Thought I was done blogging for the day — until I came across this BBC photo feature on Ghana’s market girls or “kayayo”. When I was back in Ghana, I would occasionally go to the Madina market in Accra with my mum and I remember seeing them every time. I often wondered why they weren’t in school, why they were doing what they do and why they didn’t bargain how much money was paid them. My mum would lament about their situations and each time she patronized their service she would ask them how come they were doing what they did. Unlike my mum, most patrons of the Kayayo’s services are not as considerate and don’t think twice about having them carry things twice their weight! This is a very sensitive topic to me, because the way I see it, a twist of fate, and I could have been one. I’ve been meaning to blog on this issue, but somehow it escaped me. Not about to let that opportunity slip by again. Alors, voila.

Here’s a youtube slideshow (by the same photographer – Peter DiCampo (a Pullitzer Grant Winner) – as in the BBC feature) depicting the life of Kayayo:

Who exactly are the Kayayo?
Typically, kayayo are young girls and women – generally from the Northern section of Ghana – who migrate to the southern part of Ghana to work in cities like Accra and Kumasi. They tend to work in major markets where they help carry produce or shopping done by market patrons. These loads are usually very heavy – imagine shopping for a family of five or six for an entire week. Include stuff like heavy yams, bottles of palm oil, I guess you get the picture – and when it comes down to age dynamics, some of these girls are barely teenagers.

Why this trade?
Most of these women and girls do not move south just because they feel like it, but rather because of dire economic situations up north. Given the fact that most of Northern Ghana is focused on subsistence farming and agriculture, issues like climate change and the ever impending Sahara have limited the economic and financial base of most northern families, who still face costs of living. Factor in the fact that government pays relatively little attention to Northern Ghana, and the prospects for future economic opportunities are slim. As in most African countries, families pull together when it comes to finances. In order to help out, some families might elect that their young women and girls go south in search of better work opportunities. In other cases, these young women and girls choose to do so themselves; partly in order to earn their keep, but also because of notions of “greener pastures” down south.

There’s also the element of societal pressure. For instance, if one Kayayo woman in Accra succeeds in sending some items or money back home, other women and girls living with their families might be regarded as “selfish” or “lazy” for not going south to do the same. Many women also want to start preparing for marriage by buying necessities like kitchen equipment, cloths, etc, while others need things to start businesses in hairdressing, retail, dressmaking and so on. In order to do so, they need the money. There have been instances where some Kayayo have been “tricked” into the trade, by unscrupulous individuals who promise gifts, wealth and what-not. In other cases, some women and girls run away from their villages and homes in order to participate in the trade.

What’s the danger?
Women and girls are generally vulnerable in “ordinary” situations. In comparison to their male counterparts, most women lack the physical strength or endurance necessary for escaping dangerous situations. Add the fact that some men think it amusing to exploit women sexually, and you have that entire conundrum as well. But let’s not even get into all that complex stuff. Let’s look at the basics.

In most cases, prospective kayayo might not know anyone in the city they are migrating to. They might know one girl or another who’s supposedly working in that city, but they usually don’t have someone who would be willing to put them up, feed and clothe them. So where do they end up? In kiosks, in shacks, in the slums, sometimes in abandoned buildings and cars. At the end of the day, they tend to be homeless or slum dwellers.

Now market places are beehives of activity. And that also means there’s a lot of vice. From pickpockets to full-blown thieves, to swindlers, you name it, they are all there. When you have young women and girls living, working, bathing, eating and doing practically everything else in the open market, they tend to fall victim to social vice. Robberies, gender violence, rape etc are some of the things these women have to endure.

Mind you, this is usually after carrying heavy things the entire day without even being certain they have enough money for food – from what I remember, Kayayo didn’t have a price they charged for carrying items but would say “give me whatever you can afford”. Some people end up not paying them anything!! – and then, not even being guaranteed security at night. Needless to say, many Kayayo turn out pregnant, have the babies (when they can barely feed themselves) and of course, the fathers are nowhere to be found. Let’s not forget the obligations they have to their families back home. Aside the strain on their bodies from carrying heavy things, count in malaria (from sleeping in the open air and in the reach of mosquitoes), HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases and it worsens the situation. Some supposedly “well-meaning” families or middle/upper class women might offer a kayayo the opportunity to work as a house help, but all too often, they end up being mistreated. Being a Kayayo is not only a risky venture, but also a life-threatening one!

How to salvage the situation
I believe there is more knowledge about the kayayo situation than there has been in the past. And even the kayayos have formed networks that they use to inform and protect themselves. Some kayayo wisely set the price before carrying items or will decline carrying really heavy things. But the danger is still present. I’m not sure if this exists or not, but some sort of “Kayayo Trade Association” would greatly help improve the situation.

It would also help if some NGOs or non-profits set up a technical/vocational skills training structure for them to ensure that they gradually leave the trade. It would be more appropriate for the government to handle something like this, but I think the government should be more concerned with dealing with the root of the problem: lack of development initiatives in Northern Ghana. Once employment opportunities are made available up north, the tendency for girls and women to move south will be reduced. And even if they do, it would be more out of personal choice or to pursue career and educational opportunities than out of dire need.

Found a feature film via youtube on the issue. Hope it helps you understand the cultural, economic and social dynamics better:

Photo Credit: Peter DiCampo, Photo Source