Not my place

January 28, 2016

I had never felt that I was wrong for being in a place before. It’s a distinct feeling – different from feeling uncomfortable, different from feeling like an outsider – it’s somehow feeling that you are not only intruding, but looking, glaring. Arriving in Agbogbloshie on Monday, it felt like a place I had no right to visit.

But on Thursday, things were different. We were shooting the end of our footage, and needed to interview burn victims. We hoped to get their stories, asking simple descriptive questions about the time and place of their burns. But for the last question, we asked “What advice do you want to give to the workers here about burns?” Many replies were about wearing shoes and long sleeves, both of which are excellent protective practices. But we also heard about how “the people of Agbogbloshie need to educate themselves” and need the materials to do that. And these are the materials that IST Ghana hopes to provide.

We talked most to Chairman (Ibraham), the head of the copper burners. His voice both croaks and grumbles as he replies to our questions, looking directly into the camera in each interview. He tells us of his burns, and how he protects himself. He demonstrates the application of “ink,” or gentian violet, for one of our videos. He delivers the last line of the video “Listen to these tips, protect yourselves and each other, and make Agbogbloshie a better place for us all.” And we are all, together, trying to do that. Chairman is smart, as are Kareem, Harun, and the other workers on site. We have the tools to share their knowledge, and to give them voice. What’s more, we have the resources to contribute our own knowledge, and build upon their own. I still do not feel “right” being in Agbogbloshie. I do not feel that I belong, or that I have been accepted into the community. But I realized then that our presence is wanted. I realized that what we are doing matters. And as I remarked to my teammate Zak, I feel better at Agbogbloshie than anywhere else we’ve been this trip. At Agbogbloshie, I know what I’m doing, and I am trying to do good.

Day 3

January 27, 2016

Akwaaba from day 3! This is Adjoa, a junior in the Spanish department and I am very tired from a busy day all around Accra.

After a quick breakfast of bananas and groundnuts (peanuts) and armed with plenty of bottles of mineral water, I jumped onto the bus with the rest of the group and headed to Agbogbloshie for a morning of filming interviews and B-roll to include in our videos. Eventually we split into teams. One group got footage and interviews on copper burning and the rest of us tag-teamed, getting joint interviews on lead batteries and splitting up to get environmental and aluminum related shots separately.

Then, we headed back to the hostel for a meeting with Dr. Edith Clarke and her colleague Emmanuel, two occupational and environmental health specialists from the Ghana Health Service who answered our medical questions about toxins like lead and aluminum and proper treatments for burns that people get while working at Agbogbloshie. After hearing about research and interventions conducted by the Ghana Health Service, we ate lunch and headed to our next location – Asheshi University – to workshop our ideas with design students.

Once we completed the long bumpy ride to Asheshi and got a brief tour of the beautiful campus, the group got down to business. In small groups based on our video topics, we explained our video outlines and got helpful feedback from Asheshi students in the design lab. Our group included Fauziya, Carol, Ankrah, Anna and Kwabena, all of whom had previously spent time in Agbogbloshie doing their own projects and their experience helped us refine the framing and goals of our videos. After finishing our discussions, our work room evolved from structured planning into casual conversation over pizza. We shared stories, ideas and laughs with the Asheshi students and on the ride back when asked if we had enjoyed the visit, the answer was a unanimous “YES!”

Overall today we were able to get information and feedback from a wider range of community members. The input of occupational health specialists and the Asheshi students was incredibly useful for our particular subgroup, helping us create a more nuanced and specific vision of the final product.

To All My Brothers

January 26, 2016

Hi everyone! My name is Crystal, and I’m a sophomore studying economics with interests in global health and medicine. This is also my first trip to Africa, and hopefully will not be my last.

Our second and third days in Agbogbloshie alleviated many concerns of mine that developed after visiting only briefly on the first. Without interacting with members of the community apart from those who were guiding us, our first hour at the site left me feeling quite uncomfortable, like an intruder in a space that belonged to the workers, women, and children—watching us with curious and skeptical eyes—who either live among the scraps or in nearby slums and whose hardships I will never be able to fathom, let alone experience.

Starting conversations with the workers on day two was much easier than I had anticipated, and almost all those we encountered were more than eager to speak to us. By the time we left Agbogbloshie on Tuesday, I was excited about the work we had accomplished that day, the relationships we had started to build with members of the community, and for what was to come in the development of our videos.

