Last week, I was in Agbogbloshie, Ghana with a group of ten Princeton students, making occupational health videos with workers at this large e-waste scrapyard. Attached is a post I wrote for Princeton’s international blog, and some sketches from the site.
When we landed in Ghana, I noticed the little things. A thin layer of dust blown up from the red soil permeated even the punctuation hanging on our words. The honking of cars and drivers’ bravado, the large, randomly placed Nestle advertisements, and the constant maze of hawkers reminded me of New Delhi. In the Agbogbloshie scrap yard, I was struck by the textures and colors of the metal, the constant clinking of hammer to metal, the thick black smoke that spiraled up from the copper burner’s fingers. Despite its initial impression–one of sensory overload–the area is carefully organized, with sections for working with tires, refrigerator foam, copper wire, aluminum, batteries, and so on. The chairman and vice chairman sit in the yard in an open shanty of their own. In my sketchbook, I recorded what I particularly noticed:
cows and goats dotted onto a hill made of e-scrap and blackened by copper smoke
large soccer match schedules chalked onto a blackboard in the middle of two worksites
chicken feathers collected inside a half-dismantled television.
the Muslim call to prayer resounding on Agbogbloshie megaphones
babies– facedown on a piece of cardboard, playing with toys, swinging behind their mothers in cloth slings
people cutting each other’s hair on purple plastic chairs in an open-air “barber” shop behind a tire heap
teenagers running and playing with a blue ball, men sitting down for mancala
a swift breath of lemon peels as we walked through smoke
Beyond the media’s portrayal of Agbogbloshie as a dumping ground, a wasteland, people’s lives are woven into this soil. Some stay for 25 years, some only for a few months between jobs. But life goes on, and with it travel the strong communities and relationships that give it purpose. Men call each other brothers, even if they have never met, and light-hearted verbal barbs fly around the worksite. These men, women, and children share each others fears–another government demolition, a sickness hitting their loved ones–and desires, like raising enough capital to expand their businesses, and moving out of Agbogbloshie and into university or an entrepreneurial space.
Our lives are woven into Agbogbloshie’s soil as well. One hut we passed had a tattered American flag blowing on it. Another motorcycle featured a large U.S. Marine Corps logo with a bald eagle glaring ahead. People wore shirts from the last Superbowl, and I could imagine that any number of the bicycles, refrigerators, microwaves, or sewing machines had made their way here after a long life in the U.S. or abroad, perhaps even through my own home.
Our challenge is how to bridge the gap created by language, skin color, wealth, and an ocean of distance. On our first day of interviews, we were nervous about how we would be received. Both our eyes and theirs were often questioning and downcast, our lips often wavering in uncertain silence. But we also exchanged laughs, realized that our Agbogbloshie guides shared our ages and our interests in soccer and learning. It was the tentative start of a real relationship.