The shocking reality of Ghana’s electronic waste dump Sodom reveals the truth about our unending need for the newer and better in Western consumerism.
Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes’ engaging documentary Welcome to Sodom brings myth and reality together. The film portrays life in Ghana’s electronic waste dump, aptly nicknamed Sodom. In its toxic and largely unhealthy conditions, men, women and children are collecting metals from tons of computers, smartphones, air conditioners and other electronic devices. Sodom is the hidden face of colourful shopping centres, shiny advertisements and the long lines for the newest iPhones.
The way our economy works
We have all heard that consumption is the backbone of economic growth. If one consumes, the winners are workers, industry and today’s God – the economy. From such sources as Cosima Dannoritzer’s TV documentary The Light Bulb Conspiracy from 2010, one can learn about «planned obsolescence». The concept is that products are specially designed not to last too long so that they need to be replaced with another model after a limited time. The lifespan of various items is artificially shortened, starting from light bulbs and nylon stockings and ending with different electronic devices. Of course, the industry also keeps developing the newer models and makes sure that it’s considered unsexy to walk around with an old school mobile phone. That’s the paradox of today – simple functional objects have become the new status symbols of our society.
The consumption model does well. And every year 25,000 tons of no-longer-functioning computers, smartphones and other electronic devices end up in the world’s largest electronic dump Sodom near Accra, the capital of Ghana. There is evidence that most of this trash comes from the Western world. The approximately 6000 people who are illegally living and working at the dump participate in our economic game. They collect the items we don’t need, get valuable metals out of them and then sell those.
«Products are specially designed not to last too long so that they need to be replaced with another model after a limited time.»
Eventually these metals are used to create new products. It sounds reasonable, and some characters from Welcome to Sodom seem satisfied with this economic model. One of them is Americo: «I am a businessman. […] The more waste they bring, the better it is for my business. They should bring more.»
Recycling used items might seem like a good idea, apart from the fact that it happens at the cost of the humans working at the dumping ground and the overall health of our planet. In order to separate needless plastic from valuable metals, these Africans burn electronic devices. Thousands of wires, computer parts and other plastic elements are thrown into the fire. Men, women, children and animals are breathing the black smoke. They are directly exposed to poisonous toxins, which are extremely harmful to their bodies and brain. Furthermore, these chemicals don’t stay isolated in Ghana but end up in the air, soil and water of our planet.
The documentary features a lot of glorious shots picturing black, scary, apocalyptic smoke. There is something strangely hypnotising about these images of decadence. They remind us of images from fiction films about the end of the world. Or, if we consider the dump’s nickname, one can even see similarities to paintings depicting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, such as The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin from 1852.
The biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah are intertwined throughout the whole movie. Our hedonistic consumption seems to have no limit, and the dump near Accra is painful proof of it. Other examples include oceans polluted with plastic and animals killed by litter. We don’t even need God to destroy our planet – we do it ourselves.
«Our hedonistic consumption seems to have no limit, and the dump near Accra is painful proof of it.»
Despite their harsh living conditions and a general feeling of doom, the characters of the documentary have not lost hope. The directors have chosen to leave out the uglier details from the protagonists’ narration. The complaints about living conditions are moderate, and we learn about their dreams. We meet a young man who waits for his passport and hopes to travel to Europe; there’s a girl fantasising about becoming an astronaut; a middle-aged widow keeps working in order to educate her son; a Jewish homosexual desires to find a place where he can be free, where he can be himself. These stories are supplemented by an entertaining element: the dancing and singing of young African men. Their fit bodies bend in acrobatic tricks among the fires, and their voices are accompanied by modern beats.
This human vitality gives ground to hope that there should be some rational alternative to the hard core capitalism intoxicating our planet. Communism failed wherever it was introduced, but there are other economic ideas cycling around. Unlimited consumerism is not the best God to pray to. Krönes and Weigensamer’s documentary could be interpreted as a wake-up call from prophets. However, it’s obvious that we need many more messengers to finally listen.