I was surprised by the light, playful nature of the workers, who were intrigued by our cameras, goofing around and getting shots of their “brothers” working and hanging out. Although most men were busy at work, there was a great deal of them lounging and talking amongst themselves, listening to the radio, and relaxing in their makeshift shacks—we even saw two guys playing a version of the game Mancala, presumably with marbles made of metals they harvested themselves from E-scrap.

As we further connected today with workers we had met yesterday, I was struck by their stories; a worker named Yussif, who is around our age, revealed that after having passing his final college exams, he was not able to earn his degree because he did not have the money to pay for it. Working in Agbogbloshie is a temporary last resort to save money and formalize his education, without which he cannot move on in life. Many of these workers are educated, smart, and speak several languages (something rarely anyone would think of an E-scrap worker in Agbogbloshie without knowing him).

The workers in Agbogbloshie, most of them from northern regions of Ghana, are not well liked by the citizens of Accra, because they are seen as squatters who do unorganized and dangerous work. To some extent, this is true; the workers are not recognized by the government of Ghana and are unable to expand their businesses even though they work in a potentially lucrative field, because of environmental and health hazards stemming from their work practices that prevent foreign investors and large companies from getting involved.

Yet they make the best of their situation and look out for each other. Upon interacting with the workers, it becomes clear that the world’s negative perception of them is very one-sided. A lead battery worker named Kareem, who we interviewed about the protective measures he takes against toxic battery acid, said, “To all my brothers, know that in any work you do, not only with battery acid, you need to protect yourself.” While we came into this project with the goal of creating informative occupational health videos for the workers, the humanizing components of the worker interviews have really taken us by surprise, and will now be critical in spreading important and potentially life-saving messages throughout Agbogbloshie.


A note from Zak

January 27, 2016
Hey! Zak here! I’m a sophomore studying civil engineering and architecture.
After spending all last night deliberating with my group members, Fiona and Adjoa, we got down a super specific shot list of things we needed when we got to Agbogbloshie early in the morning. It was our third trip to the site, and we finally had a vision for our videos. We knew finally had built rapport with many of the authority figures there, and it was refreshing to at least feel a tad bit less like an outsider.
Before coming on the trip I contemplated often what exactly my place would be when visiting. The fact that I was not completely confident with who exactly our local informants would be—and how they fit in the broader picture of a processing center with over 6,000 workers—made me nervous to the point that I didn’t even really want to come and occupy a space I had no right to occupy. However, today definitely changed that. Fiona recounted to me that she felt most at ease when were actually at the site visiting and taking footage. It made me act on instinct using the knowledge gained from the past year spent preparing rather than spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about what to do. This felt productive and comfortable, and was reinforced with our conversations later in the day.
Next we met with Dr. Edith Clarke, who works for Ghana Health Service’s Occupational And Environmental Health Division who helped to clarify best practices for first aid of common injuries at Agbogbloshie. She also showed us some of the studies she had done that examined current conditions of both the site and the workers at the site.
Later in the day we went to Ashesi University, a prestigious liberal arts college where we shared our ideas for our videos with some interested students. After spending a lot of time with our group members, it was extremely helpful having fresh minds to see what we were doing. They provided insights about cultural differences and helped us set the tone for our videos that would further ground the videos in the community.
It’s an exhausting day as we continue to storyboard well into the night, but many of the concerns I initially had about the trip have been assuaged. It’s very exciting to get to work and participate in something that considers its context well and has the potential to be meaningful and vital.
That’s all for now!

Out here in the (copper) fields

It’s been eight hours since the sun passed the meridian, the mosquitos are out, but the children continue to run around the streets. The road we’re on now is lively with shops, with TVs showing the first news I’ve seen in days. It isn’t paved though, and the truck continues to bump along, spraying dust on the reeds that grow just to the side of the road. Aside from our headlights, it’s pitch black. A thick Saharan sand coats the sky stealing the stars and moon from our sight.

We’re coming  back from a workshop at Ashesi University in the eastern region of Accra where we partnered with students and discussed our projects as well as their own. The design lab engages local university students with community projects. It’s about an hour and a half drive to our home base – the International Student Hostel at the University of Ghana.  The trip has the potential to be 45 minutes, but half of the roads are through the mountains and inlaid with rocks and large potholes, so…90 minutes it is. It’s day 3 (would have been day 4 if Jonas hadn’t swept the north). The jet lag has pretty much subsided, but every day is packed with work, meetings, and the unknown, so to pretend I’m not tired would be to betray you and myself.

