Agbobloshie is a large dump on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, often referred to as the ‘digital dumping ground’ where millions of tons of electronic waste (e-waste) from Europe and North America are processed each year. “One of the biggest environmental crimes the world has ever witnessed”, according to environmental organizations. A small religious community, meanwhile, tries to bring hope and solidarity.
The Agbobloshie landfill is located on the south-eastern outskirts of Accra. People have to cross a bridge linking the banks of a small river to reach the site. The river is black from the polluted environment, oil slicks and all types of waste float on its surface. Agbobloshie has become the largest dumping ground for electronic waste, the so-called “WEEE” (Waste from Electric and Electronic Equipment). At the entrance of the dump, we meet 12 year old Agyei: sweaty face, listless gaze, cuts on his hands, he does not really feel like talking. He hurries back to work and says in a low voice : “If I finish in time, I may bring seven dollars home today”.
As we go ahead, the air gets more and more acrid and unbreathable. The clay soil is no longer red earth, it has turned into black by now, as it is soaked with used oil, battery acid and other poisons. Some children are lighting a fire. Nsoah, who is accompanying us, explains: “Kids, aged between 12 and 14 are generally in charge of the fire, but some of them are no more than six”. One of them, he may be eight year old, says, “I pick up metal and bring it to my boss”. His face, his hands and his worn out clothes are completely covered with the grey patina of smoke coming from the fire.
We stop at the “workshop” of Baako. This boy is dismantling a refrigerator. He looks at us and says, “Welcome to Agbobloshie”. “Here” – he adds – “everything has a particular smell: there are dioxins in the air, lead and mercury in the water and battery acid and exhausted oils in the ground”. Baako smiles, and keeps on dismantling the old refrigerator.
The landfill is divided into sectors. The first is the graveyard of refrigerators, which are meticulously dissected. Another sector is for electrical materials and, then there is the computers and televisions waste sector. There are thousands of people working to dissect these wastes for any reusable part to be recycled and resold. The most valuable materials are copper, steel and iron, while plastic, glass and everything that has no value is left on the ground. It is shocking to notice that there is no kind of self-protection equipment. Only a few lucky ones wear a pair of gloves or goggles. Boys and girls work in the dump, touching contaminating metals with bare hands and inhaling poisons. According to Nsoah, many of them “are the only source of economic support for their families”.
E-waste in Agbobloshie arrives mostly from Europe and North America. According to environmental groups, every year the amount of discarded electronic materials ranges from 20 to 50 million tons. 70% of this waste ends up in West Africa, in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast”. There are international laws banning the export of computer waste, but traffickers are getting round this by labelling the shipments “usable second-hand goods” says Donkon, a port worker, “but about 90% of the computers are just junk. They just don’t work”, he explains.
The City of God
Behind the landfill there is a slum, home to 60,000 people. Its name is emblematic, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. But even in a place like this, things can change. In 2004, an Italian Capuchin friar, Brother Arcadio Sicher, created the nucleus of a small mission called City of God. Subash, a 55 year old Indian priest, is currently in charge of the project. He has lived in the slum since 2012. The mission community is still small, nevertheless it is carrying on many activities. Particular attention is given to school. “Lessons – says Father Subash – are organized by turns: children attend classes in the morning, after-school activities are in the afternoon, and adults, who work in the landfill during the day, attend classes in the evening. School is a chance to meet people of different ethnicities, which sometimes are in opposition to one another. Christians and Muslims study together, get to know each other and become friends”. According to Father Subash, “the school makes the entire community feel the importance of education, and in particular, it is a place where grammar school children can carry on their studies”. The centre is an important reference point for women and children. For some years now, training courses have been organized to teach girls how to create jewellery and ornaments with beads. “We intend to start – Father Subash says – a hairdressing and hairstyle course for girls, in order to provide them with future job opportunities”. In the slums the main construction materials are plastic and wood. The school is one of the few buildings made of bricks. The City of God was donated a portable water pump, as short circuits often occur and cause fires. The Capuchins of the mission have therefore organized training courses for volunteer firefighters, who have already operated about twenty times.
Health care is one more problem to face in the slums. “We have started a program on health information and training” – Father Subash says. “We organise meetings with medical staff and promote health insurance”. This year, with the help of some volunteer nurses, the centre has started to offer medical care once a week. Everyone can receive basic care, and get health status information. People also learn to rely on the medical staff and the health system. According to Father Subash, “the goal is providing health service also on other days of the week and involving more volunteers”. A bit at a time, things can change even in a place like ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, also through the choice of words. This is reflected in the name the people call this place now. They have realized the name ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ does not evoke anything good, so they have started to call the slum, the ‘City of God’.