A Journal of Emerging Challenges
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Agbogbloshie Ghana Society

Urban Outcasts: Children of Agbogbloshie

Urban poverty, children in toxic spaces, and hazardous child labour.

February 17, 2020

Copyright © Muntaka Chasant

Urban poverty, children in toxic spaces, and hazardous child labour.

Their wailings are forever in my ears; day by day the spectacle of their suffering and their dreadful misery rends my feelings. Were I for a time inclined to forget them, some new scene of wretchedness would be sure to rivet my attention to the subject.

Kenneth E. Carpenter, British Labour Struggles: Contemporary Pamphlets, 1727-1850

Note: Images in this post are strictly for documentary and editorial purposes. Do not use in any context without a license or permission.

CRITICAL DEVELOPMENT TO THIS STORY: This story was published around 9 PM (GMT) on February 17, 2020. A friend of Malik’s family reached out the next morning (February 18, 2020), disclosing that Malik had been a missing person since August 2019. They had posters of him — as a missing person — plastered across Madina in Accra, where he had lived with his family. I quickly made arrangements, and I’m happy to say Malik was reunited with his family on February 19, 2020. This excites me greatly. See photos of Malik reuniting with family and some key details at the bottom of this post.

Children of Agbogbloshie, Ghana

Hundreds of children living on the margins of modern Accra are growing up in toxic landscapes — in spaces that are gradually mutating into instances of Rob Nixon’s1 slow violence.

Electronic waste, generated mostly by people in Ghana, is poisoning a generation of young people in and around Agbogbloshie.

The harsh realities of urban life in Accra have pushed many children to the fringes, where they live in severe material and social deprivation.

I’m drawing on Nixon’s spatial concept of violence as it has the potential to help us assess ‘long-term harm’ in the context of Agbogbloshie. Nixon’s concept pushes back against the notion of ‘long-term emergencies’ and nudges us to explore long-term outcomes in toxic spaces.

This is how Nixon explained what he meant by slow violence:

“By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”

Successive governments in Ghana have often perceived concerns over toxicity and hazardous livelihoods at a place such as Agbogbloshie as ‘long-term emergencies’ because they are not spectacular, explosive, or instant in the way they manifest. But Nixon warned in an interview here with Ashley Dawson that, those emergencies aren’t static — in the interim, they’re being compounded; often they encroach more and more emphatically on the present.

Thom Davies elaborates on Nixon’s slow violence: they are often attritional, disguised, and temporally latent, making the articulation of slow violence a representational challenge. In a world of click-bait and 24 hour news, how do we make sense of long-form disasters that do not display themselves in spectacular moments of terror as a single event, but instead quietly accumulate and defer their damage over time?2

With their suffering hidden in plain sight, urban children such as those I have documented on this post are frequently the first casualties of Nixon’s slow violence.

Children working around Agbogbloshie’s toxic landscapes have been the subject of many documentaries and reports3 4 over the years. Yet, successive governments in Ghana have done absolutely nothing to tackle this hazardous child labour situation.

The International Labour Organization defines hazardous child labour5 as:

…work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

…work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health;

Nearly 2 million children in Ghana are in child labour, according to UNICEF6. Around 14% of them are in hazardous work.

Narratives about Agbogbloshie have frequently portrayed the children engaged in hazardous work around the area as passive in the link between recovered resources in the waste stream and the global production circuits.

Using their bare hands, stones, and hammers to retrieve iron materials from old television sets at Agbogbloshie can result in injury, sickness, and even death.

The recovered materials are used by the local industry. Some are exported out of Ghana, where they are reprocessed and used in new devices.

The Government of Ghana (through export taxes), the Agbogbloshie scrap dealers and their clientele earn the most from this situation.

For me, the neglect of this hazardous child labour degrades Ghana’s national character.

Below are the stories of Kwadwo, Yaw, Twum, Malik, and Junior Adama.

Kwadwo on December 25, 2019, at Agbogbloshie, Ghana

While a lot of children around the world were at home celebrating Christmas with loved ones on December 25, 2019, Kwadwo, 9 years old, was on the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana, as early as 7 AM, using his bare hands, stones, and hammers to break apart old television sets to recover the iron materials inside. 

Kwadwo does this on most days in order to buy food and clothes. “I give the rest of the money to my mother, ” Kwadwo explained.

Extreme poverty in female-headed urban households and the rising cost of urban living are some of the factors framing child labour around Agbogbloshie.

Children are seen as domestic responsibilities in advanced societies. In contrast, children are sometimes viewed as resources that boost or enhance household survival in many intense poverty areas in Ghana.

As an urban minefield, Agbogbloshie connects recovered resources in the waste stream to global reprocessing networks, where the retrieved materials are used as primary inputs in the production of new products.

The practice of reclaiming valuable metals from e-waste is now known as urban mining. It’s the new gold rush, and futurists are starting to see it as the ultimate frontier in minerals exploitation.

A Note/ It does look on the surface that poverty has a tight grip on people living around Agbogbloshie. This is true in most cases. However, it is important to note that, it is not only the poor who participate in this waste economy. This is a very lucrative business.

CRT Glass

Certain hazardous materials in electronics have been banned for decades. But because the majority of the TVs that end up at a place such as Agbogbloshie are old, they mostly contain toxic substances that pose serious risks to human health and the environment.

Examples are televisions and computer monitors based on cathode-ray tube (CRT).

CRT is a type of vacuum tube which displays images and contains electron guns and phosphorescent surface.

Unlike most modern televisions which use LED and Plasma to display images, a lot of old television sets and computer monitors are based on CRT.

CRT TVs and monitors contain leaded glass and are known to pose risks to human health and the environment.7

According to this table, a 25-inch legacy TV based on CRT manufactured in the US contains more than 4 pounds of lead.

It is important to note — before you start pointing fingers — that the vast bulk of the electronic waste that is urban mined at Agbogbloshie these days is generated by people in Ghana. This is Ghana Government’s problem to tackle.

What Are The Health Effects of Lead Exposure?

There is no known safe blood lead level, according to the World Health Organization. It means that even a small amount can pose a serious health risk to both children and adults.

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to lead can cause damage to children’s brain and nervous system, impact their growth and development, and can even cause learning, hearing and speech problems.8

Exposure to lead can cause permanent neural and cognitive impairments in children, according to a 2013 study published in the Theoretical Biology and Medical Modeling.9

A study by Richard Canfield and other researchers found a significant link between high blood lead concentration and a decline in IQ in children.10

Kwadwo and other children on December 26, 2019, at Agbogbloshie, Ghana

I returned the following day, December 26, 2019, and found Kwadwo, this time with his siblings — Twum and Yaw — and two other young people (Junior Adama and Malik).

Kwadwo was excited to see me, as I had interacted with him on Christmas day. He introduced me to his siblings and other children around.

Kwadwo told me he made GH₵23 (around $4) on the December 25, showing me how much he had earned on the Boxing Day — GH₵25.

They congregated around me and recalled their tales of struggles for bare existence in desperate, grinding poverty.

Together, we explored the health and environmental risks involved in their hazardous work, and agreed that Agbogbloshie was not a safe environment for them.

The trio brothers then asked,how do we buy food, clothes and give money to our mother then?

I couldn’t answer this one.

Kwadwo, Twum and Yaw live near Graphic Road — about 10 min walk from the Agbogbloshie scrapyard.

A kilogram of iron as of January 2021 sold for GH₵1 (around $0.18) at Agbogbloshie. 

Kwadwo is able to earn around GH₵3 or more ($0.50) from one large television. But his exposure to lead and other heavy metals cannot be counted in money.

For Kwadwo to earn an average of GH₵20 (around $3.50) each day, he would have to break apart at least 5 or more large television sets containing dangerous levels of lead.

My heart blazed when a plastic covering a TV screen cut through Kwadwo’s index finger as he was attempting to recover the iron materials inside. You can see this key moment in the video below.

“We are frequently cut by broken CRT glass. You only have to return another time, and you would find that a lot of us are badly injured,” Twum said to me in Twi, a local dialect.

Kwadwo, Twum, and Yaw all assured me they do go to school alright — but come to the scrapyard after school hours to scavenge for scrap metals.

Kwadwo and other young people again on December 30, 2019, at Agbogbloshie, Ghana

I returned for the 3rd time to check up on the boys. They met me with excitement and started showing me how much they had earned for the day, with Yaw showing me traces of blood on his thumb.

Yaw was cut by a broken CRT glass.

Our mother just put ointment on our cut whenever we go home with an injury,” Yaw explained.

Surprised by my curiosity, they gathered and showed me some of their most recent cuts.

Junior Adama 

The brothers left, so I met with Junior Adama, 13 years old. There below, Adama had been cut very badly by a broken CRT glass. I don’t know when this happened, but it wasn’t looking good.

I had him sent to the nearest clinic to have it checked.

Adama claimed his parents, who live at Accra New Town (around 5 km from Agbogbloshie), did not care for him. He left home — with their consent — and hasn’t been bothered to go back for more than a year now.

Adama joins other destitute children to sleep on cardboard sheets under a shed near the e-waste dump every night. Sometimes on piles of used clothes ‘for sale’ at Kantamanto. His hands and neck were covered with rashes and mosquito bites.

“They know I’m here at Agbogbloshie, and once in a while, briefly stop by to check up on me,” Adama told me about his estranged parents.

