Coming Home

It took me long enough to settle my thoughts about my second time in Ghana. So much has left an impression on me or challenged my thoughts about topics I thought I had made up my mind about already.
Once again life thought me a lesson. A lesson that we never stop learning. Never stop experiencing the ups and downs of friendship, hardship, love.
I have met wonderful people in the past 6 month. International people, local people…it does not matter. The love we carry in our heart is what defines us. Not the color of our skin or the money we carry in our pockets.
It is about sharing values and respecting those that do not share yours.

The past month have been a challenge in every aspect of life. For the first time in my life I worked continuously for such a long period of time. Door to door days of 13 hours were common and the outskirts of Accra do not offer much of a relaxing environment after when it is dark. The daily commute of 2 hours (one way) Is something that I honestly have no intentions to repeat. But it gave me a good idea of what it means to work with a tight budget in a city with high prices compared to the average income level. Being part of the daily 1 million commuters of Accra was exhausting but strangely satisfying. It was part of a hands on research experience that no paper ever written could compensate for. First hand experience is the best experience. And so I came back home with a vast amount of new experiences, most of them positive and lots of them highly challenging for my own views on almost every aspect of life.

For the first time in my life I experienced loneliness.

That sort of loneliness in crowded places. Your brain is bursting with thoughts and questions and ideas and there is just no one there to talk to. Being busy thinking and being alone at the same time is the ultimate breeding ground for doubt and negativity. The parasites of ignorance and disconcertment feast on this loneliness and make your social environment an even greater challenge.

Every day was a bombardment with unfamiliarity. Your whole life is taken out of context and put into this new environment. Sounds, smells, tastes, the ways of social interaction…Everything is different.

I found that the biggest challenge was creating a comfort zone inside this unfamiliar environment. To find things I could relax with, people I liked to have around me, food I liked to eat, drinks I liked to drink. I felt all levels of needs whirled around and being arranged in a new way. Things that haven’t been important back home became top priority. The value of things and activities were set anew.

Yes I have been to Ghana before. I lived there before, I ate the food before, I experienced the people before. I knew what to expect and how to deal with a lot of situations. But nevertheless I found myself in this situation.

Reflecting on my behavior it is quite interesting that even though I understand myself as an international, liberal and intercultural person, I turned towards the international students for most of my social interactions. I found most of the persons I liked to surround myself with where I wouldn’t find any local people.

But what about my claim to so international? I felt bad to not open up to more local people; To accept the fact that: ‘I want to be your friend’ might actually be more than just a try to get a foreigners number and call 5 times a day.

I realized that working 5 days a week made me so exhausted that I needed familiar things around me. I sought sanity in my weekly ritual of going for a swim after Fridays work. Having someone to talk to in your own language can be a real relief.

I am happy to be back home and I am not happy that I am happy about it. If that makes any sense to you.

After I came home from the first time in Ghana I felt like I could live there for a while or have a job there for a longer period of time.

Right now I am still exhausted by this thought and wrapping my mind around the fact that I am about to graduate in a field that almost implies to live the expat live does not help me to concentrate on my thesis.

All the things that I longed for when I was away are now right in front of me. I do feel home. I do feel relaxed. I do feel the urge to go to new places and see things that I’ve never seen before, eat what I’ve never eaten before and life how I’ve never lived before.

Its all a big contradiction and the surest thing in my life right now is the uncertainty about my future whereabouts.

 

 

Chevron

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People ask me: Why do you like beads? That’s so unusual for a guy like you.

Let me try to explain.

When history becomes tangible you find yourself most likely on an art market. Nowhere else I’ve been before I felt the past and the present of a culture so close. Literally lying in the palm of my hand. Beads are past. Beads are present. Beads are materialized forms of globalization; Telling tales of beauty and oppression, of craftsmanship and unspeakable horror.

Beads are a West African epitome of cultural intertwinedness. What you can find on markets such as the Thursday bead market in Koforidua is an incredible array of beads. The variety is so large that the prices will range from 1 Cedi for a string of waist beads to $ 3500 for a necklace of old Chevron beads. Organized traders will have their stalls right next to people selling beads from dusty piles. The perfect place to be for every treasure hunter.

Handful of old and new trade beads from various materials can be found here. Glas, stone, clay, bone, teeth, ivory, wood, seeds and  many more. Within this array of beads there is one outstanding one. One that shadows all other beads with its spiritual presence and beauty: the chevron bead.

The chevron bead is a multi-layer glass bead used for trade and ceremonial purposes. Chevron beads have been made in Italy since around 1496. The 7-layer Chevron trade beads date back to between 1480 and 1580. Made on the glass makers island of Murano in Venice they were introduced to the African continent by dutch merchants around the 16th century.  After the 7-layer beads, 5-layer beads were made. The early 1600s saw the introduction of the 4-layer and the 6-layer Chevron trade beads whose outer layer was either green or black. African traders valued the 6-layer and the 7-layer Chevron trade beads more than the others because of the complex manufacturing process. The market value of a Chevron bead depends on the number of layers, its age and the symmetry of the star pattern. It is hard to determine the age, so the condition of the bead and whether the bevel is rounded or faceted is used to make the determination. The older the beads, the more they will fetch.

