Sodom and Gomorrah
Collected by The OR from the perspective of Joshua Odamtten.
Agbogbloshie is a sub-hub of Ghana's capital Accra. It is one of the biggest local market places for traders. The place serves as a market-place for food stuffs, second hand goods and industries. It is also a dump site for electronic waste. It is called Sodom and Gomorrah by locals and the people that live there are mainly scrap dealers.
On a sunny Monday morning my colleagues Branson, Liz and I decided to take a trip to the dump site mainly known as Sodom and Gomorrah. After a few minutes drive from our residence we were right on the main road behind the Agbogbloshie market which is about five minutes walk away from the E-waste dump site. The driver took a shortcut through an untitled road where the people mainly sell second hand motto-cycles and parts. Upon reaching our destination we saw a huge polluted dark-colored river and the air was totally polluted with smoke from burning computer parts. The entire environment was filled with smoke and an unpleasant smell from the nearby polluted river.
We decided to go further down to the dump site. On our way we saw a number of people selling second hand clothing (mainly jeans) and after a few minutes walk into the neighborhood, we saw cattle grazing along the polluted riverbank. Across the river was a huge number of people selling and working in a thick layer of smoke.
Others were also picking up computer parts from the refuse dump. I stood for a while and was wondering what they are going to use the dumped computer parts for but after some few minutes I realize that they normally collect and sell the metal parts of the broken computers to the scrap dealers who later sell them for other companies that produce iron rods.
As we kept on walking we came across wooden structured houses. I believe these houses belong to the families of people staying and working around the dump site with even little kids who have no idea what kind of environment they are living.
The whole place is polluted with smoke and harmful hazard from burnt computer parts and the place contains a lot of refuse that is filled with flies. Almost all the food that the people eat are been prepared at the dump site or the nearby surrounding. Pollution from the metals and waste released in the burning process easily migrate into their homes, foods, into the market and other public areas. For instance, the polluted river flows miles away and into a nearby fishing community and not only the people around that place are exposed to danger but also those that live far away who eat the fish from the same river source. And the polluted river finally make its way into the ocean.
The people that live there, to my opinion, are hard working and very friendly because they are more of businessmen and women who are working in order to fend for themselves and their families. But people believe that they are criminals and very dangerous. Which is not true. Even before we got to the roadside and could move further down close to their residence, we were calmly welcomed by many people who wanted to know the reason for our visit. But since we both speak different languages the means of communication wasn't all that clear making it hard for us to understand each other. Yet all the young guys we came across called me ‘Natty’ because of my dreadlocks hairstyle. That is mostly the friendliest way of saying ‘hi’ to a Rastafarian. I am not a rasta man anyway. The lifestyle of this people are almost the same as the people from the place I come from (Labadi) and even the same character of most people in the capital. So I don't see the reason why people believe that they are dangerous. Some time ago their houses were set ablaze in the middle of the night by unknown men simply because they want them to vacate the premises because of the damage they are causing to the land and the environment. And the government blamed them for the fire out break because of poor wiring of electric cables and illegal electricity connection.
I think the lives of these people can be improved and the measures to be taking are simple but will take much time. The people can be educated on the dangers of hazards and harmful chemicals that is realized into the air by the burnt computer parts. So instead of burning them they can break them into pieces, take the parts that they need and leave the rest for the rubber companies to be recycled just like how our water sachets are been collected, sold and used to make bags. The rubber parts of the damage computers can be used to make plastic chairs and so many things just like the metal parts are used for making iron rods. The dump site is not all that close to their houses so if measures have been taken and they are well educated about the effects and dangers of living close to the site, am sure their lives will improve. Then both the young ones together with their parents will have a healthy living.
Am sure most of the children living there has never been to school before but have the dream of becoming future leaders.
A follow-up Conversation
Liz & Branson: Why is Agbogbloshie also called Sodom and Gomorrah?
Joshua: It is called, well I don’t really know the reason why, because they believe the people who live there are bad and according to my research and my experience that is the name I and other people know since birth.
L&B: Do the people that live in Agbogbloshie call it Sodom and Gomorrah?
J: No the people that live there do not call it that, they named that place Agbogbloshie.
L&B: That last question was an important one for us. It is interesting you write that the people there have this reputation as bad, dangerous people. We wonder if this is largely due to the place being called Sodom and Gomorrah since the religious story is about cities of sinners or wicked people who are destroyed by God with fire and brimstone. Many people refer to Sodom and Gomorrah when discussing the apocalypse as a warning that God will destroy the wicked. For us, when we read your report and went to visit, the name itself is very important in understanding the perception other people have of this place. Do you know if the people who live there are religious or know the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?
J: Most of the people that live there are Muslim. I dont know if they know the story. I don’t know the story.
L&B: How do you know they are Muslim?
J: The language they speak is Hausa which is spoken by Muslims from the Northern regions. They live like Muslims. I think about 80% of them are from the North. Most scrap dealers in general are from the North and are Muslim.
L&B: Why do these people move from the North to Accra?
J: Accra is the business center and the scrap dealers want to have a business. I am not so sure how they got to this place, I will find out. I want to know how long they have been living there and how they got there.
