I’m reading Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, in which he discusses the idea that there are some things beyond human understanding, for the simple reason that our survival does not require that we understand them. His example is the electron, which is commonly portrayed as a little ball orbiting around the nucleus of the atom. In fact, as Dawkins points out, an electron is not a little ball, and it doesn’t orbit like a planet. But the image persists because there is simply no way for us to understand the actual behavior of an electron.
I was thinking about that electron analogy last week when the New York Times website published a stunning photo essay of soot-blackened street urchins in Accra’s Agbobloshie slum who survive by salvaging metals out of junked computers. You could call them high-tech dump pickers, except there is more Dickens than science fiction in this grim tableau, shot by South African photographer Pieter Hugo. To get at the metals inside the discarded computers, the children need to burn them–basically melting out the copper, lead, mercury and whatever else they can salvage and sell to metals dealers. It’s a place, says Hugo, ”where people and cattle live on mountains of motherboards, monitors and discarded hard drives.” (You can see more of the photos, and read a short essay by the photographer, on his own website.)
What reminded me of the Dawkins book is the stunning revelation in a Times caption that these computers are often sent over by well-meaning charities to “bridge the digital divide.” As with electrons, what we think we know is not what really happens with these electronics. That computer you thought was helping a kid in Ghana learn algebra? It’s actually become a ball of mercury in his hand. Digital divide, indeed.
I see examples of this disconnect all over Ghana–like the piles of charity clothes (all that stuff we toss in those Goodwill boxes) that destroy the local handmade clothing market. So what should we do? Stop sending over stuff? Give up helping? I don’t think so, but my experience in Ghana does make me think we need to re-think charity, and be smarter about it. It’s not enough to just dump stuff in some feel-good box; we need to follow through to the last mile, and see what our largesse (and our waste) is really doing. We also need to do a lot more to promote safe and constructive entrepreneurship, as opposed to businesses that encourage kids to rip apart computers.
Now about that slum in Accra. While not as notorious as the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Agbobloshie is still pretty grim. It’s known in Ghana as Sodom and Gomorrah (in a seriously Christian country, that’s saying a lot), and there have been political calls to knock it down. So far though, it still stands. I have never been, but Whit and I may go this fall–with Tim, his Ghanaian business partner, who says we should not go alone.