Chevron trade beads were made for trade by Europeans in Africa. They were exchanged for different services: palm oil, ivory, gold, and in the early trade even for slaves. Though this trade ended as soon as weapons and powder where available, the chevron is still strongly associated with the Atlantic slave trade. Africans placed a lot of value on them since they where a display of their trade relations with the Europeans and couldn’t be produced by themselves. Used for decoration, as a measure of value and as currency they spread all over the Sub Saharan continent and as far as India.

Chevron beads were traditionally made up of red, blue and white layers. A smaller number of chevron beads were produced in green, black and yellow.Chevrons were ‘drawn beads’, made from glass ‘canes’ created in specifically constructed star moulds. Typically, four to seven layers of different colored glass was added to the mould, conforming to the star mould. Metal plates were affixed to the hot glass which was then ‘drawn’ into a long rod called ‘canes’, by pulling from either in opposite directions. A bubble which had been blown into the centre of the original molten ball of glass formed the hole in the cane and beads perforation. The diameter of the cane or beads was determined by how thin the glass was drawn out. The cooled cane was cut into bead sizes, revealing a star pattern at either cut section. Each end was then ground or faceted to enhance and display the star chevron pattern. Star beads with flat ends are more correctly known as ‘Rosetta star beads’. The first known Chevrons typically had seven layers and six facets. Over time and through use, an inner layer would sometimes wear away. By the beginning of the 20th century, four and six layer chevron beads appeared on various bead sample cards. New Chevron beads were made in India during the 1980s and brought on the African market. Today most of the new beads are coming from China. They can be easily identified by their symmetric layers and their ‘cold’ and ‘clean’ appearance. 

To feel the presence of a 400 year old Chevron is a magical moment. Imagine the stories it could tell. Where it has been. How it got here. How many hands it has touched and how many lives have been exchanged for it.
Beads are an essential piece of local history. Forgotten by the majority of people who look into the future, into a world that keeps spinning faster and faster.

Beads are like an old whispering man. Bodies of history, culture, past and future. To hear their stories you need to take your time. Listen carefully and eventually you will connect the dots.

Thats why I like beads.

The chevron also inspired writers in Ghana. This is one shows the power of the history of this bead.

 

The Interrogation
by Ama Ata Aidoo

So don’t talk to me of the chevron
Don’t even talk of it.
Don’t break my ears on the chevron
Don’t break my ears!!!

As barter for my life, and yours,
No gem on earth is all that fit
Not gold, and if not even gold
Then what on earth is chevron?

I dread the chevron.
It was a weapon
Of oppression,
And not at all…a bead.

Seven whole lifes for one bead?
And what kind of trade was that?
A layer each of sand and mud
For the lives of our kinsmen?

So what if it was one and not seven?
One soul for a shiny piece of bead?
This sounds like the greatest greed
This sounds like utter foolishness!

Don’t talk to me of the chevron
Don’t even mention it.
Don’t break my ears on the chevron
Don’t break my ears.

Fish

My strongest admiration was always true for those who achieved much in the circumstances of scarcity. It is easy to perform well in an environment of plenty and an acceptance for your mistakes and failures. It is easy and comforting to know that no matter what you do and no matter how you perform there is always a safe haven where you can return to. A security net that will hold you in the case of defeat.

With no such thing here in Ghana and an absolute dependence on personal performance those who are working in dangerous and precarious working conditions face the lowest returns for their hard labor. This is true for those who dig, farm or catch for a living.

During the holidays I spend some time in Busua. A small town in the Cape Three Points area that is an upcoming surf spot and loved by many tourists and volunteers for its lush nature and beautiful beach with a reasonable swell that is nice for surfing.

Nonetheless is the town dominated by the fishing boats lying on the beach and the fishermen who are constructing boats, fixing nets, landing their catch and discussing new strategies for future trips out on the ocean.

The beach is everything. Spatial center of daily life and the local community. Kids run around the beach and the waves. Covered from head to toe in sand their only concern seems to be where their friends are because everybody wants to play some football.

Like high and low tide are coming and going, so do the fishermen. Their boats lie in the cove about a hundred meters away from the beach, awaiting to be loaded with ice and rice, water and nets, fishing lines and gasoline and their crew.

Staying in Busua for more than two or three days is not only relaxing but gives one a great impression how communal life is despite all the tourism around.
In addition I was staying in a house at the end of the beach right next to the fishing boats which made it quite normal to see the fishermen from the front ‘terrace’.
After some days I got into contact with the fishermen which are not really interested in tourists or their questions. Mostly because they don’t want to be exposed to any poverty-porn producers. Taking unflattering pictures and ‘go home and tell everybody how we dey live on trees like animals.’

I feel that the bad experiences with some uncultured swines made them extra cautious concerning their exposure to this kind of abuse. Just walking around without a camera in front of my face made it so much easier to get in contact. If your conversation partner gets the feeling that the aim of the conversation is not to get his permission to take one of the africanized pictures, she/he will eventually open up to you.

Right next to the house where I stayed was the meeting point of the fishermen. Every other day they would sit together and discuss where the next tour will take them.

Equipped with wide experience in the field of fishing and navigating as well as having fish radar they hope to find consensus where the next trip will lead them.

