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Bearing burdens for better lives – the invisible Northern kayayei of Accra

Fresh off a plane, Weiwei Huang heads for Accra’s markets to meet “kayayei” in Makola and Kantamanto and ask what difference government policy can make to their quest for the good life

Story Highlights
  • “Sixty percent of the women head porters have ulcers because of the abuse of painkillers,” says Chambas

ACCRA, GHANAMakola Market is lined with vendors sitting under large, colourful umbrellas and boarded-up booths selling products. Layers of banners stick to the yellow buildings that surround the market, battling for attention.

There is a steady flow of people on the sidewalk, which is about a metre wide. If someone stops at a specific vendor, the entire line behind them may come to a halt. The midday sun is right overhead, the wind occasionally rolling hot air on to people’s cheeks.

Abeda was walking with a big iron basin balanced on her head.

She was carrying a baby less than a year old on her back, wrapped in a flower-patterned fabric. White scarves were wrapped around her upper left arm. She was sweating. The child was asleep. Dark circles surrounded his eyes.

“I have to carry loads for people while also carrying my child on my back. My child is quite ill as a result,” Abeda said, speaking in the Twi language, turning to look towards the busy street.

Abeda is one of the 85,600 kayayei working in the Greater Accra Region. Kayayei (singular: kayayo) is the Ga tribe term for female head porters, who are usually migrants from rural Northern Ghana. They transport heavy items balanced on their heads in places such as the renowned shopping area – Makola Market – as well as the world’s largest e-waste landfill, Agbogbloshie, and the largest second-hand clothing market in the world – Kantamanto Market.

Although kayayei work in well-known markets, their labour is “informal and invisible”, according to a University of Texas study. The study suggests that ignorance directly leads to kayayei being unable to receive unemployment assistance or afford medical care. During the COVID-19 outbreak, they were the last to receive assistance.

“The work is very difficult. Every day I pray that I can get chop money [meaning ‘money for food’] and save money for my child,” said Mahama Kande, a 23-year-old kayayo from Walewale, in the North East Region, where her child lives.

Mahama Kande/Kayayei
Mahama Kande is a head porter from Walewale. Photo: Weiwei Huang

The interests of justice

Kayayei usually earn between GHC2 and GHC15 to carry a load, which varies in weight from 20 kilograms to 60 kilograms or even more. On average, they make GHC20 to GHC50 per day, working all week from early morning to late night. The heavy work inflicts serious injuries on the women.

“We find out that after eight weeks of head carrying, there’s irreversible damage to the spine,” said Nabia Chambas, the kayayei outreach manager of the OR Foundation. Set up in 2011, the foundation is a charity aiming to push for environmental justice. It has implemented several programmes to improve female head porters’ living conditions. 

Chambas gave a case study from the foundation’s Kayayei Research and Chiropractic Care program as an example: A 16-year-old kayayo has a spine as old as that of a 50-year-old because of the degree of degeneration from carrying heavy bundles of clothing at Kantamanto Market.

“Sixty per cent of the women head porters have ulcers because of the abuse of painkillers,” Chambas said, pointing to her own stomach.

Due to their fear of unaffordable treatment in hospitals and their desire to save money, kayayei usually choose to take painkillers to ease the pain.

The most common painkiller in Ghana is Paracetamol. A box of 32 tablets costs GHC15. However, according to Chambas’s research, kayayei often buy the non-FDA-certified painkillers sold in the markets at only GHC5 a box, which aggravate ulcers.

Besides the hard work in the daytime, the places for kayayei to sleep at night also directly affect their state of health. 

No fixed abode

Asana shares a small room in Tudu Market with five other kayayei and pays GHC10 per week for the space. Mahama Kande and her colleagues sleep on the verandas of the stores because all the rooms available for kayayei are taken. They are unable to sleep when it rains.

“We sit and wait for it to end before going to sleep, and we leave our clothes outside after the sun rises because we have no place to keep them,” Kande said.

Last February, the Ghanaian government began building a four-storey dormitory facility in Agbogbloshie to house the kayayei. The move is in line with an election campaign commitment by the ruling party in 2016.

But the Ga Traditional Council has recently announced that it “vehemently opposes” the construction of the hostels.

The Council issued a statement saying, “In our view, the safest solution to the challenges confronting those who migrate to cities, particularly Accra, the capital, is the provision of vocational and technical skills within the regions where they migrate from.”

Manhamed Salifu, the head of the Kayayei Youth Association, based in Old Fadama, partly agreed with the statement.

