Last March, roughly five hours before the sun rose, I found a link to an application for a PACE center trip to Ghana from a listserv I rarely read. It advertised a type of film project—something about e-waste. My chances of being chosen to go on the trip were slim, seeing as I mostly screen-write, boast no existing relationship with the PACE center, and had to google what e-waste was in order to answer some of the questions on the application. I didn’t know a lot about Ghana or what I was getting myself into.
CUT TO: Eight months later, intersession of senior year.
It’s 93 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re 381 miles from the equator, 5,148 miles from Princeton, and all eleven of us are driving south with our impossibly charismatic driver, Ellis. The hot, dusty, and dry air was a pleasant surprise. I forgot it was January. I asked someone why the sky looked orange. Apparently, sands blow down from the Sahara and cake the atmosphere until it rains. I’d seen the phenomenon of “raining” mud before, but didn’t realize it occurred regularly as its own season. The craziest thing about it was that you could stare straight at the sun with no shades on and watch as the orb reached its zenith.
To give you (and my parents, who are vaguely aware I went to Western Africa) some background, our group worked with Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP), which supports projects whose goal is to make building block improvements in the lives of those in Agbogbloshie. Agbogbloshie is home to a massive scrapyard in the center of Accra, Ghana. Some developed countries (especially in Europe) send secondhand and used electronics to Ghana, where they are repaired and sold again at a cheaper price. Once those second-hand electronics no longer work, they are collected at the scrap yard. The workers at the yard pay for these scraps and deconstruct the products, setting aside any reusable parts. I worked with the young men who harvest copper. They are paid to burn the plastic insulation that encases the wire. When burned, the plastic melts off and the copper is free to be sold and reused.
The electronic scrap site in Agbogbloshie became our home base while we (Engineering, Philosophy, English, Architecture, Molecular Biology, Psychology, and Math majors, among others) put our heads together to create a project whose aim is to better the situation of those working in the hot, and sometimes toxic, conditions. Agbogbloshie is primarily recycling, which is great business, but a dangerous one. Burning plastic insulation releases toxins, which can cause all sorts of respiratory problems, and are known to be carcinogenic. The fires are hot, the air is hot, the ground is hot – the soles melted off my keds – and large burns were a reality for those whom we met. Though the process sounds like a mess, I realized that e-scrap, on an industry level, is both an incredibly organized and profitable business. The conditions are neither 100% safe, nor legal by American standards, but contrary to negative Western portrayals, the workers were hardworking, aware of the dangers of their jobs, and innovative in what could be recycled or used in another way.
What Westerners might identify as “problems” (damaging the environment, working in proximity to toxins) might not always be considered as such by the workers. Getting paid, having money to live and send to family up north are their primary concerns. On top of that, the government systematically bulldozes homes in the nearby slums to force workers to move to better areas, without giving them other options on where to live. Since people from all over Ghana come to this scrap yard for work, further tensions arise from political and religious differences. Our presence wouldn’t turn the place around, but our hope was that we could start somewhere small, and build. My group made videos about copper burning, the hazards involved, and the plausible alternatives to burning these wires. Our demographic: the very men who burned the copper.
Before our arrival, we had been warned that some might be skeptical of our presence; in the past, other documentarians had come to record their work with a seemingly patronizing agenda. Our videos, however, focused on showing the practical steps we could take to ameliorate the situation on the ground. Over the course of a few days, we worked together to build stories and relationships in order to best determine how to help and to make something truly useful. This trip taught me more in a week than most Princeton classes do in twelve. I met people - Ghanaians and Princetonians - on a trip I never would have imagined myself on, creating films I wasn’t qualified to make. Hopefully our projects will positively impact the people I met as much as they impacted me.
~Kelly Byrne '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler