Rough Translations

From left to right: Yahayah, oil vendor; Olyvia Hanken-Arlen, Wellesley ‘25; Sabrina Hare, MIT ‘23; Johnson Asante, KNUST. Photo was taken in Yahayah’s concrete floored shop, which was rare among oil dealers in Suame Magazine. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab
From left to right: Yahayah, oil vendor; Olyvia Hanken-Arlen, Wellesley ‘25; Sabrina Hare, MIT ‘23; Johnson Asante, KNUST. Photo was taken in Yahayah’s concrete floored shop, which was rare among oil dealers in Suame Magazine. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab


Suame Magazine: workshop wonderland

In June of 2023, I joined a group of very cool engineers on a long-anticipated journey to Suame Magazine. The “Magazine” is a roughly two square kilometer area just outside of Kumasi, Ghana, hosting an estimated 200,000 artisanal workers, fabricators, mechanics, parts dealers, and food vendors. It is often described as an “industrialized area”, but that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the place; there are no factories in the Magazine. Instead, it is comprised of thousands of microenterprises, most of which hyper specialize in some aspect of auto repair. However, that concentration of operations in so small of an area led to a lot of industrial waste with nowhere to go- as of the writing of this blog, Kumasi doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to collect nor recycle used motor oil on the scale that it's produced in the Magazine. That is the crux of the problem we approached in Fall 2022, and what we focused our efforts on investigating during our trip. We left the U.S. with the understanding that there was oil pollution occuring in the Magazine, but the complex causes and extent of the problem would only become clear to us during our experience in-country.

This is a food blogpost now

It might have been somewhat related to how hungry I was after our flights, but the first thing that I noticed upon landing in Ghana was the food.

I had some paradoxically excellent jollof rice at the Accra airport’s Chinese restaurant. I was enchanted by the glass-bottled “Banana Vitamilk'' that was sold out of every refrigerator, and later only slightly disappointed when I realized it was just flavored soy milk. Three months later, I’m still thinking about the pineapple fried rice I had in Kumasi that was served IN A PINEAPPLE.

CAPTION: Banana Vitamilk, my beloved. I will always believe in the elusive “vitamins” promised by its name. Credit: Olyvia Hanken-Arlen

Though so many things were different between the United States and Kumasi, I observed a surprising number of strong similarities. A mechanic I met complained about the technology in new vehicles the same way my dad does; the jollof rice from the Chinese restaurant was the equivalent of ordering chicken tenders and fries at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the U.S.. In the first couple of days, these loose “translations“ were my primary way of navigating the cultural differences.

Adventures in language acquisition

One afternoon, the hotel desk clerk tried (with varying levels of success) to teach us Twi. She was a great teacher, writing out conversational tidbits like “how are you” and “how much does this cost”, phonetically. The only phrase that actually stuck with me was “thank you”, spelled for the english ear as “medase”. I ended up using that one most often during our trip. Everyone we met was very generous with their time, and very willing to answer our weird questions about the sludgy mud.

Pardon our interruption

After two weeks, we had interviewed nine artisanal workers, four oil vendors, two food vendors, and two healthcare workers. We asked them all about their professions, their perceptions of the problem, and the role the oil pollution played in their lives.
CAPTION: Workers like this man strip used engines (with amazing efficiency) for valuable parts that can be resold or recycled for a profit. Credit: Aditya Mehrotra

When artisans (like the man pictured above) open engines, the used oil contained within is released into the packed earth floor. The vast majority of Suame Magazine artisans work in the open air, or in small machine shops, without concrete or tile floors. Used oil vendors predominantly store their products in barrels that are exposed to the elements, set on the bare earth. This results in unmitigated oil spillage into the soil. Used motor oil contains two substances of concern- heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (both of which have the potential to be carcinogenic). Our concern was that the soil, which was visibly blackened and packed hard throughout the Magazine, was leaching toxins into the groundwater supply.

CAPTION: A food vendor husks corn on a bench near the oil vendor’s shop. Credit: Aditya Mehrotra

After sorting through our interview notes, we noticed certain patterns in people’s perceptions of the pollution. In general, the artisans, oil dealers, and food vendors weren’t highly concerned about their oil exposure; a few mentioned that the oil could potentially wash into the Magazine’s stream, but nobody expressed concern about the food prepared near the oil or with water from the wells. However, most people in the Magazine preferred to drink sachet water in lieu of the well water; there were concerns about the safety of the groundwater, but they weren’t necessarily connected to the pollution of the soil.

