Agbogbloshie Ghana: Eden & Hell Ain't What it Used to Be

The Economist Babbage Blog and recent Guardian pieces, rerunning the "A Place Called Away" portrait of Ghana Electronics recycling are kinda wow, kinda 2008.

Any true student of urban studies know that these cities are changing day by day.

I was sticking my neck out in 2010, telling folks that the Guardian Newspaper photos of 2 tons of white monitors in Agbobloshie did not prove the thesis that people like Joe Benson were "organized crime" for exporting 500 tons of black hotel televisions.  The photos at Agbogbloshie (@Guardian "Sodom and Gomorrah", another exotic biblical reference) practically disprove the allegation on their own.  1990s waste outside an African city does not mean that 2000s product purchased in Essex London is headed for the same place.

This is about People and Geography, not about Stuff.  There is no "Hell" on any geography map, and there is no "Eden",  and there is no place called "Away".   People who describe emerging markets with words like "Hell" and "Eden" have a Victorian Economist view of the world.

Or maybe it's more the Mary Poppins timeline.  Saving Mary Poppins and SavingAfrica have a certain theme in common.

Below are 4 Key "World Travellers" of 2014 who are making the great E-Waste Hoax go away.  Not with a Bang nor a whimper, but with a Tweet.


Eric Prempeh
We sent Emmanuel Eric Nyaletey Prempeh, our Good Point Recycling Ghana Tech to Ghana in February.  He spent most of the time visiting his own family (with his new Vermont wife), but also went to the tech repair village and to Agbogbloshie (different places) and took photos.  I'm working on an article interviewing Eric and showing the problem from the point of view of an African.  AFAIK This is the first time an African technician and repair professional has ever been interviewed first hand.

Emmanuel Eric surprised us by getting a full scholarship to Georgia Tech in April (Earth Week, and the anniversary of the Fair Trade Recycling Summit of 2013 which he spoke at).  Good for you, Eric.  He is still online supporting our staff at Good Point, still the expert to meet.  I scored short internships with my two sons (Jake is scavenging for parts with Eric at left).  Jake rebuilt a compute with Eric (the only way I'd let him own one) from parts, and Morgan took over parts inventory to support one of the sales Eric helped prepare for Dubai or Pakistan.

Wahab Muhammed Odoi is now sitting in Emmanuel Eric's chair, he is actually a buyer of PCs for his home in Ghana, lives in Vermont about 80% of the year.  He's pictured between Frederique Somda (Burkina Faso), Oscar A Orta (Mexico), and Martign van Englend (Netherlands), a the Summit in the photo above.  Wahab goes more regularly to Ghana and has also been giving us lots of photos.  He is trying to sponsor a young man from Accra, Musah Abdul Jaleel, to come as our next Fair Trade Recycling Intern.  Musah excels at fixing printers and copy machines, would come (like Fred Somda and Yadji Moussa) to learn the recycling side of the business.  In the Fair Trade Recycling model, we discount the price of working items we sell to refurbishing markets which take back local (African, Asian, Latino) e-waste, using the value to create solutions.

(Will soon announce our newest intern, Camila Fernandez, who just returned to Middlebury after 5 months in Germany and 5 months in Brazil.  On her way back she stopped and visited three recycling and refurbishing plants in Lima and Paita Peru.   Will cover her work in a separate blog).


@RecyHub and @Amp and "neo-nomad" @Panurban have been busy white people, camped in Agbogbloshie for weeks, getting to know Ghana technicians, interview them, eat with them, and get to know them.   They've arranged donations of tech appropriate copper wire shredders and even a drone (not sure whether that's for cutting edge or cutting hedge).  It's been labeled a "makers" project.

Embedded image permalink

In fact, the longer I follow the RecyHub tweets, the more people like @AMP and @Panurban and  Michael @Mistyclench99 I meet.  That's how fast this is changing.  And that's why the Guardian and Economist and UK press in general's coverage of Geeks of Color is so damn awful, any remote amount of background work would have shown them the story of 80% waste burning exports is economically infeasible.

Embedded image permalink

Now I gave RecyHub a bit of a twitter scolding for advertising the projects in a "Save the Africans" manner  and their tweets are still a little bit #WhiteSaviorComplex, for my tastes.   But I really must say, they took it like troopers and stayed in touch.  When I first lived in Africa, I did my share of the photography of poverty... it's like taking a picture of the Statute of Liberty to "prove" you've been there.    I have never returned to live in Africa for as long as RecyHub, PanUrban and @Amp have, and I applaud their work.

But see #4 Framed Film, and read Kathryn Mathers TakePart Editorial "Why Won't the White Savior Complex Go Away?"


Memorial U team at Retroworks de Mexico,
I previously mentioned Reassembling Rubbish, the online news source assembled by Dr. Josh Lepawsky and the team at Memorial University (Mostaem Billah, Grace Akese, Charles Mather, Chris McNabb, Erin T, Tamara Tukhareli, et. al.)

