Friday, October 22, 2010

Kayayo: Ghana is a-Changin’

For your reading pleasure, another ‘Blog that Matters’ (I thought it was about time to throw some more culturally relevant material into the mix). As always, the subject matter is a bit morally ambiguous, but hopefully it’ll get your gears rolling.

So, what is it, exactly, that’s supposed to be rolling your gears? Well, that would be Kayayo.
And what is Kayayo? For starters, it’s a noun. It’s actually a person, place, and a thing (or, rather a person, a journey, and a kind of job); it carries with it a strong stigma and, depending on whom you ask, it will result in setbacks or opportunities … but not both.  

The person is a porter who travels to major southern cities (most likely Kamasi or Accra) in search of a job. They usually do this in-between farming seasons (or school terms) because there isn’t a lot of other work otherwise.
The job description differs between genders. Women carry loads on their heads – a traveler’s luggage, someone’s shopping, or a pallet of goods to be sold somewhere else. Most of the time, what they carry weighs more than they do. Boys work in construction.
The journey is a number of things: it’s the distance traveled between cities (specifically for Kayayo, of course); it’s a right of passage, an experience of adulthood; for some, it’s the movement away from ones traditions and into the modern world.

Much of the lure of Kayayo is said to be brought on by the introduction of technology like the internet. It’s believed that a wider understanding of the world, of wealth, and of different cultures pushes young, rebellious boys and girls away from their local traditions. The truth is that they feel the same pressures any teenager does – they use Kayayo as a way to rebel, to experience a big city, and to take advantage of the opportunities and relative freedoms it can offer. The method might be foreign to us, but the idea certainly isn’t (and I’m willing to bet that Kayayo existed before the internet came to Ghana, too).

My language teacher, Pastor Mark, had a different opinion – one that’s closely tied to tradition and sees Kayayo as an unavoidable necessity. He told me that a man and wife are required to bring certain things into the marital home. Mostly these are, quite literally, things that relate to gender-specific marital roles, but there’s also a dowry. As most families can’t afford extra luxuries (or set aside money for a dowry), the responsibility of purchasing these items (and saving money) rests on the children themselves. Sometimes its even up to them to pay for their school fees.

In the northern parts of Ghana, the job markets are pretty underdeveloped – it’s populated by farmers and the farming season is only one. By the time a new season starts, families have little to no money left. You can imagine the kind of cycle this creates – one of relative poverty, at that. It also stunts education. Some families would rather their children help with the harvest, so they take them out of school. Others simply can’t afford the fees. This does one of two things: it delays completion of primary and secondary education due to low test scores (which, in turn, delays higher education and job acquisition) or it obstructs education completely. Though this subject could (and probably will) inspire an entirely separate blog, it certainly contributes to Kayayo.  

As simple as it sounds, the matter of Kayayo is quite complex. People can be gone for weeks, months, even years. It’s not actually limited to young people, they simply make up the majority – sometimes it is a parent who leaves in order to send money back to the family. Because money is the goal, Kayayo isn’t something that can be done just once or for a short period of time. The money received is minimal – sometime Kayayo can start to sell their own items, but most will remain porters. There are obvious setbacks to such minimal pay, the lead being a lack of safe, reliable places to live. Many Kayayo sleep on the streets, folded into the large bowls they use to porter; others crowd up to thirty people into tiny rooms and shipping containers. Both have obvious setbacks. Everyone is susceptible to theft and poor living conditions usually lead to large outbreaks of Tuberculosis, frequent shantytown fires, and flooding.

Women who sleep on the streets have a serious lack of privacy, leaving them vulnerable to harassment, attack, and even rape. A lot of girls are actually forced into informal prostitution – sleeping with men or taking ‘boyfriends’ in order to have a safe place to stay, in order to receive money and gifts. Unless they’re being safe (which is, unfortunately, highly unlikely), a lot will get pregnant or contract an STD – even HIV.