This morning we went back to the copper burning fields and conducted our interviews in Dagbani, a language spoken by a majority of the workers in Agbogbloshie. It’s a language from the northern region of Ghana from where many of them hail. We met again with the leader of their group who calls himself Chairman. We might be the same age. We asked, but the answer is round about. He’d been working there for two years though, and after spending another two hours there today I can tell you that that is 1 year, 364 days, and 22 hours too long for any one person to stay.


Talking with our friend Chairman


Wrapping up the day


Pretending the sky is blue!

The smoke was not in our favor today and it smothered us for a few minutes. The boys kept repeating that the smoke was not so bad – that it was the fire we had to look out for. Smoke is tough to breathe around, but it won’t hurt you. This kind of statement is exactly why our group is here; they don’t seem to understand that the smoke is the most toxic part of their job.  Sure, fire is hot, hazardous and it burns you if you get caught by it. But the smoke is everyday, all around you, and harming your lungs, skin, and throat. Chairman, in fact, has a pretty scratchy voice, which I (maybe incorrectly) assume is from inhaling smoke every day.

A lot of our questions have to do with how much money they make per day, if they use protective gear, and what sort of medicines they have access to.  They guys were very receptive and eager to tell and show us, as well as play with the camera and mics. When they made the comment about the smoke though, it was clear they didn’t quite grasp the serious power of the copper they burned by the wheelbarrow. It does nothing to tell them that what they’re doing is bad. They work very hard, are very organized in their job, and need the money. Additionally, the final product is advantageous to everyone: they’re recycling – they just have the short/cancerous end of the stick. What we need to work on then is alternatives.

Today we got the interview material, as well as a handful of gorgeous stills, to provide the stepping stone of the alternatives we present in our final project, which include boiling and wire stripping. These eliminate smoke from the picture and provide the guys with a chance to salvage and sell the plastics that encase the copper wires. (Surprise: there’s a market for that too).  Our hope is to make edutaining videos that incentivize better working habits. For instance, boiling or stripping the wire would result in cleaner copper, which sells for more money.

With the added pay from recycling the plastic, there’s really no reason to keep the fire going.

Virtually yours,

Kelly A. Byrne


Agbogbloshie: Bridging Gaps

Good evening!

I’m Vidushi, a junior in Princeton’s philosophy department. Born in Allahabad, India, I moved to New Jersey when I was a year old and have found my way to many places around the world ever since. This is my first time in Ghana (and Africa).

When we landed in Ghana, I focused almost entirely on the environment. A thin layer of dust, blown up from the red soil, permeated even the punctuation marks hanging behind our words. The honking of cars and drivers’ bravado, the large, randomly placed Nestle advertisements, and the constant maze of hawkers reminded me of New Delhi. In the Agbogbloshie scrap yard, I was struck by the textures and colors of the metal, the constant clinking of hammer to metal, the thick black smoke that spiraled up from the copper burner’s fingers. Despite its initial impression–one of sensory overload–the area is carefully organized, with sections for working with tires, refrigerator foam, copper wire, aluminum, batteries, and so on. The chairman and vice chairman sit in the yard in an open shanty of their own. In my sketchbook, I recorded what I particularly noticed:

cows and goats dotted onto a hill made of e-scrap and blackened by copper smoke

large soccer match schedules chalked onto a blackboard in the middle of two worksites

chicken feathers collected inside a half-dismantled television.

the Muslim call to prayer resounding on Agbogbloshie megaphones

babies– facedown on a piece of cardboard, playing with toys, swinging behind their mothers in cloth slings

people cutting each other’s hair on purple plastic chairs in an open-air “barber” shop behind a tire heap

teenagers running and playing with a blue ball, men sitting down for mancala

a swift breath of lemon peels as we walked through smoke

Beyond the media’s portrayal of Agbogbloshie as a dumping ground, a wasteland, people’s lives are woven into this soil. Some stay for 25 years, some only for a few months between jobs. But life goes on, and with it travel the strong communities and relationships that give it purpose. Men call each other brothers, even if they have never met. Light-hearted verbal barbs fly between people from the same worksite. These men, women, and children share each others fears–another government demolition, a sickness hitting their loved ones–and desires, like raising enough capital to expand their businesses, and moving out of Agbogbloshie and into university or an entrepreneurial space.

