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Ghana: waste-picking in Koforidua
Views 25 November 2016

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“Bwala five five” is the name given by waste pickers to the main dumpsite of Koforidua, a town of 130,000 inhabitants in eastern Ghana. On a regular working day, about 15 women and children work on the site, picking whatever may have some value from the rubbish deposited by municipal garbage trucks. They come equipped with nothing but a piece of bent steel, used as a hook, wear gloves made out of old socks, use electric cables to secure their trousers and usually have to start the day by looking for wearable shoes in the dump. 

They collect hard plastic and cans, which they sell once a month to a processing company. Plastic is worth 50 pesewas a kilo (0,20€) while metal only brings 20 pesewas a kilo (0,08€). 

The work is physically demanding and dangerous, as only those who get very close to the truck as it dumps its load can grab the best and larger pieces of plastic. Trucks come in at all times, zigzagging between people, sheep, cows and vultures, emptying their load of waste and speeding back to town for the next collection round. The whole area is heavily polluted, covered in the toxic smoke of slow fires that seem to burn night and day. Finding metal in burnt out sections is of course easier but breathing the fumes day after day is costly. Those who specialize in such work complain of breathing problems and often spend most of the little profit they make on medicines and medical fees.  

None of the adult waste pickers of Koforidua believe they will ever find a “real” job, away from the dumpsite. None of the children who work there go to school.

Olivier Ervyn (b.1970) is a Belgian documentary photographer. Based in Brussels, he has travelled extensively throughout Africa to document everyday life. The Ghana series is part of a wider project to document people at work and the extent to which some take risks to earn a living. He is currently working on two other projects, one on African churches in Europe and the other on new forms of poverty in developed economies.

  • Sundays, when fewer pickers come to work, can be a good day for those who do turn up, with potentially rich pickings.

  • Smoke from burning waste covers large sections of the dumpsite. Methane produced by rotting organic waste and tons of plastic shopping bags compacted throughout the area create an ideal environment for fire. Once set alight, waste can burn for weeks.

  • Work starts at 6am every day and often continues late into the evening.

  • Jacob, 12. Ghana and this fast-moving economy attracts thousands of migrants from all over West Africa. A French-speaking immigrant from Togo, Jacob came to Ghana with his father but, as he said, they have not yet been able to find "un bon travail". They both have been working at the dumpsite since they arrived in Ghana, several years ago.

  • Awa lives in a small settlement on the edge of the landfill. She says people there drink, cook and wash with contaminated water. Moving is not an option and picking waste is the only job available to them. Ghana's economy is moving forward (+7.9% GDP in 2012) but the country continues to struggle with relatively high inflation and unemployment levels.

  • Georgina is another of the many women who pick waste at Bwala 55.

  • Felicia has been a wastepicker for 18 years. She acts as the unofficial leader of the Koforidua waste pickers and is very aware of the dangers and health risks she and her co-workers face on a daily basis.

  • The harvest is stockpiled by the main access road. Once a month, a buyer comes round and purchases the metal and plastic pickers have accumulated.

  • Georgina, 47, prefers working on her own in the most remote sections of the dumpsite, where fire has cleared up most of the waste. She suffers from breathing problems and is often too tired and unwell to come to work.

  • Georgina lives in town. She says her job is slowly killing her and that more people "in other countries" should know how wastepickers live.