Tag Archives: recycling

A story on every corner

My first full-time gig as a reporter was a wonderful summer in a small city in eastern Canada. Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick. It’s home to the provincial legislative assembly and two universities. The problem for news-gatherers is that those three institutions are effectively in hibernation for the summer months. Between May and September, there isn’t much in the way of sensational news in Fredericton. I remember a day where the cameraman and I drove around looking for news. After a few hours of searching, we did a story about a small rise in the number of visitors to a provincial park.

The JHR team and bike drivers on the way to Yeliboya Island.

Developed countries like Canada can be referred to as “developed”, because not much happens. Citizens are safe, healthy, secure and, for the most part, have their human rights respected. Here in Sierra Leone that is not the case. Before I came here, a former JHR trainer told me that “there is a story on every corner.” I think of that phrase almost every day.

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

For the last reporting trip of my time in Sierra Leone, we decided to head north to Kambia District to see what sort of stories we could find. I mentored two journalists from Africa Young Voices Radio, with help from JHR Local Trainer Kevin Lamdo and Kambia journalist Gibril Gottor (recently-crowned Male Media Professional of the Year). Our plan was to do two stories.

We started with a story on unsafe abortion. Abortion is illegal in almost all cases in Sierra Leone. The current legislation dates back to 1861. A recent report showed that, in 2011, 1,622 women went to hospital as a result of the effects of illegal abortions. It estimates that almost 2% of abortions resulted in the mother’s death. We spoke to a community doctor, nurses, a pastor, and after some searching we finally a woman who said she had had an abortion, performed illegally in a local hospital. Story #1.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone's Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don't like him much.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone’s Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don’t like him much.

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river.

On the way to Yeliboya, we had stopped at the village of Kychom to hire our boat. While waiting, we noticed hundreds of empty water packets sitting in the sun. These ubiquitous 500ml bags of water are the cheapest way to get purified drinking water. The packets litter the streets and clog-up drains across the country, contributing to sewers flooding the streets in rainy season. AYV reporter Princetta Williams asked about the packets. A woman told her she was drying them to send them north to Guinea for recycling. Recycling programmes are almost unknown in Sierra Leone. Story #3.

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

When we got back to Kambia town we noticed new sets of clean water taps around the town. They were all installed with the help of the Japanese government in February. But they had all been turned off for the past month. It turned out that very few local home-owners were paying the monthly fee of Le15,000 ($3.50). The local water company engineer said that all he needed was $50 of fuel per day, to pump the water and restore supply. He also said the Ministry of Water was supposed to inject $17,500 into the project in February. The money came two months late, and was only $9,300 – enough to pay-off some of the fuel debts. In the past month, locals have been going to old water sources that are no longer chlorinated. Story #4.

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

On our second evening in Kambia, we decided to head north to the Guinean border. After a colourful exchange with border police (Gibril said they don’t like him very much), we were allowed to walk into Guinea. The border is protected by four rope barriers. But just off to the side is a modern border complex, with barriers, offices and an inspection zone. It was closed. We wandered across. A sign highlighted the grand opening of the Joint Customs Border Post on June 2nd – just days away, I thought. I read it again, June 2nd… 2012. The project was funded by the National Revenue Agency and has sat empty for a year. Story #5.

Nothing seems to surprise Sierra Leonean journalists. Almost everything still surprises me here. When I leave Sierra Leone this month, I will miss it desperately. I fear that life will be too boring back in the developed world. The thing is, so many Sierra Leoneans long for the day when life here is as quite, as healthy and as uneventful as places like Fredericton.

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used


Accidental recycling in Malawi

Blantyre craftsman and merchant, Isaac Stone, begins his work for the day by carving into a used tire. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Give Isaac Stone 500 kwacha, a tire, and two hours, and he’ll hand you back a pair of sandals.

At just 21-years-old, Stone has already been making footwear for nearly a decade. Born and raised in Blantyre, a city of some 732,000 people (2008), Stone didn’t always have to compete for kwacha in the market. He once went to school and had a mother and father who looked after him. But his mother passed away and his father disappeared. And so, when he was 12, Stone was forced to drop out of school and fend for himself.

Born street smart, he quickly realized that his best bet at survival was to learn a trade – to the carving knife was it.

I chatted with Stone as he made his day’s first pair of shoes.

His morning starts at 7:00 a.m., at which time he catches a minibus out to Limbe –a trade hub on the outskirts of Blantyre– where he can pick up a used car tire for 250 MWK (about $1.60 CAD). Stone then travels back to central Blantyre where, from 9-5, he can be found working behind a makeshift wooden stall, cutting away at rubber.

”I like working with my hands,” he told me. “It brings me money for food. Just enough for a place to stay.”

Stone doesn’t know it, but his small sandal business is part of something very big: Malawi’s efforts to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

The MDGs can broadly be defined as a set of development goals aimed at significantly reducing poverty, hunger, and disease, by 2015. Target seven reads: “integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources.”

Stone explained that it had never occurred to him that what he was doing was a form of recycling – and more than that, I offered, he was saving the tires from the garbage fires that so-often sour the city’s air.

”It’s a business,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I do it because I can make some money. But if it is good for the air, that is okay too.”

Karen Price, a project manager for Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust, explains that in a country as poor as Malawi, while many posses an awareness of environmental issues, it is difficult to get communities thinking about litter.

“I think there is general awareness of the environment, but when it comes to something like recycling, there is much more that could be done,” she said.

Local merchants watch over a bottle recycling depot in Blantyre's downtown market. Photo by Travis Lupick.

“It’s about the understanding of what waste is,” Price went on to explain. “There is not that added value of something as waste –that something can turn into waste or be recycled to become another product that can be reused.”

Stone and his tires are not the only accidental recycling operation running in Blantyre’s downtown market. In fact, in nearly every direction, people have repurposed and are reusing objects of every sort in countless imaginative ways.

And it’s a good thing, too, for Blantyre’s one-and-only garbage depot is filling up fast.

Down the hill from Stone, Grant Kenneth, another young entrepreneur, sits in the market with a small group of associates. Surrounding the men are mountains of empty plastic and glass bottles of every size, shape, and colour one can imagine.

”People bring them here,” Kenneth told me. “We pay three kwacha, five kwacha, 10 kwacha, and 15 kwacha, depending on the size.”

Kenneth or one of his colleagues will take the dirty bottles they receive, strip them of their labels, clean them, and, sometimes, refashion their shape to fit a specific purpose. And then they’ll resell the bottles at a slightly higher rate than the one for which they were purchased.

“It’s a job,” Kenneth said to me, echoing Stone’s remarks. “I guess it is good for the environment because otherwise, the people would be throwing it away. But it is just a job.”

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.