Words by Yvette Tetteh
Accra’s waterways are bubbling with synthetic microfibers and material debris after decades of nonstop waste-dumping by countries in the Global North. Yvette Tetteh is swimming the length of the country’s longest river to draw attention to the urgency of the problem.
There’s something about fear. It can bubble in your chest or your belly. It can be insidious—or it can be blatant and domineering. Being afraid feels disappointing, sad, and—honestly—inevitable. But it can also be useful; it can tell us about ourselves.
I’ve been moving fear from my head to my heart and all through my body as I swim 450km down the Volta River, the largest and most significant waterway in Ghana. I have fear not least because I’m awash in the small and large fears of those around me. They’re afraid of diseases, animals, and accidents. I’m afraid of being tired. I’m afraid of pain—and failure. It is a monumental undertaking; to traverse the waterway that connects dry savannah grasslands in the country’s northern-most points and lush tropical rainforest in the South.
For four weeks, from March to April 2023, I am journeying with three other Ghanaians along the Volta River as part of the Agbetsi Living Water research and environmental expedition. The river has been a lifeline for generations; for its resources and for transport. For many Ghanaians, it is sacred and to be protected. However, like most ecosystems, the Volta River is increasingly exposed to global contaminants, including synthetic microfibers. These microfibers originate from atmospheric deposition or from local human activities—namely wearing, washing, and drying clothes. Much remains unknown about these microfibers, so a good place to start is in mapping and understanding their abundance and potential source.
The Agbetsi expedition sets out to build on existing research about the ecotoxicological impacts of secondhand clothing waste on the environment. This research, which is carried out by The Or Foundation, an organization that works at the intersection of environmental justice, education, and fashion development to identify and manifest responsible alternatives to dominant business models, includes how pollution from clothing consumption is felt in communities and ecosystems throughout Ghana—especially in Accra where tons of textile waste inundate communities.
Talk about fear; fear rises when you face a mountain of decomposing textile waste. I’ve walked through Old Fadama and Agbogbloshie, inner-city shanty towns of Accra, a few times now, and seen the plastic and textile waste myself. It is overwhelming. And it speaks to a collective fear we all hold, whether or not we’ve ever seen such a site; the dread of powerlessness.
In this case, the sense of powerlessness arises from seeing firsthand the global forces that lead to waste colonialism and the gradual putrefaction of a city. For example, Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, is the largest secondhand clothing market in the world. But roughly 40% of the average bale of clothing that makes its way from the Global North to Ghana leaves Kantamanto as waste. This waste dominates formal dumpsites, taking up space that was not considered as part of the City’s urban plan. For this reason, huge swathes of land throughout Accra as well as the surrounding waterways look like a disturbing science experiment—the latter replete with unidentifiable bubbling gases and layers of material debris.
So, our goal is to swim these waters again.
It is a ludicrous and invigorating idea that hinges on our capacity to move through fear and the perception of powerlessness to enact change. We are acting to stop waste colonialism and its disastrous impact on our environment and people. Our team begins with research, working in and with the affected communities, and I begin with the absurd idea that I can swim the length of the Volta River. If fear emerges like a curling tentacle from the black hole of the unknown, then to move through fear is to begin to make things comprehensible, manageable. I always return to one affirming thought: it is crucially not impossible. It is not impossible to swim 450km of the Volta River. Here’s how I think about it: 450km (scary!) is roughly 15km a day (not bad!) for 30 days (ok?). Fifteen kilometers a day could be swum, with the current, in six hours (max.), and six hours could be completed in three sets of two hours. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. And that’s the point.
I started by swimming for 30 minutes in the pool at my mom’s house; spent enormous amounts of energy, splashed around with the illusion of form, and emerged exhausted. That was the first week. The second, I learnt to break my practice into 15 minute intervals. During the third week of training I began to learn technique and that, to endure, you must go slow—as slowly as you can possibly manage. In the third month my watch broke. I had to start counting my lengths, and so a new relationship to my practice took form. Four kilometres is 80 x 50m lengths or, as I prefer to count it, 40 x 100m lengths.
There is no control in this swim, only awareness and intention—which is not dissimilar from what is required of us to move through life with compassion and purpose; and to put a stop to waste colonialism.