“I don’t know if the construction has really started, and even if they finished the hostels after a year, there are so many other kayayei who would be left with no housing because the politicians don’t actually know the situation here,” said Salifu, frowning and shaking his head.

Hustle and bustle

Old Fadama and Agbogbloshie are two parts of a huge slum settlement, the largest on the Korle Lagoon formed by the Odaw River. They are usually the first stop for migrants traveling from the North.

Northern migrants who were fleeing tribal violence founded Old Fadama in the 1980s. According to research by an assistant professor at Georgetown University, Jessica Kirtz, the population has steadily increased to over 150,000.

Piles of burned fast-fashion clothes and electric waste lie on the riverbanks. The roadway is divided into two narrow lanes, the cars almost brushing each other as they pass, moving in opposite directions. Residents set up stalls in the roadway to sell their products. Next to the orange vendors are people selling gas cans, which are arranged in an overlapping pattern.

The air in Old Fadama is less dusty after the rain, but there are more mud puddles. Residents need to scoop water from their homes onto the street. The trash mounds beside the river are damp, which breeds mosquitoes that cause skin diseases in the community.

Many kayayei are labouring on the road, some with empty head pans, their eyes darting around, looking for potential clients, some with seven or eight large watermelons on their heads, and the tired ones sitting in the shadow with their hands on their pans.

Fight for resources

The Kayayei Youth Association billboard stands, tilted and wobbling, at the side of the road. The letters on the sign have long since faded.

The whole office of the association is about ten square metres. Salifu’s desk is five steps away from the front door. Several framed certificates and honours given by global funders hang on the walls. Two old ceiling fans squeak as they spin laboriously.

“It’s hard for us to get access from the government to the resources that kayayei need,” said Salifu. He continued, “I often have some women come in and cry, saying that they have no food because of the drought and the increasing tax on farmers.”

The northern part of Ghana relies mainly on agriculture, partly as a result of a British colonial policy that designated the North as a labour reserve for the South, which was settled and used for mining and growing cash crops for export.

“Environmental pollution,” Chambas explained, “has significantly shortened the rainy season and prolonged the dry season, so farmers don’t have enough food.” Therefore, people in the north are pushed to migrate to the south to survive.

Escaping from child marriage, attracted by hype, and trying to find old partners who never return from working in the south are all major reasons for women migrating to Accra.

Anifa is 19 years old and works as a kayayo in Makola Market. “I want to marry my child’s father. I know he’s in Accra, but I don’t know what he’s doing,” she said in a small voice.

After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “I don’t want to do kayayo. I want to marry.”

Life skills

It seems there are only two options left for Anifa: either do head portering, a skill that’s used in everyday life, or get married.

“We are trying to create alternatives,” said Chambas. The OR Foundation has provided paid apprenticeships to 130 kayayei. They have learned basic English, self-defence, swimming to help manage spine pain, and non-traditional skills such as carpentry and welding.

The Kayayei Youth Organisation has also handed out free hygiene kits and sanitary pads to kayayei living in Old Fadama.

Salifu stood up to grab a bag of sanitary pads from the storage room behind his office, saying, “Many of them have never known sanitary pads or female and male condoms before, so we teach them how and why to use them.”

Kayayei at a market in Accra

All the women who leave their homes and travel across the country share an abstract goal – to have a better life.

“I did not finish senior high school because my parents did not have enough money to pay my fees,” said Asana. Dressed in a blue skirt, she said, with her eyes gleaming, “I came to Accra to work and earn money so that my parents could help me pay for my education.”

Support and assistance from every corner of the world are required in order to achieve their goal. The Kayayei Youth Foundation has been looking for funders and has received contributions worldwide. However, not all funds are put into the right hands.

Salifu shared that last Sunday a bunch of foreign funders accompanied by police visited his office. He was informed that one of his working partners had misappropriated a fund of US$8,000 from the World Bank.

“It takes a lot of money to sustain all the programs, and we need money to remodel the labor markets to stop the kayayei business, which is dehumanising and destructive to women’s bodies,” Chambas said, her hand tapping on the table.

She added, “They are not machines but human beings just like everyone else. If you were in her position, how would you feel? That’s my question to the general public.”

Weiwei Huang

Weiwei Huang is a sophomore at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. She served a Maymester internship in Ghana at Asaase Radio

Editor’s note: Abeda, Asana and Anifa prefer to not use their surnames.

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