Since the oil platforms started drilling for oil, their large lights and the burning gas flames attract most of the small fish in the night and therefore larger predator fish as well. Since the security zone around the oil rigs has been enhanced from a radius of 500m to a radius of 1km, coastal fishermen report problems with catching fish. In addition comes the fear of oil spills and dangerous chemicals released in the ocean, which might endanger the quality of the fish.

In 2013 there have been several cases of whales and other big fish washed ashore at the coast of Ghana. The EPA (Environment Protection Agency) states that there is no direct connection between oil drilling and the death of the whales, the psychological effect on fishing communities is strong. In addition the gold industry uses lots of mercury that is washed in the ocean through the Pra river in the Western Region.

A different threat to the local fishing industry is the changing weather. Migration routes of fish are indirectly influenced by the weather due to the oceans changing current patterns, making it more unpredictable where to find fish.

In addition there is the whole economic situation of Ghana at present. Prices are skyrocketing while the trust in the Cedi seems to be dwindling. Everything is becoming more expensive and since most of the goods used by fishermen are imported from outside, it has to be bought in dollars. Motors, fuel, fishing line, hooks, spare parts, containers etc. are coming from outside and their prices are going up when the Cedi is going down. On the other hand the income of the fishermen stays the same or is going down due to lesser catch. The captain of one fishing boat told me that a 4 feet swordfish, which cost 120 Cedi today, was 20 Cedi five years ago; An increment of 600%. Knowing that the average wage increment is less than 70% in the same period of time paints a quite unfortunate picture.

After some days I become friends with one of the fishing crews.

Strong men with rock-hard hands. Their boat would leave in a few days and they were sitting together to talk about the how and when of their next trip.
After talking for quite some time and numerous handshakes over the following days with various people of the community I had the great honor to be asked to follow them.

‘We go out for three days. You want to come?’

Thousand thoughts came to my head. Excitement made way to security concern. Where am I going to sleep? What am I going to eat or drink? How will I protect myself from the sun? Can I bring my camera? Will it be safe? There is no rail on the ship and no life vest. Three whole days!? What if I am getting seasick?

I bought a small container and cut it open. By nestling the two parts together I build a floating device where I could put some sun cream and my camera as well as some water. I was prepared to burn my skin and vomit. To poop overboard and to sleep under deck where the fish is supposed to lie.

Waking up the next morning I was excited to go. I felt knighted by the fishermen’s trust.

Five days. I can’t go for five days.

Its 6 am in the morning and large ice blocks are carried down the beach. Provisions are packed and loaded on board.

Women are standing on the beach and having their silent good-bye while their husbands are pulling in the boat from the bay.

The loading is finished and everybody comes to push the boat back into the sea.
I can’t go and ask for a photo instead.
What really gets me is the difference of their facial expressions. Young and confident; Old and experienced. He has seen too much to pretend that this is anything but hard, dangerous and sacrificing work.

The engine is loaded last. Clad in the Ghanaian flag is fastened out boards. A long and flattened pole is used for steering. With a rattling noise the boat leaves the beach and vanishes behind the coastline to the right,

only to come back after three days with a reasonable catch of swordfish, tuna and mackerel.

Lagoon

The fact that the mangrove forest reaches the local community is a major accomplishment of a lasting effort by local, national and global activists to save the environment. Mangrove forests are used in a variety of ways by local people. The wood is very hard due to its incredible density and therefore good for building houses.
The marshes are the breeding ground for an astonishing number of birds, lizards, monkeys, crabs, crayfish, snakes and even bigger mammals like wild pigs or small stags.
Chopping down the mangrove trees means cutting back the habitats of this animals and therefore cutting back the access of fishermen to their prey.

In addition to the direct benefits for humans, the mangroves play a central role in preventing coastal degradation and flooding in the rainy season.

If you read one of my last posts on climate change you’d know what I am talking about!

First the high demand for bush meat and charcoal in the big cities and emerging metropolis like Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi makes it difficult for the villages near the mangrove forest to withstand the economic pressure.
Secondly there is a massive internal influence from local politics who are trying to satisfy their respective donor. Since protecting marshes and mangrove forest is one of the chic and fancy topics that has a satisfying relation between money input and good-news yield, local people are under indirect attack from the central and local government to abstain from cutting or poaching in the mangroves. Connected with that is the whole issue of protection of endangered species like leather bag turtles.

 

I took this picture when I visited the western region in 2010. He was going to check on his lobster traps in the lagoon when we passed him with our canoes.
It is one of my most favorite shots to be honest, so I thought I am going to share it with you again.

Turtle Soup

I am in Busua, a small village in the Western Region where tourism founds its way to. A few hostels and hotels at the beach and a fishing community living in ramshackle houses are the predominant sites on the one street that is the main street.

A friend and I are sitting in a small restaurant and I smell a very distinct smell from right behind the small wall of bamboo. Peeking over it reveals a common scenario. A woman preparing food outside her house.

Being in a fishing community, bloody pots and knifes as well as bones and bowels lying everywhere is nothing special any more. You get used to it.
Than I remember how I saw her earlier carrying a dead turtle from one of the fishing boats into the village. Now she was sitting here and preparing the turtle. Hacking it into peaces and cooking it to take out all the fat and flavor. Even the organs were cooked to make up for a pretty awesome image.

