The Hardware Scavengers of Ghana

Agbogbloshie, just west of downtown Accra, the capitol of Ghana, is one of the places where electronics go to die. Mobile phones, computers, monitors. Some item of value can be scavenged from almost any piece of electronics.

Kwei Quartey is a physician and novelist who grew up in Ghana. As a kid, he barely glimpsed the Agbogbloshie dump, just west of downtown Accra, the nation's capital. "You hear people say, 'I'm never going into that area,'" Quartey told me. But he decided that he needed to visit the place because he wanted to set the opening scene of his book, Children of the Street, there. He showed up and asked one of the kids living there for a tour of the place. An impromptu guide, Issifu, showed him what the recyclers were up to.

As you can see in the photo gallery above, the young men who work the dump pull and recycle the metals, particularly copper, out of old electronics. Quartey said that most of them are from northern Ghana, and form something of "an outcast class by themselves." They break down electronics with hammers and hands, mostly to pull out the metals inside of them, which they sell to local businesses.

You have to admire the resilience of these kids, who've come up with a way to make a living on the margins of society. But it's a tough, nasty business. If they need to separate rubber from copper, they burn it, so they inhale the fumes day after day. Many live in Agbogbloshie, so they're exposed to all the chemicals in the e-waste that moves through the place. These kids are shortening their lives, but they don't have any other options. A Ghanian journalist, Mike Anane, has devoted a lot of time to describing the lives of the kids who make ends meet this way.

Where does all this e-waste come from? Most of it is shipped to Ghana in the form of "donations." Unfortunately, some of the gifts that come from the rich countries amount to junk because the electronics are too old. Even if different groups can make use of the hand-me-down technology for a while, eventually the electronics become useless and that's when they end up in Agbogloshie. "This is where the foodchain, so to speak, comes to an end," Quartey said. 

While computer technology changes quickly, phones change even faster. And the global ubiquity of mobile devices today means that they'll be ubiquitous trash tomorrow. As we consider the future of mobile technology and all the neat new devices it will have, we can't ignore this part of the gadget lifecycle. Because one day soon, someone like Issifu or his colleagues will be picking apart yesterday's New Hot Thing.

Via Monga Bay

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