But wait, Emma, I thought you said the situation was ambiguous … this is all sounding pretty horrible to me …

Well, it is ambiguous. It’s ambiguous because there’s no proper solution. It’s ambiguous because there are a number of good things that come from Kayayo. It’s ambiguous because those who return from Kayayo only share stories of their success, which contributes to the cycle. It’s ambiguous because, like most things of this nature, there isn’t a suitable alternative and the reality of such a situation isn’t acknowledged by the greater population.

So, what good could possibly come from Kayayo?

For many, it marks a passage into adulthood. Some gain knowledge and experience, others are inspired to continue their schooling in a major city. It offers an opportunity to make and save money, either to contribute to their families, their education, or their future homes. It’s often seen as a right of passage – Kayayo can be a very important journey, especially if it’s a successful one. Fortunately, the cities of Kamasi and Accra are starting to get involved, usually in the form of government and non-governmental organizations who’ve converted abandoned warehouses into safe, affordable places to sleep. Other organizations are working to help girls (and boys, of course, but the majority of Kayayo are women) get legitimate jobs and proper schooling. In fact, many of the girls who do Kayayo eventually pay for their own school fees and empower themselves through education.

In the end, the experience of Kayayo is an individual one. It’s hard to gauge, honestly. No one comes back from Kayayo and talks about all of the bad things that happened. So, it seems that the benefits often outweigh the setbacks. Young men and women continue to make the journey, despite those who claim it will only keep them away from their roots and communities. Some, I’m sure, find a way to balance the opportunities they find and places they came from – I’ve heard at least one story of a girl who attended nursing school in order to work in a local clinic. I’m sure hers is not the only one.

The problem is often the stigma – knowing that a lot of girls have to resort to prostitution, you can imagine that the Kayayo has a pretty bad reputation. Considering the kind of jobs Kayayo undertake, it only causes a further separation between Northern and Southern Ghana – the south boasting of modernity, while the north is stuck in its traditional farming roots. Often times the Kayayo are labeled as slaves to the Southerners, carrying their luggage and working for pennies. And, yet, if you only develop in the south, what option does the northern population have but to migrate and try their best at finding work? Like I said, it’s ambiguous because there isn’t a better option available.

As I mentioned before, many families in the north can’t afford education for their children. Is it really so bad that a young man or woman is motivated enough to try to afford that education on their own? If we’ve left them no other option, how can we call them ‘slaves?’ It’s obviously an unfortunate situation, one that is too complex to solve immediately – especially when the problem, itself, isn’t being recognized as a problem. If there is some way to guarantee relative safety, to help steer those who go on Kayayo in the right direction, the situation could be viewed in a completely different way … and, slowly, we’re getting there because, slowly, people are starting to recognize the problems involved.

I think Kayayo is a lesson in resilience. Being forced into prostitution, being unable to trust those around you, having an unwanted child, contracting a fatal disease, or having to live knowing that everyone around you thinks of you as a slave – all of these things are sad realities. But what these realities can’t do is take away the empowerment that can come from Kayayo, the motivation to change one’s circumstances and give back to one’s community. Even if the only goal is to buy marriage items, there is an invaluable lesson in being able to earn those things on one’s own, of realizing one’s potential for independence or one’s capabilities.

I suppose it’s like every other kind of sacrifice or leap of faith … the key is the proper education; the key is leaders taking the responsibility to ensure that, even if their citizens are forced to engage in these activities, they’re taken care of and educated. Let me give an example: If I can teach one student in every classroom, the values of using condoms during sex and that student happens to go on Kayayo – maybe their experience will be different, will be better. If we know they’re going to do it anyway, why not help facilitate in their success – to ensure, at least in part, their safety? It’s not easy – it’s never easy – and success in this endeavor obviously isn’t guaranteed; but it’s better than avoiding the subject to begin with or accepting it as is.

If you take the right steps, you never know, do you? That’s the thing about ambiguousness …

Monday, October 4, 2010

I've Got Nothin' but Time ...

