WELCOME TO SODOM – The dumping of e-waste in Ghana

«[…] Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens. He destroyed those cities and everyone who lived in them, as well as their land and the trees and grass that grew there. […]» (Old Testament, Genesis 19.24)

Always a source of artistic inspiration, the allegorical and symbolic transfiguration of the decadent morals of humanity, the story of Genesis is the last call, the final appeal to act against our ungodliness that the great purifier of fire will rain down upon us, exactly as it happened for Sodom and Gomorrah. The flames of divine revenge engulfed the inhabitants of the two cities because of their sinfulness – they were evil, immoral, sexually perverse.

‘Fire and sin’ in Agbogbloshie, an enormous dump for electronic products, the biggest and most toxic in the world, near the center of Accra. 8 hectares of oozing, muddy ground which at one time had been the uncontaminated Korle Lagoon, now a pond choked with waste.

The locals must have given it the name of Sodom for this reason. A place where fires burn all day, where the carcasses of electronic appliances arrive from the United States and Europe (about 250,000 tons a year) to be taken apart, mangled – computers, televisions, smartphones. There is even space for refrigerators, ovens, a bus to be gutted in the search for metal to be resold. Iron and aluminium, and especially copper extracted by burning hundreds of kilos of e-waste. Plastic is burnt, copper sold, and also at a good price. However, not at such a good price so as to compensate for the dioxins and other toxicity released into the air by the continuous burning that affects the health of the people of Agbogbloshie – nausea, anorexia, sleeping disturbances, respiratory problems, cancer.

About 6,000 families live and work (for a few dollars a day) in this inferno, filmed by Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes in WELCOME TO SODOM, presented at the International Documentary Festival in Copenhagen

Ninety minutes of impressive images, however, never exaggerated, never shocking, never searching out the undeniable misery of the place to be showcased. Everything is very (sadly) real in WELCOME TO SODOM, raw and blunt, including the bleating of bony sheep grazing on an enormous field of waste.

It is impossible to find a blade of grass, only electric wires. The animal world resilient to our technological bulimia. Just as the economy of Agbogbloshie, a scrap yard transformed into a recycling district where ‘the waste of technology is sent to the operating theater’, where every activity is organized and every phase belongs to someone – blacksmiths, mechanics, small wheeler-dealers, profiteers. The women are given the lowest paid jobs, such as selling “clean” water.

Except for her, the girl with the magnet, patiently trailing it through the rubbish in search of some scrap of metal left over from the burning. She acts and deals like a boy, she has always felt like a boy.

«The police would arrest me in my town. Here, no one cares about us, all the children work. I can make more money with iron than selling water like the other girls.»

She is not the only case of the “sexually inconvenient” in WELCOME TO SODOM. There is a man bent over searching through the rubbish, he is of Jewish origin. He attended the faculty of medicine, he tells, and then they discovered he was gay and his life changed dramatically.

«In my country many gays were tortured to cure us of our sickness. I will never forget the days spent in prison, so for this reason I hide myself away here.»

In Ghana, a Catholic and highly conservative society, the penal code of 1960 (section 104 1.b) punishes with imprisonment relationships between individuals of the same sex. According to the last  Human Rights Watch report, the LGBT community is victim to physical and psychological violence in families and systematically discriminated against in public life.

Agbogbloshie has its own social structure, even in the infernal chaos of the place. There is a small soccer field and even a space for prayer. Many of its “inhabitants” are migrants, from neighboring towns or mostly from the north of Ghana, mainly Muslim (about 17% out of a population of 28 million).

There are those who are preparing better for their journey to Europe, not in boats like many others, but with a passport bought by paying all and sundry. «I chose to live here because it is a no man’s land, nobody asks questions, people come and go, it is a safe haven for me, but not a place where you can stay too long.»

There is Amerigo, the dealer. «[…] I buy everything – computers, monitors, telephones, televisions. I buy them, dismantle them and sell the pieces for the copper in them.»

Many parts arriving in Agbogbloshie are bought by tradespeople and used goods traders, like Amerigo. «We are the best at recycling, we always know how to find the metal in everything that we get […]. My mother called me like America, the land of opportunity.»

Agbogbloshie lives on our irresponsible consumerism, transforming a diseconomy into a “benediction”, adapting to a global economy that dumps its waste on other weaker countries – the end point of the digitalized economy, the last link in the added value chain.

«In Europe, when things break, they are thrown away. But we, with these things, make money. The more things thrown away, the better is my business.» (Awal)

The 1989 Basel Convention on monitoring the cross-border movement of hazardous waste and their elimination (of which Ghana is a signatory) prohibits the exportation of electronic waste from Europe and the United States except if they are considered as second-hand appliances. In Ghana, no one checks what is actually under the label.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), every year thousands of tons of electronic waste are exported in this way by developed countries to “rubbish bin countries” – Ghana, Nigeria, China, India, Vietnam.

The paradox, according to the UNEP, is that these countries, by prolonging the life of tablets, smartphones, computers and all the other technology we throw away become themselves producers of e-waste. In short, our waste actually becomes theirs.

In a hovel, D-Boy records his music. Rap, hard, condemning stuff. “Welcome to Sodom, welcome, you are welcome, brother go ahead and don’t look back […].”

A chameleon with penetrating eyes, he asks how humans have been able to transform the Earth into such an inferno. However, the Judgement Day is arriving, a Christian preacher in a white tunic menacingly proclaims to thousands of Muslims living in Agbogbloshie.

“The judgement day is coming, the judgement day is coming very soon!”

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