Thursday, June 28, 2012


Day 18

Up until this point in my trip, I have been given the chance to meet the Ghana I did not know, a Ghana that is vibrant with life and culture: people striving to further their education and careers, building communities, and working to better the nation’s economic, political, and social infrastructures. This Wednesday, on a field trip for my Social Service Delivery Systems class, I came face to face with the Ghana I do know, or at least thought I knew, from late-night commercials by charity organizations and gloomy mass media highlights. It was the Ghana without shoes, the Ghana without a place to sleep, the Ghana that makes hardly a dollar a day’s wages for work, the Ghana without basic human needs met. We went to the Katamatoo Market on the outskirts of Agbogbloshie to interview a group of kayayoo women. These teens-twenty year old women had left their homes in the North and Upper West regions of Ghana to work in Accra as head load carriers. 

When we first arrived at the market, Professor Boateng led us through a twisting maze of what appeared to be a decommissioned train station. Along the way there were women of all ages sitting, sleeping, and eating in and beside their empty headpans. We then passed by piles upon piles of food and used clothing (ever wonder what happened to that beloved pair of 8 year old jeans you finally donated to Goodwill? but that's another can o' worms) laying out for sale until we reached a covered area where we would meet the young women. They each spoke different dialects from their local areas, and very little English, so Dr. Boateng had to translate much of their responses.

Out of the twelve women we spoke with, three had completed school through their junior high level (here in Ghana, grade school is free up until the last three years of high school). Because they could not afford school, they left to come to Accra to work as a kayayoo to earn money for themselves and their families up north. When asked what their goals were as kayayoo, they replied that they hope to earn enough to invest in the necessary materials to either pick up where they left off in their schooling or train in a vocation like hairdressing or seamstressing. As it turns out, the road is hindered by quite a few obstacles, namely that they make at the most three cedi a day (equivalent to about $1.50), and sometimes nothing at all. Yet, the toils are more physical than financial. They wake up at 3:30 am each day to port heavy loads for market customers, putting strain on their neck and back until the late evening. 

Despite the poverty and difficult work conditions that makes for a challenging lifestyle as a kayayoo, the women are strong in their identity and their self-worth. I was especially stunned that they could hold such high esteem of themselves considering what harsh treatment they receive from their own Ghanaian people. Attempts to cheat them out of already-low rates and degrading comments like “don’t come near me, you are dirty and smelly” are far from unknown to these women. This is their way of life. 

Upon the close of the interview, the women allowed us to take photos with them. Never have I imagined that I would be so moved by such a juxtaposition of opposites: the kayayoo, whose life is a constant drive toward survival, next to me, my life sheltered in comfort and privilege. Endless opportunity is at my fingertips while for them the smallest open door means everything.

In light of this truth, I am left buzzing over a slew of questions. Now that I have met these women, what then? I have seen their faces, smiled with them, listened to their stories. I know my position in this world relative to theirs. Do I have an obligation to these women? Yes, I know now, I do. Although my home is thousands of miles away, we are a global community. The choices I make and the lifestyle I subscribe to affects these people. If there is anything I have taken away from my encounter, it is this: we cannot feel sorry for Africa. While knowledge of their circumstances surely elicits compassion, we need to be cautious. It is not racism that has fueled the mess and present aftermath of colonization, it is condescension and cultural imperialism: “the first world’s burden.” To pity Africa only perpetuates its subordination, which subsequently, we use to justify our exploitation of it.

These people are dignified. Their situations are no less complex than our own, and they cannot be fixed by our handouts, which come at the expense of their progress. In the words of my friend Ruth, they have their own story. It may not be our story, but it is no better or worse. I still don’t know what this means for me or how my life needs to change, but I am prepared to find out.

I guess I am just terrified that the moment I step off the plane in Reno and back into my normal life, that this will all turn into a page of a National Geographic magazine again. Maybe then I’ll be glad I tried to save my convictions here.

[A note about these photos! Aside from the first three I took with the kayayoo, the rest I snapped on the way back to the bus. I was so absorbed by everything around me that I took pictures while I held my camera at my waist as we were walking. Sorry they're so haphazard, but maybe that makes them feel more organic? I'm a cruddy photojournalist, haha.]

Proverbs 24:14
Nante yie,

P.S. We're leaving for our weekend trip to Kumasi early tomorrow, so I may not be able to post anything new until Monday. Till then! <3

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