It’s hard to think when you’re swimming, which is funny because there’s nothing else to do. Thoughts and feelings are more potent, but also slippery. I might feel intense irritation about something someone said to me for ten lengths; I might feel it for two. I might assign myself a topic of reflection (“what is the nature of pain?”) and then spend 20 minutes wondering whether the rotation of my right shoulder is correct, or whether my toes are sufficiently pointed. And yet counting lengths is less difficult than you might think. Maybe because your own intentional count—and the physical movement of your body—are the only steadying reality when you’re unmoored from time and space. There is no carelessness and there can be no rushing; for me, there is only the movement of my thoughts and a building count. There is no control in this experience, only awareness and intention—which is not dissimilar, I think, from what is required of us to move through life with compassion and purpose; and to put a stop to waste colonialism.
Without purpose, we return to this feeling of powerlessness—an emotion that in the Global North is often overcome through consumption. We consume work to keep our minds busy; we consume goods to keep ourselves busy; and many of us consume stories about recycling and charity shops that obscure “poor people” recipients in order to keep us from asking why we’re even in this exhausting cycle of working-to-consume in the first place. It is within this context that the fast-fashion players and secondhand clothing exporters are obfuscating the truth: to hide the real costs of overproduction. It’s just too profitable. The Or Foundation estimates that the Kantamanto community spends $325 million on bales of secondhand clothing every year, $182 million of which was paid to exporters in the Global North in 2020. The average retailer makes little profit because they must use their resources to repair, wash, and upcycle the clothing they receive, while also paying sanitation fees to help cover the cost of waste management.
It is not unreasonable to see the scale of a problem and avoid working towards a solution by responding to the feeling—and the fear—that it’s too much. The problem is too much, and as is the work to solve it. I’ve been thinking about faith, recently—because, the way I see it, faith is on the other side of fear. Faith bridges the present to a future you want to see, and renders it achievable. I think of faith as both an imaginative and physical activity. Faith tells you that making the effort to bring about the outcome you want to experience is worth it. Faith is the magical thinking that prompts you to break down monumental tasks into manageable realities.
Faith is what drives The Or Foundation, where we’re gradually, carefully tackling waste colonialism through research, education, and action. Most recently we’ve launched the #StopWasteColonialism campaign to advocate for companies to take responsibility for overproduction through an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy. EPR creates a cost for (over)production and generates funds to support the communities most affected by it. EPR is a mechanism for collective accountability, where everyone along the value chain must acknowledge Kantamanto and communities like it, and where the brands producing the highest volumes of non-recyclable clothing (most garments on the planet today) contribute the most money to cleaning up the mess of fast fashion waste. We are working for the Kantamanto community to be given the respect they are owed and the resources they deserve to deal with fast fashion waste.
Part of this work includes identifying the broader impacts of fast fashion pollution when the waste is not dealt with responsibly. Secondhand clothing that enters Ghana travels up north through the country through sales and, as we discovered already on the assessment trip for this expedition, travels back down along the river as waste. We found T-shirts stranded on remote, uninhabited islands in the middle of the Volta Lake. On the research vessel we are taking daily water and air samples specifically to measure the level of textile pollution along the river. Each sample is processed through a fiberglass filter, which is then photographed with UV light through an onboard microscope–the purpose being to allow us to accurately record and count waterborne and airborne microfibers and microplastics. In the Korle Lagoon, a body of water adjacent to Kantamanto, the microfiber count is so high that it takes The Or Foundation team up to three hours to count the content of one image and each image has to be counted by at least three people.
The Agbetsi expedition makes the case to stop overproduction and to empower Kantamanto to effectively deal with clothing waste at the point of entry to Ghana—before it spreads like a contagion throughout our water systems. Crucially, the Living Water Swim is also about demonstrating a life-affirming relationship to our environment.
Inevitably, as I swim six monotonous hours a day, I reflect on why I am doing this. Like every other person, I’d like to imagine I’m special. But, like every other person, I’m not. The beauty of faith-driven work is that anyone can take the time they need—and experience so much along the way.
Swimming 450km of river in the name of research and environmental action is a wildly ambitious undertaking, but to feel yourself alive, whether in my mom’s pool or in the emerald waters of the Volta River, is a wondrous experience. To see the glassy waters of the Volta gently marbled by the wind and sun is a balm for the spirit. And yesterday, as I approached the boat, I was struck by the fragrance of some sweet, wild herb. I also caught sight of small white flowers and thought of ylang-ylang, some raw, untamed version living in the middle of the Volta. Small though those moments might be, they are reminders that I am ready to move through fear, and pain, and exhaustion, with the faith and the embodied knowledge that it is worth it.