Atlantic Rising: Ghana's slums recycle Western waste

The slums of Accra in Ghana are being used as a dumping ground for Western consumer waste, including toxic electrical components.

The sound of pounding metal peals like funereal bells across the landscape. An acrid black smoke drifts above the earth, dyed bright yellow and cyan by ink spewed from fractured printer cartridges.

We step across a wasteland of rusting car parts, jaundiced computer shells and the entrails of refrigerators bought decades ago in a country other than Ghana.

This is Sodom and Gomorrah, the local name for the Agbogbloshie district of Accra in Ghana. Named after the fated cities of the Bible, synonymous with impenitent sin, and destroyed by God with brimstone and fire.

Fleeing refugees

It is a huge area of slums, workshops and market stalls, created to provide accommodation for refugees that fled violence in northern Ghana during the 1980s.

It has sprawled with urban migration and today is a stronghold of anti-government sentiment. Law and order is enforced by the military, and Accra’s mayor has vowed to ‘decongest’ it, a political euphemism for eviction and demolition.

This is the final resting place for many of the white goods and electrical appliances that we buy in the developed world. It is a shrine to built-in obsolescence and a time capsule to twentieth century consumerism. We walk down paths lined with forgotten models of familiar brands, Candy fridges, Panasonic televisions and Sony stereos.

West dumping ground

Old products, superseded or considered dead in the developed world, are bought by Accra’s merchants for re-use. Most can be brought back to life and those that are beyond repair are broken down for parts by workers using hammers and chisels.

Aluminium girders are smelted over three-stone fires, re-moulded into cooking pots and gates, sheets of steel are cut and welded into tiny stoves and copper wiring is pulled by hand from refrigerator compressors, the leftover shells used for storage.

Ghana does not have the technology to recycle these products safely. Car radiators ooze toxic gunge and CFC gases leak unnoticed into the air. The health of the community suffers and the workers’ hands we shake bear witness to a history of lacerations and burns.

Polluted lagoon

The local environment is also affected. The nearby Korle Lagoon is the dustbin for these workshops and the government has given up dredging it while the community remains in place. Nothing lives in its fetid waters.

Sodom and Gomorrah is the site of a double hypocrisy, of the Ghanaian government turning its back on the slums of their own creation, and of harmful refuse expediently discarded and forgotten by the developed world, trickling its way down to the world’s forsaken.

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