The big green peaces to the top are parts of the shell which still had meat in them.

The orange yellow balls are eggs.

It is turtle season right now so the females are coming to the beaches to lay their eggs and get stuck in the long nets of the fishermen. Hostels and hotels as well as surf shops try to advocate marine conservation policies with small effects on local populations. Still poverty drives local fishermen into digging up the nests or poaching the females when they come to the shore.

In the end an endangered green turtle is nothing but additional income.

 

It’s the dry season, stupid!

More than once did I witnessed how the dark clouds roll over cities and forests. Wondering where they came from so quick and why they come now. In the middle of the dry season.

The rain is pouring down heavy and all life comes to a hold. The drops beat down on soil, plants, humans and houses sometimes so hard and the rain is so dense that you automatically start looking for leaks in windows or cars as well as you start to secure all the electronic things you own.

When the rain is gone and you walk the streets again you see the effect that it has on the environment.
Gravel on the streets and potholes filled with water tell their own story of how the rain eats itself in any man-made structure no matter how durable it is meant to be. Houses, cars, ships, bridges and streets will all break down in the long run.

But these are things that can be rebuild in a short period of time and they are nothing that you actually have to worry about that much. What worries me the most are specific changes in patterns of rainfall.

How the gravels of the streets are washed away by the rain, so are the boundaries between the dry and the rainy season washed away by the effects of a changing climate.

Unpredictability of rainfall patterns especially in critical stages of the planting season makes it difficult for farmers to predict when the best time is to plant their seeds. Knowing, that if they miss the right time window during the planting season their yield will be significant smaller than their capital input at the beginning of the season. On the other hand if they plant to early, the unexpected heavy rainfalls will destroy the seedlings and therefore the whole yield because there is no money left to buy new seeds.

Biomass provides about 80% of the primary domestic energy supply in Sub Sahara Africa, while rain-fed agriculture contributes some 30% of GDP and employs about 70% of the population, and is the main safety net of the rural communities.

In addition with deforestation the amount of soil being washed away by the rain is increasing, leading to flooding and the danger of water-borne disease during the times of heavy rainfalls. The lack of sanitation and trash collection combined with the heavy rainfalls leads to the contamination of water supplies and a decline in water quality affecting mostly kids in rural areas.

A second group of communities heavily affected by these changes are coastal villages who rely on small scale fishing and farming. besides the heavy rains and the change in rainfall patterns, their greatest threat at the moment is the rising sea level that endangers their lifestyle. In the Volta Region the sea is washing away some beaches around the delta area because of a continues lack of sediment flows from the upper Volta regions. The Akosombo dam hinders the flow of sediments from the north that would repeatedly renew the beaches and provide fresh sand so that the beaches would be a steady coming and going of sediments. The combination of the lack of sediments and the rising sea levels have lead to dramatic examples such as Totope where a whole village is forced to stock up the floors of their houses with trash and sand to escape from rising groundwater. Partly fled to the lagoon behind their village, the villagers will be sooner or later forced to leave their ancestors home and settle somewhere more dry and with a future outlook that looks brighter than living on a dump site between rats, trash and mosquitoes with dwindling catch from fishing and decline of farm yields because of an advancing salinisation of their groundwater.

According to the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanografic Commission coastal decline on average in West Africa is between 1 and 2 meters per year. Major coastal roads and cities along the coast such as Lagos or Accra are partly endangered by the approaching coastline. In addition most of the fancy tourist places are these lush beach resorts and lodges where you basically sleep with your house at the beach.
A decline in tourism because of dwindling beaches would be a threat to a lot of communities where tourism is basically the only chance to get away from fishing or small scale agriculture.

All of this is no problem for policy makers and large building projects from gas and salt production sites to apartment towers right  at the beach in Accra or luxurious business cities such as the Eko Atlantic in Lagos will be build with a huge long time risk for people and state as the last resort of help in case of danger.

The responsibility of people for most of this effects makes it even harder to think about the same people making responsible policies towards climate change.
On the other hand it gives hope to know that human behavior can influence the environment to change. Because it works both ways. For the better and for the worse.

 

Trotro – or how to get from A to B

In a country of 25 million people, where most people don’t have the money to own a car, transportation is a key issue. In most modern towns public transportation has always been in the center of city development discourse. No matter if you talk about Rio de Janeiro, New York, Moscow, Lagos or Accra. Streets are the life lines of a city. Not only do they bring people from A to B but they also transport goods from and to the markets. Their condition is generally seen as an indicator for the business environment because one can estimate the tangible and intangible transport costs and therefore somehow forecast the expected profit margin.

Even though the big orange buses of the Metro Mass Transportation Company of Ghana with their incredible loud horns and rock hard plastic seats can’t be missed when they drive through the traffic, the most common mode of transport are the tro-tros. Known around the African Subcontinent as bush-taxis, danfos or matatus, their appearance is the heartbeat of transportation and a huge plus to the mobility of millions of workers who can’t afford to buy their own car and are smart enough to share a vehicle. Like flies are attracted to the biggest feast, this buses drive, where the big streams of people are. Bringing workers into the city and out of the city. Going overland as well as through the cities, this cars run as long as possible. They know no age of retirement. A car that is broken can be fixed.

