No one knows when Agbogbloshie began. The slum city in south Ghana didn’t exist when the capital of the Gold Coast was moved from Cape Coast to Accra. It’s likely the settlement started when traders began transforming shop kiosks into makeshift homes, and soon a population of Ghanaians on low incomes established a sprawling the slum, which in known to many by its nickname, Sodom and Gomorrah.
Sodom and Gomorrah has also become known as one of the world’s digital dumping grounds, where millions of electronic waste products from the west are legally and illegally processed each year. When old computers first began arriving in West Africa, Ghanaians thought they were sent to helo bridge the digital divide, as exporters exploited loopholes by labelling junk computers ‘donations’. But slowly tonnes of e-waste piled up on this once green area, and transformed it into a global graveyard for electronic equipment.
Each day, workers clear the area through intense heat radiating from burning computers, iPods, radios and televisions. Acrid, black smoke drifts over the huts of the slum wasteland. The nearby Korle-Bu River is now black and thick like used oil, as it carries empty computer cases toward the ocean. Fires blaze and consume the plastic material from cables, plugs and motherboards, leaving only metal behind. This is then collected and sold by the locals.
Approximately 50,000 low-income inhabitants have settled into Sodom and Gomorrah, from across Ghana. Many of the villagers find themselves trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, where the old and young toil side by side. Many barely make enough money from a day’s work to cover a basic meal. Often the choice facing them is between paying for accommodation or food.
Women and children cook circuit boards to salvage the computer chips, which have trace amounts of gold. Motherboards and other circuitry are cooked each day, mostly by the women, who breathe in the poisonous fumes.
Some of the young children burn old foam on top of computers to melt away the plastic, leaving behind scraps of copper and iron that they collect to sell. Some of these children travelled to Accra by themselves, hoping to earn money to help their families in the villages. Many of them are orphans or have been abandoned. Exposure is hazardous to children, as these toxins inhibit the development of the brain, nervous system and reproductive system.
There are no permanent structures in Sodom and Gomorrah, and no planning permission is required to put up temporary structures, often made of wood or paper. In 2013, fire devastated the area and many inhabitants were killed. There are no water or sewerage systems in the area.
The UN estimates that up to 50m tonnes of e-waste is thrown away globally each year. It costs a lot more to properly dispose of an old computer monitor in Germany than it does to send it on a container ship to Ghana. An international treaty called the Basel convention came into effect in 1989, forbidding developed nations from carrying out unauthorised dumping of e-waste in less developed countries. However, each month cargo containers still arrive in Agbogbloshie, often illegally, from countries all over the world.
I spoke to local people in Sodom and Gomorrah about their aspirations. Many of the children dream of becoming footballers, in spite of their ill health. Many of the adults hope to find steady employment in other fields such as taxi driving or cooking.
Of the people I spoke with, virtually all of them dreamed of escaping their surroundings to the western world, settling into life there and one day owning the same computers that they process every day in Sodom and Gomorrah.