April 11, 2024

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Shopping, Clothing & Fashion

I swam down Ghana’s Volta River for 40 days to show the true cost of cheap clothes | Yvette Yaa Konadu Tetteh

My body has taught me that few things are impossible when you take your time. Sometimes I’m taken aback by how natural this has all felt to me. Since when is it “natural” to be able to swim 10km, 5km or even 2km?

How could it feel so easy to hang off the side of a boat and let go, slipping into the water, sometimes miles from the nearest land. And yet every day, for 40 days of the Agbetsi Living Water Expedition, that is precisely what I did.

I journeyed with a crew from the northern regions of Ghana down to the south, swimming 450km [280 miles] along the Volta River. Our mission was to expand research about the impact of textile microfibre pollution on our waterways and to draw attention to the huge volumes of secondhand clothing entering Ghana.

This research builds on work that the Or Foundation (a charity working for more environmental justice in fashion) has been conducting in Accra, Ghana’s capital, where textile pollution has reached alarming levels.

A young African woman jumps off a boat into a wide river
‘The delight of swimming in the river is at the heart of this project for me.’ Yvette Tetteh leaps into the Volta. Photograph: Ofoe Amegavie/The Or Foundation

The Agbetsi expedition helps build the case to stop waste colonialism and to empower the people of Kantamanto in Accra, the largest secondhand clothing market in Ghana, to deal with clothing waste when it enters the country and before it spreads throughout our water systems.

About 15m garments a week are imported into Accra’s Kantamanto market from the global north.

According to a long-running study by the Or Foundation, tailors and retailers repair, upcycle and sell millions of these items, but roughly 40% of the clothing leaves the market as waste.

This waste spills into informal landfills and pollutes our water, leaving the land and the people to carry the burden of the global north’s rubbish – products of overproduction and overconsumption.

There can be no change unless people care, however. And it’s easier to care when you know the joy of something. The delight of swimming in the river is at the heart of this project for me. From the rush of racing with the Volta River to the magnificent stillness of Volta Lake, being in the water feels wonderful.

I desperately want people to experience shimmering, silvery water and resplendent skies. I’m hopeful that through this project, and events such as our open Solidarity Swim, where more than 100 people met me and the crew, we have given people greater opportunity to start creating these memories.

Two people sit on the side of a boat labelling test tubes
The crew log data. Samples from the lower Volta, nearly 100km from the main Accra dump site, showed far more microfibres than anticipated. Photograph: Enoch Nsoh/The Or Foundation

It’s hard to imagine that the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon, next to Kantamanto, bubbling with noxious gases, was once swimmable. It must have been beautiful all along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, with the palm trees and mangroves, now overrun with tangled textiles.

Research and cleanup efforts have been initiated at large textile dumpsites in Accra. At the Or Foundation, we are now extending our data collection to build a heat map across Ghana to show areas of high and low pollution, along with the types of pollutants.

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We were alarmed when our first water samples from the lower Volta River, nearly 100km east of the main dump site in Accra, showed significantly higher numbers of synthetic microfibres than anticipated.

I’ve been swimming since I was four years old; living in Johannesburg, where pools are common in middle-class homes, my mother decided we must all learn to swim. I’ve grown up loving the feeling of freedom and confidence swimming can give you, and I’ve also swum competitively.

Still, to be ready for a 450km journey down the river took seven months of training five to six days a week. On the expedition, I divided each day into several swimming sessions – stopping every 20 minutes for water and dried bananas (or, at the end, Percy Pigs!)

A man stands on a rubbish tip holding a dirty shirt with the slogan 'Our sea son'. Cows sit and stand on waste behind him while a shanty town can be seen in the distance
A waste worker searches through discarded secondhand textiles for shirts, jeans and other clothes in usable condition. Photograph: Muntaka Chasant/Rex/Shutterstock

To lapse into fear when facing something monumental, as many did when I spoke about the swim and the massive secondhand clothing trade, is not unreasonable – but it is limiting. I am driven by the curiosity to explore my own capacity, the desire to know my country and the faith that intentional action will bring a better, fairer future.

At the end of the expedition, with the taste of salt water in my mouth letting me know the the sea was close, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and purpose. I swim now in the richness of my experience.

  • Yvette Yaa Konadu Tetteh is a board member of the Or Foundation