You can’t open your windows? Keep them closed!
You can’t close your windows? Keep them open!
There is a hole in your footwell and you can see the street? appreciate the wind around your legs!
Your feet are getting hot from the heat of the engine and the lack of isolation? Nobody cares!

The main route for trotros in Accra is the north-south axis.

Independence road coming from Aburi going straight from north to south through Adenta/Madina, followed by Airport Area is the main artery of the city. Clogged with cars, trucks, buses and trotros as early as 6 am in the morning, it is a rolling metal snake. Close to a total infarct but somehow staying alive. It can take you two hours for a distance of less than 15 km. People take it stoically and will sleep in the car. Despite all the fumes and the heat. I can’t. It’s too much for me. Sometimes, when it is getting too much, I just get out of the car and walk for a bit, just to catch another car, when the traffic is getting better.
There are some key-junctions where the traffic goes into different directions. After that it is getting better and the traffic starts flowing again. Sometimes. If you are lucky.

The trotro business is in men’s hand. Even though there are some rumors about female ‘mates’, there are 99,9% men working in and around the trotros.

The average trotro driver is male, between 25 and 40 and works with the golden rule for the trotro business:

Time is money!

The loading and unloading process is commented by the driver, sometimes asking vociferously for the mate to hurry up, even though he can’t do anything about it. The car is full when the car is full.

There are different types of stops. Some are formal bus stations and people will wait in line for their car to come and get into it and the car goes off when it is full. Others are on the way of the trotro. Sometimes official passenger bays, sometimes just a certain spot or junction that attracts the attention of people.

There are always two people in the car. The driver and the mate. If you want to communicate with them you call them ‘driver’ and ‘mate’.

The mate is responsible for packing away luggage if possible, telling people where to sit (sometimes when it is very crowded you don’t want to sit on the same bench with 2 or 3 obese people) and most important collecting the money. This is done in two ways. Either he collects the money of everybody beforehand and than asks in order of collection where the people are going and gives out change according to their destination, or he handles one customer at a time.

In any case it is always initiated with ‘yes front!’, ‘yes back!’ or if its only one or two he will tell how many customers haven’t payed their dues.

Being a taller person, trotros are always a challenge. Since the whole vehicle is meant to be as economic as possible, the seats are torn out and remade to fit in more passengers. A car that would have seats for 9 people back home carries up to 23 people here. I don’t have to mention that the seats are not the original ones. Welded from iron rods and cushioned with foam they can cause dead legs in the weirdest positions. Sometimes when I sit in a trotro since two hours and my knees are black and blue I imagine the people arranging the seats to be either this really tiny mechanics or people with very weirdly short thighs. In any case its really tight in all directions and its difficult to get in and out.
But its the only way of transportation besides taking your own car or a taxi. There are some okada drivers in town but it is illegal, the prices are high and its freaking dangerous to go on a bike skipping cars with a made in china helmet that reminds you of a tinpot or a nutshell.
You might not like the hassle, but you can’t get around them.

Something that I think is really special are the different trotro stations that have different spatial meanings in the sense that they work for different people in different ways. They can be the area of a community in the sense that people live in and around them. At the 37 military hospital you will find people living at the side of the station and working in and around it. They can be markets and selling grounds for a wide array of products. Fruits and bread and hydrogen peroxide; books, fake jewelry, cloth and food are sold in and around. If you are unlucky somebody picks your pocket while you try to get on your trotro.

Other than outside the station, where the only rule is the survival of the fittest, the trotro stations work in a very British way of standing in line and waiting. That can take you easily half an hour during peak hours in addition to station-internal traffic because its just packed with people and market stands.

I drive trotro every single day for about three hours and I still love it. They show you the real city. They don’t care if the neighborhood is dirty or considered dangerous. If it is faster to go through Nima, they will drive through Nima.
You see the live of the street unfiltered because most people don’t see your white face fast enough. You see the real life and how people are so positive, so desperate. Some pay with 50 cedi notes and others scramble for their last coins. Its one of the places where Ghanaians are friendly and solidary. Strangers are entrusted with sleeping children while market ladies collect their luggage. When the child is carried on the back everybody takes care of its head when the mother is getting out of the car. elderly people are given the best spots and no one complains about the body size of their fellow passengers.

Trotros are used for heated discussions about the newest events in politics and it is more common than unusual that people are listening to political debate on the radio for the whole ride and commenting on it loudly as well as including people like me. I often get into interesting conversations with random people who have to tell a lot about their life or their living situations.

It can happen that people start praying at 6:30 am. Anybody who knows how Ghanaians pray know it is not done quietly for themselves but very loud for a long time because everybody has to hear it. Call me ignorant but I’ve changed many trotros because I couldn’t take it for long.

One thing that bothered me for long and is still on my mind is the security situation of trotros. Inside the cities and on short distances its quite safe because they wont go faster than 60 km/h. Going long distance is a different story. Simply because time is money. Overspeeding kills. It even kills more when the cars are shitty, the tires are imported used because they are considered as unsafe for being driven in any European country and the drivers are tired and have to go as fast as possible.
Just recently a fully loaded trotro was in a T-collision with a truck. The truck was going full speed with a huge container in the back. The trotro was totally wrecked and everybody died. 22 people died in the accident.

