2015 "E-Waste Crimes" in Ghana: Day 1

I'm in Africa.  I see junk TVs here.  I also see junk cars and tires.  And traffic jams.  Tomorrow, I will go to Agbogbloshie, to make my pilgrimmage as an exotic photographer.  But before I go there, I thought I'd refresh myself on the history of television in Africa.  I'm still concerned with what I call "The Banana Peel Fallacy", which I described in 2009's blog "Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo".

Activist goes to the zoo and finds the floor of the monkey cages covered with banana peels.  He takes pictures of the peels.  But it is a fallacy to accuse the zookeeper or visitors of dumping their banana peels in the monkey cage.  There is no evidence of "banana peel dumping".

As I said in the Zoo blog, I do not equate Africans with monkeys, but it describes both the fallacy of thinking you know what happened and a third party assigning victimhood to the consumer.  In the analogy, the protester jumps to a conclusion.  It's that protester who is seeing the emerging world as helpless zoo animals.

Most African cities had television in the 1970s.  But like televisions in the USA in the 1940s, they were a luxury device which could never have been afforded by the average African.  In the 1970s, Americans and Europeans read about Africa through the lens of Idi Amin and Mobutu Seko Sede, Apartheid regimes in South Africa.   Barely a decade earlier, most of Africa was still ruled by colonial law.

Mass Media in Sub-Saharan Africa

 By Louise M. Bourgaul (1995)
Technically, many capital cities in Africa had television stations in 1959 or 1960, at independence, but tended to be "an elite an urban phenomenon" (Borugaul), and stayed that way until the advent of the Videotape Recorder / VCR.  The VCR meant that any better-off African, not just those in the capital, could brag about their TVs.

Zaire Television concern, Kinshasa, 1970s
In the 1980s, black and white television was a forgotten technology in the USA and Europe, but some Africans benefitted by purchasing the used black and white televisions.   But since it was an elite thing, most could opt for a used color TV instead.

While broadcast stations and programming were limited, the VCRs and cassette tapes were ubiquitous.  To the consternation of Hollywood, Nigerian VHS copies of movies became a world industry.  Few African households could have afforded legitimate versions, but in a way Nigerian "copyright pirates" were helping Hollywood, by bringing their music videos and movies to audiences who otherwise would have grown up with Bollywood posters.   I watched Sly Stallone's Rocky and Rambo, and Phil Collins videos (too many times) on a visit to a village south of Bamenda in 1985.  My friends say around, commenting on Phil Collins' lyrics.  "It would appear he does not care anymore.  No, surely, this man does not care."

Even my remote town in north central Cameroon had a few households with television before I left in 86.  We had no post office, no bank, no hospital, and were blessed with a single paved road.  The school I taught at was itself less than 4 years old.  It was called a "pioneer post" by the Peace Corps staff, one of the most rural, a start-up program.  But before I left in 1986, my landlord across the yard had a color television.   It was used 1970s model, imported from England.

It is now 29 years later, and I'm 53 years old.   I'm back in sub-Saharan Africa, visiting Accra (Ghana) for the first time.   My modest hotel is on a dirt road with deep potholes.   But the hotel has air conditioning, a flat screen TV, and (sometimes) running water from an elevated water tank.  The cars dodging the potholes are less than 5 year old Toyotas, Mercedes, Infinitis, and Subarus.  Probably the most shocking thing I have seen is how new the automobiles are.   I had put a photo of a Ghana highway on the blog which I took from Ghanaweb, and Rafa Font told me the cars looked too new to be in Ghana.  Now I'm here, and the cars I see are newer than those in the photos.

The older cars, from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, are also everywhere... but mostly parked in small scrap yards.  Or large ones, like the one I visited tomorrow.  Agbogbloshie.  The scene of #JoeBenson's supposed #wastecrime.

Although it was just a few miles from where we start in the morning, it will take an hour to get to the entrance of Agbogbloshie (ah-bo-blo-shee) Market.  Though all the roads are paved once we leave my hotel's neighborhood, Monday morning traffic in Accra is not to be trifled with.  Whether you take the main highway bipasses, or go "corner-by-corner", cutting through sidestreets, there is just no way around waiting your turn, whatever your destination.  A densely packed city of approximately 5 million, Accra is typical of other African port cities, from Lagos to Douala to Nairobi or Luanda.  They are magnets for people pouring in from rural areas.

In the 1980s, I noticed that while older Cameroonians talked wistfully of visiting Paris, or New York, or London, my students (who would now be in their 40s) talked about moving to the port city of Douala.  More so than the capital, Yaounde, it was the port city where the kids talked about people who had seen private planes, fancy cars, and electronics.  It was, in a word, "developed".

And Agbobloshie is a bit of a gateway.  It is where the poor, the downtrodden, the school dropouts, the immigrants who don't speak either English or Accra's native tongue, wind up.  It's the lowest rung on the pole.   But it's where many African rural people wind up when they decide to make the move to the bright lights, and big city.  It's Ghana's Kowloon.

And before we even go, take a look at where Agbogbloshie is on a satellite map.  The teeming city of Ghana has grown around it.  It is no longer an outlying marshland outside of town.

Indeed, the property is far too valuable for its current use.  If Ghana wins an Olympic stadium bid, this place will be gone.   It is already shrinking, according to DK Koa of QAmp, and some of the scrap activity has decentralized.  Maybe that's a good thing, to have 50 burning piles in 50 places, instead of 50 fires in one place.  But the number of fires and number of workers will the first thing I will look for during my Gaze on Agbogbloshie.

No comments: