February 17, 2020
14 Min read time
Urban poverty, children in toxic spaces, and hazardous child labour in video and photos.
“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
What do you call a society which turns its back on a child as young as 9 years old who ekes out a living by using bare hands, stones, and hammers to break apart legacy TVs, which contain dangerous levels of lead?
Contemporary Slaves and Child Beggars in Sub-Saharan Africa
A quick one before we dive in.
Talibes (child beggars) clasping beggar bowls and weaving through the traffic in the heat and dust are a common sight in the Sahel region of West Africa.
While not as pervasive as the Almajiri street beggars problem in the Sahel belt, it is prevalent across urban areas in Ghana to see a child as young as 3 years old darting from car to car aggressively panhandling — usually with the handler (or a parent) nearby gazing intently.
Some of the children hawk synthetic paint brushes, cotton swabs, and such-like things.
Accra has a child hawking history dating back more than half a century.
John Iliffe wrote in The African Poor: A History, that, around one-fifth of Accra’s schoolchildren doubled as hawkers during the 1950s.
Donald Faulkner wrote of Lagos’ vagrant boys in 19451:
“Here at night come stealthy figures. Small and agile, they scale the walls quickly and, dropping lightly on the other side, disappear into the gloom. Some carry fowls under their arms, some yams, while others come swaggering, smoking cigarettes, with money chinking in their pockets. They are desperadoes of 12-14 years of age who make this graveyard their home, stealing food from the market places, cooking and eating it communally in the evening, later sleeping out under the stars. Their days are spent in gambling and loafing, pimping for prostitutes, and picking pockets. Criminal — because that is the way to live, carelessly, irresponsibly, among good companions.
Donal Faulkner, Social Welfare and Juvenile Delinquency in Lagos, Nigeria – 1945
Africa’s urban children are not only at risk from persistent poverty, urban food insecurity and malnutrition — researchers are also increasingly concerned about the toxic spaces they inhabit.
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’s2 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.
Nixon’s spatial concept of slow violence provokes us to explore what constitutes harm in a place such as Agbogbloshie. It pushes back against the notion of ‘long-term emergencies’ and nudges us to explore long-term human capital outcomes in toxic spaces.
This is how Nixon explained what he meant by slow violence:
Successive governments in Ghana have often viewed 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?”3
With their suffering hidden in plain sight, urban children such as those below are frequently the first casualties of Nixon’s slow violence.
Children working in Agbogbloshie’s toxic landscapes have been the subject of many documentaries and reports4 5 over the years. Yet, successive governments in Ghana have not made determined efforts to tackle this hazardous child labour.
The International Labour Organization defines hazardous child labour6 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;”
Narratives about Agbogbloshie have frequently portrayed these children as passive in the link between recovered resources in the waste stream and the global production circuits. This has relegated them to subordinate positions.
Such narratives have failed to acknowledge the agency of these vulnerable children in discourse and negotiations within the context of global-local linkages.
Using bare hands, stones, and hammers to retrieve iron materials from old television sets at Agbogbloshie can result in injury, sickness, and even death.
The neglect of this hazardous child labour degrades Ghana’s national character, in my opinion.
We each have a duty to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
To heavily paraphrase the late philosopher Robert C. Solomon — it might be true that there are billions of people in the world today, and counting. Nonetheless, what you do makes a difference — to other people, and it set an example.
Below are the stories of Kwadwo, Yaw, Twum, 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 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 and gives the rest of the money to his mother, an urban poor.
Extreme poverty in female-headed 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 mostly viewed as resources that boost or enhance household survival in countries such as Ghana.
As an urban minefield, Agbogbloshie connects recovered resources in the waste stream to global reprocessing networks, where the retrieved metals 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.
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.
The Government of Ghana (through export taxes), the Agbogbloshie scrap dealers and their clientele earn the most from this situation.
Certain hazardous materials in electronics have been banned for decades. But because the majority of the TVs that end up at places such as Agbogbloshie are old, they mostly contain toxic substances that pose 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 majority of the electronic waste that are urban mined at Agbogbloshie these days is generated by people in Ghana. Of course, this doesn’t make for a scapegoat narrative of pinning all the blame on Europe and North America. This is Ghana Government’s problem to tackle, not the West.
What Are The Health Effects of Lead?
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, Yaw, Twum, 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 children, including Junior Adama.
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, recalling tales of struggles for bare existence in desperate, grinding poverty.
Together, we explored the health and environmental risks involved in their hazardous labour, 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.
Kwdwo, Twum and Yaw live near Graphic Road — about 10min walk from the Agbogbloshie scrapyard.
A kilogram of iron as of February 2020 sold for GH₵1 (around $0.18) at Agbogbloshie.
One large television could get Kwadwo around GH₵4 or more ($0.70 per Feb 2020 FX rate). The profit is meager and the lifelong damages this could be doing to the health of the 9 years old cannot be counted in money.
For Kwadwo to earn an average of GH₵20 (around $3.50 in Feb 2020) 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 glasses. You only have to return another time and you will find that one or two of us are badly cut,” Twum said to me in Twi, a local dialect.
Twum & Yaw
Twum told me he wasn’t fond of school. He’d like to become an auto mechanic as that will suit his lifestyle of getting himself too dirty most of the times.
Kwadwo, Twum, and Yaw all assured me they do go to school alright, but come to the scrapyard after school hours to find irons from old television sets.
Kwadwo, Yaw, Twum, and other children 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 put ointment on our cut whenever we go home with an injury,” Yaw explained.
Surprised by my curiosity, they gathered and started showing me some of their most recent cuts. You can see Kwadwo’s December 26 cut there.
While I have briefly mentioned this issue, with this photograph here, I did not pay close attention to it until I run into Kwadwo on Christmas day.
The brothers left, so I met with Junior Adama, 13 years old. There, Adama had been cut very badly by a broken CRT glass. I don’t know when this happened, but it wasn’t looking good.
Shocked by this, I immediately gave out money to have 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 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. His hands and neck were covered with rashes and mosquito bites.
“They know where I’m, as they once in a while briefly stop by to check up on me here at Agbogbloshie,” 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. His hands and neck were covered with rashes and mosquito bites when I last saw him.
I have previously witnessed them clustered under open sheds on cardboard boxes and benches in a few of my night and early morning runs around the area.
Junior Adama on December 31, 2019
I returned early the following morning to check up on how Adama was healing. He was already out scavenging. I hanged out a few hours for him.
Here, after the clinic visit yesterday.
It was not looking good to me, so I had him sent back to the clinic.
Junior Adama on January 18, 2020
I returned about 3 weeks later.
Adama looks healed. But according to the US CDC, lead within our body is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood, and tissues, resulting in long-term internal exposure.
Prolonged exposure to lead in children (many children play around Agbogbloshie) is devastating, life-long, and mostly irreversible. Permanent intellectual disability, developmental delays, learning, and behavioral problems, are among some of the long-lasting effects of childhood exposure to lead.
I managed to capture a few minutes of footage in a very harsh light in between photographs for a short video about this.
The video below briefly explores this hazardous child labour at Agbogbloshie.
CRITICAL UPDATE TO THIS STORY (February 20, 2020)
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 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 for me 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 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 are tricky in Ghana, and I was trying 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 admitted to not knowing 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.
There, Malik finally home (at Madina, Accra). Seated near Wasila’s door.
It was time to celebrate Malik’s 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 appears to be an undergarment. Then a small party followed.
Malik, looking worn out, snacked on mango juice and digestive biscuits.
Wasila insisted I see little bit of his past. There, Malik (far right), in 2015, with his family.
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 explained that there was no need for any such appreciation. I’m happy everything turned out that way, and I now have the task of ensuring Malik stays home and doesn’t disappear again.
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. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to weigh in. I’m still processing everything. But for the meantime, I’ll remain active in Malik’s life, as I’ll be visiting to check up on him every now and then.
Here are some key facts of this case as I have recently come to understand them:
- Malik lost his mother when he was 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.
- According to Malik himself, he walked on foot from Madina to Agbogbloshie, around 25km 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 recently, and his mother came for him. Adama was right — his parents pushed him to Agbogbloshie.
Again, I won’t strech this.
SECOND UPDATE TO THIS STORY (March 18, 2020)
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 asked 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 edges of Agbogbloshie on March 17. These are dark corners.
I finally ran into a scrap dealer who told me he had seen Malik the previous day weighing some iron materials, collected his money, and left the scene quickly. This meant he was not too 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 years old Malik told me that school is not his thing and that he prefers to live on the fringes of Agbogbloshie cannibalizing 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.
He 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 allow him to 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 further 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.
He bought 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.
For now, Malik is trying to negotiate his way out. He wants to go to school for a few days in the week and spend the rest of the week at Agbogbloshie, in an environment listed alongside places such as Chernobyl, the 1986 nuclear accident site in Ukraine, and Dzerzhinsk, Russia’s cold war-era chemical weapons manufacturing city.
“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.
The Government of Ghana has turned a blind eye to this hazardous child labour situation. What do you think his family should do?
This part ends.
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 — our culture may be the disease.
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’m suggesting that Ghana as a “sick society” is complete when it lacks social safety nets for its neglected children and doesn’t care for child beggars on its streets and children who need to scrap toxic materials in order to buy food and clothes.
For me, stories of diseases and the wretched human condition in much of Africa are much easier to deal with than the vast differences in moral and ethical values between much of the continent and the rest of the world.
Our behavior regarding what is right and wrong appears to be much harder to deal with than Malaria or HIV/AIDS, for instance.
I’m not pointing any fingers here. Even I could have done better by focusing on this problem much more than the open burning of electrical wires at Agbogbloshie, which the government of Ghana has done very little to help with the situation.
I may be testing an already proven hypothesis here. That, Ghanaians will continue to give birth to as many children as they can, and do not care if a 9 years old use crude methods to break apart legacy TVs, which contain dangerous levels of lead, in order to buy food.
I will not be surprised if my countrymen downplay this and reproach me instead because it makes us look bad.
Africa’s privileged classes hate anyone who puts Africa’s poverty on display. They are only uncomfortable that the world sees realistic images of suffering people in their constituencies, but not slightly angered by what the world actually sees. How they are perceived abroad matter more to them.
Claude Ake argued in 1993 in the Unique Case of African Democracy11 that, the African elite was only interested in democracy as a means to power, and not necessarily as a means to address the vital interests of his/her social base. This is truer today than ever before.
I’ll be using my countrymen’s reaction to this as a reference to our collective character in the future.
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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 Nations12. This means that Africa’s young population may not have formal 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 mid to end of 21st century. African cities are already creaking under a load of their bulging youth population (both natives and migrants). 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. We won’t even notice the impact until it has already happened. Time may not be too kind to us.
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
February 17, 2020
14 Min read time