Halfway to the Truth
Author: © Anthony Mays
Publication Date: May 29, 2015
Links: Author site
Every day, somewhere in this world, a child goes to work just like you do. Only their workplace is filled with dangerous chemicals that can have long-term health effects on the body. Stockpiles of e-waste sites in developing countries are directly linked to developed nations sending their toxic trash overseas, often illegally. Halfway to the Truth, although a fictional account of e-waste shipping to the Ivory Coast, is an attempt to raise awareness of the consequences of our appetite for electronic gadgets on a global scale. Toxic waste problems are real, and we cannot turn a blind eye to it. The fictional character of Reese Summers puts her own life in jeopardy to bring attention to this growing concern.
–Recipient of the LiFe Award (Literature for Environment) 2015
Excerpt from Chapter 29
The van had seen better days. Paint was peeling and it was dented from front to back. Gil waved to Reese as she approached the vehicle, while she gave a second thought on whether she wanted to get in it.
Seeing her expression, he said through the open window, “It looks worse than it is ma’am.”
She opened her door and slid onto the seat next to him.
“Don’t worry ma’am, it has a solid engine, new tires, and I have two full five-gallon gas cans strapped down in the back. I assure you that we’ll be okay.”
She returned a forced smile as they departed the hotel.
For the next half-hour they made their way to the outer city limit of Abidjan. Reese was quiet as she viewed the scenes of people, buildings, and life unfolding at each turn in the road. Upon leaving the city proper, the tall buildings eventually gave way to three and four-story structures and then finally to single-story homes that were becoming more spread out.
Once reaching open territory, the van picked up speed. Reese began to feel more at ease and leaned back feeling the wind on her face.
“So Gil, tell me about yourself.”
“Not too much to tell, ma’am. My family is from a small village near Bandamogo. I graduated from Oxford.”
“Oxford?” she asked, surprised.
“Yes, ma’am. I was extremely fortunate to get a soccer scholarship. My study was in Earth Sciences. That’s where I got involved with the Greenpeace group. Now I’m more focused on environmental issues.”
“How about you, ma’am? What drives Reese Summers?”
“That’s a good question, Gil. I’m not sure I’ve figured that out myself.”
“Do you know about Bandamogo?”
“No, not really. I understand it’s become a terminating point for international waste. That’s why I’m here, to see for myself. Tell me about it.”
“Not much to tell, ma’am. Five years ago it was just a little farming village of about ten-thousand people. They mostly grew yams and some coffee for export. But the civil war that split the northern and southern parts of our country changed all that. Only recently have we come out of that war and are trying to find our way. There are still UN Peacekeeping Forces in the central part of the country. Anyway, some rebel supporters from the South have since turned into bands of criminals and are taking advantage of the weak political control in the more rural areas.”
Reese suddenly felt an unpleasant feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Are we safe?”
“We have to be alert, ma’am, but for the most part, I don’t believe we are in any danger.”
Gil maneuvered around a petrol truck on the two-lane road.
He continued. “There is one group led by a man named Salomon that brings the scrap materials from the port in Abidjan. I don’t know him, he’s from up north, but he controls the trucks that move the material back and forth. Like those over there.”
Reese looked to where Gil indicated. There was a clearing ahead with two small structures and three trucks pulling short-bed trailers. As they passed by, they saw the drivers sitting at a long table under a thatched roof shelter eating a meal.
“Those are some of Salomon’s men. They’re no trouble unless you start messing with their scrap. They’re just trying to make a living. Salomon is the one to worry about. Fortunately, he doesn’t come out here too often now that he has his network pretty well established.”
“So why Bandamogo? How did a farming community end up like it has?” she asked.
“It’s remote and offers a fairly good road system to Abidjan when we’re not in the rainy season. The last fifty miles is a sandy dirt road that can get washed out. Once the scrap started coming, people believed they had a chance to make more money by salvaging the remaining precious materials that were left behind by the recyclers. Bandamogo has now grown to over thirty-thousand people but living conditions are very poor.”
“You’ll see, ma’am.” He became silent.
They passed through a few smaller villages before reaching the cutoff to Bandamogo. It had started to rain, and Reese quickly understood how treacherous the dirt road could become during the Monsoon season. It took them well over an hour to cover the remaining distance to their destination.
The rain had stopped by the time they arrived. Almost immediately, a swarm of children surrounded the van as it came to a stop in front of a house. They all began shouting, “Guillame! Guillame!”
“You seem to be popular here,” said Reese.
“Could you hand me that bag on the floor behind my seat, ma’am?”
She did as he requested and handed it to him as he exited the vehicle and greeted the crowd of little ones in his native French. He opened his bag and started handing them pieces of candy. When the bag was empty, the kids filtered away, but not before looking at the white woman who was with Guillame.
Six empty trucks came into view from around a bend in the road, all apparently heading back to Abidjan.
Guillame invited her inside the house. There, he greeted an old woman and man, continuing to speak in French. As he talked, he introduced Reese to them and they nodded and smiled at her.
