An E-Waste Story: Ghana

The Story of Fahrou of Ghana:

This morning, through the slit between the dark and stormy monsoon clouds and the forest canopy, illuminated green and yellow, the ray of sun shot through Fahrou's window and through the waterglass he had left in front of the standing mirror on his table the night before. It causes the reflected sunray, which normally mirrores a square against the opposite wall, to blossom into a prism of funky light, turning Fahrou's tiled floor, two room abode, into a discotheque-like aquarium of sunshine.

Five years earlier, when he dropped out of medical school to support his younger orphaned siblings, there were no tiles on the floor of this home in central Ghana. He had returned from the relatively modern, bustling, crowded city of Accra, to the same home he remembered since childhood. A childhood with an uneducated mother and father, hard working farmers, who had both since died without ever learning a word like "vacation", or a concept like time off. The concept of "work yourself to death" was uncoined among the agricultural families of west Africa, because it was the norm, it was the definition of life. Fortunately, Fahrou's slender fingers show little of the gnarls, scars, and scratches of his parents' hands.

Fahrou was the lucky star of the family. He had been encouraged to attend school - not a given in the 1970s. And at school, he had been encouraged. But what formed him in large part was the day he got the last seat available in the crowded 7th grade classroom. There was a maximum limit of children permitted in each class, and the line of registered students was far longer than the number of benches. Along with many families, he had planned to sleep outside the school, in the yard, the night before registration. But that day, a rumor flew - a true rumor - that the school registration books were opening a week ahead of schedule.

His village was 6 miles from the school, and he observed mothers and fathers and many boys and girls racing in the direction of Wahabni, where the school was. He was fast, but not the fastest runner. His parents had already left for the fields, for another day of manioc digging in the hot sun.

Fahrou had one possible advantage. A broken bicycle. He had previously scavenged 3 broken bikes from a truck hauling to the recycling yard in Accra, and he had begged to take them, on spec, with the promise that he'd return all the metal to the recycling hauler in a week, if he failed. He had a page torn from an old book, written in English, of "How Things Work", with a history of the bicycle. And he had wanted to see if it might be true, what his sixth grade teacher had said.

He had been told by his teacher that men and women are born equal. That while they were all intimidated by the airplanes and trucks developed by the white man, that the average white man was no smarter than the average Ghanian, and that the average airplane passenger in Europe was as far away from inventing an airplane, or a train, or an automobile engine, as Fahrou. He told Fahrou that the inventions of the developed world had come step-by-step, by engineering, reverse-engineering, re-engineering, and re-re-engineering, with honest and dialectical progress on each version. The airplane, in fact, began as a bicycle. If the Wright brothers had not learned to fix bikes, they would not have invented the airplane.

Without believing it necessarily, Fahrou had been nonetheless intoxicated with the learning and feeling of hope he felt as he filed each tooth of the gear of one bike to fit the chain of the other. He felt a trance-like calm as he straightened every individual spoke of every wheel, by hand, over hours and hours. He performed the repair on the bicycle carcasses which any lucky scrapman would have done in New York City in the 1800s, but which today seem ludicrous to westerners, accustomed to a buy-and-discard culture.

A culture that was mining the forests west of Fahrous village for coltan, a rich muddy sand with volcanic metals, necessary for chips in cell phones. The mines were filled with boys his age, working for dimes per hour, in the thick mud. Daily knee joints were dislodged and boys became crippled for life. Daily, the smarter ones took time to hunt rare monkeys to feed the immigrant miners, until the monkey meat ran out, and they began to serve rare snakes and birds on roasting pits. That is where the new metals for the new gadgets came from.

Fahrou had been fixated on this ancient gadget, the single bicycle he was cobbling together from the carcass of scrap. Without allowing himself to believe he would be able to ride it, he had worked on the premise of learning the bike, so that someday, another deferred day in the future, he would have learned to fix a bike. He was approaching it as a child learns to read, without awareness that they will someday be reading stock quotes or the New York Times.

In the light of the water glass prism, Farhou still channeled that fateful day, as the children rushed to run the 6 miles for school registration. He remembers the hail-Mary pass. He calculated before sleeping the night before, that the cobbled bike might work - without brakes, without gears, but nonetheless propel him - if he filled the tires with wet sand and glue.

He knew the tires would leak, he knew they had to be replaced. He had no money for tires. But he had sand, glue, and plastic bag scrap. And so he had tried a kind of inner patch before sleeping.

He remembered the split second calculation - if he checked to see if the tires had held the air, and they had not, he would lose a precious head start in a race already commenced. He balanced the math of his running skills. He ran into the yard for the bike.

The tires were still filled with air.

Fahrou did enroll in school that day, because he was the first of all of his village to reach the yard. And he was the only one from his village to make enrollment, when the runners arrived, the line had queued hopelessly into the dirt road. It led to a decision that a new school was needed, and grants would be applied for, but that would be another ten years.

On this morning, as the sun began to be filtered by the dark gray monsoon clouds, the bicycle to school lesson had made Fahrou who he was. He now repaired cell phones and computers.

He used a satellite internet connection which he had helped to set up in his town, in cooperation with a USA Peace Corps volunteer. They had taken the satellite dish from the top of a scrapped CNN van, burned out during the riots in Ivory Coast, and fashioned it into a 10 hour per day satellite internet connection.

