By Gustavo Bondoni
“Please, mama,” Kwakú said. “I don’t like to go alone.”
She looked down at him and tousled his hair, a sad smile playing on her lips. “Ama isn’t feeling well, and she’s too big to take along. I have to stay.” His two-year-old sister stared listlessly from his mother’s arms. She’d been crying all night.
He didn’t stay to argue. He didn’t want his mother to see the tears that he could already feel welling in his eyes. He was seven, a big boy. Big boys didn’t cry, not even when their mothers left them to themselves.
Kwakú ran out of the shack, across the railroad tracks.
Stupid baby, stealing his mother.
It was a dark day over Agbogbloshie. The men must be burning wires, to destroy the insulation and free the copper within. Copper was valuable; insulation was just something to be burned into thick black clouds that covered the scrapyard.
He covered his mouth and nose with his threadbare shirt, but though he knew it would be uncomfortable, he actually preferred smoke days — the men would all be at the burn, watching each other like hawks to keep from having their haul stolen. So he’d only have to worry about the teenagers.
He nearly jumped out of his skin, but it was just Jean, who lived out on Hansen Road. He was even smaller than Kwakú. “Hi, Jean. Going out today?”
A nod. “I have to. My mother says we need food.”
“There’s a new pile near the river.”
“I know. I was headed over there, but some of the boys just went through.”
That was bad. The boys, as the pack of teenagers were known, were bad news. Nimble enough that it was hard to lose them in the warren of electronic junk, but strong enough to take what they wanted, they were the thing Kwakú feared most. Adults would occasionally let them pass without checking them for valuables. On a good day, the adults might even gift them some little piece of wire or even old chips. Not the boys; they were rapacious.
Of course, her mother wouldn’t stand for it. She knew each of their parents and threatened to tell all. They stayed clear of Kwakú’s mother.
But she wasn’t here.
“Let’s see if there’s anything left in last week’s pile.”
Jean wanted to argue, but he just nodded. There was no chance to do anything for the new arrivals while the boys were about.
They picked their way through the endless maze that wound between piles of electronic detritus. Plastic CPU carcasses, discarded monitors, laptop cases, and rubber phone protectors formed mounds much taller than they were.
From this, the men pulled anything that could be resold for its metal: steel, copper, silver, gold. Even something called palladium, which Kwakú had never seen. Even the plastic was sometimes crated up and taken away in trucks, after painstaking selection.
His mother had told him that the junk came from all over the world. She spoke of magical places where an old cell phone was simply thrown away, and that the people had so much food they didn’t need to take electronics apart and pull away the metal.
Well, she also told him stories of dragons and fairies. He didn’t believe those, either.
“This way,” he told his friend. “That’s the pile.”
To an outsider, it might have looked like any of a dozen other piles, but Kwakú’s experienced eyes were already picking out little pieces of treasure, things the older men ignored.
“Look, an entire board!” Jean exclaimed, pushing away a monitor.
That was a good find, and there should be a few more. A decent handful of boards could be traded for enough food for a day, and that was all they wanted. They began to dig, using a wooden stick as a crowbar, to pry open or bash apart pieces of plastic or monitor glass. They didn’t have to go very deep before a nice pile lay at their feet.
Kwakú climbed up the lower slopes of the mound. There were always good things higher up, where heavier seekers couldn’t easily go.
Immediately, he was buried under an avalanche of cascading monitors and CPUs.
“Are you all right?” Jean asked. He pulled away a big chunk lying on Kwakú’s chest.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little bruised. I’m …” he stopped. “Look there.”
“What?” Jean scanned the pile.
Kwakú scrambled up the pile, sending another torrent of plastic down but keeping his footing this time. He reached his objective and tugged.
A furry doll popped clear of the detritus.
Jean joined him on the pile. “What’s that?”
The doll looked like any number of teddy bears he’d seen some of the richer kids carrying around. His own doll was made of rags and more likely to be in Ama’s hands than his own by now.
But this wasn’t just a doll. He’d seen something similar before. This one hadn’t landed here by accident. It belonged. It was technology.
“It’s an Intelligence,” he said, awe in his voice.
