‘Sakawa’: Africa’s electronics dump strikes back

    18 May 2021

    Ben Asamoah’s film ‘Sakawa’ from an unexpected angle presents the Western viewer the history of the places where trash ends up after ‘death’. After computers are thrown away and sent on a long journey across the seas and oceans, the electronics safely fall into the hands of the specialists who pull personal data from hard drives. This fact is hardly noticed anywhere except Africa.

    Old computers are dumped in Ghana by Western countries. Under the guise of donations, hundreds of thousands tons of e-waste are sent to Africa every year – simply because recycling is too expensive for Western countries. It’s easier to cheaply dump trash in developing countries where people are unaware of its toxicity.

    Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Ghana’s capital Accra, is the world’s largest dump for legal and illegal electronic waste from industrialized countries. In the area, children scavenge e-waste to extract copper and other metals for sale. The handling of this waste leads to serious health problems due to highly toxic chemicals. During the burnout process, children constantly inhale high concentrations of lead and other chemicals.

    The film, which begins by stating the fact of an ecological catastrophe, moves over to the genre of a satirical documentary. The carelessness of Western people returns to them like a boomerang from distant Ghana – a country that hardly anyone in the ‘First World’ will point to on the map. This boomerang is Internet scamming. Sakawa is a Ghanaian term for Internet fraud schemes often combined with religious fetish rituals.

    Director Ben Asamoah grew up in Ghana as a teenager and moved to Belgium with his mother. There he studied audiovisual arts at the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound. His graduation work was the short film “Black”. During his studies, he often visited his home country. Impressed by the new pursuit of his friends, Asamoah made the film ‘Sakawa’. It’s a co-production by Belgian IntiFilms, Dutch Pieter van Huystee Film, Flemish Canvas TV channel, Dutch broadcaster BNNVARA and YLE Finland.

    So, the setting is West Africa, the Atlantic coast, the country where broken electronics are brought from all over the world. Some details go to valuable metals market after disassembly, but the most valuable thing among this junk is hard drives. Why? Personal data (namely, photos) from them are used for Internet fraud.

    From time to time, workers find functioning hard drives that they sell to local store owners. Anything found on those hard drives can be reused. The continents are far apart, but theft or fraud can be done in a couple of clicks.

    The film reveals how this simple idea, which came from the mind of one of the Ghanaian unemployed young people, developed to the industrial scale. Hundreds of crooked English-speaking scammers use photos of white women to create fake dating accounts. Then they ‘seduce’ naive whites through correspondence, make them fall in love with themselves… And ask for money. To be convinced that his sweetheart is real, the typical white man only needs to talk on the phone, and lots of men from the ‘First World’ are undaunted by the Ghanaian number and accent of the interlocutor.

    Members of the scam community exchange experiences throughout the film, which generates a lot of funny moments. Characters don’t hold back with their comments: “Great Britain and Belgium are good-for-nothing”, “Canadians are full of deception”.

    Ghanaians receive very decent wages, and even make fortunes by defrauding gullible men. Scenes of the film in which an adult man from the ‘Third World’ tenderly talks to a European man on the phone cause Homeric laughter. Still, it is a laughter through tears – such a situation can occur only in the conditions of acute inequality of the First and Third Worlds. On a personal level, it’s easy to see why people in a poor and exploited country resort to sakawa.

    ‘Sakawa’ is a story about three young men from Ghana. Ama (25) is a single mother living with her son Kojo (6). To make a living, she sells fruit in the local market, and her dream is to open a hairdressing salon. ‘One Dollar’ is a young father trying to make money for a trip to Italy. He wants to earn $ 40,000 to set up his own farm in Europe. Francis is a seasoned con man who teaches the ‘craft’ to others.

    Some scammers buy a special microphone that changes the voice from male to female. However, ‘One Dollar’ simply changes the pitch of his voice to sound like a woman as he talks to his Canadian ‘lover’ in an attempt to convince him to send the money for the plane ticket.

    Francis shows the uncomplicated habitat of ‘scammers’ – a hut, in which a dozen young people are sitting intently at their laptops. Bare walls with a couple of TVs and a battered Real Madrid flag – that’s the whole workplace. Later on Asamoah also poetically combines the dusty streets of Ghanaian cities and the grandeur of African nature.

    Interestingly, modern technology in this exotic country is mixed… with voodoo rituals. Ghanaian-style globalization– chat rooms, laptops and artifacts of African beliefs. When a customer is ‘stubborn’, scammers turn to voodoo shamans who perform rituals (often including elements of Islam or Christianity) to achieve business success. For example, ‘One Dollar’ receives an egg from which he must raise a chicken himself for his client to succumb to fraud. The character lays an egg in a makeshift incubator in a box next to a laptop. This combination of archaic and modern looks quite wild for Europeans.

    The director explains: ‘As a Ghanaian, I believe that you cannot understand African reality if you do not take into account the fact that for many Africans the spiritual world is as real as the visible world. The film is structured and designed to allow the viewer to enter the African mindset.’
    Despite the fact that most Ghanaians are followers of Abrahamic religions, they simultaneously adhere to ancient beliefs like animism and voodoo. The film tells how turning to the spiritual world is inextricably linked with the search for material success.

    Quite tellingly, throughout the 2010s online earnings have led to a significant social shift in Ghana. Poverty and unemployment still dominate, but a new generation of Ghanaian youth are using Western social media to their advantage instead of falling prey to First World countries. For young people, sakawa has become a way of life and an activity that saves them from poverty.

    Asamoah explains: ‘Following the stories of the characters, I want to show that sakawa is not only a criminal practice, but also a means of survival. There is no black and white. Each character acts in accordance with their beliefs. None of them are good, none of them are bad. The purpose of my film is to show the human face of criminals.’

    Western society naturally takes the side of the Internet fraud victims. However, it has no idea about the motivations of criminals from the Third World, they are left without a ‘human face’. Western media ignore the incredible resilience and optimism with which Africans face their material problems caused by historical circumstances. What is considered fraudulent in the West is simply the use of available resources for young African men.

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