Michael Tetteh, Ghana’s sole professional glassblower, clenched his teeth as he gripped a red-hot ball of molten glass, his burned and blistered hands exposed against the steaming stack of wet newspaper he used to protect them.
The 44-year-old toiled in the sweltering heat of scrap-metal kilns that reached nearly 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,700 degrees Fahrenheit), pregnant with melted windowpanes, TV screens, and soda bottles that he would soon transform into elaborate vases swirling with psychedelic colours.
Some become red vases with black streaks, others green pitchers, and still others clear, everyday bottles.
Tetteh’s strict use of recycled materials, which he collects from scrap yards and landfills in Accra, is part of his stated mission to reduce Ghana’s glass waste and wasteful imports.
He imagines a Ghana free of foreign glass, with its glass bead-making tradition channeled into a modern, multi-faceted industry.
According to the Observatory for Economic Complexity, Ghana imports around $300 million in glass and ceramic products each year. More than 80% of that comes from China, the world’s largest glass exporter.
While some private businesses recycle their glass, Tetteh claims that the vast majority of Ghana’s glass waste ends up in landfills or is scattered throughout the country’s streets, posing a safety hazard.
“We don’t have a (glass waste) collection process, and we don’t want broken glass floating around,” he explained.
“We can make money if we use recycled (materials).”
Tetteh discovered glassblowing in 2012 after spending several months in France and the Netherlands learning the craft with other Ghanaian bead-makers in the town of Odumase-Krobo, the epicentre of Ghana’s traditional glass bead culture.
He was the only one who wanted to keep going after returning home, and he set a goal of setting up a proper hot shop in Odumase-Krobo.
Undaunted by a lack of funds, he used online tutorials to construct furnaces out of scrap metal and clay. He honed his skills by watching You Tube videos of famous glass artists such as America’s Dale Chihuly.
He has since hired several young Odumase-Krobo assistants, whom he is training with the hope that they will one day run their own workshops. Their work can be found in boutique shops in Ghana and Ivory Coast, and appeared in European and American art galleries.
“My heart (wants) to train young Ghanaians, both men and women, so they can learn this job,” he said. “We will not have to go to other countries like China to buy what we want for Ghana.”