Dirty business: Sanitation in Ghana

October 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

“Aww, so much plastic. ūüė¶ ”

“I wonder where this¬†is all this coming from.”

“Are there no landfills in Ghana?”

“This can’t be healthy!”


"Free range" chicken and goats

“Free range” chicken and goats

My thoughts about trash in Ghana quickly progressed from a mild curiosity to a burning desire to understand all the social ills that cause this phenomena. It baffled me that a country with a thriving social sector and stable government hadn’t yet figured out how to dispose of trash in a way that kept it contained.

I started my search by asking everyone I met about their thoughts on trash. Ben, our driver, told me that people knew that littering was bad but simply didn’t care and thought that the government should do something about it. Others admitted that openly defecating was bad but at the same time didn’t seem too bothered by it. I then bolstered that data with online research from NGOs and interviews with leading¬†figures in the country. Here’s what I learned.

  1. It’s not even about the trash – I realized quite quickly that the plethora of trash is a symptom of a larger sanitation problem that exists in Ghana. ¬†Littering is the last thing you’re worried about when your children are malnourished and sickly due to ingesting contaminated water and food from all the fecal matter piled up in the gutter just a few feet away. And nobody’s going to blame the poor bloke urinating in the corner when the closest latrine is 7 minutes¬†away and costs 10 pesewas. The issue is exacerbated by poor infrastructure and lack of education on how the status quo perpetuates very real threats to one’s health. Which brings us to number 2.
  2. Malnutrition isn’t necessarily about not getting enough food, but more about being able to absorb the nutrients in the food that you do have access to¬†– I attended a talk¬†with Fiona Edwards, from¬†SPRING,¬†and she spoke at length about this topic. She spent her entire career battling malnutrition all over Africa and Southeast Asia and she found that malnutrition and sanitation issues are very highly linked. Poor sanitation leads to more viral and bacterial outbreaks and those outbreaks result in compromised internal¬†systems.¬†If you’re constantly having diarrhea due to a bacterial infection, it doesn’t matter how much food you put in your mouth¬†– it will all just come out the other end. To read more about the link between diarrhea and malnutrition, see here.
  3. ¬†Politicians are all talk – Multiple politicians and parties used sanitation as their election platform during the December 2013 elections. However, many have failed to enact actual policies that do anything to curb the endemic.¬†$52 million is earmarked to address sanitation issues in Ghana every year with 96.5% of that money coming from foreign donors (Source: WaterAid). ¬†Yet somehow that money often fails to realize tangible improvements. According to WaterAid’s 2012 report, Ghana only reported a 1% growth in sanitation, a stark juxtaposition to their goal of 54% by 2015.Modern Ghana reported in June¬†2013, “Ibrahim Musah, head of Policy and Partnership at WaterAid Ghana said since 2010 the government of Ghana has designed several sanitation policies, except they have all been kept on the shelves. He said although government had made provision for sanitation, the issue was how the environment directorate of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development would be able to access the funds for use, as ‘the funds do not just get to them.'”
  4. Shit gets imported – Part of the reason Ghana has so much more trash than a country like Malawi is because so many more products wrapped in plastic, and other synthetic materials, get imported. As the Ghanaian economy continues to improve and the average Ghanaian’s purchasing power increases, this will¬†only become a bigger problem. I also discovered that Ghana is a literal dumping ground for unwanted electronics from the first world.¬†Agbogbloshie, a suburb of the capital,¬†is the world’s largest e-waste dump. It’s a sad depiction of the wealthy using their influence to send toxic materials far, far away. The UN tried to combat this with the Basel Convention (The Basel Convention prevents the transfrontier shipment of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries) but countries either never ratified the convention or conveniently forget that they¬†signed it. Each month, cargo containers arrive in Agbogbloshie, often illegally, from countries all over the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan (Source: Wikipedia).

So how can we solve all of these problems?

We (you and I individually) probably can’t. But in searching for the answer to my original question of why there was so much trash, I also came across many commendable initiatives. A few enterprising individuals have created businesses and/or community efforts that use and recycle waste, turning them into things like bags or bracelets. There are also a few private companies that are tackling the waste issue, head on. However, I do think that more action from the government is needed, especially in the development of key infrastructure like closed sewage pipes, landfills, and latrines. The people also need to keep politicians accountable and demand that they¬†follow through on their promises.

