Opinion

Ama T. Acheampong: A tour of a waste-yard

I took a trip to the waste-yard; not for sight-seeing but out of curiosity.

There was an ongoing campaign by an international organization partnering with some agencies to support waste collectors and pickers hence I was filled with curiosity.

I mean, who on a normal day would want to visit the landfill site or a dump; as Ghanaians would usually call it.

My scientist part took the better of me, so I wanted to visit. I had heard of a community that brought life to the waste-yard, soI wanted to meet them.

About 600meters from the site, you would be welcomed by an unfriendly odour.

If you don’t know the cause of that stench, you might probably gurgle till you leave its borders. A dusty path littered with rubbish leads to a rather enormous pack of litter, which have turned brown from the long exposure to the elements of the weather.

With a face shield and a mask on, I was able to protect myself from the flies of varying colours and sizes that would prefer to take absolute control of the area.

Upon a closer look, you will best describe the heap as a huge mountain with undecayed materials sticking out of the surface of its body.

It is quite unsightly. A winding road, carefully constructed leads to the top where workers are engaged in different activities of waste picking.

In addition, there were tricycles (Aboboyaa) and huge trucks from Accra and its environs, which came to empty their contents frequently.

In short, the environment looked dirty, filthy and disarranged as expected.

When I arrived at the yard the stench was so bad, I asked myself “what at all are you doing here”? I was offered a chair to sit and by our culture, I could not refuse.

The waste-pickers had gathered under a tree that also functioned as a shed to keep them away from the scorching sun.

Apparently, it was their usual weekday meeting scheduled to deliberate over matters pertaining to their job.

Standing in the middle of an oval gathering was a young man who was so confident in his speech, such that he immediately caught my attention.

Later, I learnt he was the secretary of the Waste Pickers Association.

He also translated from English to Akan and Ewe from time to time. The people looked well-coordinated and there seemed to be an unexplained bond between them.

Their attire got me worried though because they did not seem protective enough for their kind of work.

They were normal day-to-day clothes that were worn on top of each other to cover their hands and legs. I was certain their clothes had never been washed.

After all, they are meant to work in the dirt. Both men and women had their heads covered with different types and colours of scarfs and had their masks on.

There was a natural partition of males from females and I could not help but notice a colony of senior citizens amidst both genders. My host took the stage and gave a briefing.

They listened with incontestable attention. During the discussions, no one hesitated to express him or herself, and anytime a concrete point was shared, they would clap unanimously to show their approval or just nod their head.

The atmosphere was heavily charged with solidarity and affirmation. After the meeting, they dispersed to form smaller groups that either continued with the discussion or exchanged pleasantries. Some went ahead to patronize food from vendors that had appeared right on time for lunch.

A tour after the meeting made me realize that the site functioned as a community.  

At one part of it, there were wooden structures orderly placed that housed some of the workers for the week till they returned home over the weekends.

The rest of the structures served as changing rooms for those who didn’t live on site.

At another part was the business side where materials that are retrieved are sorted, assembled, and kept under sheds. The sheds, craftily engineered, are owned by individuals who trade these materials on a large scale.

The heartbeat of the waste-yard is the selling of recyclable materials. That is how the waste pickers earn their income. These recyclables are dominantly papers, glasses, plastics, and metals which comprise as much as 40% of the total waste gathered at the yard.

I was also thrilled by how they go about their work: because all types of waste are mixed, they do the separation skillfully with a crooked rod whilst they move in groups on the dump amidst chatting and laughter.

Stench and discomfort will not keep them away. They are ready to work and earn money.

My point is, most Ghanaians see waste as a nuisance and do not want to be associated with it.

In fact, there is a stigma attached to any job connected to waste management in Ghana.

I believe it’s because the average Ghanaian is not well informed and involved with the whole waste management process.

Nobody seems to care where his/ her waste ends up. People think their waste is someone else’s job to manage, if not we wouldn’t have people always asking the government to get rid of the waste pile they created at unauthorized places.

People are just ignorant or do little of waste separation at the source of generation.

Ghanaians careless about reducing, reusing, and recycling of waste in their homes.

It is about time every individual recognizes himself or herself as a waste generator and that means we are all part of the waste management process.

If we have questions about how to manage waste in our country, let’s not depend only on the professionals that base their assumptions on research.

We should also talk to waste collectors and pickers. The ones who live and have their lives centered around waste, and so have become professionals as well.

They have information and solutions to share.

If we don’t engage them, it is our loss.

Some of them had this business passed on from generations before them and they understand the nitty-gritty of waste management.

If you ever encounter a waste collector or picker, think twice.

Respect and support them for who they are and the work they do.

The writer, Ama T. Acheampong is a student and a researcher.

E-mail: twumwaama@gmail.com