge with our feet dangling over the water. Some boys our age came to chat with us. I was no longer uncomfortable or nervous. It constantly amazes me what a smile and an open heart can do.

After about 15 or 20 minutes an older man came over and explained that women were not allowed on the peer. Miriam and I looked around and then at one another. There wasn’t another female in sight. Oops. There are two important things that are relatively easy to forget but that we will never be able to escape: We are white and we are women. We apologized, said goodbye to the boys and left. As we walked out of the slum people smiled and waved. Yebeshia Bio - We will meet again soon. Despite the unlikelihood that their greeting would hold truth, there was warmth in their smiles and sincerity in their eyes.

love from Berkeley.