Our lives are woven into Agbogbloshie’s soil as well. One hut we passed had a tattered American flag blowing on it. Another motorcycle featured a large U.S. Marine Corps logo with a bald eagle glaring ahead. People wore shirts from the last Superbowl, and I could imagine that any number of the bicycles, refrigerators, microwaves, or sewing machines had made their way here after a long life in the U.S. or abroad, perhaps even through my own home.

Our challenge this week is how to bridge the gap created by language, skin color, wealth, and an ocean of distance. Today was the first day of interviews, and we were nervous about how we would be received. Both our eyes and theirs were often questioning and downcast, our lips often wavering in uncertain silence. But we also exchanged laughs, realized that our Agbogbloshie guides shared our ages and our interests in soccer and learning. It feels like the tentative start of a real relationship.



It’s Ghana be Great!

Long day, Long post: Buckle up.

After discovering the bougie life in our upgraded seats (thanks Delta!), we snuggled down for a long Sunday nap over the Atlantic – to Ghana at last.  By mid-flight we were flying over a lightning storm; I’d never seen lightning flash from above before. That was #1 on the list of things I would see today for the first time.

We flew through dust clouds that surround Accra – made up from the dust and sands that blow in from the largest desert in the world: the Sahara. The whole city looked like it had been doused in sepia tones from the sky. Narrow dirt roads turned into wide paved highways, and within minutes the wheels were burning rubber.

The journey to the hostel was most mellow – aside from when Kobby got to see his brothers for the first time in four years!

After lunch and a supply run at the Accra Mall, we made headway for Agbogbloshie. DK was down to meet up with us, and after having flown all this way, we were game for some exploration.

My observations today were very different from my expectations. I usually limit expectations when I’m traveling (for two reasons 1. Because they take up too much brain space, 2. Because they often lead to disappointments, and blind the beholder from valuing reality and spontaneity). But after having done so much research on the place, it seemed impossible to not have amalgamated imagination, pictures, and discussions into some sort of expectation for what the e-waste dump site would be like.

First of all, the word “dump” does not give the people who work there any merit. This is a livelihood, and as such, is rather well organized, with people working, collecting, fixing, burning, or trading as they would in any other type of business. Certainly their materials are second-hand, with broken glass paving the streets and electric fires blowing smoke west; but, the word “dump” undermines the value of the estimated 6,000 people who work here.

The few expectations I had continued to be broken or altered. Cows, goats, chickens, and cats roamed freely around Agbogbloshie. Babies crawled and took first steps on shattered motherboards and plastic water bottles, so blackened by dust and flattened by trucks and feet that they seem to be just another layer of rock on the ground.

What continues to stir me still is how often westerners come to this site, take pictures, write a story with an angle, and leave. I don’t believe writers from the BBC, for example, purposely come here to exploit people with a story that will guarantee them viewers, but  locals made their feelings obvious: westerners come, take what story they want, ignore the true voices of Ghanaians, and leave with a well-crafted story for the consideration of the West.

At dinner this evening, we talked about the challenges these types of feelings pose for our group’s project. We are here to make videos that help spread information about what people in Agbogbloshie do with scrap material for the people who live here – not for people back home. (That’s what this blog is for). Our video topics include first aid, copper burning, and environmental hazards to name a few. The videos will be distributed and used to teach and spread awareness among those who work here on the site. But hopefully, when we do go back west, we will do the justice of bringing their voices and their perspectives back with us.


Contributor: Kelly A. Byrne


If you have a TV, radio, or window then you know about Jonas. The snow storm no one thought would happen this oh-so-mild winter has finally hit, and from the sound of the wind roaring outside my walls, it is still coming down hard.

We were scheduled to leave this afternoon around 4:30 pm EST, which is about the time I strapped on my boots and shoveled 18+ inches of snow off my driveway. To say the least, we weren’t going anywhere today.

The team sat down last night before Jonas got north of the Mason Dixon line to talk about logistics for getting off this continent and on to Ghana. Not only are my peers Ellie and Christie organizing our trip, but the PACE center is overseeing them, the University overseeing PACE, and at the end of the day, the airports are calling the shots. My point being, it is a logistical nightmare.  After a long day of rescheduling transportation (which appeared on my end as “Latest update!” emails flooding into my inbox), we were booked onto a flight that leaves Sunday night (tomorrow).

With the trip in tact, a plane on the horizon, and hopefully not too much rescheduling work ahead, we called it in and snuggled up against the winter mess.  Back at it tomorrow…

“All things are difficult before they become easy” – Saadi.