Tag Archives: Health

Scrap dealers and health hazards: Welcome to Korle Lagoon Ghana

Scrap dealers extract valuable metals like silver and copper from burnt electronics in Korle Lagoon, Ghana. The fumes from the burning plastic cause serious health risks, including lung cancer. Photo by Davis Ollennu.

This article originally appeared in Faces of Old Fadama, a magazine produced by students at the African University College of Communications in conjunction with the Daily Guide and Journalists for Human Rights in Accra, Ghana. The project was led by jhr intern Laura Bain.

By Daniel Bannah and Naa Lamley Lamptey Abibat

The sound of tools smashing and crushing metal is deafening. Dozens of young men, covered in dark grease and soot stains, sift through heaps of discarded appliances and pieces of rusted metal scavenging for anything valuable. An unpleasant smell rises from the nearby Korle Lagoon and we choke on thick clouds of smoke blanketing the area. This is the scrap yard at Old Fadama, Accra’s largest slum community.

The informal scrap metal business in Ghana is a relatively profitable venture for many young men from the northern part of the country and neighbouring countries residing in Old Fadama. However, the job comes with massive health risks. And since government authorities consider Old Fadama’s residents illegal citizens of Ghana, they are not protected under national labour laws.

Plastic burns in Accra's Korle Lagoon, a digital dumping ground. Photo by Davis Ollennu.

The nature of scrap dealing is very demanding. Each day scrap dealers walk long distances under the scorching sun to and from shops, homes and landfill sites in search of discarded metal and used electrical gadgets like televisions, computers, microwaves and radios to sell to individuals and business owners.

Groups of scruffy young men huddle around heaps of discarded gadgets, dismantling and extracting metallic components, iron, silver and copper by burning the pieces with fire and strips of worn-out car tires. They inhale dense black smoke without any safety gear, at great risk to their health.

The toxic smoke is not only a dreadful threat to the men who are directly involved in this business, but also poses a serious danger to people within the immediate environment who have nothing to do with scrap business.

The scrap dealers themselves do not seem to be aware of the health hazards they are exposed to in their business. “I’m not sick. I’ve done this for two years,” says James, a scrap worker.

Yusif Anda, a 40-year-old Burkinabe scrap dealer who has been involved in the trade for much longer, explains through a translator that although he is not visibly sick, he often coughs up black phlegm.

Jake, an ex-farmer who has worked in the scrap business for two years, says his doctor advised him to quit his job because continuous exposure to naked flames and toxic fumes could result in fatal respiratory conditions. He says he knows the health risk is unquestionable. His income is hardly better than a tomato farmers’ wage.

All this work is done to benefit large industrial steel companies like Western Steel and Forging Limited in the harbour city of Tema in Accra.

The companies buy the scrap metal for GH¢ 560.00 per tonne, or about $400 CAD. The income is distributed amongst the many men involved in the industry—a salary they wish would be higher considering the risk of their job.

Many of the scrap workers we spoke to could not even identify the companies they sell to because they say their main concern is making money on which to subsist. They also hardly speak nor understand any widely accepted Ghanaian languages, which hinders their right to negotiate fair incomes or protect their rights. They simply collect the scrap metal and collect their payment.

Ghana’s National Employment Policy states its main objectives are to “promote the goal of full employment in national economic and social policy, and to enable all men and women who are available and willing to work, to attain secured and sustainable livelihood through full productive and freely chosen employment and work” and to “Safeguard the basic rights and interests of workers.”

Therefore, it is hard to imagine why anyone would willingly engage in the risky industry of scrap dealing. But, since the government does not recognise Old Fadama’s residents as legal Ghanaian citizens, they do not have access to job training or skill development programmes. So, they are compelled to take up the job.

“We have families to take care of and remit our parents back in the villages, says James. “The government simply does not care about us, but we must survive.”

The plight of the condom

Malawian student Mercy Khowoya says “HIV and AIDS is real – if you can’t abstain then don’t be ashamed to use a condom." Photo by Katie Lin.

“Nyimbo imodzi sachezelela gule.” (One song won’t keep you dancing throughout the night.)

As this Malawian proverb suggests, just one sexual partner won’t satisfy a person for their entire lifetime.

But in a country where approximately 12 per cent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS and having multiple concurrent relationships is common, only 72 per cent of sexually active men and women are using condoms, says a 2010 health report by the National Statistics Office of Malawi.

An informal survey of management-level professionals in Malawi conducted by a Canadian public health specialist found that 100 per cent of the participants agreed they are “personally at risk for HIV and AIDS.” Yet, less than 10 per cent reported feeling “confident” when purchasing condoms.

While the survey results are not statistically representative, they do indicate that many people are simply too embarrassed to buy condoms and indicates that knowledge doesn’t necessarily inform behavior.

Condoms can be purchased in Malawi for 30 kwacha ($0.19 CAD) for a pack of three.

They can also be found for free at all government hospitals.

So if condoms are indeed so widely available, what’s the excuse for not using them?

For one: “Switi sadyera mpaketi.” (You can’t taste candy if you eat it while it’s still in the wrapper.)

This popular Malawian adage speaks to the belief that the use of a condom will make sex less pleasurable. As Veronica Chikafa, Capacity Building Coordinator at the Malawi Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS (MBCA) explains many believe “sex was made for there to be no barrier in between.”

Secondly, using a condom is generally viewed as the man’s domain.

“It’s the male who puts [the condom] on,” she says, “so it’s the male who makes the decision.”

Chikafa says that opening up communication between partners is a priority, no matter what the circumstances of their relationship.

However, there remains a gap in sex education which also must be addressed, she maintains.

“I was told that there was a lady who went for family planning and somebody did a condom demonstration using their thumb,” she says. “[She] put the condom on her thumb and got pregnant, of course.”

Dickson Chidumu, Head of Operations at the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (MUSCCO) and leader of a campaign called “Be a Hero. Use a Condom,” acknowledges that such misunderstandings are not only a result of poor sex education, but also not wanting to talk candidly about sex.

“To some people, this language is considered obscene language. But they need the facts. We are running away from speaking about the facts.”

Through the continued efforts of organizations such as MUSCCO and MBCA, and of course with time, Chidumu is hopeful that cultural attitudes towards sex and sexual practices will change.

For the fact remains that you just never know:

Wokaona nyanja anakaona ndi mvuu yomwe.” (When you go to the lake, you might see hippos.)

In other words, you may think you know your partner’s status, but there exists the possibility that you may encounter the unexpected – so it’s best to be prepared.

(For easy listening on safe sex, check out Condom Nalila by Zambian musician, Dalisoul, and Safe Sex by Kaye Styles.)

Building Homegrown Health Care, Brick by Brick

MP Moses Kunkuyu (centre) molding bricks with his constituency's villagers.

Thousands of freshly molded reddish-brown bricks lie baking under the hot Malawian sun.

“Self-help project! Self-help project!” one young boy declares to me proudly. He holds a wet brick high over his head, smiling broadly from under the dripping mud. “We need to build here for medicine!”

He’s one of hundreds of children, women and men that have gathered to mold bricks for a health centre in Blantyre’s Manase township. Residents of Manase, like too many other villages in Malawi, have seen members of their communities die while travelling to faraway medical clinics. But the Manase residents are determined to see themselves into better health, even if it means building their own hospital from scratch.

Malawi’s population is 85 per cent rural and poor access to medical care is all too common among villagers far removed from hospitals. According to the Ministry of Health, Blantyre’s fares better than most districts with 18 public health centres. By contrast, Phalombe, a community of 300,000 about an hour outside of Blantyre, has none. Districts were put in charge of hospitals when Malawi embraced decentralization along with a multiparty system in 1994. But critics say they are often left without the funds from the top to respond to the needs on the ground—the most basic of which is access.

Martha Kwataine, Director of the Malawi Equity Health Network (MEHN) characterizes the coordination between the District Assembly and the Ministry of Health as “there, but quite weak.”

“Some health facilities have been constructed but up until now they have not been used because according the ministry, they were not held to the required standards,” she warns. “Some communities have been helped, some are left along the way.”

The first step for a future hospital in Manase.

Blantyre City South MP Moses Kunkuyu refuses to let that happen in his community. The self-described “Manase boy” already knew his annual allotted K3 million ($20,477.15 CAD) budget wouldn’t be enough for a health centre. When he took the project on less than a year into office, he showed an incredible amount of faith in the system.

“We have the bricks but we haven’t identified any funds. We just have the need and we just have the desire to see the thing take shape,” he says. “We’re going to use whatever possible funds we have.”

Kunkuyu says he has consulted the district and has the go-ahead from ministry officials. But in the interests of time, he says he had to pursue other avenues. Instead of waiting for help, he enlisted community members to help build.

“We are two weeks into molding bricks and they are almost done…if we had waited for someone to come and help us, we would have waited for years,” he says.

Group Village Headman in a nearby village, Kampala, says the villages can’t afford to wait. The journey to the nearest health centre has for years been a challenge at best. With no money for transport, it’s a two-hour walk. Some who have braved the hike at night have fallen prey to attackers, injury, or even death. “We were suffering a long time to find a hospital,” says Kunkuyu.

The villagers that surround us murmur in agreement.

On a trip to Zomba earlier in the month, residents in a rural fishing village said it is commonplace for their elected MPs to be voted in, and then never return to field concerns of the people.

Harriet Stima runs a grocery in Zomba-Likangala, and says she hasn’t seen her MP since his campaign.

“In terms of development, there is nothing he has done,” she says. “I’m not surprised at his behaviour, it’s typical of MPs.”

Kunkuyu refuses to fall into that categorization. Instead, he demonstrates the power of personalized politics. The drawbacks to decentralization have shown just how necessary the persistence of local players is to ensure basic services at the grassroots level.

“There is always something that we can do,” he says. “We can evolve ourselves.”