Halloween Images Of E-Waste (Scary Black People)

Sweet Mother, I no go forget you... 

This was what I remember dancing to at my farewell party in Ngaoundal, Cameroon, in 1986.   Prince Nico Mbarga's small tabletop TV would have been at least 9 years old by then, probably older.  Prince Nico Mbarga was born in 1950 of a Cameroonian father and Nigerian mother,  he died in 1997.  He was considered a bit of a "one hit wonder" for his iconic tune "sweet mother", sung in pidgin English, which has become the "happy birthday" of mothers day music in my family (embedded towards the bottom of this post).

I'm a white man, with a little black used television.  Here is a black man, with a little white used television... How does poetic language make us afraid to trade with one another?

While I think that a Prince Nico Mbarga outfit would be a fantastic Halloween costume, I cannot say that I find it scary.  But his little white television set has been labelled a big, big, e-waste problem, worthy of laws to keep the next Prince Nico Mbarga from ever buying another used RCA.   Today I want to look closely at the TV in the 1977 photo, and ask how poetic language can make something seem more ghoulish, more noble, more scary, or more heroic.

The United Nations Environmental Program has definitively shown that 85% of used electronics imported to Nigeria are reused (70%) or repaired (15%), and the remaining 15% is a figure very close to the 11% of new-in-box returns at Wal-Mart.  The trade in used electronics, like the trade in used cars here in the USA, was found to be... um... dull.

But the legislation HR2284 finds the trade in used electronics to be anything but dull.... It declares them harmful and dangerous.  HR2284 would put a stop to this.  Why are we sooooo afraid of Prince Nico Mbarga's little white television?

It's Sunday, and sometimes my blogs go off on a tangent on Sunday.  As I listen to Prince Nico Mbarga, and I recall the pidgin English of my years in Cameroon, I'm struck by the similarities in emotions I feel to the first poem I ever learned by heart.  H.W. Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith, was about hard work done by hand.

His hair is crisp, and black and long
His face is like the tan
His brow is wet, with honest sweat
He earns whatever he can
And he looks the whole world in the face
For he owes not any man.

The poetic treatment of the heroic metalworker, with his flaming forge, contrasts sharply to the poetic language which BAN uses to describe similar work in Africa.  Shade-tree mechanics and metal workers toil honestly.  African repairmen, doing similar work, "Under the spreading mango tree".  Repair was the job I would want to be doing, and would want my children to be doing, if I was born in Africa.   Something attempted, something done, would earn a night's repose.

And darn it, I even think Prince Nico Mbarga's lyrics are Longwellian... He takes simple things that honest people do, like loving their moms, and makes it lovely.

("Chop" is Pigdin English for "eat" or "food".  "Fit" means can, or able.   Compare Mbarga's lyrics to Longfellow's blacksmith, each romanticizing the female mother...)

Longfellow speaks of the mother:
"It sounds to him like her mother's voice, singing in paradise.  
He needs must think of her once more, how in the grave she lies..."

Mbarga sings:

If I no sleep, my mother no go sleep, 
if I no chop, my mother no go chop, she no dey tire oh. 

Sweet mother I no go forget you, 
for the suffer wey you suffer for me. 

You fit get another wife, you fit get another husband,
but you fit get another mother? No! 

And if I forget you, therefore I forget my life and the air I breathe. 

And then on to you men, forget, verily, forget your mother,
for if you forget your mother you've lost your life.

Superficially, students of Longfellow could find Prince Nico Mbarga's English cartoonish and laughable, like the photo above.  That's not what I hear when I listen to it.  I have cried tears to both The Village Blacksmith, and to the words of Sweet Mother.   And to me, there is really no difference between Prince Nico Mbarga's little television and the one I'm watching Fareed Zakaria on right now in Vermont.  To me, I'm proud to consider myself an equal.

Let's look, however, at the photos to see how the African's 1977 television is portrayed in the media, and through the poetic descriptions from Basel Action Network, and by their beloved photographer Pieter Hugo.

What is the difference between the African used TV trade, and the used TV set I'm watching in the corner of my office?

Prince Nico Mbarga probably bought his little TV set from a used electronics store like this one.  I've been inside dozens and dozens of these stores on several continents, including the USA.  They BUY AND SELL.   Like a USA used car lot, African people trade in the old models and buy a younger used model.

