When she jumps in the water this May Day, Yvette Tetteh will be embarking on the final leg of the longest known swim expedition in West African History.
After swimming over 350km of Ghana’s Volta River, from Buipe to Akosombo over the course of the preceding month, Ghanaian-British agribusiness entrepreneur, athlete and activist Yvette Tetteh, 30, and the crew of The Or Foundation’s accompanying research vessel The Woman Who Does Not Fear, will set off south for the last 100km stretch south of the Akosombo Dam to the Gulf of Guinea to continue their extensive research into microfiber and microplastic pollution along Ghana’s largest internal waterway and to raise awareness about the impact of waste colonialism on the ecosystems that give life to millions of people throughout the region.
The historic expedition has marked a series of first-time events: the first time the largest manmade lake in the world has been traversed by swimming, the first time a solar powered research vessel has been built in Ghana and launched in West Africa, and the first time a study of microfiber pollution has been undertaken along 450km of Ghana’s internal coastline.
The expedition builds on a year and a half of scientific research by The Or Foundation into the environmental impact of secondhand clothing waste flowing through Ghana as one of the largest recipients of used clothing in the world. The Or Foundation, an Accra-based NGO operating at the intersection of Environmental Justice, Education and Fashion Development, estimates that Ghana sees 15 million items of secondhand clothing from Global North countries such as the EU, the UK, and the USA entering local markets every week and that on average 40% of every bale of secondhand clothing opened in Accra, Ghana’s largest secondhand market, Kantamanto, is discarded as waste, causing enormous environmental and social upheaval in a country where the only engineered landfill blew up in 2019 due to overflowing volumes of clothing waste.
The Or Foundation has recorded thousands of textile tentacles, or tangled masses of discarded clothing, some over ten meters long, along Accra’s beaches. Now, the Agbetsi Living Water Swim that completes this week is tracking the impact of textile waste throughout the country. “Agbetsi” is an Ewe word, a local language in Ghana, for living water, an apt name for an expedition seeking to keep Ghana’s waterways alive.
In addition to swimming between 10 to 20 kilometers every day, Yvette and the expedition crew, including boat captain JayJay Addo-Koranteng of Bravehearts Expeditions, and Ofoe Amegavie, a celebrated documentary photographer, take water and air samples every day to check for microfibers and microplastics following the same protocols as The Or Foundation team gathering samples Accra.
The expedition crew also share information with communities along the route of the swim to keep track of the expedition as it progresses. In addition The Or Foundation has released “The Untold Stories from The Volta”, a series of 12 commissioned stories from along the expedition route accessible through the campaign website https://livingwaterswim.org as Yvette swims past the location of each story.
On April 16th, The Or Foundation hosted a public solidarity swim along with Yvette just south of the Akosombo Dam, where over a hundred attendees heard from Yvette, expedition crew and storytellers.
During the event The Or Foundation laid out an ambitious vision to make Accra’s Korle Lagoon swimmable again within five years, stating that just as Yvette has approached the enormous swim down the Volta River System and Lake stroke by stroke, so too can the communities come together to tackle the seemingly insurmountable task of cleaning up the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon that was once considered a sacred swimming hole and source of food for Accra natives.