BBC Insider Series 2:1. Reggie Yates A Week in a Toxic Waste Dump 2017
If Agbogbloshie is the "largest e-waste dump in the world", or one of the largest, how can we explain the uncanny coincidence that everyone who visits there, even for an hour, meets the same people?
Reggie Yates is a British journalist who is (like Vero, DK, Heather, etc) a second generation Ghanaian immigrant. In this video documentary, he decides to live the life of three random wire burners from the Old Fadama slum. The 53 minute documentary, like previous "Euro Agbo Journo" experiences last summer, revolves around the byline. The journalist is the protagonist, and the background research (into actual dumping claims) is practically nil (gleaned from Anane youtube appearances). I cringed at the opening montage of myths, assuming the hyperbole would once again propel the story.
But watch the video... there is progress...
Surprise! He immediately hooks up with our pals Yahro, Razak, and Awal! The same three musketeers who travelled with me (and PalmAndPlay, and Adam M) to stay with "Ghana Tech" and pal Wahab Odoi, a translator and importer from their Dagomba-speaking tribe around Tamale. The ones who took us to meet their families, where we observed the tech sector, the charcoal stove fuel business, and copper jewelry craftsmen in the area.
These shots are mine - taken when the guys stripped wire by hand to make "fair trade recycling bangles" like the one they give to the BBC reporter at the end of the documentary.
I've been to many slums before, and to this one several times over the years. I know Yahro, Awal, and Razak well. I visited their families in Savelugu and Tamale, have pictures with their kids, and we chat a few times each month by Whatsapp. Reggie Yates' personal contact with them seems very genuine, if he perhaps misunderstands some of the Pidgin (for example Yahro doesn't say he hasn't seen his family for 4 years, in fact he was there with me in January and February 2017).
You have to hand it to these Three Musketeers. Awal has learned that photographers are attracted to flames, and by squeezing the most fuel into a tire, he can take control of every film crew. Not that there is much competition... we only counted 25 people at the wire burning site on most days. (Not thousands).
|Our trip north to meet 3 muskateer fams|
It's worth watching because, at least for 'e-waste', yes, this really is it. The 7 days Yates spends there pretty much capture the entire Agbo e-waste scene. You can watch this whole thing and pretty much know everything.
Did you miss the 500 sea containers being unloaded? Nope. There aren't any. With time, I hope Yates will go see what 10 tons of e-waste actually looks like, at a facility like mine, and imagine seeing that arrive in an hour by wheelbarrow.
The only African Tech Sector representative appears in the video when Awal takes Yates to buy scrap from an imported goods shop. The (unnamed) secondhand shopkeeper tells Reggie they are not importing "waste" or "scrap". Study after study has proved the shopkeeper is, for the most part, correct. Importers cannot afford to import junk, and they don't. They fly and inspect goods, they will sample store returns to see if it's an easy repair. The cost of shipping from the UK is about $5,000 and they certainly don't import VCRs (the junk Awal buys for scrap). Reuse shops did import VCRs 10-30 years ago, used. But today, Ghana residents bring them in for repair or exchange for something newer, a laptop or cell phone perhaps, leaving them at the secondhand shops.
Yates does find a UK store return at the shop and raises his eyebrows. I've seen imported recalls, perhaps the one he saw in the shop. But they are usually purchased and tested in the UK. Yates doesn't plug it in, or find out how representative the sample is (this is photojournalism not data-journalism). Certainly he can see that the shopkeeper isn't selling it for scrap, and that it's too expensive for Awal to buy for scrap, and stuff he sees at the junkyard is much older... nothing adds up. Awal buys the scrap VCRs, not the store return. In any case, I challenge anyone to find enough "bad goods" in Accra shops to fill the Agbogbloshie they describe. Yates implies it's evidence of controversial import of bad goods. This "tidy little shop" isn't newsworthy... but Yates handling of Awal's negotiation gives us another glimpse of the reporter as protagonist.
Reggie hasn't quite made the case that Agbogbloshie is anything but a city junkyard, similar to one in Essex or Dublin or Marseille, but with lower wages, more smoke, and lesser tools. And I think if he sits and has a beer with me in a year or two, he'll agree the situation is kinda ordinary.
African consumers have been "consuming" electronics since at least the 1980s (when I lived in Cameroon for 30 months). A lot of "waste" is eventually generated in West Africa. The more affluent the African city, the more e-waste. If the export economy was really based on externalization and poverty, that wouldn't be the case. Yates shows us the scrap exchanges up close, and we can see with our own eyes that it's being collected house-by-house, piece by piece, not dumped by container ships.
Yates shows how Awal buys the VCRs for a scrap metal price, and they wheel them to a consolidator, who pays Awal for footwork.
The journey of the scrap VCRs, by foot, is an example of where the documentary shines. The 3 musketeers do not remain "props", and are not nameless faceless viet cong in this BBC production. Though he has no Dagbani translator, Reggie Yates deserves credit for listening, as best he can, to the individuals who make the fires. The guys told me this morning that Reggie was cool.
