You don’t expect a casual stroll through the sleepy suburbs of the Ghanaian capital to lead you to unearth anything sinister about shopping in the local high street of your home city in the UK. Worlds apart ... no?
However, as Dr Shaun Danquah recently discovered, the commanding landscape on the outskirts of Accra tells a multilayered story which is not so disconnected from the typical purchases we casually make in any Mango, Zara or H&M. Perched on a clifftop above a fault-line of occasional seismic activity, the rolling hills of the surrounding coastal areas show the enduring beauty of what would have enchanted the early European explorers of bygone centuries - the Portuguese, the Dutch, and of course, the English. How sad and depressing then for Dr. Shaun to stumble upon the realisation that some of these breathtaking views are now disfigured with more toxic and man-made mountains of un-natural beauty - a sinister cargo ‘gifted’, imported even, from former colonial lands.
One afternoon walk took him to a deserted part of the city; deserted in all senses of the word. Sandy pathways, void of any obvious human presence … until the barrel of a gun presented him with a stark signpost of the reality of his location. Quick-thinking, a friendly smile and a few choice Islamic greetings in Arabic spared him from a grisly end to his innocent stroll. This would now become an enlightening and unforgettable but, guided excursion.
Touring deeper into these isolated outskirts, a hidden industry unfolds. Giant steel containers loom high, revealing a box park of vast proportions and questionable value. On closer inspection, the huge stacks of plastic bales each reveal a jumbled harvest of surplus textiles; surplus that is, to the requirements of the benevolent senders. This cargo falls outside of the stocktaking systems of any New Look or Primark. Barcode scanning and security tagging do not apply here because this consignment is not an order for the latest collection. This open-air boutique offers the stale cream of the crop of seasons past from distant parts. Surplus stock or pre-loved but, not loved enough to keep.
Landfill - But why this land?
Dr. Shaun was able to meet local members of this enterprising neighbourhood over a series of days to learn more about how and why this dark economy has evolved in a remote district of Accra. It would appear that despite its independence from colonial rule, Ghana continues to host the waste production of the (not so) former empire. A disconcerting truth which makes uncomfortable reading.
Fatima is a busy mother of two. She is one of many women who spend long hours rummaging bare-handed through the mountains of strange cargo to eke out a daily living. Well preserved pieces can be resold at market - if you can find them amongst the random dump of disposed garb. And so ends the journey of rejected clothing originally manufactured to feed the relentless appetite of the fashion-hungry developed world.
It’s a scene reminiscent of the Victorian dust heaps so vividly depicted by Charles Dickens. But, how would we feel today if the banks of the River Thames were still littered with clusters of economically vulnerable men, women and children who survive by sifting through filthy mountains of municipal waste? Surely our social infrastructure has shed such dismal practices over the last two centuries.
Meanwhile, Fatima’s children play in the Ghanaian dust. There is no workplace nursery, no registered childminder, no workplace canteen. There is no sick pay, no pension, no health & safety training or insurance. There is sand, dust and mountains of landfill. Fatima and her colleagues are more than happy to accept Dr. Shaun’s care packages of gloves, food and water which go some way to easing the burden of their gruelling daily grind. However, like the economically vulnerable women of Victorian England, they find it difficult to imagine a life beyond the boundaries of this no-go district.
Could that be part of the plan?
What do these initiatives which claim to make an impact by recycling clothes have in common? Unfortunately, they each seem to convey an unsavoury sense of the ‘white saviour’, a self-satisfied demeanour which we should beware of inviting or adopting ourselves. After all, what is the value of outside help and ‘donations’ which simply undermine the development of home-grown industries? Recycling the imported waste of former colonial players suggests the emperor’s delusion still persists. So, are we brave enough to call-out the vain, shameless notion of dumping clothing disguised as charity? Or, do we buy into the toxic agenda that progress lies buried in the debris of former oppressors?
The scandal of so-called sweatshops, where the vast majority of high street clothing is produced, has been well documented over recent years. Child exploitation and slave labour for famous high-street brands had its very own season - sensational for all the wrong reasons. Fashion consumers were shocked into ethical awareness over the conditions under which their trendy closet favourites had been tailored.
But like every winning magician’s trick, the art is in the distraction. So, while we congratulate ourselves for virtuously exposing and cleaning up the unethical practices of clothing production - the sly, back channels of disposing of said clothing go relatively unnoticed … until you happen to take a leisurely stroll through the outskirts of Accra.
Change is a verb. Let’s do it!
Grateful thanks to Dr. Shaun for sharing his travel reflections with Unaisa Baker and Valerie Chung ... 🙏🏽
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