We reach the end of the narrow fabric alleyway of Makola market where we have given into ‘just one more piece’ after spotting a unique African wax print of elegant swallows mid flight. The bird prints are quite rare and we don’t see them very often. We are hot and experiencing what I’ve termed ‘fabric fatigue’, something I didn’t know could exist for someone like me who breathes in life from the bold colours and patterns of these textiles, but the thousands of prints that one encounters on these trips can leave me feeling sheer sensory overload and my eyes hardly register the brilliant details on each one anymore, after some time of taking them all in.
We are about to head back down the narrow passage, when a young Ghanaian lady appears close by. She comes up to us and smiles coyly. Her gentle brown eyes meet mine and I smile back, feeling unsure about what she wants from me. She doesn’t say a word which makes the way she continues to hover around us feel a little uncomfortable and her muteness is the antithesis of the raucous high-volume racket that fills our ears. In single file we proceed to exit the alleyway. We try to further narrow ourselves and the bags on our shoulders to fit through the jostling stream of people in this confined bustling space. Yet every time I glance back, the demure presence of this lady is close by. As we exit into the brightness of daylight her shy slight body is close by, and she catches our eyes with her half smile. Despite her silence I figure she wants some money and hand her some cedis which she happily accepts, after which we step intently towards the nearby parking lot which holds the welcome promise of the cool car air conditioner.
It is only months later in December when I’m sitting in the dry Harmattan evening air watching a documentary, that I’m reminded of this marketplace moment and I suddenly better understand this encounter.
The short documentary being aired under the stars was called ‘Kayayo The Living Shopping Baskets’. The Norwegian embassy in Accra had organised this evening at the Goethe Institute and the producer of the film, Jorgen Lorentzen was present and part of a panel discussion afterwards. This film has won many awards at Film festivals all over the world and was also shortlisted for the Oscars in the short documentary category. The word Kayayo or Kaya yoo means ‘girl-carrier’ and is made up of local Ghanaian Ga and Hausa words, the plural is Kayayei or Kaya Yei. Another term used here is ‘head porters’. That night there were also several teenage girls sitting near the front who used to work as Kayayei but have managed to escape these circumstances and are now getting a proper education.
I am a little ashamed to admit but I’d never heard any of these ‘K’ words until reading the synopsis of this documentary, despite having lived in Accra for almost three years then. I realised that evening that I wasn’t the only one who felt like this, many of us watching the film didn’t know that this went on. It reminds me that things can be happening right under our noses, but we can be so unaware…. I had visited Makola Market many times (you can read my blog post about it here) and seen ladies carrying heavy loads on their heads in large silver bowls, but as I’d never been with a guide no one had mentioned who these women were or the role they play in the market.
After my visit to Makola with my daughter soon after we arrived, I was astounded at the ladies I saw carrying heavy gas bottles and enormous boxes of what looked like fridges or freezers, and great big piles of mattresses. “Goodness these women are so strong! Just look at what she is carrying!?” I would remark with utter amazement. I had naively assumed they were carting these loads for their family businesses.
But no, my assumption couldn’t have been more wrong, for these girls and women are actually the human shopping baskets or trolleys of Makola, a labyrinth of a place where cars aren’t allowed on many of the roads, so the Kayayei carry other people’s shopping loads on their heads to a taxi, tro-tro or car that is waiting on the outskirts of the market. We see large silver bowls frequently scattered around the Ghana landscape – they are used for washing dishes, preparing food, displaying items in little roadside stores, containing libations prepared for deities at local festivals, and carrying water.
But at Makola these bowls almost become an extension of the Kayayei’s slim forms, balancing on their heads or tilted to one side and they are the vessels that enable them to earn a meagre living.
Like the marks made by a rudimentary silversmith, the dents and bashed in parts of these bowls hold the tales of years of hardship for the young girls who carry them. The harsh reality that the movie opened my eyes to, is that in Accra, there are about 10 000 girls working as Kayayei who are sent here from Northern Ghana so that they can earn some money for their families back home. Tragically, some of these girls are as young as six years old.
If these bowls could talk what stories would they tell? Would they speak of the tense necks beneath them that struggle and strain with the ridiculous loads they are made to carry? The back problems, headaches and pain that will be frequent occurrences in these girls lives? The hair loss from the constant friction of the rolled-up doughnut scarf against their heads that does little to buffer the weight of the bowl contents? Would they tell of the inner grit and strength they must muster up every time they are faced with a load that makes them gulp and wish they had the option to refuse to carry it? The nonchalant way they have to handle being abused and used when a few cents is all that is thrown at them after they complete a carrying job that leaves them breathless and fatigued?
I try to have empathy into what it must feel like to have this tremendous load bearing down onto your head while having to walk straight in the absolute chaos of Makola streets, where you can get constantly pushed by passersby and the sun is simply scorching and the humidity through the roof. I think of what it feels like when I’m exercising hard and every fibre of my body resists the trainer’s instruction to do the additional set of reps, or the last km of a tough run in the boiling heat. My point of trying to find commonality here feels so inadequate when I use my first world life examples, but it is the best I can come up with when I think of having to physically dig deep at times.
Would these bowls tell of the worn-down, weary bodies that sink and mould into them when these girls try and get some rest, some reprieve from their realities. How messed up and tragic that their work vessels and rest place are all intermingled into one.
The bowls that they carry to carry the goods of others then carry their bodies when they lie slouched with their eyes closed trying to escape it all.
