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Opinions of Monday, 21 February 2011

Columnist: Owusu, Stephen Atta

Second-hand Mattresses And All That: Government Ban Is In Place

Tons of used electrical appliances, second-hand clothes, mattresses and other used items from the developed countries dock the ports of Ghana each year. Workers and students go in for these items because they are much cheaper than prices of new ones in the local shops, and often, they are of a better quality.

Investigations conducted by BBC recently traced used, and sometimes damaged, equipments from U.K. banks, hospitals and local councils to waste dumps in Ghana and some other African countries. Once there, they are stripped and sold for parts. Clothes donated by charity groups abroad find their way into the local markets and are sold for profit. Ghanaians have gradually become very interested in, and dependent on, second-hand items. Even Managing Directors, Accountants and other high-salaried workers are now patronising second-hand items. The sellers normally go to the offices of these "big shots" with the best second-hand clothing, aka "selections", which they readily sell at good prices both to them and the buyers. There are many respectable civil servants in Ghana today who go to work in beautiful second-hand shoes. If these big-shots are also buying second hand items, why the ban on them? And what will all the "mmobrowafuo" do?

At the first importers' forum organised by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Private Sector Development (PSD), and President's Special Initiative (PSI), the government announced that a ban would be imposed on second hand items, including underwear, brassieres, handkerchiefs, shoes, mattresses and certain used electronic equipments. The government was banning these items due to safety hazards for buyers and users. The ban on used mattresses is principally to protect local industries. The government's legislation banning imported second hand goods is actively supervised, coordinated and implemented by Standards Boards, Customs, Excise and Preventive Services, and other regulatory bodies.

Poverty is the main reason for the popularity of second hand items in Ghana. Many Ghanaians live on 1 Ghana cedi a day. Second-hand items have always been popular in Ghana since long, especially second hand clothing. "Tema Station" became a term well known in Ghana and “obroniwuawu” a very recognisable word in every language in Ghana. The youngsters called it "folks". These clothings became extremely important during the hard days of the end of the Acheampong regime and the early days of Rawlings regime when things were very hard for all Ghanaians. It was not a shame to wear a second hand item in those days. Nobody even knew! From clothing, other second hand items started appearing on the market - electronic items, hospital beds, wheelchairs, foot massages, mattresses, cooking utensils, sets of cutlery, refrigerators, tyres of all sizes and even items that have no place in a tropical temperature. The main sources of these items in the developed countries are people giving up the items they no longer need (because they've outgrown them or bought new ones) or the dead whose items the relatives or others don't need and send them to the poor in other countries. The latter explains the name "obroniwuawu" - the white man is dead. The only second hand items that are not treated with any disdain in Ghana are used vehicles. They cost a lot and are not given for free and so belong to a different category. Infact, in many instances, people prefer second hand cars from Europe and the USA to those from Ghana. That is why there is a special name for them: home used vehicles.

The popularity of second hand clothes in Ghana has been the source of some jokes. Once an American couple was on a holiday in Ghana. The wife saw a man wearing a t-shirt and drew her husband's attention to it, asking him: Was that not the shirt you used in your last college game? In another story, An American businessman bought Beckenbauer's pair of trousers he wore to a wedding a few days before his retirement from active soccer. The black pair of trousers had his name inscribed in gold on the side of the trousers from top to the end of the trousers. The man bought it for the equivalent of 40,000 euros when it was offered for sale at an auction. While packing some old clothes to be given away to the Salvation Army, he mistakenly added the expensive trousers to the bunch. When he realised the mistake, the ship containing the second-hand items had already left three days earlier. Imagine a Ghanaian who buys that would not even know the worth of the trousers as a collector’s item.

In Ghana, there are no flea markets where people can put up for sale items they no longer need. This is also a sign of our poverty since the poor hardly discard things. Even the textbooks that we buy for school, we are told to use them carefully so that we can pass them on to our younger siblings. I don’t know if the universities in Ghana have a system whereby textbooks that are not needed after a course is completed are sold or traded to other students.

Electronic pollution is one of the main dangers of the environment. The lead-arsenic mercury cocktail wafts throughout neighbourhoods and permeates through water bodies like streams, ponds and rivers. This was confirmed by the Ghanaian enviromentalist, Mike Anane in 2009. He said, "There are persistent metals. They don't only bio-accummulate, they also persist in the environment and in the food chain for a very long time."

Ghana's Environmental protection Agency (GEPA) has fervently advocated for a total ban on all used electronic equipments. It will be hard to picture how Ghana will be without used PCs, used sound systems, etc. The internet cafés that have sprung up all over the country linking even villagers to the World Wide Web use mostly second hand computers from Europe and North America. We cannot do without them. It would be the same as Ghana banning used cars and spare parts as proclaimed by the Vice President, John Mahama. According to him the used cars and spare parts are the cause of many of the road accidents in Ghana.

Even though second hand underwear and brassieres are banned, any woman who buys brand new brassieres and underwear must still first wash them before they are used. These brassieres and underwear are made in different parts of the world, kept in boxes, pass through many hands before we purchase them. They can easily be infested with parasites and once they are worn without first being washed, the parasites can easily cause infection for the breast and the inner thighs resulting in painful sores. Second-hand underwear and brassieres are even worse. Nowhere cool!!

In conclusion, one would say, electronic waste, especially computer, waste can be very harmful to the environment. Government must extend the ban to include old computers - those more than 10 years old! It is an area where the developments are fast. However, 10 years is enough for Ghana since we don't manufacture computers. There are already stiff penalties for vehicles that are more than 10 years old. There is no need to increase the penalty since that will make the vehicles too expensive to sell in Ghana. Moreover, it is possible to get vehicles which are more than 10 years old from Europe and North America that are still in far better condition than most of the vehicles now plying our roads. What the government should do is enforce the laws on roadworthiness examinations. If European countries require strict examinations of vehicles on yearly basis, what about us who drive our vehicles roughly on bad roads? Vehicle examination centres should be built in all the regional capitals and other major towns where vehicles are subjected to intense examination before roadworthiness certificates are issued to them.

The ban is in place but second-hand mattresses, underwear, brassiere and handkerchiefs still find their way into the Ghanaian market. This is due to the corrupt practices of the custom and security officers at the ports. Anas, the daring investigative journalist had revealed to Ghanaians through secret recording of the corruption of the officers which had led to banned goods coming to the markets. Random visits must be paid to the sellers of second-hand clothes and mattresses. Rules are often made in Ghana with zero enforcement.

Written by: Stephen Atta Owusu
Author: Dark Faces At Crossroads