Turning e-waste into art at Ghana’s toxic dump

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Young men burn waste at Agbogbloshie dumpsite in Accra. Ghana is said to have the largest informal recycling industry in Africa and imports some 40,000 tons of this e-waste annually. (AFP)
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Ghanaian artist Joseph Awuah-Darko work on a clock, the pieces of which were found at Agbogloshie dumpsite, at his workshop at Ashesi University College where he studies. (AFP)
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Above, a table made by Ghanaian artist Joseph Awuah-Darko made of pieces of scrap metal found at Agbogloshie dumpsite at his workshop at Ashesi University College, where he studies. (AFP)
Updated 27 December 2017
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Turning e-waste into art at Ghana’s toxic dump

ACCRA: Joseph Awuah-Darko sits on a stool at one of the world’s largest electronic waste dumps, watching polystyrene and insulation cables burn on the blackened ground.
“It’s survival and dystopia,” says the 21-year-old British-born Ghanaian, surveying the stretch of wasteland around him as dense plumes of acrid smoke rise into the air.
Awuah-Darko and his university friends have ambitious plans for the sprawling Agbogbloshie dumping ground in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
In January this year, he co-founded the non-profit Agbogblo.Shine Initiative, which encourages people working at the dump to turn waste into high-end furniture.
The dump workers typically risk exposure to harmful fumes by burning obsolete and unwanted appliances such as mobile phones, computers, televisions and plastics that are brought to Ghana from around the world.
After burning, they salvage and resell copper and other metals from these leftovers of modern consumer culture.
The dump and scrapyard sit next to the heavily polluted Odaw River in the slum-like area, home to an estimated 40,000 people.
The UN has said that salvaging materials for recycling provides income for more than 64 million people in the developing world.
Ghana is said to have the largest informal recycling industry in Africa and imports some 40,000 tons of this e-waste annually.
When Awuah-Darko first saw the piles of circuit boards, wires and plastics at Agbogbloshie he decided he wanted to use his artistic talent as a force for change.
So he set up the Agbogblo.Shine project with Cynthia Muhonja, a fellow student from Ashesi University, about an hour’s drive from Accra.
They repurpose the electronic scraps, “upcycling” them into furniture, and offer training for the young men who work at the dump to create the pieces.
The students straddle two worlds — a privileged life on the lush campus of a private university in a forested area, and the harsh reality of life for some of Ghana’s poorest people.
Mohamed Abdul Rahim, who is in charge of about 20 young men, has been working at Agbogbloshie since 2008.
The 25-year-old from the north of Ghana works 12-hour days, six days a week. On average the workers make only about 20 cedi each (SR16.64) a day.
He knows the work is bad for his health but doesn’t see any other option. However he is optimistic that Awuah-Darko’s initiative will help.
“We are suffering here because the heat is there, the smoke, too, it disturbs us. If we see good work we will go join it and leave this,” he says.
The toxic fumes hurt his lungs, while his hips and waist ache from carrying heavy objects to burn. The money he earns supports his mother, wife and three children.
The ground he works on is black, muddy and littered with plastic bags, cables, bottles and broken shoes alongside smashed television sets and computer monitors.
Workers use plastics and polystyrene as fuel to melt down components to extract the copper.
Awuah-Darko recognizes that the people of Agbogbloshie “are basically in pursuit of what we all want, which is a better life.”
“Unfortunately, the side effects or the by-product of this is the detriment of their health,” he said.
He hopes that his initiative will not only improve their lives but also the planet, as waste from the site is given another life.
Awuah-Darko’s first upcycled work is a grandfather clock, made from a galvanized car axle, aluminum and part of a discarded wall clock.
Two high-end hotels in Accra are currently vying to buy the unusual timepiece, he said, and with such interest he has plans to create more and expand operations.
Awuah-Darko sees a future where around 100 people from Agbogbloshie can leave their harmful work to build furniture.
He also wants to exhibit the creations at major galleries around the world and sell them at auction houses.
That would be a world away for someone like Mohammed Sofo, a thin 26-year-old with small tattoos on his face.
But Sofo wants to live in a world where he does not have to burn waste to survive.
“Some people think we are bad because they think we are mad persons,” he said.
“If we get money no one will look at us like that. Some day will come when no one will be working here.”


‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

Updated 16 July 2018
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‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

  • Since 2013, Mihaela Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.
  • For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

JEDDAH: We live in a world where female beauty standards vary but are all socially and culturally constructed. The Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc traveled that world with her camera and backpack, photographing women in their everyday surroundings and listening to their stories. The result is the “Atlas of Beauty.”

Since 2013, Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.

“I noticed that there is a lot of pressure on women to look and behave a certain way,” she told Arab News.

“In some environments, it’s the pressure to look attractive. In others, on the contrary, it’s the pressure to look modest. But every woman should be free to explore her own beauty without feeling any pressure from marketing campaigns, trends or social norms.”

For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

During her five-year odyssey, there have been tremendous ups and downs. Yet, with each country, Noroc never failed to tell the story of the woman in her photographs. Some countries were deemed dangerous — but she traveled there anyway. 

“In Afghanistan, I traveled in a remote area called Wakhan Corridor. The fighting was very close, condemning this place to total isolation,” she said. “People were living like their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago, so photography was a miracle for them. They were incredibly happy to see themselves in photos and I was invited to every home to photograph each member of the family.” 

Visiting North Korea, Noroc was accompanied by local guides as she walked the streets to get a glimpse of women in their daily routines as if nothing was out of the norm. 

“There is a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way, so sometimes it’s a struggle to be yourself, to make yourself accepted as you are. But I hope this project will encourage more women and men to follow their own path, to explore their own beauty without feeling constrained.”

Traveling as a backpacker introduced Noroc to all kinds of environments. She has captured beauty in Brazilian favelas, in an Iranian mosque, on the Tibetan plateau, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the Amazon rainforest, upscale neighborhoods of Paris, downtown New York and more. 

She focuses on photographing the environment around the women, and prefers to photograph their natural faces, without a lot of makeup.

Noroc also makes sure that she chats with her subjects while the photographs are being taken — she is an excellent conversationalist. 

Woman shopping at a market in Nampan, Myanmar.

“Many of the women I photograph are in front of a professional camera for the first time. This isn’t bad at all because they are more authentic. For even more authenticity, I always use natural light. Through my camera, I try to dive into their eyes and explore what’s inside.”

Each image is raw, colorful, delicate, intimate, striking and empowering. A Jordanian Bedouin grandmother sits with her children and grandchildren in the background, the woman’s deep wrinkles revealing her desert life living off the land.

Another image shows the resilience in the striking green eyes of a Syrian refugee with her two daughters in a camp in Greece. In Jodhpur, India, a young woman heads to the market in a vibrant fuchsia outfit and silver jewelry. 

“There is much love, beauty and compassion in the world and I see it with my own eyes. Yet a few sources of hate and intolerance can ruin all this. Many times, the victims of intolerance are women, and while on the road, I hear many heartbreaking stories,” she said.

Gauri, an Indian from Kolkata, India, sells splendid flower garlands at a Hindu temple. Female “bomberas” (firewomen) in Mexico City. Sisters Olga and Anya, street performers from Odessa, Ukraine. Eleonora, a ballerina from St. Petersburg, at one of the most prestigious dance schools in the world. A Mayan descendant in Guatemala donning a colorful dress and posing in her village. These are just some of the stories in the “Atlas of Beauty,” yet the journey is continuing since there are no limits to beauty in this world. 

“For me, beauty is diversity and it can teach us to be more tolerant. We are all very different, but through this project, I want to show that we are all part of the same family. We should create paths between us, not boundaries,” said Noroc.