Here's a screenshot of Awal, in the documentary, who you will also recognize was the Blazing Tires "child" filmed by @itsSashaRainbow for the @officialPlacebo MTV video early this summer.
Even if it's not his intentional focus, Yates finds himself surrounded by a slum full of smart phones, FIFA jerseys, and rappers. We can see with our own eyes that even the lowest scrapper has a TV set in his room. Yates notes the traffic on a nearby highway. He says he's been to Accra many times, and didn't know the slum was there.
World Bank data clearly demonstrates that Ghana is not a "primitive" place, and that the vast majority of Accra households owned at least one television in 2001. World Cup and Africa Cup viewership is nearly universal. 20 TV channels are viewable in Accra, and there were 250 TV stations in Africa in 1977, for heavens sake. The amount of junk at the Agbogbloshie scrapyard is if anything too light for a city of 3M residents... probably because Africans hang onto their electronics as long as they can.
Of course, up close and personal is also the "byline trap". When a reporter's name or face features prominently in a story, it too often stops being journalism, and becomes a kind of talking-head on reality-tv. Yates remains seduced by his role in the lives of "the boys", and while he obviously means well, a great deal of footage is wasted on him demonstrating just that. I learned after Peace Corps that having been to a brave and exotic place can help one seem interesting, help you pick up chicks, etc. Etc! Etc.
Like tire fires, journalism can be a testosterone high, or what I call a "graffiti economy" (time spent which is not really explained by monetary added value of the product).
Reggie Yates producers could have contacted some of the experienced reporters (Minter, Spaull) and researchers (Akese, Lepawsky, Miller) who have dispelled most of the hysteria about "hundreds of sea containers" being dumped and "pawed through" by "thousands of orphans" (I'm not exaggerating, the claims - with "millions of tons" - published in 2010-2014). He should demand a follow up. We can arrange for him to visit laptop repair shops and other importers, without whom Accra would never have had the "critical mass of users" to invest in cell phone towers, internet cable, etc. I usually go to Agbogbloshie with savvy tech sector workers from Tamale, who translate the Dagbani language with Razak, Awal, Yahro, Muhammed etc.
We made the copper bangles (bracelets), and filmed the process, and I encourage the "boys" (I call them guys, musketeers, or men) to give them out to reporters if they have been honest and fair with them. I take it from Reggie's parting gift that he passed that test.
Anyway I've been in touch with the guys and shared Yates photo - they remember him and seem to think well of him. So I won't bash him, just gently chide BBC for re-publishing these outlandish crazy stories about hundreds of sea containerloads being dumped there. And, yes, thank him for showing how little scrap is there, how many people (30 in e-waste, 250 in car scrap), how specialized a place it is, how little money is made in fire compared to hustle, how wheelbarrows (not sea containers) drive sales. If you turn the sound off, you can learn a lot.
Agbogbloshie workers are a living, breathing part of the Circular Economy. And that circle does not revolve around Europe. While the used goods may disappear into reuse for decades, all the copper and circuitboards eventually get purchased and re-enter the world economy. The TV on Joe Benson's sea container goes on a much deeper dive, has a much longer life, but the copper will emerge, bringing wealth to a place that added value. #freejoebenson
Euro Agbo Porno Journos need to meet one challenge. In composing your "takeaway", please do not advocate for those who insist that arresting geeks and boycotting emerging markets does something compassionate. You can push the button on the shredder yourself, but you haven't done anything to improve anyone's lives. You probably made them worse.
Instead of leaving UK citizens with a foolish notion that arresting #freejoebenson and boycotting #geeksofcolor and shredding, rather than exporting, used electronics will somehow benefit these young men, reporters could promote the clean copper recycling process. You can buy the same bangles, made by the same men and women, and actually put some money on the table, and share the contacts Reggie Yates and others are making among your friends. The conditions of fair trade bangles include the safety measures (masks, gloves, doctors visits, etc) that Yates 'invents'.
With "fair trade rules", you only resell the copper rings, earrings, and bracelets that are collected without burning. By doing that, you use the trade with Africa to actually make a difference in Awal, Razak, Yahro, Muhammed etc.s lives.
Reggie Yates was there in June (Ramadan), the anniversary of the AMA bulldozing and forced evictions (not mentioned), and 4 months after Awal posed with this copper bangle, filmed in a fair trade process, near the home of Kamaldeen - the laptop technician whose father is the metalsmith. Kamaldeen is about the same age as the three musketeers, speaks the same local tongue, and grew up in the same places. Kamaldeen did not drop out of school - he went on to college and got a degree in electrical and electronic engineering. Today he fixes and resells laptops in a shop in the center of Tamale. Reggie should meet him, too.
|Reggie Yates gets a recycled copper Agbo bangle|
If Reggie Yates and BBC want to go back and tell the other side of the Exotic Story of E-Waste in Africa, give me a call and I'll show you the intersection of Agbogbloshie and Chendiba Enterprises. You will feel a little bit better about Europe and UK's roles in "exports". I "f*king promise", Reggie.