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t 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,’ says 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,’ says 19-yearold Abiba, who left her village to work in the city of Kumasi. ‘You carry one load and already you are tired. A whole day and sometimes you get less than 20,000 cedis [two new cedis, or 86 pence; Ghanaians often speak in old cedis]. And the people insult us. They don’t respect us, even though we’re the ones who carry their heavy things.’

‘When you go to bath, you have to pay,’ says Hommo, a girl in her early teens who worked in Accra until she decided to continue her education. ‘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 [22 pence]. At home, you don’t have to pay any money.’

These girls are all Kayayo, women and young girls from Ghana’s barren northern regions who leave their homes to work as porters in the cities of the south. They make the journey to escape a place where meagre subsistence farming is the primary occupation; where it’s standard 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.

go i ng south The tradition of Kayayo is so common, even expected, that the only statistics are a handful of rough estimates from aid organisations that have 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 large and heavy: head pans full of tomatoes or yams, a traveller’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 secondlargest city, ten or 15 girls sit on their overturned white head-pans, chatting, giggling and pointing at the people who walk by. As 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, some of them jumping onto the back bumper and peering inside. Long before the bus has stopped, they are claiming pieces of luggage and

52 www.geographical.co.uk january 2011

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