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Humanist Service Corps News

Waste and Change

23 May 2017

In Yendi, in the Northern Region of Ghana, the government and the people are still developing infrastructure including waste collection systems. Like many developing regions in the world, the waste created really has nowhere to go. It ends up in fields, on farms, and in the waterways. This blocks the rain water from moving to the natural valley on the outside of town. The city depends on this river valley for potable water throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for malaria and other waterborne diseases to increase, harms crop production, and, especially during the driest part of the year, significantly decreases the available water for the city to process for its citizens, which can even stop public availability. Families, including children, end up having to walk miles a day during these months just to have water to drink.

Coming into Ghana, seeing the incredible amount of inorganic waste littered or unprocessed was a huge shock. But as I have researched and talked with friends, I have begun to get a clearer picture of the roots of the problem. Plastic as a commodity has only been around for about 100 years, and in Ghana for far less time. Before the presence of inorganic waste creation, especially in the rural communities, just tossing waste on the ground was no problem. Anything you made or used was decomposed in a relatively short amount of time and became part of the earth once again. So when items such as plastic and other inorganics were introduced people assumed the same. Why think any differently?

Now, just a few decades later, people are realizing the truth, but they have very little process or means for decreasing this waste production, for changing this pattern, or for creating solutions. But this is changing. Like many places around the world, Ghanaians are increasingly becoming aware of the issue and finding answers. But, seeing the trash and litter in the extreme amounts here in Ghana has really opened my eyes to the incredible need for attitudinal change of everyone around the world. (Pictured right: using plastics in fence-making.)

I know there are people reading this who have seen the photos of landfills. They've seen the images of children and the impoverished digging through the rubbish or even living in it. They've seen the statistics on the dying sea life, the impossibility of current use sustainability, and the warnings from scientists. But, in my experience, this hasn't changed most people's patterns, including my own until recently, in any significant way. And, in my opinion, this comes down to a few different things. I think in developed countries with the necessary infrastructure the trash we create goes in a bag and bin and then "disappears." It's taken to a dump away from view and forgotten about. But, there are literal mountains of garbage all around the world (for example Mount Trashmore and the Great Pacific garbage patch.) In day-to-day life, we have grown used to using these products for short-term convenience with no thought to long-term effect. We consume far more than we need and are content with pushing the negative costs aside. Also, I think companies that produce plastic and other inorganic waste don't care about the planet, and I don't think they don't care about you. I think they are focused on short-term gain more than Mother Earth. Not only do I think their action are selfish, but I see these businesses wielding immense power over our government and the education of the general public on the true imminence of this problem. And it is imminent.

In the ocean, there is currently an estimated eight million tons of waste. That's enough to fill five grocery bags for every foot of coastline. That doesn't include what is on land, and that number is growing by millions of pounds every year. This also doesn't include the pollution from oil, electricity, water use, mining, deforestation, and so many other activities. Even if you don't accept climate change science, you have to realize that this is not sustainable. This is an issue of self-preservation as well as environmental compassion. We cannot continue to consume with no consequence. We cannot continue to treat this planet like our space and resources are unlimited.

So what do we do?

We decide to change our habits. We become informed and conscientious. We support business, science, and diplomacy that aim to attain a sustainable world. We decide to appreciate and respect what we have. We accept our personal responsibility. We strive for a greener, more beautiful tomorrow.

And there are innumerable solutions. We all know the three R's: reduce, reuse, recycle. These are so important, but it can go beyond this. It has to go beyond this. There are companies and organizations working hard to innovate, educate, and create new ways to process the waste we make, clean up the old, and innovate biodegradable technologies. This can and should look different in every region and every country. In order for work to be truly effective, it must be individualized to the culture, people, and needs. In places like the US, this comes down to consuming considerably less, using the recycling provided, and voting for governmental, environmentally-conscious regulations.

In countries like Ghana, people are finding secondary uses for the waste (rope, backpacks, etc), using organic materials like leaves to wrap food (pictured left), and starting grassroots initiatives that can potentially produce work for people in their communities. Currently, HSC volunteer Lukeman and I have been working through such ideas with the hope of helping people create income and clean their neighborhoods by using the plastics as building material. Ghanaians are creative, intuitive, hard-working people. They want to create a community that is clean, efficient, and healthy. I believe in people. I believe that we can have a green, wonderful, futuristic world that cares for our posterity and makes nature a priority. But, this will take work. This will require keeping each other and our leadership accountable. This will take sacrifice. This planet, our planet, is worth it.

