Ghana’s Kayayo girls do heavy lifting

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.

The girls rise early each morning and spend long hours waiting in a market or on a street corner, hoping to find someone who needs them to transport their purchased goods or personal belongings. The loads they carry on their heads are heavy and enormous: head-pans full of tomatoes or yams, or a traveler’s bursting suitcase.

But if the story their words tell is of hardship and poverty, their actions often display their enthusiasm for a chance at independence and opportunity.

At the entrance to Doctor Mensah market in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, a daily scene unfolds that seems an unvarying part of Kayayo life. Ten or 15 girls sit on their overturned white head-pans, chatting, giggling and pointing at the people who walk by.

When a bus full of passengers pulls into the bustling station, the girls spring to their feet in a cloud of dust. They laugh and shout as they chase the vehicle, and some of them jump onto the back bumper and peer inside. Long before the bus has stopped, they are claiming pieces of luggage and calculating how much money they might earn by carrying them.

Most of the passengers take their luggage and go, without any assistance. Still, the girls are playful as they return to their seats, skipping and pushing each other along as they walk.

“I like this place,” claims one of the girls, Alietu, who is no more than 13 years old. She is from Wa, capital of the Upper West Region. Uneducated, she was raised with five brothers and sisters by her mother alone after her father died. About a year ago, her older sister, a hairdresser who teaches Alietu the trade on weekends, led her to Kumasi. Like others who plan to stay in the cities, rather than return to their villages, she cites a newfound freedom as the reason for her decision.

“I miss my mother, but I won’t go back. Here, I’m free. I don’t work for anybody. After market, I don’t fetch water for anybody. I don’t have to go to farm and then come and cook.”

Whether they like their lives in the city or not, all of the Kayayo tend to agree on one thing: they could not make this money in their home villages.

Hamama Mahama, a middle-aged mother of four, has been working in Accra for months at a time throughout her life. She makes more money than her husband, a farmer, and is putting three of her children through school.

“For us, we’re used to this,” she said.

“But our children shouldn’t have to come and do this.”

(Peter DiCampo reported from Ghana on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

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