But there’s a lot that first world citizens can do as well.¬†Greenpeace¬†advocates putting pressure on electronics companies to¬†phase out toxic chemicals and introduce global recycling schemes. There’s also a lot of opportunity for social entrepreneurs to make a difference by introducing cutting edge research and practices around safe trash disposal. By sharing best practices around landfill development, incineration, and¬†biomass/biogas processing techniques, we can help prevent Ghana from making the same mistakes we did.

Hopefully by writing and delving into this topic you’re at least a little inspired to make a change, whether that’s thinking more deliberately about your next electronics purchase or reaching out to a friend at a lab working on converting waste to biomass. Ghana has such a bright future ahead of it so why not help accelerate that progress?

My hope is that the next time we ask a kid to draw a picture of their community, it doesn’t include imagery of people defecating and urinating next to their homes.

Ghanaian village

Just lovely




Littered with apathy: Ada Foah

October 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ada Foah beach

At first glance, Ada Foah is a beautiful, lush, beach oasis. Palm trees painted with the colors of the Ghanaian flag line the water and charming boats are rife along the waterfront. But look a little closer and what you find will surprise you.


It literally looks like a landfill exploded and all of the ensuing debris washed up on this very shore. I spoke with a few people about this afterwards and the origin of the trash is unclear but most likely locally generated. Apparently there are local groups that sometimes conduct beach clean ups but this particular stretch of land did not look like it had ever been cleaned.

I couldn’t help but think of a recent¬†exhibit¬†in the Anchorage museum that showed countless images of animals killed because they mistook¬†trash for food. The artist cut open their stomachs and took pictures of the plastic trapped inside their stomachs. It was extremely¬†graphic, and almost painful to look at, but very effective at driving the point home.

At the beach there was an enterprising young girl who kindly told us that crocodiles swam in the river (after a few folks had already christened their swim suits with Ghanaian water). All in all, it was an interesting one day excursion but not something I would say is a must do in Ghana.

girl on beach

One thing I really enjoyed here was creating¬†a makeshift fishing rod and swirling some raw chicken in the water to try to catch some tilapia. While the rest of the group was finishing their lunch, I asked the staff where I could fish. They didn’t have any pre-set opportunities so I started getting creative. After failing to catch the attention of a local fisherman gliding by on a boat with his lobster traps (I was planning to volunteer my services as first mate), one guy took pity on me and found a metal hook on a string. Prosper, the guy, then involved the grill chef, Baba, to procure a pipe that we then tied the string to. After attaching¬†the string to the pipe we tied a little bit of foil to the string to act as a bobber and dropped the line along the dock. Unfortunately I didn’t catch any fish but I did get to see some fish nibble on the bait in the clear shallow waters. I also unsuccessfully tried to catch a lizard and pet a baby goat. But it’s okay.¬†Failing to pet the tiny, adorable baby goat only furthered my resolve to catch one before I leave. I will prevail.


Ghana keep on blogging

October 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Aaanndd the Ghana puns just keep on coming!

I’m on pun 2948347 now and it still hasn’t gotten old. ¬†Ghana is one of those few countries with a name that sounds just close enough to an English word (like Belize) so that unoriginal foreigners like me can incorporate it into pidgin English. But¬†no one’s Ghana stop me so the puns will live to see another day!

I’ve been in¬†Ghana about 24 hours now and I’ve already learned so much. Let’s start with busting some myths.

Myth 1: I’m Ghana catch ebola
There are currently more cases of humans with ebola in the US than in Ghana (Ghana has 0 reported cases). Therefore, one could argue¬†that traveling to Texas is more dangerous (in terms of ebola) than traveling to Ghana. Sure, there are risks posed by animal to human transmission of the disease in all the West African nations but I’m¬†under strict orders to avoid bushmeat and roadside stalls. And while I do enjoy good street food, I’m willing to sacrifice that culinary adventure for the peace of mind of loved ones abroad.