Adama joins other destitute children to sleep on cardboard sheets under a shed near the e-waste dump every night. Sometimes on piles of used clothes ‘for sale’ at June 4th (Kantamanto). His hands and neck were covered with rashes and mosquito bites when I last saw him.

Junior Adama on January 18, 2020

I returned about 3 weeks later.

Adama looked healed, but according to the US CDC, lead within our body, for instance, is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood, and tissues, resulting in long-term internal exposure.

The effects of prolonged exposure to lead in children can be devastating and irreversible. This includes permanent intellectual disability, developmental delays, learning, and behavioral problems.

Update on Adama (July 24, 2020): Malik told me on February 19, 2020, that Adama got sick and his parents came for him. However, I bumped into Adama on July 24, 2020, at Agbogbloshie after nearly 6 months. He’s now back on the fringes of Agbogbloshie.


I published this story on the night of February 17, 2020 (around 9 PM GMT). I woke up to a message from a Facebook User that she knew Malik, and that he had gone missing since August 2019. His family had gone to the police and have searched everywhere for him. They had his face plastered (as a missing person) across Madina, a suburb of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

Taken back by this, I quickly reached out to this person, and she connected me to Wasila, Malik’s aunt. I called Agbogbloshie and had Malik tracked down. I didn’t think it was a good idea to let him in on all of this yet. I had two burner boys keep an eye out on his movements around the scrapyard.

I picked up Wasila and two other companions around 11 AM the following day. I informed some prominent members of the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association about the situation and requested for an emergency meeting.

I had a burner boy tell Malik the morning of the Feb 19, 2020, to hang around as I’m coming in to see him.

We arrived at Agbogbloshie around noon on Feb 19, 2020.

After a brief chat with members of the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association, it was time to meet Malik. The leadership ‘instructed’ we go and ‘find’ him and come along with him to their office. This didn’t seem like a big deal at all.

I had hoped to go in advance to have a sit down with him and prepare his mind, but this was totally out of the question as the family was anxious to see him. He needed someone to prepare him. Family issues in Ghana are tricky, and I tried not to stay in the way of it.

Wasila busted into tears as soon as she laid eyes on Malik. She hid her face near the side of a pile of secondhand blue jeans being sold on a handcart, to cry her heart out. The hand-rawn cart clothes seller was caught off guard by this, and was left wondering what was happening. It was touching to see her totally broken down.

They didn’t say much to each other except Malik on one side looking calm and Wasila on the other side weeping profusely in the full glare of the public.

I pulled Malik aside, had a word with him, and assured him of my full support.

We had a very tense meeting with some members of the association. Some of them told me they were not aware that some of the children they see around Agbogbloshie could be missing persons.

I offered to drive them with Malik back home.

Malik had no single possession after living and working as an urban miner at Agbogbloshie for more than half a year. He lived in the moment. There was nothing for him to pack. Only the t-shirt and the greasy pants he wore. And just GH₵5 (around $1.00) in his pocket.

He had to be whisked away by this family.

Below, Malik is finally home. His family celebrating his return.

Showering a person with talcum powder signifies victory in most Ghanaian settings.

Wasila was excited, so were her family members and neighbors. People trooped in to congratulate her on the return of her nephew.

Her neighbors had witnessed her sob and whimper over Malik’s disappearance over the last 6 months.

Malik took a cold shower. His cousin offered him a new t-shirt and what appeared to be an undergarment. Then a small party followed:

Looking worn out, Malik snacked on mango juice and some biscuits.

I spent a little time with them and left. But not before Wasila gifted me a piece of fabric as her appreciation for having found her nephew through me. She insisted.

I drove out of the area. Parked. Laid my head on the steering wheel and cried for about 10 minutes. Strange turn of events.

I’m now looking for someone willing to council him.

This is no time to attempt to theorize all of this. That will surely come in due course. For now, a family in distress have found their missing child, and that makes me happy beyond words.

I won’t stretch this story of urban poverty here. Feel free to weigh in.

I’m still processing everything. But for the meantime, I’ll remain active in Malik’s life.

Here are some key facts of this case as I have recently come to understand them:

  • Malik lost his mother when he was around 2 years old. His mother was around 24 years when she passed away.
  • Malik lived at Kintampo, a town in the central part of Ghana.
  • He joined Wasila, his mother’s sister, in Accra around 2013-2014 there about.
  • He was in school and there were no signs of distress. He was a normal kid, according to his family.
  • He left home on August 16, 2019 (Wasila told me). But The poster above is dated August 9th as the day Malik went missing. Both August 9th and 16th 2019 fell a on Friday.
  • According to Malik himself, he walked on foot from Madina to Agbogbloshie — more than a 25 km journey.
  • He earned ₵40-50 ( around $7.5 – 9.5) on average per day while at Agbogbloshie. He told us this himself. By this, Malik was earning more than most Ghanaians per day. That would put him roughly around $3000 per annum. Ghana’s GDP per capita is around $2200, according to the World Bank.