Mbarga's television probably worked for 25 years... say until 2002.   It would probably have been donated, resold, repaired, traded in a few times before its useful life ended.  The "trickle down" of used electronics went on between the wealthy international singers' neighborhoods, and the electrified slums, and continues between rich African celebs and Lagos' slums.  Eventually, the TV is beyond repair, and winds up in an African landfill like Agbogbloshie.  But not until it is used up completely, and then stripped to the bone for parts and value.

My first American "e-waste" business partner had a used TV dealership in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1970s, where he repaired televisions, and resold trade-ins.  He later became Massachusetts' first "Ewaste" recycling company, and hired me as VP.  We continued to sell used televisions, sometimes in Worcester, sometimes through Goodwill Industries or Salvation Army, and sometimes by export.

His used electronics business evolved into the e-waste recycling business.  Is it possible that the owner of the African electronics trading shop might be better seen as a potential state recycler, like Dick Peloquin, rather than as an "e-waste criminal"?

African Used Computer shops start with a repair person.  They repair both the imports and the electronics still in use among African home-owners.  Tech careers are documented by the UNEP to be a much better job than the average African has.  Repair is an economy built on education, not on resource curses.

(Photo below is from my organization's film, Recycling to Africa, Senegal - the techie is Congolese).

But they can't repair everything forever.  Prince Nico Mbarga's little white TV would be replaced by now.  Probably, it was replaced by a newer, larger, blacker used television, like these imports shown in the Greenpeace E-Waste video of Ghana below... My used Panasonic in the corner, which I brought home from the Good Point Recycling shop 6 years ago, looks a lot like these.

The African shops that sell these recent imports also take trade ins from African generators, trade-ins that they can't repair.  UNEP found those are sold to "scrap boys" for salvage (recycling) value.

Even if we stopped all exports tomorrow, the Scrap Boys would have work for 20-30 more years, as the good-enough items we sold yesterday eventually wore out.  They are not scrapping imports, they are scrapping 1977 imports which were reused, much more honorably, than the rich reuse.

It is the same as the used car markets, the used car repair markets, the chop shops, and recycling yards, here in Vermont.

Eventually, the television from Mbarga's room made its way to an African metal worker, or copper scrapper, like this below.  And something will got thrown away.  Was a crime committed when he imported it in 1977, because it eventually died?

Fair Use - depiction of African used electronics imports reported in press as according to BAN.org

The scrapping pictured is better than mining.

How do I see repair and metals recycling in Africa?

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,

When the evening sun is low

People want to draw a line, to make reuse ok, repair iffy, and recycling verboten.
But is use, reuse, and disposal of TVs in Africa really so different from the TVs managed in America, so different, that Africans should be left in the dark?

The plastic casing from a little white 1977 television, possibly Prince Nico Mbarga's, can be seen in the photo in Waste and Recycling News' story "E-waste exports in the Crosshairs" (the kid using a TV case with wires in it, above).    BAN represents the kid with wires on his head as a significant landing point for used electronics exports.    But it looks a lot like Prince Nico Mbarga's white TV, from the 1977 album.  Prince Nico Mbarga purchased it, imported, ... in 1977.  And in 2012, it's at the dump.  The same as a 1977 used TV in Houston, or San Diego, Middlebury, or Wallawalla.

Yes... yess.....  Eventually, we concede that the TVs in Africa are eventually going to wind up in a dump or a scrap yard, just as they did in Massachusetts in the 1990s, and just as they do in Texas now.  If that uncertainty is dire enough to forbid Africans access to television and internet, shouldn't we have to prove we can repair IPhones before we're allowed to import them from Asia?

Africans say that the eventual end of life doesn't deny a person the right to life, or make life not worth living.  If Africa can't have affordable electronics until it has professional recycling, then maybe we shouldn't be allowed to import smart phones into the USA.

Here is a final use for used TVs from the 1970s, in Europe, from a Lithuanian sculpture.   How is this superior to Africa?

Get Real:

An African owned the TV in 1977
An African traded the TV in 1985.
An African repaired the TV in 1992.
An African traded the old TV in for a newer one in 1999.
An African scrapped the copper off in 2006.
An African threw it away at the dump...

Conclusion:  The sale of the TV to the African in 1977 was a crime... because it was eventually disposed of in 2006?

