How Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa's Kids

His father disappeared when Bismarck was young, so he never got to ask why his dad gave him such a strange name, one nobody in the village had heard before. Bismarck's mother raised him alone, until she was struck by a car. She lost both her legs and died shortly afterward.

An aunt took Bismarck in, but there was rarely enough to eat. Eventually, an older boy in the village told him about Accra, and about a place there between the Agbogbloshie market and the slum called Sodom, where even a 10-year-old could earn enough money to be able to eat. The 16-year-old also told him about the computers and the smoke, and that he would have to be strong.

The two boys left their village not long thereafter, traveling by bus and then train. The older boy had money for the fares since he had already been to work in Sodom.

Bismarck learned the rules quickly. There's a hierarchy, and each boy can try to work his way up. The young men, those around 25-years-old, control the big junk scales that often stand where tracks can be seen in the ash covering the ground. They buy the metal the children find in the computers and sell it to a foundry near the harbor. When Bismarck's bag reaches half full after a day around the fires, he can sell his finds to these men for about two Ghanaian cedi, equivalent to around €1 or $1.5.

Those who are a bit younger, around 18-years-old, have handcarts made from boards and old car axles. They head into the city in the early morning to collect computers from the scrap importers and bring them back to the slum. They smash the computers and pull out the cables, then either throw the rest onto the fires themselves or sell it to the slightly younger boys.

It's mainly these boys who carry the bundles of cables and plastic to the fires to be burned. One of them is Kwami Ama, who is 16 and one of Bismarck's two friends here. Kwami has a strong body and a round, honest face. Only his eyes, bright red from the fumes by the time evening rolls around, make him appear wild. Scars crisscrossing his hands attest to the jagged edges of broken computers and old refrigerators. Kwami rips foam insulation out of the refrigerators to use as kindling before tossing computer parts onto the flames. The foam burns violet and green, hot enough to melt down even cables with fire retardant chemicals in their plastic insulation.

Kwami can no longer talk about things the way Bismarck does. "I'm often sad," he says, although he's doing well by the standards of Sodom. Tending the fires is the most toxic work of all, but he earns enough money to afford a place to sleep in a wooden hut in Sodom. The shanty is about two meters (six and half feet) wide and three meters (10 feet) long. Three boys sleep here, sharing the wooden floor. There are no windows in the hut, but the door has a padlock, allowing them to sleep in safety -- a luxury in Sodom.

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.

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