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Kayaye girls in Accra and the long legacy of northern Ghanaian slavery

On the marginalisation of kayaye street girls in Accra (Ghana), and the continuities between contemporary and historical forms of exploitation and slavery.

Photo by author. All rights reserved.

Every day, young girls generally between 14 and 16 years old migrate from the rural areas of northern Ghana to the urban centres of the south: Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi. There, they work in markets or on the streets as head load carriers (kayaye), informal petty traders, domestic assistants to traders, and in other menial jobs. In the best of cases, they become domestic workers.

Their goals are as varied as their jobs. Many see the kayaye experience as an opportunity to acquire the items they need to build up their marriage dowry. Others are escaping forced marriage, while still others wish to buy second-hand clothes and start a small business once back home. Some claim they want to collect money to pay school fees for themselves or their brothers and sisters.

Yet these girls face much of the worst that urban life can offer, with local people using them for their cheap labour while at the same time stigmatising them. I would argue that these contemporary social and labour dynamics are direct legacies of Ghana’s colonial and slave pasts. I want to suggest that these girls are so easily exploited in part because former slave-holding regions in the south continue to hold strong biases against the regions from which they used to draw slaves in the north and in part because of slave-legacies that continue in the form of structural inequalities between northern and southern regions.

Three kayayes: Baya, Summaya and Salah

Madam Fishian introduced me to Baya, a kayaye whom she had recently hired to mind her shop and run errands, in August 2015. Her story is similar to that of many kayayes. Baya had come to Malata from northern Ghana five months previously because she knew she would find other girls there from the north and because her sister, who supported her travel by sending home money, was also there. Prior to being taken on by Madam Fishian, Baya and the other kayaye would form small groups, waiting outside the market with their basins for someone who needed their labour. She’s now considered one of the lucky ones. She receives four Ghanaian cidis (less than €1) and two meals a day from Madam Fishian, as well as a place for her and her nine-month-old baby to sleep.

Summaya Abukari, a 20-year-old girl with a two-year-old son, and Salah, a newcomer to Malata, also work as kayayes around the market. Summaya was a peasant who had sold part of her produce at a local market in order to buy her bus ticket to the city. Like other kayaye, she dreams of a better job, maybe in a private house. But such a future is highly unlikely for her, as mistresses rarely want babies around the house. Together with Salah, she spends her nights close to the market’s external walls. And their life on the street means exposure to many risks, including theft, rape, and the involvement in drug and prostitution rackets.

Baya told me that as soon as she had made enough money, she planned to return home. But I knew this wouldn’t be easy. The bus that links the northern region to Accra is expensive, around 80 cidis, and the first weeks of Baya’s salary were already been gone in repaying her sister. Baya still had to collect enough money for the return ticket and for second hand clothes, which could help her to start a small business in the north. It therefore wouldn’t be a surprise to see Baya stay, like so many kayaye, for at least one or two years before being able to return home.

Two continuities between past and present?

Kayaye have started to attract the attention of media and human rights activists. But discussions so far haven’t addressed the potential continuities between Ghana’s slave past and this contemporary form of exploitation. In my view, there are at least two which deserve our attention: the structural dynamics underpinning labour mobility from north to south, and the social bias against kayaye and other northern migrants in the south.

Although these girls today ‘choose’ to migrate south, their ‘free choice’ must be understood against a backdrop that structurally limits their freedom.

Firstly then, although kayaye today ‘choose’ to migrate south, their ‘free choice’ must be understood against a backdrop that structurally limits their freedom: generalised poverty, the unequal economic development between the north and the south, and the impact of structural adjustment programmes (SAP) on the northern region. In the 1980s and 1990s, the conflicts that ravaged the north and the removal of agricultural subsidies prompted a wave of youth migrations to the south. Northern families started to see girls, and especially unmarried girls with small children, as an economic burden, and so to get rid of them, they allowed or even pushed for their migration towards southern urban centres, recreating patterns of inequality centuries in the making.

Second, and related to these structural economic inequalities, there exist important social and cultural prejudices among southerners with regards to northeners, characterising them as unreliable, criminal, primitive and ultimately exploitable. These biases played a big part in legitimating the south’s use of northern slave labour in the Nineteenth Century and they have played a big part in the southern use of northern migrant labour in plantations, mines and public works projects ever since. Still today, I argue, they continue to legitimate the exploitation of kayaye girls.

Stereotypes and their after lives

In the 1920s, colonial officer John de Graft Johnson spoke with contempt about emancipated slave women who lack all ‘respectability’. Their ‘licentiousness’, he said, was manifest in the fact that they “preferred to follow soldiers or policemen or some other aliens at large instead of living with their masters”. The same discourses are overheard with regards to kayaye. The gender and sexual dimension is also crucial in the understanding of marginality. In the past, women’s respectability depended on a full marriage arranged by the woman’s parents but slaves had no form of family protection and were forced to pass from one man to another. Today, kayaye are pushed away from the family, rejected by the father of their children, and suspected of ‘going with’ men for money. These moral stereotypes reinforce their social and economical marginality and push them to accept extreme forms of exploitation.

The research behind this article was carried out in the framework of the ERC GRANT 313737 - Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond: a Historical Anthropology (www.shadowsofslavery.org).


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