Go ahead and poke fun at Prince Nico Mbarga, his clothing, and his English.   Our singers in 1977 looked pretty silly too.  And our dumps have TVs in them.  How on earth are the African men unloading the sea container in Ghana perceived as anything different than my crew hauling used TVs in Middlebury?  What is the problem?

Every statement on the fate of used TVs is true of an American, a European, a Chinese, a South American.    Every continent has had TVs for decades, has traded them, has repaired them, has thrown them away.  Prince Nico Mbarga wore a funny outfit, as did Elton John the same year.

I have filmed monitors on the street in Paris, whacked with a hammer by a white man.  I've filmed tons and tons of abandoned and burned TVs in Providence, Rhode Island.  It's the same.  The only difference is the skin color of the hand on the hammer.

China has lots of TVs.  Some are being recycled, some are being resold, some are being exported to places like Peru, where I filmed dozens and dozens of Chinese brand TVs.

Halloween... Halloweeny.  Jalloween-y words....

So what exactly is with Basel Action Network's description of this trade?

Here is a page from Basel Action Network's 2010 Annual report.  In the top right corner, BAN pitches James Puckett's essay entitled "AWAY IS A PLACE".  I'm doing an annotation of the piece, it's quite fascinating.  Below is an excerpt.  This image was published online and by Basel Action Network in their annual report, a public filing, in 2010, and so is claimed as FAIR USE in the criticism of their depiction of used electronics scavenging in Africa.   The Puckett piece, "AWAY IS A PLACE", is highlghted on the final page of that annual report.

From the opening pages of Puckett's "Away is a Place", you can see the poetic and halloweenish language which possessed me today.
"In these global waysides that we might only know as “away”, as in “we threw it -- away”, the questions beg answers from each of us, sitting comfortably (as I do now) from behind LCD screens, tapping our keyboards and touch-pads. They cry out ghoulishly from these bone yards where these fallen icons of our proud Information Age lie as rotting fruit, the progeny of centuries of technological advancement, the offspring of Newton, Einstein and Samuel Morse. Indeed, what have we wrought?
"Machines that could, just months before, process a billion instructions per second, send a message clear around the world with the stroke of a key, or hold a library of books in a palm-sized drive, have found their end as metal and plastic skeletons, in the world’s most sorrowfully poor communities to be subjected to hammer and fire, emitting deadly smoke and fume. Shouldn’t there be a law?"...
"It is here that the relics of the Information Age, with their miraculous microscopic circuits, transistors, capacitors and semi-conductors, are bludgeoned and torched with Stone Age technology. For the residents in this squalor and filth make their living, first by hauling and then by smashing, gutting and burning the televisions and computers in a most un-green form of “recycling” to recover metals — copper, steel and aluminium.
"This material made its arrival on African shores just some days earlier as cargo inside 40-foot intermodal corrugated containers — the shifting bricks of globalized trade turned techno-trash..." 
   [goo-lish]  Show IPA
1. strangely diabolical or cruel; monstrous: a ghoulish andquestionable sense of humor.
2. showing fascination with death, disease, maiming, etc.;morbid: ghoulish curiosity.
3. of, pertaining to, or like a ghoul  or ghouls.

What have we wrought? Exoticism, racial intolerance, pity. The Great White Father in Washington knows best.

This is exoticism. Ghouls, skeletons, deadly, rotting, sorrowful, "stone age"... Hammer and fire, deadly smoke and fume.  Is there really a problem with hammers when they are competing with pick-axes in the metal mines? What did we do with our 1977 televisions which is so different from the storyline about Prince Nico Mbarga's 1977 white television?

In the last paragraph above, Jim clearly says that "this material made its arrival on African shores just some days earlier". That is, for the most part, an untruth. The scrap boys are more likely to be hammering and burning the television from an African, someone like Prince Nico Mbarga, than they are to hammer the black TVs, wrapped in plastic, filmed coming out of the sea container.  

In their 2011 film, BAN states that "the vast majority" of televisions and computers imported to Africa "were found to be" waste.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of computers, televisions and monitors and printers that arrive in Lagos each month were found to be non-functional and non-repairable. They end up stacked in cavernous warehouses, or dumped near residential areas, and burned".
Interesting, since the UN's study in 2011 found exactly the opposite. The only published study of used electronics imports that year found 70% worked fine, and another 15% were repaired. 85% is remarkably similar to the 2009 study of imports in Peru, which found 87% reuse, and BAN's assisted research from Kenya, which in 2007, said that 90% of the imports were reused.