From posts on the internet, Fahrou was able to download schematics to do all kinds of repairs. His favorite was board-level repairs on cell phones. Each cell phone he repaired accomplished the work of 3 boys in the coltan mine, but he didn't know that or do it for that reason. It was his favorite work, because he made the most money at it, and with that money, he was paying school fees for his youngest sister.

Now, the light of the sun has begun to succumb to a rich, soulful gray, as it collides more and more of its downward rays through the roof of the storm clouds. For a few more minutes, it will be a beautiful but darker glow, giving the treetops an eery appearance that it is they that are lighting the dark sky, not visa versa.

Fahrou will not yet know about the email in his account, from his old teacher, linking him to an article about two of China's new billionaires. In truth, one is a former bicycle repairman. And the other was a farm tractor repairman. Both had learned that the scrap tractors and bicycles that they could pull out of USA scrap metal loads to China were better made and more worthwhile than the official communist-party ones from the central-economy's tractor factory, or bike factory, models. They could make more money doing a dramatic repair of a John Deere, Catepillar, or Schwinn than they could buying a brand new CCP designed tractor or bike.

Fahrou also does not yet know about the email from his sister, in medical school in Lagos, thanking him for the refurbished laptop he had made her. He will enjoy reading about her thrill to be working on a blood-bank program which could, ten years from now, result in the dramatic lowering of death in childbirth among African women... a rate so high that it propells the polygamy of the culture, which in turn creates a demand for women like her to remain on the farm, worth more in dowry than for their intellect.

Fahrou does not yet know, and will never know, of his place in history. None of us can have known that Ghana will become the Singapore, or South Korea, of West Africa. Those two countries, with no coltan or other natural resources, became OECD level countries within a lighting-fast two generations, based on engineering, repair, reverse-engineering of goods from Japan... which had done the same with USA goods, just as the Wright Brothers had.

You and I don't know something else. We don't know that Africa will ever develop like the Pacific Rim did, based on value-derived-from-education. There is an effort to prevent Fahrou from following the course of development through retained value, refurbishment and repair. Those of us in the trenches know that for a poor Korean, Chinese, or African kid, being able to repair ten laptops is the key to becoming a Michael Dell, who also repaired (and cloned) PCs in his dorm room in Texas. But their story is never told by CBS 60 Minutes.

We don't know the end of this story, because for every 8 laptops or computers Fahrou is able to repair and resell, and give to people like his sister in medical school, there are two he cannot repair.

The West is reporting that thousands and thousands of containers of "e-Waste" are going into Ghana. We are seeing pictures of hundreds and hundreds left on the ground, burned for wire. Economically, we could easily discover that for every sad burning piece on the roadside, five more were improving lives. Thousands vs. hundreds. But we never open the door of Fahrou's house, we never see the incredible show of light which burns as brightly through his eyes as the morning sun through the waterglass. We never see that as the glass lights up the room, that Fahrou lights up the aspirations of thousands of schoolchildren in Africa, offers one of the actual real hopes they can follow as an alternative to shovelling coltan mud from the rain forest, or joining the army, or farming themselves to death.

Instead, a non-profit group is taking pictures of children burning computers, and filtering the data to promote their own vision. It's a noble vision - that Fahrou's life will be unnecessary, because the West is going to donate brand new computers, to him and his daughters and sisters and to all the schoolchildren in Africa. But that is from a storybook, the children in Ghana's schools can see a real reverse-engineering repairman like Fahrou, they rarely if ever see the white man with golden new laptops decending from the sky with internet access.

But based on that theory of new computers for the poor, which is not even a promise, policy hounds say we should grind up all ten laptops or cell phones Fahrou would repair. If he waits patiently, he will still be able to check his emails this morning, his sister in med school will still be able to save lives and redirect the power of women.

Based on that fairy tale, they say that we should not concentrate on removing the two junk laptops Fahrou cannot fix. We should fix them here in the USA. The same as Americans fix bicycles? They direct environmentalists to use e-waste recycling companies which cherry pick only the finest for export, a mere 2% of the computers collected and promote the lie that Fahrou doesn't exist, that the thousands and thousands of containers are 80% waste, to be burned on the ground. The result: at best 2 computers out of 10 are reused, vs. the 8 Fahrou would have salvaged.

And as debate rages, the Ayatollah's of E-Waste have introduced new legislation to ban me from shipping to my friend, Fahrou. I would like to send Fahrou and email about how vital it is that he properly manage the 2 leftover cell phones or laptops. A storm is approaching. The export of computer waste and export of computer reuse and computer repair... the facts are being obscured by clouds.

Me, I prefer to fly Fahrou over here to visit Middlebury, Vermont, to work side by side with my staff, to show them there are wicked-smart poor people in Africa, and to teach us how to avoid sending the 2 laptops that any good repair technician knows without opening will not be repairable. With that method, we have lowered the 'residue' to under 5%. A new report from Peru (see previous) shows that even companies not going to these efforts can achieve 88% reuse.

We think visiting one another, sharing data, and improving the loads is a Fair Trade solution. And it has created a bond of geeks, from Fronteras Mexico to Penang Malaysia to Lima Peru to Burkina Faso to Cairo.

But we are losing the battle to the other "solution".
I hear it like thunder over the savanna.
Ban the export of repairable electronics.
Hire Americans to fix them here first.
Let Fahrou get new computers.

Let them eat cake.

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