Nea 3ka Y’akoma | What Moves Us - Nabia Edition 3
Greetings from Accra!

It's been a busy few months since we last sent out a newsletter. We hosted an open house at our No More Fast Fashion Lab to share with our community in Accra some of the work we've been doing to recontextualize fashion's waste leaving Kantamanto Market. We've also been working to complete our Chiropractic research program with Dr. Dordor at Nova Wellness Center and to support the Kantamanto community during the violent rains that have left parts of Accra, including Kantamanto, flooded.

The challenges that confront the women and girls working as kayayei in Kantamanto Market and their ability to overcome stigmas in order to support each other and their families are what Nabia Chambas writes about in this week’s Nea 3ka Y’akoma newsletter on What Moves Us.

Nabia first began working with The Or Foundation in 2021 as a translator to support our Chiropractic study. She has since become an integral part of our team, building community around our Mabilgu Apprenticeship Program.

Nea 3ka Yakoma

Part of my work with The Or Foundation is to translate for women working as kayayei, or head carriers, here in Accra’s Kantamanto Market and other markets throughout the city. Most of the women and girls working as kayayei speak Dagbani, the Language of the Dagomba people, my people, in the north of Ghana. But they have come to the south of the country where Twi, Ga and English are spoken more commonly. Navigating language barriers is only one of the many challenges they face here in Accra.

Every Friday at our chiropractic research and treatment program, I try my best to translate Dr. Dordor's words in English and Twi for the women and girls, some of whom are much younger than myself. Some of whom are only kids. The face these young women and girls wear when I try to explain what Dr. Dordor sees in their x-rays is heartbreaking. They are shocked to see the damage that their livelihood has on them. Some are scared to the point they stop and move back to the north.

A few months ago Dr. Dordor explained to one of the women that she has severe scoliosis in her neck and a bend in her lower back. She immediately responded by saying that she would go back home. She moved back to the north a few days after we met, and she has not returned to head carry in Accra since.

I am happy that the work we do has this kind of direct impact. The work for me isn’t just about translating words from English to Dagbani, it’s not just about delivering a message, it’s about making sure the young women and girls can see the reality for themselves and making sure they have the support to process it.

The girl who went home was worried that continuing to carry clothing bales would leave her unable to support her family later in life. Many of the girls realize that they could be doing this work in vain. The reason why they are working is to take care of their children and their parents, but the negative impact on their health could result in them being unable to protect, care and support the people they love. This tension is perhaps what pains them most.

Some, though, are still in denial of the dangers of head carrying. I do not blame them. While head carrying is painful, the girls we work with have grown up seeing every woman they know carry loads on their heads. How could something so familiar be so dangerous? What they are failing to grasp is that at home people do not carry 55kg seven or eight times within a few hours, and at home people do not carry loads every single day as their primary means of survival. Most carrying is done during harvest. When it is not farming season they carry firewood for cooking and carry water either in the morning or evening for domestic chores. Yes, this is head carrying, but it does not compare with the labor they perform as kayayei. Their x-rays make it clear that head carrying is meant to be something people do from time to time, not a role that women perform in society.

Even if the girls are able to accept what their x-rays show them while they are sitting in the exam room, many do not have the luxury of changing their situation. These women are literally living on a time bomb, they don’t have the time to think of what is good or bad for them. They pay for every single necessity individually every day, from toilets and a shower, to food and shelter. I am sure you would all say that you too pay for your basic needs, but let me tell you, it is not the same. You likely pay rent on a yearly or monthly basis, and if you are in Ghana and unable to pay when the year is due then by law you are to be given three months to pay or move. Kayayei pay rent weekly, sometimes daily. As a kayayo, every single week your money has to be ready and if you don’t have it, if you were injured and couldn’t work, then you will be kicked out.

And as a kayayao when you pay rent you don’t pay for the bathroom you’ll use every morning and evening, you only pay for a spot of concrete to sleep next to your sisters, sometimes 20 in a single small room. These women have to pay every morning and evening to take their bath. This means that if you did not make enough money for the day, you can only use what little money you make for food.

I will never forget when I was interviewing one of the girls at Dr. Dordor’s office. She had a baby with her and looked quite stressed. As an ice breaker we ask the girls if they would like some water and we ask how many sachets of water they take (these women cannot afford bottled water so they always drink sachets). When I asked this young mother how many sachets of water she takes in a day, she said that she can only take two to three sachets because water has become so expensive. She explained that to drink enough water she would have to use most of her money, but she cannot do this because she has to feed herself and her baby, buy diapers and pay rent. This girl works a backbreaking job and she still cannot afford water. She has to suppress her urge to drink water in order to cover other expenses. I felt this so much.

Despite these challenges, the girls we work with are not discouraged, they keep striving and hoping that someday things will be better, that they will be able to live comfortably and be able to provide for their families like they wish to. They go to the market every single day as sisters hoping to carry enough bales to survive and send a little bit of money back home to help their loved ones. They crack jokes with each other, tell each other stories and share the reasons why they are in Accra. They try to make friends despite knowing very well that people look down on them. They are not only fighting a physical battle but a mental one as well. They know the common misconceptions about kayayei: that people believe they are somehow less than human, a mere form of transportation, that people believe they steal, that people believe they are dangerous. But this doesn't change how they treat other people. These young women always try to make people feel safe around them. I always feel happy and comfortable when I visit with them, though I know that these feelings may be fleeting for the women themselves.

Until doing this work I was unaware of the number of privileges I hold. The girls and women who migrate to Accra have only one privilege, being able to migrate. They see this as a privilege because staying in the north would not allow them to financially take care of the people they love, but at least here in Accra they can try to make money for their family, even if it kills them trying. This is what people should know about the women working as kayayei. That they sacrifice everything for each other and for their families. That they are brave. That they are stronger than you could ever imagine. And that they don’t need your pity – they need your kindness.

Treat them well. Don’t make them carry loads you know you can’t carry yourself, and pay them well when you use their services. Ask them how they're doing. Ask why they have come to Accra. Even if you don’t share a language, listen to their stories. With the few words you find in common let them know you care.

Nabia is an entrepreneur, researcher and translator. She studied development education and engaged in participatory research through developmental projects with rural communities in Northern Ghana. Having grown up in the north of Ghana, Nabia understands the push and pull factors that impact kayayei migration and labor conditions. She is passionate about having a positive impact on society with a current focus on transforming the lives of girls and women working as kayayei.

Take Action:

  1. If you are in Accra and work in an environment that can host an apprentice, please connect with us to help us place more young women in apprenticeship positions outside of the kayayei trade.
  2. As Nabia says, please treat the women and girls working as kayayei with kindness. If you are in Accra, ask how they are doing? If you are abroad, make sure you consider who will carry the burden of your used clothing. Is it in dignified condition? Please make sure you are not adding the weight of waste to the loads that the women and girls working as kayayei carry every day.

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