By Abby Wiseman
Adelaide pulls out one of her large lactating breasts and plunks it into the mouth of her 10 month old baby while she shares her story of how she came to live on the fringe of the Abokobi garbage dump in Accra.
Plastic bottles, cans and plastic bags from the dump creep up to her porch.
The pungent smell of burning rubber and plastic is so strong that my stomach drops every few minutes and I tell myself to stick it out. I can leave this place, Adelaide can’t.
The dump is located on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital city. Outskirts does not mean uninhabited, and Abokobi is clearly a residential area.
When Pearl Akanya Ofori, the reporter I work with at CitiFM, said she wanted to do a report on the Abokobi dumpsite, I figured we might find people who live and work on the site. They might live in a shack or on the side of the road I thought. The last thing I thought I’d see was properly erected homes. I didn’t expect to see an entire village close to the dump, completely engulfed in toxic smoke.
But in my amazement the community is growing and someone is even building a large house Kitty-corner to the dumpsite. Construction workers labour in the smog.
Adelaide said she moved to her new home with a view of never ending garbage trucks in March. She said that her last landlord evicted her mother, brothers and sisters from their home in Adenta, a nearby neighbourhood. She said a friend told her she could live near the dump. She said she pays rent, but couldn’t tell us how much.
The smoke is suffocating and she said she often has to leave her house just to clear her eyes. Her youngest coughs on and off for hours sometimes she said. There’s a hospital up the street, but she doesn’t think she should go.
Adelaide does not live at the dump alone. There are many incomplete houses in the neighbourhood, their brick and mortar foundation still showing. This seems to be a trend in Accra.
A path weaves between the houses and we follow it into a clearing where a group of young men hang out next to a rusty bench press.
These are the bolla pickers. Bolla means garbage in Twi, which is a local language.
We ask if they will speak to us. They lead us to their unofficial spokesman, Abrantie. That’s not really his name, but means young man in Twi. He was worried about his livelihood and didn’t want to reveal his real name.
Abrantie travelled from the northern region of Ghana in hopes of more opportunity. He didn’t have the skills to survive in a city and found himself picking from the top of the burning bolla.
He said the work is hot and dangerous, and the bolla is unstable.
The bolla pickers sell their bits of plastic and water bottles to middle men who then sell it to a recycling plant or abroad. The most money he has earned for his efforts is 50 Ghana Cedis ($25 CDN), and that was for two weeks worth of work.
Right now he is managing a drink stand the men have set up. He said he needed a break, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before he has to go back up onto the bolla.
Looking at the mountain of refuse, figures of men can be made out through the smoke. They walk on top of the garbage, bending down to pick up recyclable trash, dodging the shovels that sift the pile.
I ask Abrantie and the other men how they feel health-wise. He doesn’t mention his bad lungs or burning eyes until I asked him about those health concerns directly. Instead, he spoke about stress. He said they can’t feel too good, because they don’t know where their next “daily bread” will come from.
I think on these men and what their lives must be like. I can’t help but wonder where they get comfort and love. Their lives are so challenging with so little certainty. They have very little to offer a woman and they have no family in the area.
The men crowded around Abrantie as he spoke about the stress. I asked them who takes care of them. They said they take care of each other. They are brothers. The brothers of the bolla.