“No way. Those are shaped like robots and stuff.”
“This is an old one. My dada told me about them before he …” Even after a year, Kwakú couldn’t talk about his father, and the cough that got worse and worse until, one day, it stopped altogether. Forever. The end of the cough took the laugh he loved so much, and his father’s warm smile, with it.
Jean pressed close. “Are you sure?” the other boy said, running his hands over the ragged felt. He pressed a leg and his eyes opened wide. “Yes, there are bones in there.”
“There are. It’s all metal. That’s how an Intelligence moves.”
Jean turned away. “But it’s broken. And there probably isn’t all that much metal in there.”
“There’s enough,” Kwakú said, feeling defensive.
After that, they scavenged in silence, the wind whipping the black smoke of burning insulation through the canyons between the mounds. It seemed to Kwakú that the valleys got deeper every day, that Agbogbloshie kept growing. His mother had told him that the electronics area had once been a small part of a larger scrapyard, but it had grown as its fame spread across the world.
That felt true to Kwakú. The rubble that he’d known since he first learned to walk was a living, breathing organism, and as such, it wanted to grow, to feed on the lands around it, and to multiply.
“I think we have enough,” Jean said, hefting one of the bags they’d been filling. “Let’s get out of here.”
They navigated the alleys carefully; this was the riskiest part of the whole day.
Voices echoed through the channels and Kwakú froze. It was impossible to tell the direction in the maze.
By the time he saw them, it was too late. Two youths from the other edge of town rushed him. While one held him, the other dumped the contents of his bag on the floor and picked out the larger pieces.
“And what’s that you have there?” the boy said.
“It’s mine,” Kwakú replied, holding the bear back.
“Let me see it.” All signs of friendliness had disappeared from the boy’s face. He scowled as he took a step forward.
With his free hand, Kwakú picked up a piece of scrap plastic and brandished it.
The boy fell back, more surprised than afraid. Then, as he stepped forward again something clattered from one of the piles.
“Someone’s coming. Let the little baby keep his teddy bear,” the other boy said. “Bye, baby.” They ran off with the best of Kwakú’s findings.
Jean came back around the pile. He’d been the source of the noise, probably trying to hide.
“Did they take it all?”
“Not everything.” Kwakú put the scraps that remained back in his bag. There wasn’t enough for more than a little food. He’d need to be back tomorrow … and his mother probably wouldn’t leave the baby alone again.
“Here,” Jean said. The other boy was holding out a pair of circuit boards. A glance sufficed for Kwakú to know that they were rich pickings, good stuff that would make Jean’s haul poorer.
He shook his head.
“Take it,” Jean said. “Just promise me you’ll come get me tomorrow. We’ll come out together.”
Kwakú took them. “Thank you.”
Jean smiled, bright teeth shining through the haze.
The rest of the trip back went without incident. Once they made it to Hansen Road, the crowds kept them safe.
He said goodbye to Jean at the other boy’s house and completed the trek alone.
His mother still held the baby. Ama looked better, she was sitting up and babbling. His mother looked at the bag and smiled sadly. She knew from the thin sack that he would have to go out again the next day. And they both knew he would have to go alone. Then her eyes found the bear.
“What’s that?” she said.
“I think it’s an Intelligence.” He gave it to her.
She looked at it, turning it over with the practiced ease of one who’d spent most of her life among electronic devices.
“I think you’re right. It might still work. It’s magnetically charged, see? There’s no place for a plug.”
He looked at it and, in fact, saw nothing.
“I know a woman who has an old charger. If we can get it to work, you might not have to go back into the yard tomorrow. This is valuable.”
Kwakú shook his head. “No, mama. I’ll go back tomorrow. I promised Jean.”
She stared at him for a while. She knew how he hated to go alone.
“We can try to make it work if you want. But not to sell it. Not yet.”
“But why? Something like this …”
“It’s good for a baby, no?” His eyes moved to the toddler watching them intently.
His mother tried to answer, but she couldn’t. Blinking furiously, she simply leaned over and hugged him.
You can find more of Gustavo Bondoni’s writing at www.gustavobondoni.com.