2012 about 2000 people died on Ghana’s roads. 2012 about 3600 people died on Germany’s roads.
Considering the size of Ghana and Germany population wise as well as the fact that Germany has Autobahns and mostly no speed limit on them makes it even more scary to drive long distance here.

The best way is: trotro for short distance, bus for longer distance. Safety first!

E-Waste

   

Our life becomes more electrified. It seems that every day a new product conquers the market to make our boring days more enjoyable, efficient and entertaining.
Since we need to stay in touch with our friends at every moment of the day we have a smartphone. Lets make it two because of the important work-life balance.
When we are home we play around with our Laptops, PCs, pads and most recently added: the smartwatch (Seriously?)
Since the drums of our washing machines are no longer made from metal but from plastic, since our fridges better be energy class level A+++ and not only A, since we upgrade our computer at least every 2 years due to lack of technical understanding or because we develop a PCB-envy when our friends have this shiny new upgraded computer which allows them to run this one game or program so smooth that we start drooling, we will buy and throw away.

If we are a ‘conscious consumer’ we resell our stuff locally and feel good about ourselves. In the end it will be waste. No matter how conscious we are, when it comes to modern technology, there is an end-consumer.

When this chain has reached its end, some longer and others shorter, the waste is being thrown away. If you are lucky, your local recycling facility will take care of it and will extract the valuable resources and treat the rest as what it is: toxic waste.

Most likely someone will look at it and decide if it can still be used or repaired before it is destroyed. If that is the case, the ‘do-gooder’ awakes.

Haven’t you heard about the ‘digital divide’/’digital gap’?

Don’t you know that kids of Ethiopian pastoralists can learn way better if given a free ipad?

We need to give access to computers to everyone everywhere!

One laptop per child and everything will be fine!

Think about the sales! I mean kids!

When the idea of the digital divide came up in the 1990s as a consequence of the lack of African countries to access the global trade in information technology and the acknowledgement that without IT the African continent will be even further behind the global ‘development’ massive amounts of funds and policy makers attention went to the topic.

Today we find widely discussed programs as the OLPC (one laptop per child) initiative that started in India but is spread all over the less saturated do-gooder markets of our world.

Don’t get me wrong. Decent living conditions are an intrinsic part of my understanding of being human.

But is it necessary that everybody has a computer, TV and smartphone with internet access and high resolution display?

The fact that there is not only a global digital divide but also an national and regional, or lets say a huge divide between the income classes of a society makes it harder to tackle the problem.

Being around the more ‘global’ spots in Ghana I see people using two smartphones and an iPad nearly on a daily basis. Your phone got stolen last week? Look for it at Accra circle because it is most definitely in the hands of a guy selling it to finance his and his brother/cousin/friend’s life abroad.

The major problem is the starting position. On the one hand there is a huge lack of money to acquire products that are durable and possible to repair, on the other hand there is a huge desire to upgrade ones life. It takes modern IT technology to be part of a generation where friends are only two clicks away and drinks are always ice-cold.

If I can afford it to install an A/C in my 2 square meter shoe shop with no one inside I will do it. Why? Because I can.

The excessive use of anything that somehow seems to be modern or technological leads to the total overwhelming of a already rundown waste and sewage system.

The demand for fridges is high and the money is small. So the result is a vibrant trade in electronic goods.

Even though there is ‘a strong policy network to ensure the monitoring of the trade and reduce negative effects on the population of partner countries’, traders in countries like Germany, UK, USA, Korea, Netherlands, France and Japan find loopholes in the said policy network and declare the electronics as ‘second-hand’.

Through the growing turnover of the industry the recycling of electronics became fraudulent and lots of companies are involved in dumping and selling of used electronics.

The term waste is in my opinion misleading because it implies that it is actually worthless. It is not. And so we find all over the world waste economies specializing on the leftover of our fancy lifestyle.

One of this places is the neighborhood of Agbogbloshi in  Accra also sometimes referred to as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah due to high crime rates and prostitution. It got everything that you need: lots of internal displaced persons due to conflict in the north, swampland, neglected investment in health and other infrastructure as well as a lack of economic opportunities.

A vibrant trade has been established between the harbor town of Tema and the Agbobloshi community. An estimated amount of 122.000 tons of electronic devices is shipped into the community by big trucks. 75% of it doesn’t work any more and can’t be repaired. The remaining 91.500 tons are dismantled and separated by an uncountable number of informal workers who buy and sell small quantities of copper and aluminum to wholesalers.

Leftovers are dumped in the near lagoon.

   

The area is on the top 10 list of most toxic places in the world. Using Styrofoam and car tires to fuel the fires that burn away the coating of cables to give access to the copper inside. The released fumes are toxic and pollute the air, the land and the water of the near lagoon. High concentrations of cadmium, mercury, lead, arsenic, dioxin and brominated flame-retardants are found in all of the neighborhood. The toxins stay in food and water and are found on high concentrations of those who work the closest to the fires.

