Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Former Uganda Village Project Intern Studies E-Waste in Accra, Ghana

by Stephanie Ullrich

Since I finished my 2012 UVP internship in Namunkesu Village last summer, I knew I couldn’t stay away from Africa for long. So I sought out my options for returning to a continent that had inspired me and influenced my goals for the future. As a fifth year student at UC Berkeley, I felt that I had exhausted nearly all the resources that were offered to me at Cal, and I was ready for a new adventure in the field of international development or human rights research. With the guidance of a professor at Berkeley, I investigated the major slum in Accra, as city planning and urban poverty were of particular interest to me academically. We quickly discovered that Agbogbloshie slum in Ghana, termed “Sodom and Gomorrah” by some because of its reputation for depravity, had a larger story to tell. There had been a large government lagoon restoration project initiated a few years back, which had forcibly evicted residents in the slum. Meanwhile, the slum was adjoined with the largest electronic waste disposal site in Ghana, a place where migrants and children from the North would pull apart and burn e-waste from the U.S. and Europe with no protection from air pollution or dangerous chemicals. With little scholarship surrounding this issue, I knew that I wanted to investigate further and on my own terms; I made the initial decision to study the relationship between the large lagoon restoration project and the e-waste labor patterns in regards to changed labor protections against human rights violations.

To first set up my research project, I used all the resources and connections that I knew of in Ghana. I contacted a prior student who had done research in Agbogbloshie; I dove deep into the literature; I searched for professors on campus to see who had done research in this field of electronic waste and I visited them during their office hours. After finding an expert in the field, a professor in the Geography department at the University of Ghana, we began meeting to discuss the project. My consultations with my research adviser changed the direction of my research. From this point onward, I decided to do a research study of the experience of e-waste labor at Agbogbloshie, their access to different forms of human, social, and economic capital, and the labor protections (or rather, the lack thereof). To accomplish this, I designed an interview guide that asked questions such as how did the laborers first get started in electronic waste work? Do they support their family up North by sending money back home? What kinds of relationships do they have with their community, associations, government, and fellow laborers? This last question was one similar to a question we had asked of the people in Namunkesu village in Uganda last summer. Knowing the kinds of relationships the people of Namunkesu had with their community, associations, and government was critical in developing and promoting our health education programs in the village. These were also the kinds of relations that we were looking to strengthen.

My current independent research study in Ghana constantly challenges me; by self-designing a project, I am learning to ride through the many bumps along the way. I travel 2 hours each way to reach my site through every mean of transportation possible- walking at 4:30am a half hour, riding a packed minibus at 5am, transferring to another smaller bus/taxi at 6am, so that I can arrive by 6:30am to begin my interviews before the heat of the day sets in and the laborers are not too busy yet. Sometimes the challenges are quite entertaining. I spend hours a day in an e-waste scrap yard surrounded by young men and teenage boys all talking in a language I do not understand. I constantly have to turn down marriage proposals- a commonality of being a “oboruni” (foreign, light skinned; the equivalent of a Ugandan “mzungu”) female in Ghana- and I have to explain my “mission” in Ghana, often in the Dagbani language- a language of which I can only speak a few words. 

Like my challenges here in Ghana, our team faced many challenges in our village in Uganda last summer. Between difficulties in identifying community leaders in our village, mobilizing the community to come to our sensitizations, and translation troubles, the UVP summer internship is no walk in the park. However, like all challenging experiences, the personal and team growth we experienced over those short 8 weeks was tremendous. The UVP internship has provided me with solid development practitioner skills like conducting baseline surveys and monitoring and evaluation experience. These experiences have also encouraged me to be innovative, self-reliant, and extremely flexible in both planning and implementing of projects. Both the UVP internship and my research project in Ghana have provided me with solid research skills that will help me in graduate study when I pursue a Masters Degree in International Development and solidified my commitment to public service that I will exercise when I am a John Gardner Public Service Fellow next year, serving in an agency such as the UNDP, USAID, or CARE International.

In both my Ugandan and Ghanaian experiences, I have explored entirely new fields for me- public health in Uganda, and labor in the informal sector in Ghana- and it has widened my interests academically and professionally. Both projects have made me more of an advocate for the subaltern populations of informal settlements that are pushed to the outskirts and degraded by dominant rising affluent cultures. The most meaningful aspects of these experiences are the friends I have made along the way.  Here in Ghana, I cherish the moments when time seems to slow down: I watch football (soccer) in one of the few shacks that have consistent electricity in the neighborhood, or I play with a child as all the men go to pray in the mosque on Fridays, or we sit on the floor with friends in a small house in the informal settlement while watching Dagbani “blockbusters” - often without subtitles - and waiting for the rain to pass. Much like my time with the Uganda Village Project, these small spontaneous moments are the memories that stand out the most.

But out of all the memories and lessons I’ve learned throughout these 2 experiences, none have surprised me more than that of the simple dignity and pride in the communities of Agbogbloshie in Ghana and Namunkesu village in Uganda. Their resilience against outside pressures is astounding and some of their aspirations to improve their community are inspirational. Despite being a foreign female researcher/volunteer asking sometimes prying questions in these two communities that speak different languages than my own, both have welcomed me in breathtaking ways that I was not expecting, and for that, I will forever be grateful.

Stephanie is a UVP internship alumna from the University of California - Berkeley, who currently is serving a term as a visiting student at the University of Ghana - Legon.

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