In Ghana, the women carry everything on their heads. Canisters of propane, bowls of groundnuts, platters of water sachets. The clear bags gleam in the equatorial sunlight. In the rural towns, where there is no plumbing, this is how water is transported. Half a liter of liquid is sealed in a few inches of plastic. Young girls skip school to sell sachets. The girls, in geometric print dresses, crowd the highway. They run up to stopped cars and buses, water in hand.
I am sitting on the bus from Kumasi to Koforidua. When we come to a stop, the women along the road swarm the bus, selling toothpaste, canned fish, and, of course, water sachets. A woman rushes ahead, clutching a sachet in each hand. “Water!” she shouts. “Cold water!” A dozen passengers get out of their seats and reach across my row toward the window. The woman hands over her water in exchange for a few coins. As the bus begins to move again, she runs to keep up.
Five hundred milliliters of water is enough to brush my teeth, wash my mouth guard, and even have a few sips. To open the water sachets, you grab a corner with your teeth and pull. Some people toss the entire sachet on the ground after drinking only half.
I could go through a handful of the sachets in a day. We bought them in bulk from the 25-square foot supermarket at the intersection of two dirt roads in Somanya. In the compound where I lived, we put our used sachets in a burlap sack. My landlord told me that one of the women made things out of the plastic, but he didn’t say what.
A single paved road runs through Somanya. There are no sidewalks, and cars honk their horns when they approach anyone or anything. The roads are flanked by open-air sewers instead of curbs. Wooden planks stretch over the sewers, connecting the road to the shops. The sewers are full of plastic.
I usually bought breakfast — rice with beans, noodles, and a hard-boiled egg — from the same woman on the way to work. She scooped the freshly-cooked waakye into my Tupperware and then covered the plastic box with a big black plastic bag. A friend told me that the opaque plastic protected the food from evil spirits. I never saw any evil spirits, but I did see the black bags, clogging the sewers. The garbage was causing cholera outbreaks, according to articles in the local paper. I kept my distance.
The pollution makes sense. Waste reclamation requires infrastructure, and I can’t imagine getting a garbage truck down a street barely wide enough for two taxis. Across Ghana there is an informal infrastructure of plastic. Plastic bags enable food and water to travel hundreds of miles. But what quenches the thirst of humans threatens to choke nature.
My roommate, Kolu, and I hiked to Umbrella Rock, a huge flat stone resting on top of a few boulders. The trail was covered with used water sachets. Kolu and I followed the plastic across a stream and through the tall grasses. When we arrived at the rock, it was covered in writing. The rock was decorated with the names of other hikers, probably the ones who had paved the path of plastic.
Some of the plastic ends up on the ground and in the sewers, and some of it ends up in stomachs. While I was riding a bus, I saw a woman across the aisle pull out a thin plastic bag of chicken and rice. She turned the bag upside down and bit off a corner. The plastic disappeared into her mouth. She kept eating, as if the bag were a tortilla and not synthetic, refined oil. I was glad that I was eating out of a hard plastic box instead.
Back in the US, I marveled at the fact that water flowed so freely from the faucet. And I marveled at how much water I used, now that it no longer came in five hundred milliliter increments. I have thought about filling up Ziploc bags with water to make makeshift sachets. Maybe all that plastic is worth it.