Struggle of the Scrap Metal Boys: A Missed Opportunity

Access to basic education has improved tremendously in Ghana with the introduction of free compulsory basic education. But as a journalist it really baffles me that some children are still roaming around on the streets of Ghana engaging themselves in all kinds of labour activities. I wonder: How many kids dream of being in the classroom? Or do they just prefer living on the street?

A group of children who have recently attracted my attention are a bunch of scrap metal boys operating at a huge garbage pit at Mpintin near Takoradi in Ghana’s Western Region. Finding out why these boys have defied privileges provided to them by the Ghanaian government brought shocking revelations to me.

But first, let me set the scene for you.

It’s 10:30 in the morning. A bad stench is choking me up. Dozens of vultures are hovering over stinking refuse strewn across a huge area. My colleague John Gaudi, a human rights journalist, has also joined me at the site. I want to see for myself just what the boys have to go through in order to get a day’s meal.

I’m struggling through heaps of refuse trying to make my way to where the garbage boys are working. Just then a huge truck backs up offloading garbage right in front of me. The boys don’t pay any attention to me as I approach them. They jump into the garbage pit eagerly looking for scraps of metal. Finding pieces of copper, aluminium and brass is what fetches them their daily bread.

The boys are between the ages of 5 and 15 years old. While their peers go to school, they toil in the garbage dump for up to 8 hours a day. The question that readily comes to mind is: where are their parents?

Ghana is a signatory to the 1998 UN convention on the Rights of the Child. But I’ve observed that strict regulations are not enforced at Mpintin landfill site to ensure the protection of vulnerable children. Section Six of the Children’s Act emphasizes the need to protect children from neglect, discrimination, violence, abuse and exposure to physical and moral hazards, as well as oppression. Moreover, Chapter Five of the Ghanaian Constitution stipulates that every child has the right to be protected from work that threatens their health, education, and development.

As I ponder over these policies of the government, another thundering diesel engine pulls up with more garbage to be dumped. The boys attack the fresh load of garbage using steel rods with hooks at the end to pick away at the trash. Few of the boys wear shoes; others wear just chalewate (slippers) as they scramble up onto the mound of garbage.

While the boys pick through the garbage, I ask them what circumstances have compelled them to be at the garbage site rather than being in school. And the answers I receive are similar. Digging through the garbage is the only way we can send money home to our families, they tell me. In their submissions the boys confess that there are real risks involved at working at the landfill site.

One of the boys wearing tattered cloths tells me, “We are exposed to so much danger. We get deep cuts from broken bottles and one can notice that we smell.”

Another boy says he would like to go to school but his parents are very poor.

“My friends and I have to depend on the scraps we sell. I have currently dropped out of school. But I really don’t want to be a drop-out. But I have no choice. I wish I could join other children in the classroom.”

The question I ask myself is, “Even though there is free compulsory basic universal education for all Ghanaian children, who is responsible for ensuring that all these children are in school?” With this in mind, I visited the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs in Takoradi in the Western Region. John Hackman is the Western Regional Coordinator of the National Commission on Children. He says these children will lose a great deal if they miss out on getting a proper education at school. He says it will be a “missed opportunity” which will doom the government’s efforts towards alleviating poverty.

The Government of Ghana has come out with various interventions to empower women and support families so that kids don’t end up on the street. Hackman says government is doing its best by offering low income earners capital through the Poverty Alleviation Fund. Poor parents can take advantage of the fund to help their children. But whatever the government is doing, the problem persists. Kids are still ending up on the street.

How can NGOs take up the challenge if the government’s efforts are not enough? I visited another organisation to enquire about the welfare of children. It’s called the Mercy Foundation in Takoradi. The organisation has a programme that caters to the needs of street children. With a project called “Hope for Survival,” the Mercy Foundation aims to offer a way for street children to get off of the streets. The foundation provides career counselling, vocational training and works with children to envision a different reality for themselves.

Ultimately, Mercy Foundation aims to reunite parents with their children so they don’t end up in the streets again. The foundation empowers parents of the children by giving them funds to start small scale businesses. Children who are below 16 years old are enrolled in basic schools and older children are given opportunities in vocational training.

Reaching out children on the fringes of society is still a battle of funds. Back in Mpintin, many of the young boys said they don’t have the financial means to go to school. Spending long hours at the garbage pit means they have been deprived of education, good guidance, proper meals, and the comforts other children enjoy.

Even while thinking about the sorry state of these scrap metal boys, a passer-by yells at the top of his lungs alerting the boys that my white colleague is there to take them away. If the perception of this man is that every white man has the tendency of making the status of the vulnerable better then what really is the role of government?

The supervisor at the Landfill Site Nana Tandoh who has been with the boys for years says he believes the boys need help.

“These children are not supposed to be here. They really need help. Officials of the metropolitan assembly have warned us not to let them come here. But we here feel this is their only chance for survival. I their parents have to be more responsible. If I drive them away, they are likely to go and steal and they might be killed.”

Some of the boys are literally growing-up at the garbage dump. One of them is nicknamed Gas. He first came to the landfill site when he was just 5 years old. He is now 8 years old. He is taxed with the responsibility of taking care of his grandmother while his parents live in Abijan in the Ivory Coast. Gas is considered to be a leader amongst the boys because he can sort out the good scrap from the useless garbage.

He says, “I come here to look for aluminium, copper, brass, and zinc. On good days, I get expensive scrap that fetches more than twenty thousand cedis. I have never been to school before or had the experience of schooling. I spend most of my day in the garbage pit looking for scrap. For me, scrap hunting is all about life.”

At the end of the day, finding a piece of scrap is what keeps the young boys going. But growing up in the garbage dump will not offer them the opportunities they will need to become future leaders. Watching these boys from a distance pull scraps out from the stinking heap brings me to the question of the future of these children. Kicking them out of the garbage pit might not necessary resolve the challenges of poverty they and their families face.

Perhaps creating an alternative education programme which offers the kids the opportunity to link their work in scrap metal to studying would be a step in the right direction. Bringing this programme close to where they work will allow the boys to collect their scrap for money, and at the same time, be gradually reintegrated into the educational system.

sincerely believe the Government of Ghana will have to be more innovative in reaching out to these children. What they should do is to make the various organisations responsible for street children more accountable and also ensure that they find the right channels to deliver on their promises. The future of these scrap boys will be directly influenced by the commitment of government and society alike. Let’s make sure we rescue their missed opportunities. How soon it comes will determine their true meaning of existence outside of the garbage dump.

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