I should point out in particular the cartograms which are based on actual data of actual used electronics shipments.  Two things jump out at me.  First - huge changes in the flows of "waste" over the decades - they paint a very dynamic, almost weather-like picture of trade in sea containers, changing directions and places.   Second, they totally reinforce my descriptions of these flows over my 8 years of writing.

Look below at the volumes to Indonesia.  Indonesia had the PT Imtech and PT Mag factories, which remanufactured SKD or semiknockdown CRTs to service India's CRT demand market.  Those were ISO computer monitor assembling factories, not "primitive wire burning villages" (as described by Allen Hershkowitz of NRDC, when PT Imtech seizures were covered by Beth Daley of the Boston Globe).  They are the big brown lines in the "old" decade frame, and have practically disappeared in the modern catrogram.  That is largely because their business has shrunk down to just a million CRT televisions per year sold to India (used to be much larger), though it may also be that they learned their lesson, stopped buying from nations (like the USA) who call them primitive, and cause their containers to be seized as "hazardous waste".

In the beginning, I was worried that Memorial U also would be frightened by the White Saviors (Basel Action Network) and pull their punches.   They have had some interesting cross-cultural lessons in Sonora, Mexico, having as much to do with proximity to poverty as with language and culture.   But what I really love about the Memorial University team is the built-in partnership.  Mostaem Billah is from Bangladesh, and Grace Akese is from Ghana, and I forget which woman is from Mexico.  Josh may not be the whitest white boy I've ever met, but I'm not 100% sure of that.  He's got a terrific sense of humor and no one could accuse him of any bias in his approach to the study of e-waste.  Did I just write that?  Well, I have to drop these bombs to keep people reading.


We made a modest contribution to the Kickstarter Project #Framed with Cassandra Herrman and Kathryn Mathers.   #WhiteSaviorComplex is a nicer hashtag than my "#AccidentalRacism?" rhetorical question, but I wrote that in the fog of war in 2009-11 when the press was having its feeding frenzy on the geeks of color.

A few other video projects are charging down the same alley, #RustyRadiator in particular, which attempts to use humor to bring the #WhiteSaviorComplex out in the open.


Ok, that's a tease. I'm leaving for Europe for 2 weeks.

...But the rumors abound.   Since the loss of $1.5M in Vermont recycling business last year (merci a Montpelier), and the drop in payroll (from $26k per week a year ago to $10k per week this week), and our dropping of ISRI, Chamber of Commerce, VBSR and other organizational memberships, people are talking.  
And we may have to sell or lease our flagship property before next spring.  That is psychologically difficult for employees and investors.  A major blow to the business' Ego.  But the Great White Ego is what this blog is all about.

Look, it has been incredibly difficult not to ride my own high horse into the #WhiteSaviorComplex sunset.

Two years ago this month, I was writing on the beach about the passing of my dear and troubled friend, Yadji Moussa.  It was challenging to write about someone who was such a hero to me in 1984 that I called him a Ghandi-like, MLK-like person in Ngaoundal, Cameroon.   My Peace Corps replacement found it so true she married him, had two kids, and I was thrilled when they moved to the USA.  But I had to also be honest that he was with me in Vermont because he'd failed as a father, spent time in prison for repeated drunk driving, and on the last occasion in prison I basically put him there by calling the police as he drove off, shitfaced and without a license.  It was rather difficult to write about, and I was rather emotional, and at least one reader on the blog commented that I was treating him like a child and subtly making myself his savior.  #CovertRacism was her hashtag.

Why Won’t White Savior Complex Go Away?
PeaceCorps Facebook We can be heroicizing just for one day

You can kind of roll that punch off when you physically lived in the same house with a guy and have been close friends and financially entangled for 30 years.   Yadji was with me from the beginning.  He and I had deep philosophical discussions in Cameroon (and I never once saw him drink alcohol there, in 30 months) about creating a business out of repair and reuse imports.  He told me as a child how his family would save money to travel to Lagos to buy bales of used clothing, bring the bale back to the village, and begin sewing back buttons and torn rips.  He moved to New England when I said I was going to start this business, when it was only an idea, and he saw us grow, and was happy to be part of it.  He was sharing in the American dream, and at the same time proud of the Technicians, Geeks, and Fixers we were bringing to visit from Africa.  While he was not a tech, he was proud of the people coming here to do business with us.

The point is that I was heroicizing Yadji in the 1980s.  I was doing it because he was an underdog among thousands of Africans, he was not someone I met in the USA context.  But I recognize that in raising him high in my esteem, I was also setting myself up.  And I reintroduce it in today's blog because any of our Fair Trade Recycling projects could come to a bad end.  There are no guarantees.  We are all just human.

Heroicizing is not that far from exoticizing... they are on the same psychological map.