I will say that there is one conspiracy theorist in my group who mentioned the possibility of government cover ups to keep up tourism and the pristineness of the Ghanaian global image. However, I don’t give credence to this theory as the UN ebola crisis response team is based here in Ghana and it would be extremely hard to cover something like that up. And as unhappy as locals are with¬†President¬†Mahama’s¬†handling of the economy (the value of the Ghanaian cedi is lower than ever), he’s never been known as a particularly corrupt or shady politician.

Myth 2:¬†It’s hot and dry in Africa
Africa is huge and although that statement may be true for other¬†parts of the continent, Ghana is not at all dry. It is extremely hot but the weather here has been mostly overcast with 80%+ humidity and approximately 85¬įF temperatures. Imagine¬†Singapore but¬†worse. Then pretend you’ve been out and about all day, dripping with sweat, only to discover that the water isn’t working in your hotel. Yup, that was me tonight.

Myth 3: Lodging is cheaper in Ghana
This is a myth I fully believed¬†until I learned¬†that the prices for our nondescript hotel rooms were on par with a Hilton in San Francisco or a W in Seattle. To add insult to injury, there’s paltry wifi, power outages, and water shortages. Out of all the regions, Accra has the best infrastructure so I’m curious to see what the more rural regions will look like.

But despite the heat and lack of water, I love Ghana! The people are extremely friendly, crime is very low, the government is stable, and the food is delicious. And, I’m learning a TON. Here are a few fun facts I learned today.

Fun Fact 1: Taxi prices are arbitrary
Taxis here don’t have a running meter or transparent system by which they charge by so every ride is a negotiation. ¬†I’ve been told that the main variables¬†are traffic, distance, oil prices, and the taxi driver’s mood. It helps to ingratiate yourselves to the drivers because they almost always ask for double the price if you’re a foreigner. I need to work on my charm offensive as I’ve only been able to negotiate half the amount to get it down to the “local” price. ¬†To be fair though, a 15 minute ride will cost about 10 cedi (this is the foreigner price) which is only about $3 USD. Ghana’s taxi system is especially interesting to me after reading¬†this detailed analysis on how services like Uber, Lyft, and taxis compare in the US.

Fun Fact 2: My name is Friday
Today I learned that Ghanaian parents¬†name their child the day of the week their child was born. It’s only after the 8th day that they assign another name to the baby. The origins of this custom are sad as it’s due to the high infant mortality rate (even today it’s still 40 deaths / 1000 live births) but this custom results in some rather fascinating names. Most people here have their “day of week” name, traditional tribal name(s), surname, and, if they work in hospitality, an American name. ¬†Former UN Secretary General ¬†Kofi Atta Annan is a Ghanian citizen and goes commonly by his “day of week” name, Kofi (Friday).

When I discovered this custom I quickly researched my day of week and was delighted to find out that¬†I was also born on a Friday. But it wasn’t until after I told several people to call me Kofi, only to be met by raucous laughter, that I learned that Kofi is the male version¬†and that I should actually be called Efua. For the rest of the night I introduced myself to all Ghanaians I met (the hotel staff, random local students we met at a bar, etc.) as Efua.

Fun Fact 3: Girls Generation and Khan Academy are alive and well in Ghana
I was walking down a street in the hip area of Accra called Osu when I noticed¬†a huge video display billboard playing this Girls Generation music video. What the…? Girls Generation? In Ghana?! It still baffles as to how that happened but it did give¬†me a new appreciation for the pervasiveness of Korean pop culture.

Once we reached the bar, I was determined to make some local friends so I surreptitiously joined a circle of university age boys and started chatting with them about the upcoming music festival, their backgrounds, internet usage patterns and what they wanted to do once they graduated university. It was awesome to hear that one of the boys, Tunde, uses YouTube primarily for educational purposes and cited Khan Academy as one of his favorite channels. Mentions of Khan Academy elicited a round of smiles and bright eyed concessions to the usefulness of the content. I love hearing stories of how people use the Internet to better themselves and I felt lucky to run into such humble yet ambitious young men. One boy studying to be an accountant said that he wanted to fix the economy and that he and his friends (studying finance and economics), were going to make it happen. Well, Ide, I truly hope that dream becomes a reality.

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