The Children of Sodom and Gomorrah How Europe's Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa's Kids

Clemens Höges

By Clemens Höges

Part 3: The Poor against the Poor

Unlike his friend, Bismarck is afraid of the night. He rolls himself up in the dark like a dog and sleeps against a wooden wall in Sodom, or in the ashes by a broken freezer in the open area where the appliances are, or by one of the scales. He changes his sleeping spot regularly. He has two friends here, no more. In hell, the poor are pitted against the poor.

A few days ago, he had a stroke of luck when he found a large amount of copper, and the man at the scale paid him seven cedi. Bismarck only spent two of them, but the next morning, the other five were gone. Someone had used a razor blade to slice open his pocket while he was sleeping. He simply earns too little -- he can afford to eat or to rent a spot in a hut, but not both.

Bismarck can't spend the night with his other friend either. Danjuma is 11-years-old and believes he's been working here for several years already. His parents are still living, but four more siblings share their hut in Sodom, and there's no room there for Bismarck.

Danjuma's mother hates to see him working at the fires and wishes he were in school. But the family needs the money. Danjuma is the oldest, and it's not clear how much longer he'll be able to work effectively. He often suffers pains in his chest and back.

Danjuma and Bismarck belong to the youngest group, the children between 8 and 14. They're not allowed to tend the fires, and neither are girls. The young boys work with magnets, while the girls bring the older boys drinking water in plastic bags and sometimes food. "You have to drink a lot," Kwami explains. The sun beats down from above, bringing the temperature to more than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. And there is no shade in Agbogbloshie. Nearby, plastic is burning at a temperature of over 300 degrees Celsius (570 degrees Fahrenheit).

Shrinking the Brain

He's forgotten a lot of things, Kwami says, but he remembers one day last year very clearly. A group of white people came to the junkyard area, a rare event. They were from Greenpeace. One man wore gloves and carried small test tubes. He took samples of mud from one of the river's lagoons, then ash and soil from several different places in the area.

The chemist ran tests on his samples back home in England, and the values he arrived at weren't good. He found high concentrations of lead, cadmium and arsenic, as well as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls.

Lead, to take just one of the dangerous chemicals, causes headaches and stomach cramps after brief exposure. In the long term, it damages the nervous system, the kidneys, the blood and especially the brain. When children ingest lead through water or breathe it in, their brains shrink slightly and their intelligence decreases. Scientists in Germany grow concerned when they find values exceeding a limit of 0.5 milligrams of lead dust per cubic meter of air. The cathode ray tubes in a single computer monitor contain about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of lead. Many of the other substances the chemist found can also cause cancer, among other things.

Fighting Back

Mike Anane, an environmental activist and local coordinator for the international human rights organization FIAN, brought in the people from Greenpeace. Anane was born here 46 years ago, right around where Agbogbloshie now lies. In those days, there was nothing along the banks but green meadows and flamingos, and fishermen made their living from the river. Now nothing can live in the water.

Eight years ago, Anane began to notice more and more trucks driving toward Agbogbloshie, their beds full of computers. He took a closer look and started fighting back against what he saw. Anane collects stickers from many of the junk computers to find out whose toxins are burning here. He has labels from the US Department of Defense, British authorities and companies like Barclays Bank and British Telecom. "Some of the kids here will never see their 25th birthday," Anane believes.

He knows, though, that the companies and organizations whose labels arrive here together with their discarded appliances aren't the ones actually bringing this refuse into the country. The people directly involved are traders like Michael Ninicyi, head of Kofi Enterprise.

Kofi Enterprise is a small store filled to bursting with computers. The best goods are old Pentium machines that go for $90, DVD drive included. Printers and copiers are displayed under a yellow awning out front -- all machines from Germany, Ninicyi says. A copy of the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, used for padding, sits wedged between two of the computers. Some of the cases still bear labels from companies based in, for example, the small German town of Kleve, the state of Brandenburg or the Rhineland. All these goods are functional and legal.

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