Today while I’m writing this I again watch the trailer to the movie that was aired here. The 30 minute documentary follows 8 year old girl Bamunu who was sent from the North to earn money so that her brothers can attend school. As she is a girl child her education is not considered important, and only the males are schooled. She has not seen her family for two years and all she dreams of is earning enough money to go and visit them again and to learn how to ride a bicycle. The film is sensitive, beautifully shot and so tenderly portrays this young innocent and street wise child and the working life of the market world she has been thrust into. I show my children the trailer which shows Bumunu’s father’s reaction when she eventually does go home for a short visit. He is furious that in all the time she has been working in Accra she has earned so little. His words “You are not a child”, directed at a mere eight year old, will forever stay with me. My kids are absolutely horrified after the one-and-a-half-minute glimpse into her Kayayo life.
“So that’s a real girl?” my daughter asks.
“Yes” I reply.
“Oh” my daughter says, hardly able to comprehend that this is not a made-up movie but is in fact showing real life in Ghana. She is silent for a while trying to process just how insane this seems.
“Mom I can’t believe she is only eight years old, that is like Jack working now. [our eight year old son]. How can her parents treat her like that and send her away to work?” she continues, totally confused by what she has witnessed.
“Did you see how that determined look on her face when that lady shouted at her Mom? She is so strong. The whole thing is just absolutely horrible.”
I felt the same sense of horror and disbelief when I watched the film. How any parent can send such a young child to work is so far from anything we can understand, yet Bamunu comes to Accra all on her own on the bus trip of many hours, and she is totally independent in the market place and finds shelter in an overcrowded room where many of the Kayeyei sleep every night. The documentary also shows how the people who own these shelters and those who supposedly ‘help’ them to keep their earnings safe, end up stealing from them and taking advantage of their inability to do any maths or understand numbers, so they are so often completely unaware of how much money they have really made. Frequently these young Kayayei later end up in the sex trade or becoming child brides when they are unable to make ends meet on ‘carrying’ work alone. Absolutely tragic and heartbreaking. But poverty is so very complex.
Another scene that is heart wrenching is when Bamunu is at home for a short while and is lying with her brother late at night when they are meant to be sleeping. She begs him to teach her the songs he is learning at school about spelling, she is so thirsty to learn and would love to go to school. The producer explains to us that night, that is it unethical when producing a documentary to interfere in any way into the subject they are filming, but when this was concluded they approached Bamunu’s parents and are now funding her education and she is finally attending school. There is also a link on their Facebook page where donations are welcomed. I would highly recommend watching this beautiful documentary. It may bring tears to your eyes but it will also open them to a reality that you have perhaps not considered before and it is not surprising that the film has so many accolades behind its name as it the cinematography is superb. It it also so real and natural that you forget that cameras were involved. It only costs 2 dollars to watch the movie on Vimeo here. I’m sure a search for it will also work on the platform that you usually rent movies from.
The OR Foundation is a non profit organisation that works to help Kayayei, specifically those who are involved in the massive second hand clothing market in Accra. They have recently been involved in feeding schemes for these girls during the lock down and try to assist them with health care and screenings, educating them on womens’ rights and supporting them in many other ways. On International Women’s Day this year they wrote the following on their Instagram which reminded me of my initial response upon seeing these girls and ladies here:
“Head-carrying is an African ‘tradition’ that has become romanticized as a symbol of women’s strength. Images of women carrying things on their heads while carrying babies on their backs often summon praise – ‘how does she do it?’ Yes, these women are physically powerful, but they are not empowered. When we celebrate their strength with little of no recognition of the pain endured, we dehumanize them. We objectify these women and fetishize their labour.
So please pause and imagine.
You are carrying a bale of clothing on your head. It weighs 120 – 200 lbs [50 – 90 kg]. Your baby is wrapped around your back. You are weaving in and out trying not to hit anyone, or shift your weight, or roll your ankle. Standing still allows the pain to sink in so you walk quickly. Everyone is busy selling or shopping. You yell at them to move and reach up to hold the bale in case someone bumps you as you squeeze by – the bale cannot fall backwards. After a mile you earn 3 cedi ($0.50). You secure your baby and are off to fetch another load.
What do you feel?”
In the interesting panel discussion after the movie, with Jorgen the producer, as well as representatives from UNICEF and the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, ways in which these impoverished communities in the North can be helped was discussed, so that there isn’t this desperate dependence on the money that their young girls must go and make in Accra. In the past there have been intensive programmes to train people in vocations like hairdressing and sewing but the problem remains that these types of services can’t be afforded by the people of these rural communities so aren’t useful in these remote poor areas. Interestingly it has been concluded that giving these families regular money so that they can afford the basics for survival and a subsistence life is the best way to help them.
On my next trip to Makola after watching the film, I was so very aware of the young faces everywhere. It is such a crazy busy place that the endless colour, noise and movement can all become a blur but I was now so much more conscious of just how young so many of the girls are who are working there. At the end of that trip we encountered a few of the girls in the parking lot and gave them some money, I hugged the one girl who told me she was 12 years old, in that embrace I could just tell how much this beautiful young lady so desperately needs a mom figure in her life.
My friend Lisa @lisarinii (follow her for some incredible photos of Ghana and other amazing places) who was also watching the film kindly lent us this book that I’ve been reading to the kids and we are almost finished it. It is the author Mamle Wolo’s first story for younger readers and I can highly recommend getting it for your children so that they too can learn about the ways of life in Accra. We have all enjoyed this lovely story of how Abena who comes from an affluent Ghanaian family meets Faiza, a young Kayayo who is working at the market where Abena’s aunt has a shop, and the wonderful friendship that evolves.
May we remember just how fortunate we are and that there is always some way that we can play a part, however small and insignificant we may perceive it to be, that can contribute to making a difference to things in life that are unfair and unjust. As Belgian author Hugo Claus reminds us “We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should be waking up foaming at the mouth because of the injustice of things”.