By Jude Lane, HSC Ghana Volunteer

A large part of the work our Humanist Service Corps (HSC) team does in Ghana is empowering women to realize their full potential as equal members of society. As in many parts of the world, there is still much work to be done. When the team lived in Bimbila, they worked closely with partner organization Songtaba to reintegrate women accused of witchcraft and living in exile. You can read more about these efforts on the Applied Sentience blog here.  Now that the team has moved to Yendi, they look forward to building relationships with the people in this community and working with new friends to foster grassroots efforts to empower more women and, therefore, their whole community. It's well-known that to help a community, the best way to begin is to empower the women in that community. There's a Ghanaian professor named Akua Kuenyehia who recently participated in a panel at 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York. She talked about how empowering women is not just advantageous for the women themselves, but for the entire country. Please read more about her talk here.

HSC is currently designing a project with BIRDS, our newest partner, to empower women to seek leadership positions in the community including running for office. Recent news in Ghana suggests that the country is poised to appoint its second successive female chief justice! News of woman in such a powerful position in Ghana only supports our work and message locally.

Please make your gift today to ensure we can sustain our culturally-responsible grassroots work saving lives and fighting for women's rights! 


My year is winding down here in Ghana. I will be headed home in eight weeks, and, though it feels I have only been gone a very short time, the preceding weeks have been filled with numerous unbelievable experiences. Truth be told the best experiences haven’t been the thrilling and exhilarating ones. Make no mistake I have thoroughly enjoyed those. The most fulfilling, however, have been with the amazing children of this country.

Without the noise of a television running constantly or the magnetic appeal of iPads and Android tablets, the children roam free and build and create things to entertain themselves. The only limits are the availability of materials and their imagination. In this year, I have witnessed children who have built kites, small cars and trucks, and a pedal-operated hand-washing station using only bamboo and a gallon bucket. I am continually impressed by the efforts of their little minds and hands. I thought I had seen it all, though, until I ventured into a rainforest to the village of Nzulezu.

Nzulezu sits on Lake Amansuri. I say “sits on” because it is a village built over the water with bamboo homes on stilts. The depth of the water at the homes ranges from five-15 feet. The center of the lake is 45 feet deep. The village of Nzulezu is a reminder of a place lost to time long ago and only recently rediscovered as a tourist destination. I was told the first white man only visited the village in 1998. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The journey to Nzulezu took half a day on a bus from Cape Coast, Ghana to the border with Ivory Coast. When we arrived in Benyin, Ghana, the only way to Nzulezu was in a canoe. We paid our fees, and a couple of young Benyin villagers took us to Nzulezu. Our canoe took us through a man-made canal to a marsh outside of the jungle. Past the marsh, you enter a small waterway that runs through the jungle to Lake Amansuri. Along the way, I noticed hand-made fish traps throughout the water in the stream. Large nets were set up adjacent to the waterway to catch wayward fish swimming away from the lake in the current.

We entered the lake, and the village appeared in the distance. As we approached, I noticed children swimming everywhere and some jumping off of the built-up walkway. We learned upon our arrival in Benyin that we would be allowed to stay overnight. That added to what was already shaping up to be a magical day. Our home sat in the water outside of most of the others, so we could see most of the outer homes where the children were playing in the water. As I sat and watched them it occurred to me that this is all they have--water. There are no dumps to scavenge parts for makeshift toys or creative inventions- like the pedal-operated hand-washing station.

I spoke with locals and learned that in the dry season there is a small patch of land in the marsh that dries up enough to allow for soccer games. The space is only about 50 feet wide and 100 feet long. It is dry for about a month out of the year. Other than that the children have the water. The same locals informed me all children are taught to swim at the age of three. I walked back to our accommodations to see a small girl no older than four or five years standing up while paddling a dugout canoe past me. She was alone. The little girl docked it by her home and dove headfirst into the water.

The children swimming in the water noticed me watching, and decided they would really show me their skills. They began climbing to the side of the homes and flipping and diving into the water. Some dove so cleanly they barely made a ripple in the water. Others were racing each other between the homes. Some would get my attention and go under the water to show me how long they could stay under. They would stay under nearly two minutes or more at times. As a father, it was actually making me nervous!

As I sat there watching their play, I realized this village could be home to potential Olympic athletes in swimming and diving. When a child in Nzulezu is born they are taken to the water where the villagers ask their water gods to bless the child’s life. The children of Nzulezu are born into the water and live in the water of Lake Amansuri. It’s so much of their life, it’s almost all they know. Where better for Ghana to find their best swimmers and divers than among them?

I sat on the walkway by my room, the sun set and the waters of the lake settled to a glass-like appearance. The only disturbance was the few children still playing in the distance. It was as serene a setting as I’ve been in for some time. I’m thankful for a number of things that I’ve experienced in my time in Ghana. I’m especially thankful for my time with the exceptional children here. Their creative nature and curiosity about the world around them is really something to see. I consider it a privilege to have seen it firsthand.

By Warren Alan Tidwell, HSC: Ghana Volunteer

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