Small kids as young as 10 work on the site and try to make a living. Being able to burn your own cables is already an upgrade, since most kids just scrabble in the dirt to find the smallest pieces of metal. Mostly dragging an old stereo speaker with an attached cable in one hand and a bag in the other, it looks like they are walking their toy-dogs.
But what you see here are only the pets of poverty. Being a child in a poor community like Agbogbloshi is a costly thing and you will start working very early. The boy on the picture looks like nine years old. In fact he told me that he was twelve. His voice was so hoarse that I had difficulties to understand him as well as difficulties to breath.
The fumes released contain high amounts of the named chemicals and affect the development of the nervous system as well as organs like lungs and brain. Direct links between mercury and BFR and cancer can be found in medical literature and it is obvious that the people are not in a healthy state. The average life expectancy of a Ghanaian is 63 years and there are plenty of 80 year old.

As always everybody is friendly and nice and no one harasses me.

Seeing this site and its social and economic dynamics makes you think about the complexity of issues of international development policies.

Sitting on the skeleton of an old PC monitor I look from a distance over the field where single columns of smoke are swirling into town.

There are development plans for the area to upgrade the community and end the toxic trade. The import of used fridges is banned at the moment with police squats in the harbor waiting for those who still import them to pick up their freight and arrest them.

The argument is, that fridges are using up to 40% of the Ghanaian electricity and due to the low energy-efficiency of the old devices they got banned.

The only thing that is going to happen is that the trade with repaired fridges will boom as usually and the average citizen will not be able to afford a new one.

The trade with new devices is in the hand of few and the quality of the products from Asia is very cheap since the Ghana Standards Authority actually has no standards.

Meanwhile in Agbogbloshi Nigerian intermediaries are trading with Chinese wholesaler in the market of electronic capitals such as Guangzhou over the copper extracted from the small boys on the dump site.
Shipped to China it is molten down and new cables are made for new fridges.

Features are added and a new generation of fridges, smartphones, TVs and washing machines with touchscreens and sensors for the freshness of groceries, fish and meat is waiting to be used, neglected, replaced and recycled.

It truly is a globalized world.

Bittersweet Chocolate

Everybody knows it.
Cocoa is a dirty business.

But the creamy sweetness that runs through your mouth is so tempting.
The tickling at the side of the back of your tongue makes you forget the bitterness.
It blinds out the origin of a global product that we enjoy so much.

The fact that most of the cocoa farmers have no idea how chocolate tastes like shows how perverted the market processes are that influence the cocoa trade.

Its a highly volatile market with a commodity that is traded at the biggest stock exchanges in Chicago and London, but produced by poor farmers in the rain forests of the West African region who have no say in the trade with the big market players.

The cocoa market is divided between 5 or 6 big raw cocoa buying companies and the big multinationals like Nestlé, Mars, Unilever, Danone, Cargill, Hersheys or Cadburry who buy the processed cocoa from said raw buyers and produce what somehow became an ideogram for a merry Christmas.

The global production of cocoa is 4.100.000 t. (or 9038953480 lb for my american readers.) More than 2.000.000 t are produced in and around Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire making it a key area of attention for market player and their strategic, long-term investments into a growing market. Nevertheless the countries face difficulties that seem sometimes too big to solve.

Widespread corruption in the trade created an unequal system of beneficiaries, reaching from the harbor authorities over the policemen at the toll stations all the way to the agric traders for fertilizers and other goods that are used to boost the yield and reduce the workload. If you are not part of the circle of favorites you might not have access to fertilizers or be able to hire labor, making it impossible to grow enough cocoa to survive the year.

The Ghana Cocoa Board, which buys all the cocoa in Ghana and sells it to the world market in exchange for hybrid seeds and investment in infrastructure, is a state owned institution in the business of the cocoa trade. Long before the independence the board was involved in controlling the market and (self-proclaimed) protect the farmers from price fluctuation on the market.

Like all institutions the board has its problems with widespread corruption and malpractice. Most common are the simple neglect of rural communities when it comes to the accessibility of markets or storage facilities as well as the provision with pesticides or other chemical substitutes. In addition the cocoa farmers face huge difficulties with the fact that the imported chemicals are controlled by the Ghana Standards Authority which is not really known for its excellence and customer service.
Every now and then hazardous chemicals are found on the farms and together with the lack of education and training farm workers health is affected. Since spraying trees is not difficult, the main group of workers to do this task are children. Which leads to the next problem that is child labor, modern slavery and unsustainability of the cocoa business.

According to UNICEF there are 1.8 million children working on cocoa farms in Western Africa. Most of them are direct relatives of the farmers and are supposed to help decrease the formal labor costs.
In Cote d’Ivoire, where most of the cocoa is grown on commercial scale big farms child labor is widespread and it is connected to a perfidious system of poverty, dependency and slavery.
Begging kids are being abducted in the streets of Burkina Faso and Mali and sold to farmers in the south. Sometimes bought from the desperate families for a handful of dollars hoping that they will send home money as soon as they start working in the city, which was promised to them.
Professional child trafficking gangs sell kids for as little as 150 $ into life circumstances that are not any different than the times of slavery in the 17th and 19th century.
It is extremely hard and dangerous work that is done by this kids. 
Mostly they are used to climb the trees and cut the ripe cocoa fruit. Kids use machetes to cut and later open the fruits to access the kernels. A lack of power, coordination and nutrition based fatigue leads to common injuries of hands and lower arms as well as legs. 
As for the rest, there is tropical climate and dirt as well as a lack of access to basic medical treatment, especially if you can get a new kid for just 150 $.
Blaming the farmer is not the right approach. According to the UNCTAD, more than 95% of all cocoa farmers live under the poverty line of 1.25$/day. Buying kids and cheap labor is a necessity for them to survive in the only business they know.