BAN takes activities which people are doing in all kinds of places, of all colors, and raises money by making the Africans, throwing away African televisions at African dumps, into hideous, ghoulish figures.

Africans are also properly disassembling their waste, they are importing useful items they can make money with, items they can afford. They are repairing cell phones and televisions, they

are hooking up internet cafes, they are writing software. They are doing all kinds of things in cities like Accra and Lagos. Yes, indeed there is poverty, pollution and death there. That is what Fair Trade Recycling wants to fix.

This Halloween portrayal of the "dark continent" belongs to another era, in a book by Joseph Conrad. This "Heart of Darkness" portrayal of the businesspeople in Africa...

Toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing
onward through life he goes
Each morning sees some task begin
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done
Has earned a night's repose.

Ghoulie Glowing Black Man?
"Of, or pertaining to, ghouls"....?  Who is he calling a "Ghoul"????

This man, Fahiri Fred Somda, lived in my house with me in Middlebury, when he was doing a training on Basel Convention and e-waste recycling policy.  He is a lawyer, educated in France, from Burkina Faso.  I slept just fine with Fred down the hall.  He worked side by side with the Chicas, Dorlores and Lidia, who came from Mexico to cross-train with our program.  He is a lawyer, from Burkina Faso, who has studied the Basel Convention.

He also worked, like the Village Blacksmith, toiling, rejoicing, and sorrowing, as he separated copper from aluminum from plastic from gold in printed circuit boards.  We played Prince Nico Mbarga's song together, and there was not a hint of comics.  It was tears, not tongues, on the cheeks.

We must not make the good, bad, and ugly about the skin color of the person doing the buying, selling, repair, recycling, discard, mining or disposal.   I own used TVs, Prince Nico, Fred, and others... we are equals.

We are all capable of doing good work, all capable of doing polluting work.  We all own TVs, we all generate garbage.

Prince Nico went into a London Funkmaster Disco period after his "Sweet Mother" hit.  It's funny in the same way that Elton John's Pinball Wizard was funny the same year;  it was funny the way Lady Gaga will probably seem funny someday.  Those are great halloween outfits, all of them.
Recycling is environmentally sustainable.   It is not ghoulish.   Blackface is not my idea of scary halloween.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

The Village Blacksmith, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1841

When Chinese people go in to buy a new LCD television, do they haggle for a trade in on their used CRT television?  Somehow, the TVs shown here (credit Adam Minter, Shanhghaiscrap.com) may find their way to Africa or South America, or be traded in Western China.

Here's an African man, Yadji Moussa (1957-20120 recycling used "e-waste" by hand.  Does it matter what continent he is doing the work on, or where the Apple Macintosh was in use before he scraps it?

Can the lyrics of Sweet Mother be compared to The Village Blacksmith?

He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice. 

It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his haul, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes. 

Sweet Mother
Sweet mother I no go forget you 
for the suffer wey you suffer for me. 

Sweet mother I no go forget you 
for the suffer wey you suffer for me. 

When I dey cry, my mother go carry me--she go say, 
'my pikin', wetin you dey cry ye, ye,
stop stop, stop stop make you no cry again oh." 

When I won sleep, my mother go pet me, 
she go lie me well well for bed, 
she cover me cloth, sing me to sleep, 
"sleep sleep my pikin oh." 

When I dey hungry, my mother go run up and down. 
she go find me something when I go chop oh. 

Sweet mother I no go forget you for the suffer wey you suffer for me 

When I dey sick, my mother go cry, cry, cry, 
she go say instead when I go die make she die. 

O, she go beg God, 
"God help me, God help, my pikin oh." 

If I no sleep, my mother no go sleep, 
if I no chop, my mother no go chop, she no dey tire oh. 

Sweet mother I no go forget you, 
for the suffer wey you suffer for me. 

You fit get another wife, you fit get another husband,
but you fit get another mother? No! 

And if I forget you, therefore I forget my life and the air I breathe. 

And then on to you men, forget, verily, forget your mother,
for if you forget your mother you've lost your life.

Remember Discovery Channel, coverage of "Revenge of the TV Monitor Zombies", from 2010?  Same Jim Puckett, same year as "Away is a Place".

Frontier Psychiatrist!

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