Ewaste Witch Hunt #6: Portrait of African Scrapper, Dying for Attention

If you've been following the last 8 blogs about Agbogbloshie in Ghana, you see the tricky place we are approaching.  If the slum dwellers in Accra are burning wire for less than $3 per day, does chasing away the photojournalists do more harm than good?

There's this sense that photos have value, and a sense that some kind of exploitation is going on.  But it travels like a rumor, and the Africans are conflicted in whether to participate or boycott the photojournalists.  It's part of the #charitableindustrialcomplex that they know is "happening" but don't really understand how to monetize.

If the hyperbole about the  "largest e-waste dump on earth" goes away, if the source of the scrap in Agbogbloshie is not "hundreds of containers from sham recyclers" but just pushcarts collecting junk from a city that had 20 TV stations 20 years ago, where does that leave Razak, Awal, and Rachid, the scrappers we did Q-method interview with on film last spring?

Are they still "important"? 

It's a tricky thing.  They have no problem at all "outing" Mike Anane.  The scrappers clearly can't stand the guy. Every time Anane's name or picture came up, Awal's crew would begin talking over each other, standing and yelling.  That didn't come from me.  "HE DEY LIE!" [he lies] It was cried with emotion because they knew what Anane charges for his "photojournalism tours", they know his bogus relationship with the idealist young journalists like Kevin McElvaney, or "BitRot" Bellini, and with Jim Puckett and Lord Chris Smith etc... and they suspected it was part of the "Sodom and Gomorrah" propaganda campaign to evict them from their homes for the Accra Metropolitan Association could take the land over and develop it with hotels, malls, and office complexes.

But 9 months after my return to the USA, I'm haunted by both scrappers and technicians.  They want me back, they want to visit, they tag me on their Facebook pages, they text and call.  And the guy at the bottom of the ladder calls me most often... Awal Basit, wire burner of Agbogbloshie, has my cell phone number.

The screenshot at right shows seven of Awal ("Howell") Basit's 35 calls to my cell in the past 2 weeks... sometimes calling 7 times per day, through the night.  I try to get him to use WhatsApp instead (far right), but he says that phone was stolen.

I want to stay in touch.  I feel bad for not always taking the calls, and it's awkward to write about photojournalism and exoticism and #whitesaviorcomplex while writing about personal relations with Ghana's youth.

Communication is still cheerful and polite, but there's something anxious going on.  It's like Awal wants assurance that he's not, once again, going to be forgotten.

Unlike the 10 technicians employed at Chendiba Enterprises, the Tech Sector workers in Tamale, Awal seems alone.  In Tamale, I can say hi to one guy and ask about 5 others, it's a busy workplace. And it's almost always by Messenger, email, and never at 2 in the morning.

The Technicians of Tamale are the same tribe (Dagomba) as the scrapper Awal in Agbogbloshie.   But they live in relatively decent homes.  They update me from work, as they repair laptops, swapping screens, and install new software.  When they ask how is my family, I can ask them back about their families.

These "tech sector" workers were the valedictorians, the kids who stayed in school, the ones who speak Queens English as needed.  They are very respectful about calling during business hours, and usually text instead.  It's not too much work to stay in touch with Kamal, Kamaldeen, Yussif, Jaleel, Elvis, and the crew at Chendiba Enterprises.  They remind me of my favorite students at Lycee de Ngaoundal, the graduates of 1986 and 87.  I wonder how my life would have changed if I could have stayed in touch with my favorite students.  (One favorite, Sanda Martin, I learned passed away a few years ago, an illness, a fever, they weren't sure what).

But down south, in the City of Accra, among the economic refugee Dagbani of Agbogbloshie, Awal seems afraid to be forgotten. When he calls on the phone, I have a lot of trouble understanding his pidgin.  He's unschooled, and can't seem to get a handle on the 4-5 hour time difference. And after 6 months, he increasingly began to send photos of what makes him important to whitie.

...Selfies of himself burning wire. 

My job is to put the scrapyard in Accra in context.  It's not "where most of the world's e-waste is dumped".  No sea container ever dumped there, there's no evidence of even a truckload a day, the volumes are collected by Awal's homeboys in pushcarts, gathered from homes that had TV in Accra for DECADES.   If you go to youtube, you can find African programming from 1960s and 70s.  The story of a remote fishing village where England's computers are sent to be burned by orphans is fantastically exaggerated;  it well may be (I hope it is) the biggest environmental hoax of all time.

But can it also be a source of revenue?  Does attention to the poor, by itself, bring hope?

If we take the "world's largest e-waste dump" story away from them, do they go back to anonymously blend in with Africa's other poor, the ones burning wood to make charcoal, the ones working in the mines, the sex workers and cotton collectors and poachers?  Does Agbogbloshie simply blend back into the background of development, the "scrap boys" reconnected with the anonymity of the farming villages they left?  Their brothers and cousins and sisters their age who also dropped out of school, and now stand over different fires in Ghana's north, charring wood to sell as charcoal... one of the biggest carbon economies on the planet.

And how does Fair Trade Recycling bring hope to these guys, without playing the role of another NGO #whitesaviorcomplex #SugarMouth?

We'll keep trying.  During the next few months, we'll keep responding to Awal's WhatsApp calls.  We'll forward messages and photos several times a week with the Technicians at Chendiba in Tamale.  We are introducing the Dagbani speaking geeks of Chendiba to Awal, Razak, Rachid and others, and hope to pay them with cheaper reuse items in return for them meeting and taking the calls from their countrymen in Agbogbloshie.

But I'm not really much of a fundraiser.  Where do we go from here?

Next Blog:  Back to Branson, Hillbilly Highway, and converting attention into entertainment.  How to harness the power of white stares.

In 1939, Betty Boop ("Musical Moutaineers") took the big city girl back up the hillbilly highway, to Ozarks or Appalachia.  Popeye re-visited a few years later.   Snuffy Smith, Barney Google, L'il Abner... Later, the Beverley Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Peticoat Junction.

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