Malik told me that Junior Adama got really sick, and his parents came for him.

Adama was right — his parents pushed him to Agbogbloshie.

Again, I won’t strech this.


I received a frantic call from Wasila on March 15, 2020, that Malik has gone missing again. He was gone for 2 hours, and she was devastated. I was shattered by this news as well.

She tasked me to track him down.

Documenting the struggles of people on the underside has taken me to the very edge of modern Accra. I quickly reached out to a few people on Accra’s fringes to be on the lookout for Malik.

There was no news on March 16, so I went in myself to the margins of Agbogbloshie on March 17.

I finally ran into a scrap dealer who told me he had seen Malik the previous day. “I saw him weigh some goods, collected his money, and left the scene quickly,” the scrap dealer revealed.

This meant Malik was not far — just being careful not to leave any tracks behind him.

I zoomed in on Malik after a few hours of search, and there, Malik again!

There’s obviously more to all of this.

I had some time with him. This time, the 14-year-old Malik told me school is not his thing and that he prefers to live on the fringes of Agbogbloshie to cannibalize from e-waste.

It’s the age of urban mining, and Malik is not willing to easily give up his stake in this ‘fast cash’ informal industry.

It’s the age of urban mining, and Malik is not willing to easily give up his stake in this ‘fast cash’ informal industry.

Malik has indeed confirmed to me that Wasila has not abused him in any way. In fact, she has been very kind to him — just that she nags at him sometimes. For instance, she wouldn’t let him dance in the streets.

“I felt embarrassed whenever he did his newly found ‘weirdo’ dance in the full glare of the public,” Wasila told me when I later asked her.

I then called to inform Wasila that I have found Malik, but he says he’d prefer to remain at Agbogbloshie. She was traumatized to hear this.

He later decided to come with me, but on the condition that he’s going to be allowed to state his terms.

Malik turned around and picked up a new set of clothes. A used t-shirt and jeans for GH₵4.00 (around $0.70) in total.

He then took a quick shower at a nearby public bathhouse before we left for home.

“You can now dance in the streets if that’s what you want, as long as you stay home,” Wasila told Malik in front of me.

Update on Malik (August 27, 2020): He moved to Kintampo, a town near the center of Ghana (to live with his grandmother), and now an electrician apprentice.

The Verdict

If Ghana exhibits all the symptoms of an ailing society, and we agree that our culture is us, and we are our culture, this implies but one inescapable conclusion: we need to do collective moral introspection.

I’m not suggesting Bauman’s postmodern ethics (moral concern for others) in all of this, neither am I implying Durkheim’s moral sociology (that moral life is socially conditioned). 

I am suggesting Ghana as a ‘sick society’ is complete when it lacks social safety nets for its neglected children and does not care for children who scrap toxic materials in order to buy food and clothes.

A Few Closing Remarks

Young people in Africa do not have stakes in the economies of their countries at all — a legacy of the continent’s overtly gerontocratic culture.

Africa’s youth are excluded and marginalized in their own countries.

Africa had the highest labour force participation of older persons in the world in 2015, according to the United Nations11. This means that Africa’s young population may not have formal or informal employment because their fathers and grandfathers have ‘refused’ to stop working to make way for them.

Trend of rural to urban migration is unlikely to dramatically change by the mid century. African cities are already creaking under a load of their bulging youth population. This can only imply one thing — more urban children may be pushed to the margins unless poorer countries start to see children beyond the household economy.

Several other challenges are on the horizon — food security, regional security, population surge, ecological ruin, and even antimicrobial resistance. But how we treat our young people today will no doubt shape the future of our societies.

Time has a way of making bigger things look small.

We are witnessing a slowly unfolding human and environmental catastrophe at Agbogbloshie. Time may not be too kind to us on Agbogbloshie.

The pervasive apathy facing our generation is shaping many aspects of modern society in ways we can not yet foretell.

And like Rob Nixon’s slow violence, our collective inaction is engendering irreversible consequences that are quietly deferring their harm over time — slowly victimizing the urban poor like the children of Agbogbloshie.

Leave a comment below to have your voice heard on this.

© 2020 Muntaka Chasant



Comments (4):

  1. Kyong Min

    July 9, 2020at 3:58 am

    How can we help these children and people who are forced into these horrible conditions?

    • Muntaka Chasant

      July 9, 2020at 10:06 pm

      Thanks for your concern, Min.

      Expected to contribute to their household economy (mostly female-headed) seems to be a driving factor. I have met a few of their parents or guardians, and it’s the same story — urban poverty.

      Supporting urban poor households should help to cut down hazardous child labour in cities.

      Spare a moment, if you have any, to look around You will find more stories related to this situation.


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