“These are my aunt and uncle,” he said to her. They don’t speak English, but they welcome you to their home. He spoke to them some more. Whatever they said to him they were very animated about it.
“They tell me that there has been an increase in the number of trucks coming here. Ten or twelve come almost every day.
“Where do they go?”
“A few miles from here there’s a dump outside the main part of the village. Scrap is offloaded at various shacks. Salomon’s men run them. They keep loose records of the men and children that come to pick up the electronic components, and they issue payment vouchers to those who bring back anything valuable.”
“Let’s go see,” encouraged Reese.
“Yes, ma’am, but before we go, my aunt and uncle want to share some ‘koutoukou’ with you. It would be impolite to refuse their offer.”
“Koutoukou? What’s that?”
“It’s a local palm wine.”
“Okay, sure. I don’t want to offend them.”
Auntie poured some near milky liquid from a jug into cups and handed one to Reese and Guillame.
“Bottoms up,” said Reese. She took a good swallow of the brew and nearly choked from the alcohol content.
“That’s some strong stuff,” she said, holding up her cup to his aunt and trying to regain her breath.
Auntie grinned wide, revealing her missing teeth, as she approved Reese’s bravery. She grabbed at the hand that was holding her cup and invited her to drink more.
The second swallow went down easier now that she knew what to expect.
Having finished sharing the ‘koutoukou’, Reese thanked her hosts, with Gil providing translation, and they returned to his van.
Waiting there was a young boy of about ten years old. He was bare-footed, wearing a sleeveless soccer shirt and well-worn brown shorts. The smile on his smooth, black face only got bigger as he handed a necklace to Reese consisting of a pendant attached to a leather strap.
“What’s this?” she asked.
Gil looked over her shoulder. “It’s a homemade lucky charm, ma’am. The boy probably made it himself from scrap metal.”
“It’s beautiful,” she remarked, looking into the boy’s beaming face. “It looks like an elephant.”
“Elephants have always been thought to be good luck, ma’am. He wants you to have it.”
“Oh, I couldn’t take it,” she said, starting to hand it back to the boy.
Seeing the look of disappointment on his face, she knelt down. “Thank you. Could you put in on me?”
Gil quickly translated her words to the boy, “Merci. Pourriez-vous mettre sur moi?”
The boy took hold of the leather strap and carefully placed it around her neck.
She gave him a kiss on the cheek, and he promptly disappeared.
“Now you will always be protected, ma’am,” Gil said, climbing back into the driver’s seat.
She returned to the passenger side and, when seated, gazed in the direction in which the little boy had run, but saw no sign of him.
As they travelled just a short distance from the house, Reese noticed the smell in the air becoming more pungent. She had first noticed it as they approached the outskirts of Bandamogo, but now even her eyes were beginning to feel it.
“The wind has changed,” said Gil noticing her displeasure. “It gets stronger the closer you get to the dumping grounds.”
“What causes it?”
The people burn the plastics and coatings from wires. It’s how they get to the aluminum, copper, lead, and other salvageable metals. The recyclers take the obvious valuables from the electronic parts long before sending them here. What’s left is usually the bad things, like lead, cadmium, and mercury. It takes a lot of electronic parts for them to get even a little bit of material that Salomon’s men will pay them for.”
“Good grief, you mean these people are exposed to this, every day?”
“Yes, ma’am. And a lot of that bad stuff leaks into the soil when it rains. Then it gets into the village’s water supply.”
Continuing their drive along the main street of the village, Reese saw old and near old men dressed in pants, faded dashikis, and sandals sitting in doorways with blank stares being cast in their direction. The few younger men and boys she saw were lanky, and most wore a combination of T-shirts, shorts or trousers, and old athletic shoes or sandals. She thought that they lacked the excitement and fire usually associated with that age group. The few woman and young girls outside were dressed in dull but colorful wrap skirts, varying tops, and sported head wraps as they scurried by or tended to their children.
“What’s happened here, Gil? It’s like the soul has been ripped out of these people.”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s exactly what has happened. And a lot of them are sick too,” he said, as he continued driving toward coils of black smoke that rose above the weeds and grasses in the near distance.
The vegetation finally gave way, revealing a vast open area of charred ground and mounds of electronic parts from which smoke columns billowed into the sky. Scores of young boys and girls were carrying old TVs, computers, and other electrical devices to spots they claimed as their work zones. Their clothes and bodies covered with soot.
Gil parked at the edge of the dump that had not yet invaded the surrounding foliage. “Here, ma’am,” he offered, handing her a scarf to put around her mouth and nose. “It will help keep some of the dust from you.” And he donned his own mask of cloth.
“It’s best we stay near here, ma’am. We don’t want to raise suspicions among Salomon’s people. You can walk around a little bit if you want, but you already can see the devastation.”
Reese cautiously got out of the vehicle. She was shocked at the sight before her. Tons of old electronics sat in piles, with scores of people scavenging through them. Numerous stench-filled, open fire pits dotted the area, each filled with smoldering electronic parts. She felt her eyes quickly react to the thick, toxic smoke, and her skin started to itch.