L&B: How much money, in this scrap dealer business, do these people make?
J: I don’t know the exact amount but they make a lot, they make a lot. Because they buy it for little price and buy a lot and then sell it for a lot of money. And I have seen some of these dealers and they always have huge amount of money on them. I will have a discussion with them. But yeah people think they make a lot of money.
L&B: If they make a lot of money doing it why do they live in these conditions which as you say are unclean?
J: That's the point. They have no where to go. They have no where to go. Not everyone would allow that kind of people in their homes.
L&B: Are other people prejudice against them the moment they hear them speaking Hausa?
J: Not their language but their looks. They seem to look different. People do not seem to like the way they look and will not offer them a home so they live together. There are three places here Accra where they live. People think they are dangerous and violent.
L&B: Do people think those living in Labadi, where you live, are dangerous?
J: The people living in Labadi are thought to be friendly and the people in Agbogbloshie can also be thought to be friendly but they think they do not work as hard. The issue is people think they are thieves. They think the moment they come close to you they will see what you have and will try to take it and maybe create violence so most people will just not get close to them.
L&B: Do people think they are thieves because they believe they stole the computers and other e-waste things they are picking through?
J: No not really. They think they are thieves because if they see something there they will pick it up even if it is not theirs. It happened to one of my uncles, they just came by the house and scrapped his bicycle. They come around your house and anything they see they will just take it to sell.
L&B: Who are they selling to?
J: People come with huge trucks and sell them in Tema mostly. Construction and metal companies and sometimes for parts of boats.
L&B: How did you learn about the fire you wrote about?
J: It was all over the news. According to the people who live there the fire started in multiple places at the same time so if it was electrical this would not start in more than one place at the same time. The houses are very close to each other though. Before the fire started the government had been planning to send them out of this place but because they have no where to go they refuse. I did not hear that anyone was hurt but homes were destroyed.
L&B: Was the government going to relocate them somewhere?
J: No they were just going to kick them out.
L&B: Who can educate these people?
J: I think the people who can educate them are NGOs. I don’t think anyone from the government will go there to educate them. Most of the people should be educated. When you go there they are all working trying to earn something so they don’t have time to be educated but of course they should.
L&B: You wrote that the people were really friendly when we went to visit but when we were they you told us that we could not go alone and that even with you we should not go to the other side of the river where they were really sorting the e-waste. Why did you say that?
J: I was afraid they would snatch our cameras because I had learned they were dangerous. But as we got close to them I don’t think any of them were dangerous because the taxi man was friendly and we were walking there freely. People see whites differently and they think when they see whites they can come to them and ask them for money. People try to get something from you and will keep trying until they maybe get it all from you. But this doesn’t just happen to whites, it happens to us as well.
L&B: Do you know where the cattle come from? They seemed so out of place.
J: I am sure they bring them when they move to Accra because cattle are very expensive and they could not afford them so they must bring them when they come. Cattle are known to be in the Northern region.
A Note from Liz and Branson
Agbogbloshie, Ghana is regarded as the largest e-waste dump site in the entire world. E-waste not only refers to computers but includes our old cd players, refrigerators, cell phones and much more. With this in mind it is no surprise that the amount of e-waste generated worldwide increases every year as we trade in old technology for new and improved gadgets.
We had heard about Agbogbloshie long before our trip with Joshua but we had come to know it under a different name, Sodom and Gomorrah. This name casts an ominous shadow in one’s mind regardless of religious affiliation. We wondered what role this name played in perpetuating what we consider to be an extremely unhealthy and unjust existence. When we asked people around Labadi if they ‘knew the place’ most said they had heard of it but did not know where it was and that we should not go to that place.
Despite being only twenty minutes drive from Labadi Beach our neighbors responded as if this Sodom and Gomorrah was a foreign country, having less of an impact on their lives than President Obama. It was this lack of compassion which prompted our trip. The fact that people who live so close to one another, who drink the same water and who eat the same food could feel so completely separated from one another was more devastating to us than the world we witnessed during our walk around this Sodom and Gomorrah.
Joshua’s report focuses less on the child labor and environmental tragedy one sees while visiting Agbogbloshie and instead shines a light on the way the people who live there are perceived by their fellow Ghanaians. Joshua exposes stereotypes that have both created and been created by this toxic situation. These are stereotypes that Joshua has not only observed other people holding, but that he himself has acted on -- stereotypes he is now breaking through. Where do these stereotypes come from? We are concerned that the name Sodom and Gomorrah represents a largely unconscious tendency of people across the world to associate poverty with moral failure. Do we believe that people who experience economic difficulty are wicked? Does this belief bring comfort and ease to our lives? As we read Joshua’s words on our computer screens it is time we consider the consequences of our answers to these questions.
Be inspired by Joshua’s report and GET CLOSER !
For information on how e-waste is shipped to Accra, what happens to it at Agbogbloshie and what this means for people around the world, we recommend you watch this PBS Frontline World Report produced by The University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 2009: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/ghana804/video/video_index.html.
You may also reference this recent article and photo series by photographer Kevin McElvaney via Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/01/pictures-ghana-e-waste-mecca-2014130104740975223.html.