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Ghana’s Kayayo girls do heavy lifting

Young female porters eke out a living, strive for better lives

Fatima stands on the backs of other girls at a beach in Ghana's capital Accra, Oct. 12, 2008. A Muslim girl from remote northern Ghana, Fatima had never seen the ocean before coming to Accra. "I like swimming," she said, "but I don't like how boys and girls swim together here." Ghana's Kayayo girls are young women who work as porters in the bustling cities. Their work is hard and the pay is small, but many find the opportunity and independence of the cities better than life in rural areas. (Peter DiCampo/GlobalPost)

ACCRA, Ghana — The Kayayo are young women, sometimes girls, who work as porters, carrying heavy loads on their heads. At times, their words and their actions tell two different stories.

They come from Ghana's arid rural north to work in the bustling cities of the south. They are paid very little, but nonetheless the work offers them opportunities that they don't get in their rural villages.

At times, their words and their actions tell two different stories.

“I won’t go back to that place. They are suffering there. If you don’t have money, you suffer. You won’t eat. At home, you can always cook and eat,” said Amariya, a woman in her 20s who worked in Ghana’s capital, Accra, until she had enough money to return to her village and marry.

“The work is not good. You carry one load and already you are tired. A whole day and sometimes you get less than 20,000 cedis [$1.36]. And the people insult us. They don’t respect us, even though we’re the ones who carry their heavy things,” said 19-year-old Abiba, who left her village to work in the city of Kumasi. “When you go to bath, you have to pay. When you go to toilet, you have to pay. As for the rooms where we stay, 14 girls in a small room, and every week you each pay 5,000 cedis [$0.34]. At home, you don’t have to pay any money,” said Hommo, a girl in her early teens who worked in Accra until she decided to continue her education.

They are all Kayayo. They make the journey to escape a place where meager subsistence farming is the primary occupation; where it is a normal practice for girls to do housework and raise their male siblings rather than attend school; and where education, infrastructure and health care lag far behind the rest of the country.

The tradition of Kayayo is so common, even expected, that the only statistics are a handful of rough estimates from aid organizations that have only recently become involved with Kayayo girls. Some place their numbers as high as the tens of thousands, and many Ghanaians maintain that nearly every northern woman will travel south at some point in her life.