"E-Waste Crime in Ghana": Part 5: Huck Picks a Side

"It was a close place. I took . . . up [the letter I’d written to Miss Watson], and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming." 
- Huckleberry Finn
One of the most powerful paragraphs written in the English language.   Mark Twain (like Dickens in 'Great Expectations' before him, and Harper Lee's character Scout in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' after him) uses the voice of a child to focus on a point in time when the majority of "respected" people were wrong.

After ten days in Ghana, I'm more certain than ever that many of my peers, the people in the "respected" recycling field, the E-Stewards and even the R2 Standard bearers, have kept a too- respectable distance from the victims of the worst of the "e-waste" crimes... false witness, defamation of character, and false imprisonment (of Joe Benson).
  • "If not for BAN.org, none of us would be here"
  • "You must admit, BAN's work in China in 2002 was very important"
  • "It's not about the steak, it's the sizzle.  BAN brought sizzle to the scrap conferences"

As alone as I feel at the ISRI or E-Scrap shows, as empty as WR3A's booth and coffers have become, I'm surrounded now (in Africa) by people who get it'.  It's the silent majority of people.  There are about 6 billion people in the "non-OECD". The eyewitnesses to the "e-waste crime" are Africans,

If they were forced to choose today between Joe Benson, who charged African traders hundreds of thousands of dollars to sell them used equipment they need, and the 1,300,000 Swiss Franc "grant" project, via Blacksmith Institute, to "reform Agbogbloshie", the jury would be unanimous.

Benson, the African born TV repairman, has done far more to benefit Africa than Blacksmith Institute's no doubt "well-intentioned" reform project.   And as the young Howell of the Scrappers in Agbogbloshie noted (in local talk to Wahab), of the 1.3 million, not a Swiss franc went to the scrappers for a job.  Blacksmith used the money on hardware, travel, and consultants.  They declared it was part of a "hands on" solution in Agbogbloshie, and left "clean" equipment which took 3 times the effort to produce the same amount of copper.  Declared victory and left.

"Things Fall Apart" by Chenewa Achebe has come to mean so many things, as a title.  But the biggest hope Africa has are people who put things back together again.  Repairers.  Fixers.  Tinkerers.  Geeks.  Nerds.  Techies.   And at Chendiba Enterprises in Tamale, I'm surrounded by them.

In Blackmith's - and to some degree &AMP or Qampnet's defense (a different project I link to later), they didn't have the three decades experience I have in trying to create affordable win-win solutions.   First off, partner with a Tinker.   The best and brightest kids in a Peace Corps volunteer's 1980s class should be tinkerers, fixers, repair people, techicians.

The ones who fail, who drop out of African class, are not bad people.   Those are the ones who go on to burn wires, or sometimes steal electric cable (something they always prefer to burn, to cover their tracks).   I'm not attacking the "bottom of the class" in Africa, I'm just noticing how Americans and Europeans want to go the Mother Theresa route and build solutions around the weakest players.

Is it because, in comparison with the weakest links, the American and European is more exotic, more heroic, more the protagonist?   Or are they like the doctor who wants to treat the sickest patients and leaves others to die of infections?  The phrase "you have to learn to step over the bodies, and help the soldiers on the field who you can help" was taught to me by Glenda Patterson, a long time counselor of Vermont's hard knocks cases.  

The only prison cell Joe Benson Belongs in
If you find someone in Tamale who is succeeding despite a massive attempt to frame them, to boycott them, to make them as "importers" guilty of a fake 80% crime, you have a diamond in the rough.  It is safer, certainly, to cash in on the bandwagon's applause.   Planned Obsolescence salutes you, the charitable industrial complex rewards you, and you are honored, like Jim Puckett, as a warrior on behalf of the poor.

"All right then, I'll go to hell".   I'm neither stupid nor brave.  I'm better educated than Huck Finn, and if I had the education I have now, and the foresight, I'd have been with him on the raft because that's where America was going.   We'd have an African American president.  We would have African American generals, and national security advisors, and lawyers, and Oprahs and Denzels.  

Peronally I doubt we are looking at anywhere near the amount of time before pre-Civil War Huckleberry Finn and the Civil Rights Marches.   I don't even think it will take as long as it took Guangdong Province to shrug off Communist Party State Run Appliance Bureau manufacturing for free market investment.   Jim and Huck were both uneducated losers, basically.  My friends in Africa - the ones I picked to partner with - are extremely bright.

I'm hopeful that this picture of Africans is going to get turned around in my lifetime,   And if I can do something to hasten it, glory hallelujiah.

The pile of scrap metal above is another one of several in Tamale, found this on a small city street near a tailor I was meeting.  About 6 tons of end of life whatever.  Yes, I saw one CRT.  But this pile isn't proof of anything except that Africa's no that different than we are, and the term "third world" is so 20th century.

And now for some quotes from my fav Dustin Hoffman film, "Little Big Man"

Jack Crabb: General, you go down there.
General Custer: You're advising me to go into the Coulee?
Jack Crabb: Yes sir.
General Custer: There are no Indians there, I suppose.
Jack Crabb: I didn't say that. There are thousands of Indians down there. And when they get done with you, there won't be nothing left but a greasy spot. This ain't the Washite River, General, and them ain't helpless women and children waiting for you. They're Cheyenne brave, and Sioux. You go down there, General, if you've got the nerve.
General Custer: Still trying to outsmart me, aren't you, mule-skinner. You want me to think that you don't want me to go down there, but the subtle truth is you really *don't* want me to go down there!

Jack Crabb: You're not going to hang me.
General Custer: Your miserable life is not worth the reversal of a Custer decision.


Chris Gerakiteys said...

Hi Robin, I can't find your email and 140 characters isn't enough for me. The fact that most Ghanians have tv and are phenomenal recyclers doesn't mean its ok to ship junk to Africa. I appreciate true recycling in Ghana is an industry many rely upon, and their ingenuity is second to none. But I do think Sodom and Gomorrah stories are as much about irresponsible waste management by both wealthy foreign countries and local authorities more than some white saviour hoax. S and G serves as an excellent illustration of the problems of the modern world.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...


Thanks for continued interest. The allegation that foreigners are dumping waste in Ghana has been examined and proven false in several separate studies. The org making the original allegation has abadoned it. Africans pay on the average $10 for a TV in Australia, then pay $10K to get 1000 at a time through customs (another $10K each), that's $20 per TV before they arrive in Tema port. The TVs have about $2.20 worth of copper. What you see is not foreign dumping, it's the City of Accra's old electronics. Oh, and you certainly didn't see 500 containers worth arriving on trucks there, did you? This is a planned obsolescence hoax which even the NGO's have abandoned.

Links to UN studies here http://retroworks.blogspot.com/2013/06/ban-spins-how-basel-action-network.html

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Oh and by the way, Pieter Hugo's a laughingstock for letting photos of 20 units per day be used in a report claiming 338 tons per day are dumped there. It's shocking anyone can look at the photos, much less visit, and still believe 338 tons per day are managed by 27 young men with wheeled carts. It's the racist shock, the poverty porn, that carries the story. And the only people getting arrested are African TV repairmen like Joe Benson. #freejobenson #freehurricanebenson