My best lesson, teaching Cross Culture to new Peace Corps Volunteers (was hired as a trainer by PC USA), was to beware "fast friends".   People who show up and are overly eager to "have a white friend" or seem to go out of their way to meet you are statistically less likely to remain a true friend than someone you meet naturally, like another teacher at your school, or the man who cooks eggs at your favorite chophouse (that was Yadji).  When you actually trade with people, work side by side with people, and rely on each other, that's where racism doesn't really disappear exactly, but is diluted away by so many more relative interdependencies that it just has no leverage.  You don't mix it away with photos.

I think all 4 of the shout outs in this blog, Eric and Wahab, the @gbogbloshie Makers, Memorial University, and Framed Documentary, Rusty Radiator, and other filmmakers, are all crossing the line, all going deep enough into the subject to bring the E-Waste Hoax into a state of autocorrect chorus.  This hoax is dead, it just does not know it yet.   It will be impossible a year from now for me to mention by name all the people making a difference.

Economist's Babbage, The Guardian, and a recent horrible documentary from Australia I won't link to, show that racism still has a market.  But it's selling to people in their fifties who still use the phrase "Third World".  The young people today who are travelling way to much and seeing way to many Youtube videos, meeting Brazilians like Joe Penna (like Penna, Camila Fernandez moved to the USA from South America in kindergarten.  Her father worked in construction jobs in Boston and they spoke only Spanish at the home).

It's just too easy today to meet face to face with people in their twenties who have been to Africa and who have become bored running across the street to snap #I-was-here photos of poor people.  As Colin Davis put it, when describing his trip to Penang to audit Net Peripheral, it was a dangerous place... dodging Mercedes and BMWs in the Malaysian parking lots.

But anyway, the theme of this blog is that if RERA advocates think that by putting Joe Benson in prison and costing Robin I his factory building, that they will be able to put the Tinkerer Genie back in its bottle, they are wrong.  I no more "discovered" the geeks of color than Columbus discovered India.  I can bury my ego in 50,000 years of yin, yang, omm.  All the continents have officially been discovered.  Yes there are about 2 billion people who don't even have electricity and cannot even use a working computer, some in Western China, some in Ethiopia, etc.  They've even discovered a lost tribe in the Amazon this year.  But guess what, those are NOT the people in urban Nigeria who buy TVs from Joe Benson.   There's a big group between the OECD's rich and the dirt poor, and they are doing business.

That a man like Joe Benson is sitting in a prison cell for shipping working and repairable televisions to Lagos for Africans to watch the World Cup doesn't seem to make anyone quite as mad as it makes me... but that's good, because the danger is that I'll heroicize him.  It's just a case of environmental malpractice.

AutoCorrect Chorus:

The 4 anti-Hoax happenings above come from many directions.  There is a "gold rush" to expose the false pretense of the Basel Action Network E-Waste Hoax.

And they don't need me.

David Tomlinson's voice over as the parrot-handled umbrella, to Mary Poppins, is familiar to every  parent of grown children.  My twins both turned 18 last month (their birthday is the anniversary of Yadji's drowning, BTW).  My daughter is off to college in a foreign country, my son is in the USA, but at United World College, about 300 kids from about 120 nations.  My wife and youngest are in France, where I'm headed tonight.

Parrot Umbrella: Awk, that's gratitude for you. Didn't even say goodbye?
Mary Poppins: No, they didn't.
Parrot Umbrella: Look at them! You know, they think more of their father than they do of you!
Mary Poppins: That's as it should be.
Parrot Umbrella: Well, don't you care?
Mary Poppins: Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.
Parrot Umbrella: Is that so? Well, I'll tell you one thing, Mary Poppins: you don't fool me a bit!
Mary Poppins: Oh, really?
Parrot Umbrella: Yes, really. I know exactly how you feel about these children, and if you think I'm going to keep my mouth shut any longer, I'll...
[she clamps his mouth shut]
Mary Poppins: That will be quite enough of that, thank you.

No one who discovers another country owns it.  Eric and Wahab don't own the USA, and I don't own Africa.

But I'm imbalanced, Jim Puckett (BAN) told a mutual friend.  He said he was worried about my sanity, said I'm unhinged.

Mad, yes.  With Interpol drinking his kool-aid, he threatens to ruin Africa for everyone.

There is no "Eden" and no "Hell" on Memorial University maps.  There are no "witches brews".  There are cities, cities which have electricity, where people are looking for jobs, cities with taxis, with slums, with crime, and sports fans.

Taking recycling and repair jobs off the table in rapidly emerging markets, to force feed shredding equipment with RERA dollars, and telling Egyptian students of democracy to spend half their annual incomes on "brand new" displays that don't work 1/3 of the time, it's just so bloody awful.  Now, practically everyone knows.

Let's Go fly a kite.

No comments: