How Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa's Kids

"It's all moving faster and faster, and we're getting steamrolled," says John Pwamang, director of the Chemicals Control and Management Center at Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency. The agency is located in a crumbling concrete building. On the way to Pwamang's office, visitors must first climb a stairway that must at one point have been green, then pass a defective bathroom and a conference room with brown drapes reduced to tatters. Three waste bins stand in the hall -- a brown one for paper, a gray one for plastic, and another brown one for everything else. The country, however, doesn't have a working recycling system. It looks as though Pwamang's agency still has a few problems ahead of it.

Pwamang's eyes are hardly visible behind his thick bifocals. He speaks softly, which also helps him appear milder than he actually is. "You Europeans dig your feet into the ground," he says. "What are we supposed to do with the toxins you send us? We can't dispose of them. You have the facilities. Working computers are fine, but many of the very old ones don't even last a year here. Why don't you halt the flow of junk?"

Pwamang can't prove that the lead and dioxin are killing the children. Hardly anyone over 25 works at the fires by the black river. And there are no studies on the issue. Greenpeace has admittedly identified and quantified the toxins, but didn't examine their direct effects. "The children are sick," Pwamang says. "There are heavy metals there, there are toxins. A study would be good, but I know that even without a study that it's disastrous."

And yet, despite it all, the kids in Sodom sometimes seem to have fun. The older boys play football every evening in an open space between the fires, a couple of joists forming the goals and emptied out computer monitors marking the corners of the field. The players sprint and dive through the fumes from the fires. They're not just playing for fun, but also for their futures, as many Ghanaians have left to play for professional leagues in the West. It's a crazy dream, but for many of the young people here, a dream is the only thing that allows them to escape now and then.

Bismarck's friend Danjuma has the same dream, of course. He'd love to train for the sport, despite the pains in his chest, but he doesn't have the money for a ball. Perhaps that's for the best, though. In order to run, he would have to breathe deeply.

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