If you’ve been to Makola market in Accra (if you haven’t, we recommend you do at least once), it is hard not to spot women carrying things that seem to be triple their weight on their heads. They are the Kayayo girls of Ghana.

Who are the Kayayo girls?

They are young women, sometimes girls, coming from Ghana’s northern rural areas. They go by the name of Kayayo, the Kayayei in plural.

When you look at them you will certainly be shocked but surely you could never imagine their story or the roles that they play in this market. If only the stuff they carry on their head could talk…

What does Kayayo mean?

The word Kayayo comes from the GA local language literally meaning “girl-carrier”. Kaya meaning “load, luggage, good or burden” in the Hausa language and yei meaning “women or female”.

They travel from their villages to work in bustling cities like Accra or Kumasi, in search of a “better” life. This choice of lifestyle is often considered as a last resort in a desperate situation, many of them see it as an opportunity to free themselves from the confines of village life and be able to make their own money and feel a little more independent. Village life means taking care of their family and not having access to education.

We can relate this phenomenon to a concept we spoke about in our article “The importance of urban agriculture in cities like Accra”: Urbanisation. Kayayo girls definitely contribute to the percentage of locals moving from rural areas to cities. And let’s remember that this is expected to grow a further 55% by 2030.

Their living conditions in the cities are very poor. Most often you will find them living in very small rooms with 14 other girls living all together. Of course this is all not free, they are required to pay approximately 5 GHS each.

Additionally, they are paid very little. Despite walking around non stop with loads on their heads that are heavier than them, they may make as little as 20 GHS per day. Sometimes they can just say “give me whatever you can afford”. Nonetheless, this work seems to offer them opportunities that they don’t get in their rural villages…but, is the grass really always greener on the other side?

A day in the life of the Kayayo girls of Ghana

Their day starts very early in the morning, spending long hours waiting in the market or on a street corner, hoping to find someone who needs them to transport their purchased goods or personal belongings.

You may find them sitting in groups with their babies in a shaded area on a piece of cardboard. They talk, joke around, laugh, do their hair, etc. They are most probably just taking a rest, or they are done for the day waiting to start all over the following day. You see them and they look so “ok”, as if they just met with their group of friends to chill.

Dangers faced by the Kayayo girls

When the kayayo woman takes the step into moving to an unknown city, they are taking a risk. This means that most of the time they will not know anyone, maybe only one girl who is already working as a kayayo, but they won’t usually have that someone who will welcome them in their house.

This is one of the reasons they end up living in shacks, in the slums, or abandoned buildings. These kind of areas provoke situations of social vice like robberies, gender violence, rape, etc.

Due to this situation, many Kayayo girls become pregnant, and are faced with the issue of raising their babies alone, as the fathers are nowhere to be seen. This sums to the obligations they have back home, all the strain they suffer on their bodies from carrying all that weight, health issues such as malaria or sexually transmitted diseases, etc. Becoming a Kayayo is not only a risk, but a serious life-threat.

The documentary about the Kayayo girls of Ghana

In 2017 a Norwegian film director called Mari Bakkee Riise, wanted to portray the Kayayo story through the screen. It is a 33 minute documentary that trails the historic exploitation of young girls through the eyes of an eight year old girl called Bamuni. When we meet her, she has been away from her family and her home for two years.

Bamunu has an incessant longing to get away from the harsh markets and reunite with her family. But her journey back home seems to be much crueler than an 8-year-old could ever imagine. This film is shortlisted for an Oscar for documentary Short. You can view the trailer for the documentary here.

Addressing the Kayayo situation

Thanks to documentaries like the one previously mentioned and numerous online articles published, there has definitely been some more light shed on the real truth about their situation.

The Kayayo themselves have formed certain networks amongst them, and would portray themselves as less vulnerable and desperate by setting their own prices or declining to carry certain weights. However, the issue should be tackled on a much more serious note, this means government involvement. There is clearly a lack of development initiatives in Northern Ghana – again, an issue that can also be related to the lack of urban agriculture.

It is amazing how until we do not hear about documentaries like the one about the Kayayo girls, read an article or hear the story from someone, we would never actually pay attention to something like that.

We hope to bring attention to this problem affecting so many young women in Ghana. Next time you visit the Makola market, observe the women. Their confident and strong body language will speak much differently than their words will.