Nothing wasted

Kofi Akose repairs and sells used shoes near the Tamale market in northern Ghana

By James Munson

Every day, he sits outside the office on a small concrete stump with his hands wrapped around some old shoe.

Sometimes he’s burning one with a lighter. Other times he’s tying two sections of a shoe together.

Kofi Akose, 28, is one of Tamale’s many cobblers.

“I learned this as a small child and that’s how I started this work,” he says.

His outfit is as small as a business gets. It’s just him, a small bag and a few pairs of shoes. But what’s remarkable about Kofi’s entrepreneurship is that he has a business at all.

In Tamale, in northern Ghana, there are tons of shoe dealers selling new makes—you’d never think there would be much need for cobblers.

But the recycled shoe economy is everywhere here, and it speaks to people’s disdain for wasting things. People will always fix something before throwing it out.

Compare this to Canada, where shoe repair is practically non-existent.

Shoe sellers in Tamale are in that category of near-ubiquitous dealers, not quite as populous as the cell phone credit sellers, but up there with the sunglass vendors and plug-adapter carts.

And Kofi himself is not alone in the cobbling business.There’s at least a dozen in the few streets surrounding the Diamond FM newsroom, where I’m working.

Today Kofi has three pairs on display: a pair of plastic flip flops and two pairs of sandals with blue tartan fabric.

He shows me how he puts a broken shoe back together.

He pulls out a long metal needle with a wooden handle from his bag. He pokes through the plastic sole, pulling a string through it and the tartan fabric on top.

“This and weaving is all the same,” he says.

For the last few days, he’s sat with the same several pairs of shoes in front of him.

But he assures me he does sell. “It’s uncountable,” he says, on the amount of shoes he’s sold.

The evidence of this cultural pull towards reusing things in Ghana is everywhere. People sell old remote controls, old radios and extension cords. Old anything.

The circular economy environmentalists dream about is in full force here.

Last week, a friend of mine travelled with me to Tamale from Accra, the country’s capital.

As we explored the city, one of her shoes began falling apart until finally the straps completely broke away from the soles.

She wore my sandals and went looking for a shoe seller, while I sat on the curb with her tangled sandals at my feet.

Not two seconds later a man came by and offered to fix the shoes with glue.

I declined, knowing a new pair was on its way.

But my friend, having adopted Ghanaian attitudes after six months in the country, was aghast at my refusal.

I’ve asked myself since what reason I had to refuse.

I had none. It was just a knee-jerk reaction based on the habit of throwing out broken things.

This Ghanaian aptitude for recycling is a long way from Whitehorse, Yukon, where I was living before Tamale.

The shared garbage bin used by my neighbours and I was often overflowing with broken furniture and old household appliances.

But because there’s an economy for Kofi’s wares, he recycles. He’s filling a necessity.

And the cultural ambivalence toward material things that comes with losing that necessity hasn’t hit Ghana.

Well, at least it hasn’t hit Kofi.

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About James Munson

Learning the way the world works first-hand drives James Munson's passion for journalism. After graduating from the University of King’s College in 2008, he headed west to Denver to work for the Hill Times, where he finagled a ticket to hear Barack Obama accept the presidential candidacy. His impulse then lead him north to the Yukon News in Whitehorse, where he cut his teeth as an investigative reporter and feature writer. He won the 2010 Ma Murray award in environmental writing for a story about the premier’s hand in suppressing the advice of scientists who recommended protecting the Peel watershed from mining. He also exposed the premier’s negotiations to sell the Yukon’s public power utility in 2009. James and the premier are no longer speaking. His experience in northern Canada has prepared him for the rigours of Tamale in northern Ghana—he thrives on living in a strange places in strange times doing exhilarating work. He’s looking forward to working at Diamond FM where he hopes to focus his work on politics and governance issues.

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