Cross-Continent Collaboration

Tuesday, May 10, 2016
by Gwen McNamara, Communications Coordinator

Smoke billows from a tangled pile of burning wires as a young man pokes and turns the bundle to melt away the plastic outer coating and get at the copper interior. The ground quivers and shakes as he walks over layers of burnt wire, ash, and waste. 

Behind a camera, with microphone and notebook in hand, Kelly Zhou, a junior, Kelly Byrne, a senior, and Nana Kwabena Aboagye, a graduate student in the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, take in the scene freehand – the ground too hot to set up a tripod – capturing the process of burning copper wire on video as part of the International Service Trip with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. 

In January 2016, Zhou, Byrne, Aboagye and eight other Princeton undergraduate students traveled from New Jersey mid-blizzard to Ghana, Africa to spend one week working with the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) to develop a series of informative videos to help AMP promote worker health and safety at the Agbogbloshie scrapyard. At Agbogbloshie an estimated 6,000-10,000 people work in the scrap trade dismantling and/or processing a wide array of items – such as batteries, household appliances, televisions, computers, mobile phones, vehicles, aircraft and telecommunications equipment – to forward on to steelworks, copper refineries and specialized recycling industries. 

The videos are part of AMP’s larger efforts to spur grassroots change to turn what many outsiders view as an e-waste dump into a productive “maker ecosystem” at Agbogbloshie and elsewhere in Africa.

“That these students came not to take pictures of the ‘e-waste dump’ and gawk at pollution and poverty—but rather, to learn from and see how they could help contribute to the collective effort to remake Agbogbloshie—was priceless.”  

“Central to the AMP project is development of a digital platform that links maker and recycling communities,” said DK Osseo-Asare, co-leader of AMP. “The strategy is to inter-mix short health and safety videos, narrated in Dagbani (the local language spoken by a majority of scrap dealers in Agbogbloshie) into the real-time stream of information about scrap and product trading – think a mash-up of Twitter, WhatsApp and Craig’s List. Ultimately, videos will sync with more advanced training modules that incorporate certification and monitoring and evaluation for environmentally responsible e-scrap processing.”

The Pace Center's International Service Trip is an opportunity for students to explore a focused topic through a service-related project in a community outside the United States. The trips are proposed, developed, and led by students. The 2016 trip was supported by the Pace Center along with sponsorship from the Keller Center, Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Global Health Program. It was conceived by Ellie Sell, a junior, following her work over the summer with Dr. Carolyn Rouse in the Department of Anthropology focused on building a health curriculum and studying health issues in the nearby region. The 2016 trip aimed to examine the global issue of electronic waste, or e-waste, and support AMP’s mission and work at Agbogbloshie.

The 2016 trip team, led by Sell and Christie Jiang, also a junior, split into three groups to tackle filming and editing. Each group focused on different topic areas – like copper burning, working with lead batteries, or the health hazards of aluminum. The students worked closely with on-the-ground support from AMP to meet and interview workers and community leaders at Agbogbloshie and better understand the complex workings of the scrapyard.  

“When we arrived we didn’t really know what to expect,” said Zhou. “We had done our research and preparation, but wondered would people be willing to work with us? We were pleasantly surprised with how willing people work were to talk and work with us.”

“You often see depictions of Agbogbloshie as a super disorganized dump,” added Fiona Furnari, a sophomore. “But we quickly came to realize that’s not necessarily the reality. There’s a lot of structure there, a lot of ingenuity.”

While on the ground, the team reflected on their experience in an online blog and shared how preparing for the trip, and the trip itself, dispelled many preconceived notions about the site, its people and purpose. 

“What I found most surprising at Agbogbloshie was that people you would think would fight each other, due to years of conflict in the region, at Agbogbloshie they call each other brothers,” said Aboagye who is from Ghana. “Despite what you read about, to see workers calling each other brother was remarkable.”

After one week of filming and interviews, the team returned to campus and put together eight videos throughout the spring semester, featuring narration by Sam Sandow and artwork by Winni Adom, both in Ghana. In completing its work, the trip team encourages anyone embarking on international service to keep a few things in mind.

“It’s essential to deconstruct your assumptions before embarking on any project like this, to make sure your project is sustainable, that it addresses a real need, and that you have a strong community partner to work with,” said Sell. “We could have approached this issue from many directions – but for AMP what was most important was video [not wire strippers, or supplies or funds].”

For AMP, the videos are not only helpful but also emblematic of its greater effort to dispel myth and build community. “The looks of amazement on the faces of some of the youth in Agbogbloshie as they discovered that these students from the United States came all the way to Agbogbloshie not just to take pictures of the ‘e-waste dump’ and gawk at pollution and poverty—but rather, to learn from them and see how they could help contribute to their collective effort to remake Agbogbloshie—were priceless,” said Osseo-Asare. “We are thankful for further validation that our goal of networking youth from different countries, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to ‘join hands’ and work together can be possible—and worthwhile.”

Learn more about Agbogbloshie and plans by AMP for the International Service Trip team’s videos in a Q&A with Osseo-Asare