There are world wide schemes to fight child labor. Long names such as the ILO’s Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, one of the basic pillars of ILO’s policies that was ratified in 1999 has still to show substantial effect on the cocoa trade.

In the USA, the biggest market for chocolate worldwide, an introduction to a legislative amendment to end child slavery in cocoa business by issuing a ‘slave free chocolate’ label was first approved by the house of representatives but later crippled by lobbyists and changed into and agreement on voluntary basis that would allow the industry to react more flexible to the cause. The Harkin-Engel Protocol was set up to access data on child labor in the cocoa trade by the industry itself.
Deadlines for data collection in 2005 and 2008 were not met mostly because of a lack of independent verification of the data acquired. There is absolutely no legal binding measures and accountability due to involved institutions that are basically a mere joke in their inner structure and commitment.

The boy you see on the picture above worked in a cocoa storage facility in Hohoe when I visited the town in 2010. He was 17 and worker there for more than 3 years he told me. 

They would store about 150 tons of cocoa in that building and loading the trucks by hand as soon as they come to collect the bags.
66 kg or 130 lbs to be carried on the head. Over and over again until the 230 bags are on the truck which is a total of 15 tons. Moved by manual labor. By the hands of young men like him.

Now you might sit there and think: Thanks Julian! Now every time I eat some chocolate, not only do I feel the guilt because of my winterlovehandlesthatsoonwillbemynewyearsresolutions, but also I feel horrible because little kids starve, get beaten and cut themselves accidentally so I can have my chocolate for the cheapest prize possible.

And yes you are right. You should feel horrible.

There is no way to eat discounter-sold non-certified chocolate without eating the product of exploitation.

Look out for FAIRTRADE products. Ask your local store to stock up. If you can’t find any you can order online. If you can’t find any online which I doubt than you are too stupid to find it and you don’t deserve your chocolate.

I am not saying that fair trade labels are the ultimate solution to an intrinsic problem of market economy.

But if the problem itself is found in market economy, so is the solution.

Production methods are what you want them to be.

Merry Christmas from Ghana everybody.

 

Also: sign this petition and support them: http://makechocolatefair.org/

 

chainsaws and fishing boats

Everything is connected. Earlier in this blog I wrote about the decrease of the rain forest in Ghana and all over West Africa.

When the access to charcoal and firewood diminishes and prices rise in a country where nearly everybody is cooking on little welded stoves at the back of their houses on aluminum pots, the situation gets tense.

As everywhere else in the world, wood is a multi-purpose resource which is used in a large variety of businesses and trades.

Building houses, construction work, heavy-duty carts, cooking equipment, fuel and last but not least fishing boats all depend on the logging of the extremely dense woods of the tropical rain forest. The most vulnerable of all are the fishermen.

Their small margin is reinvested into their fishing equipment and the owning a boat is a dream for every fisherman that most of them will never fulfill.

The best boats are dugouts. Simply because they resist the aggressive saltwater longer and so the fishermen get more for their money.

Since most of the big trees are cut down already and replanting policies are non-existing it is really difficult and expensive to find trees big enough that can be used for fishing boats. Due to that, most of the boats are built from timber parts and beams which make the boat more vulnerable to the saltwater. Consequently the fishermen need to buy new boats more often, cutting back their already small margin from fishing and exposing them to an even more underprivileged lifestyle.

Sure, there are safer ways to dig out a trunk of a tree to create a new fishing boat than wearing sunglasses, a swim cap and walking bare-foot through the chippings from your four feet chain saw. But would you look as bad ass as him? I doubt it!
After watching him for 5 minutes cutting away wood at the trunk of the soon-to-be-boat I asked if I can take a picture. This was harder than I thought because unlike everybody else around me didn’t care that I was standing there and watching him doing his job for some time. With a simple nod he authorized me standing there and taking pictures.

The next thing, after finishing the work with the chainsaw is going to be the turning over of the boat. After that the starboard side of the boat is being processed with a flex.

All I could think of was: how are they going to drag the boat to the beach?
At least 100 meter just with muscle power. Through the whole community of Jamestown harbor. Through the little skewed huts and dusty alleys, passing big ovens to smoke the fish, the market hall (which is not more than concrete floor, metal poles and corrugated sheets) and tiny shops selling everything a fisher needs, from hooks and anchors welded from construction steel to nets as well as nails to build and repair the ships.

It’s a different world down in Jamestown and I feel that people here treat you as what you are. They remind you in their way that you are a social alien to their community. That no matter how silent you stand aside and try to be ignored and blend in with the houses, a crowd of kids will stare at you or passing fishermen will look at you suspicious.
I am very much interested in this community but feel that staying longer might only create tensions and this is the last I want.