Today marks 65 years since Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence from European colonisers. In the generation since 1957, how has that independence taken shape? What does independence mean for the young women carrying the weight of millions of items of clothing that pour in from the colonising countries week after week? These are some questions we’ll be discussing on the We Just Kant Instagram Live this week, which will be a special Tuesday edition for International Women’s Day at 5pm GhanaMeanTime! And if you missed the first We Just Kant live in February, you can find it here.
These are also some of the questions that Nirvana Safo explores in this week’s Nea 3ka Y’akoma newsletter about What Moves Us.
Nirvana joined The Or Foundation team in May of 2021 after completing a degree in psychology to work on our kayayei community programs. Since that time she has helped organise our Kayayei Chiropractic Research and Treatment Program in partnership with Nova Wellness Center. This study into the causes, conditions and effects of the kayayei trade is one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted on headcarrying and seeks to document the physiological impacts of headcarrying.
I would not dare attempt to carry the weights that they do, for the very real fear that it may break my neck. If you’ve ever headcarried before, you’ll know that every step you take under the weight of your load drills your feet into the ground, and it takes intense concentration not to trip over your own feet. Balancing under a heavy load is difficult enough on level ground. And navigating the crowded, often muddy, narrow alleys of Kantamanto even as a sneaker-wearing customer is a formidable challenge on its own. To me, the women carrying 55kg bales of secondhand clothing for their work under these conditions may as well be walking a tightrope suspended over a pond of snapping crocodiles. Some of them do it with children strapped to their backs. All of that to be paid a couple cents per life-risking stunt? They end their days sleeping on the hard floors of a shared, airless room with up to 12 other women in the slums of Kokomba* surrounded by waste.
One of the questions we ask in our research is why these girls and women take the day-long bus journey from the northern regions of Ghana to the capital city Accra to live such harsh lives. For perspective, this is a journey that costs roughly $20 and would take the average kayayo about a month to earn back after the many expenses it takes to live in Accra (including fees for showering, using the toilet and crossing bridges within your neighbourhood). When we ask any of the women we have worked with what their long term goal is, they respond with a myriad of plans, most commonly that they plan to raise enough money to start a business back in the north. The general consensus therefore is that the main driver of their migration is financial in nature. Lately I’ve begun to see another side to the story.
Two weeks ago our team made a three-day trip to Tamale, capital of the Northern Region where most of our participants come from. It was my first ever trip to the region. I happen to work in Ghana’s local handicrafts industry, so my visual knowledge of the north existed only in their bolga baskets, shea butter and fugu fabric. Tamale has its charms, but it was unsurprisingly not exactly the untouched savannah I’d built it up to be in my mind.
At our hotel, Nabia, a colleague raised in the Northern region takes a photo of her meal and is berated by an older man for “glamourising” her lifestyle, attributing the migration of women to the south as an attempt to chase after these ideals. A government official we meet in a small town outside Tamale mourns the husbands left behind to fend for themselves as a consequence of their wives going off to find work. In one of our last team meetings, Huzeima, a former kayayo now working with us at our lab mentioned a northern man separating from his wife because she caressed him by the cheek. Apparently it was disrespectful of her. If she could touch him as if he were a child, she could start to treat him like one too. One thing that strikes (and delights) me within all these situations is the fear of women’s empowerment that lies just beneath the disapproval. And it becomes clear to me that aside from the climate stressors affecting family farms, lack of opportunities, and poverty driving women toward the south, these women are also seeking their freedom.
Kantamanto and the women carrying the burden of the global north’s waste have had enough of being romanticised. But it is almost impossible not to be charmed by the community these women have created for themselves – a sort of sorority. These women experience physical pain on a daily basis from the literal weight of their work, but you wouldn’t know it surrounded by the laughter and gossip they share on our visits to their rooms. They talk about the latest extravagant wedding back home and scold one girl for the exorbitant price she paid for her hairstyle. Someone feeds her baby in the corner, there’s a bra hanging from the clothing line strung across the room, someone gets her hair braided in the alleyway outside.
It took me a while to understand when speaking to the women who work as kayayei that reference to a “sister” doesn’t necessarily mean other-daughter-of-my-parent. Sister can be the woman from your hometown that carries in the same market as you, the older woman you sleep next to in the room you share, or your actual kid sister sent by your family to earn a living. Here the burden of caretaking is reduced from your husband and his entire extended family to you and your child. Here you can express affection that comes from an easy familiarity without being punished for it. Here is a mutual respect that comes from the shared experience of the back breaking work you perform. Here you are heard. Here is softness. Here is a taste of freedom.
- Notably, we have found more publicly available research on the impact of looking at your phone than on the impact of headcarrying. While our study will continue through April, we have compiled some of our initial results in a video titled The Truth is Far From Romantic. Watch and share the video with your friends, your family and your chiropractor. Until we break the myth that headcarrying is a romantic act, young women and girls will continue being exploited to perform the dangerous labor.
- If you are able, please donate to support apprenticeship opportunities for young women as alternative pathways to the kayayei trade. We run an apprenticeship placement program in Accra and offer wrap-around support and curricular programming to prepare women formerly working as kayayei to find dignified and safe careers and to run their own small businesses. While we currently support 15 women through paid apprenticeship placements, including three women in our own No More Fast Fashion Lab for Community Design, we need your help to offer apprenticeships to each of the 100 young women in our chiropractic program!
*Kokomba is an area within Old Fadama, the largest informal settlement in Accra.
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