Many of them had the same sentiment- it wasn’t imminently dangerous, since that was the way it had always been.

The healthcare workers, on the other hand, had a different perspective. Though she was a midwife, Grace regularly received business from artisans because of her office’s proximity to the Magazine. She reported that people in the Magazine were ingesting motor oil, damaging their liver and kidneys.

CAPTION: Left to Right: Olyvia Hanken-Arlen, Sabrina Hare, Johnson Asante.
Mr. Asante explaining something to Sabrina and I, while I frantically write the information down in my little green notebook. This is actually pretty representative of our interview process as a whole. Credit: Aditya Mehrotra

Are we scientists yet?

CAPTION: A photo taken at one of the locations downstream from the Magazine. Along with chemical pollution from industry, other waste was dumped all along the water (including, notably, a couple lithium batteries). Asante informed us that illegal mining operations outside the city also added to the water pollution in Ghana.

When we began our interviews, I took down the GPS coordinates of each shop we visited and each well in the Magazine. Later in the evening, we’d input the coordinates into Google Earth, effectively creating a more detailed map of the Magazine than previous literature (or google maps) could provide.. With some satellite images (and one phone call to an elementary school), we were able to definitively locate the source of the stream that ran through the Magazine, and establish its termination as a reservoir to the North. This solved one question we’d had since the beginning of our project, and allowed us to have a better understanding of where the pollution generated in the Magazine may spread.

A couple of days in, we realized how valuable soil, water, and oil samples would be; something we had previously disregarded in our original planning. So, doing our best MacGyver impressions, we filled a couple of watercolor paint sets worth of little plastic containers with our samples.

CAPTION: Here I am collecting a sample of the sludgy oil mud with my trusty Sludgy Oil Mud Collecting Stick. Credit: Aditya Mehrotra

Even though I am a physics major, it was really fun to be able to play anthropologist-linguist-geologist-biologist-chemist for a couple of weeks.

Bringing it home

CAPTION: When we had talked to the woman in this photo earlier that morning, she was collecting water from one of the well sites for cooking. She, like the majority of the women working in the magazine, is a food vendor who relies on the well water to prepare their grilled corn, or frozen in their ice kenkey. In our conversations with other food vendors, we learned that most people used the public wells for cooking and cleaning, but not for drinking. Credit: Olyvia Hanken-Arlen

The in-country portion of our project was crucial to our understanding of the problem. For example: prior to our trip we were aware of a couple of well locations in the area, but we had no way of knowing what people regularly used them for, their structural quality, etc. We ran into similar issues when trying to frame the problem from back in Cambridge; there were just so many unknowns about the how and why of the situation that we could only really theorize about how to approach it. The Wikipedia page for Suame Magazine is roughly one paragraph long, and became outdated as of 2013. The same decade passed here as did in the Magazine, but the publicly accessible information about it hasn’t developed in any meaningful way.

In Ghana, and much of southern West Africa, its shops are common knowledge, spread primarily by word of mouth. Accounts of the stress put on the community by the oil disposal problem don’t travel much further; in the case of the health risks created by the oil exposure, the information often doesn’t even get back to the community.

The handful of academic papers and descriptions by Asante were all we had to work with before the trip. This Fall, our goal is to compile all of the information we collected in our interviews, conversations, and sampling to make a unified, up-to-date resource about Suame Magazine. We hope that future work on this issue will include a focus on disseminating knowledge about the pollution-related public health concerns to both the Magazine community and the broader global public. The handful of information that does exist currently is broadly inaccessible, and does not provide a complete picture of the community. The artisans and vendors of the Magazine deserve documentation that is representative of their situation; anything else is just a rough translation.

THANK YOU to Johnson Opoku Asante, Libby Hsu, and everyone else at MIT D-Lab who helped our project get off the ground and onto, well, Ghanaian ground. Additional thanks to all of the generous people that we encountered on our trip.

About the author

Olyvia is a Junior at Wellesley College, studying Physics with a concentration in Engineering and Development. She enjoys baking and pretending she is a Mechanical Engineering major.