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06.10.2008 Technology

Dumping old computers in Ghana - Part I

By mailonsunday.co.uk
Thames Gateway NHS Trust computers found at the site Thames Gateway NHS Trust computers found at the site

Dumping old computers in Ghana - The dirty secret of NHS UK

Under the pretence of recycling, NHS computers have been dumped in Ghana, where their hard drives are mined of confidential data by criminal gangs... while children die melting down the highly toxic empty shells.
We arrive shortly after the fight. The boy had grovelled in the dirt for mercy, whimpering as blood dripped from his cracked skull. With the computer monitor that had been broken over his head lying on the ground nearby, filthy children with glassy-eyed stares and twisted smirks had stood over him.

Some of them had laughed at him as the tears rolled down his dirty face. The boy had been beaten in a vicious quarrel over a length of copper wire probably worth less than 50p.
We were drawn to this place by a doomsday column of black smoke. It darkens an already brooding sky to the east of the city of Accra in Ghana, West Africa.

Heads down, looking as inconspicuous as possible, we darted through swarms of beggars and ragged children on the road near Agbogbloshie Market. 'Keep smiling,' said my guide Mike, as we tried to ignore hateful glances from angry-looking men in one of the dangerous slums. 'There are gangsters here, guys from prisons with machetes and cudgels who don't want to be found or photographed. Put the camera away.' We crossed a polluted river that was swarming with clouds of flies and mosquitoes and reeked of human excrement and urine.
Then a metallic, sulphurous tang filled my throat, making me gag. As we drew nearer, my right eye began to prickle oddly, then it became harder to draw breath. Where we were heading was highly toxic, even from half a mile away. We turned off the bustling main road down a rutted, muddy track. Gangs of youths gave us hostile glances.

One group sat on their haunches, sucking on marijuana joints and eyeing us from behind dark glasses. We pressed on. Shortly afterwards, we arrived in a poisonous, post-apocalyptic hell - a sprawling, toxic dumping ground stretching for a mile or two. This is the final resting place for your old TV, computer or mobile phone.

Piles of cracked computer monitors sit in rancid pools of noxious green slime.The circuit boards and innards of old PCs leak toxic mercury, beryllium and cadmium, poisoning the earth. Underfoot, my boot crushes a cathode ray tube, releasing a puff of glass particulates around my ankles. The air is poisoned, thick with the highly toxic burning lead and plastics. My lungs begin to ache.

Scampering over these mounds of decaying computers are red-eyed gangs of wild, young boys in rags with names such as Schoolboy and Blackie. It's like William Golding's Lord Of The Flies, the allegorical novel about a group of English schoolboys stranded on a desert island after a plane crash who make a disastrous attempt to govern themselves, leading swiftly to violence and murder.

Fights over the spoils of trashed computers break out hourly. At the scene of the earlier scuffle is Kofi Wiafe, a skinny 13-year-old who seems subdued compared to the other boys. He comes from the north of the country. He is just one of hundreds of young boys from poverty-stricken backgrounds who are drawn here to scavenge metal from e-waste, as it's called. Some come from as far afield as Nigeria, Togo and Ivory Coast.
At the dump, Kofi is known as Schoolboy because he arrived here after running away from home dressed in his school uniform, the only clothes he had.

He takes us past the whimpering boy into the lawless heart of the dump.
'The fight was nothing,' he says, as he limps along among the broken glass and jagged metal in flip-flops. 'I've seen worse.'The whites of his eyes are so bloodshot it looks like they're bleeding. He blinks back constant tears.
There's a dirty, blood-encrusted bandage around the shin of his left leg that hides a septic, pus-filled sore. He cut his leg on a computer monitor he was smashing open with a rock to get the copper wire inside. (to be continued)

Burning off the plastic insulation from computer wiring to get the copper at a dump in Accra, GhanaBurning off the plastic insulation from computer wiring to get the copper at a dump in Accra, Ghana

Thames Gateway NHS Trust computers found at the site Thames Gateway NHS Trust computers found at the site

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