My Random Thoughts ...

On Mosquito Nets:
Every time I crawl out of my mosquito net, I invariably feel like I’m being birthed. Usually, I try to go for a ‘smooth’ exit, like a ninja roll, but have only ever managed ‘highly unattractive.’ This dilemma probably wouldn’t occur if I didn’t keep my net secure at all times, but I’m kind of paranoid about what gets into bed with me. I mean, this is Africa so most of those things are terrifyingly large and fond of biting. So, every morning, I pull up an edge and slide onto the cold floor like a wet fish (I also immediately re-tuck the edge … usually while still lying prostrate). It is a humbling experience, to say the least, and never fails to amuse me … or my three-footed cat, Steini. She stands there; adorably lopsided and staring at me with what I can only imagine is the most absurd internal monologue going on in her head. This alone has made me determined to find a better method – one that I wouldn’t be embarrassing to whip out if anyone comes to visit. Only, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a better method (and my vanity does not override my strong aversion to Malaria). So, until I figure out a way to walk through walls and mosquito nets, I’ll at least be assured of a good belly laugh as my cat rolls her pretty little eyes at me. It all counts for something, right?

On Steini, the Gimpy Cat:
Speaking of my three-footed cat – she has got to be the most adorable thing this side of the universe. She is the combination of both of my cats at home tucked into a tiny, gimpy package. Firstly, she chews on everything. She’s chewing on my bracelet right now. She also sits directly on my chest when I sleep. Coincidentally, she is little more than a cat-shaped shadow in front of the computer screen right now. I keep telling her she’s a pain, not a window, but I don’t think she gets the joke. When she’s not sleeping with me in bed, she’s circling the mattress, tirelessly, in an effort to find her way in. She quite literally walks around the edge of the bed until I create a door for her. Sometimes she manages a squeak, but most of the time I wake up to the jostling of my mosquito net as she stomps around above my head. When she thinks she knows where I’m going, she gets in the way of my feet and I trip over her constantly. The other day, she followed me half-way to the borehole before she decided she’d rather wait for me to return. She is also usually pregnant. So, imagine a three-legged, boat-like cat wobbling around my feet as I, in turn, wobble around her and you’ll understand why we’re so ridiculously made for each other. As much as she likes to stare at me while I’m making an idiot out of myself every morning: I think I may have fallen in-love. Also, it’s endlessly amusing to watch her try scratching behind the ear that coincides with her non-existent foot – it usually ends in her tumbling onto her side and looking at me incredulously as I giggle hysterically. Yep: I’m in-love.

On Latrine Etiquette:
Fact number one: I have a latrine. Fact number two: it’s located twenty odd feet from my house. Fact number three: there is a ledge running along the side of my house, on which all of the men consort before the day starts. This means that every morning, when nature calls, I have to walk past more than two-dozen men and their children to get to the loo. Now, if you remember, it’s customary to greet everyone you see – not doing so is considered rather rude, if not anti-social. So, not only do I have to walk past a large group of men (who all know where I’m headed and why), I have to go through the entire process of greeting them beforehand. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but here’s an example of the standard greeting: ‘Morning,’ ‘Morning,’ ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m fine,’ ‘How is your house?’ ‘It is fine,’ ‘How are your children?’ ‘They are fine,’ ‘How is your morning?’ ‘It is fine,’ ‘How was your breakfast?’ ‘It was fine. How are you?’ ‘I’m fine,’ ‘How was your morning?’ ‘It was fine,’ ‘How was your sleep?’ ‘It was fine …’ (you get the idea). Now imagine all of this wrapped in a two-yard of fabric, doing a sleepy-eyed potty-dance, wearing disheveled Harry Potter hair, toting a roll of toilet paper, and you get the idea. The really funny thing is: I might be the only person who thinks it’s even remotely embarrassing.

On the Bolga Market:
The only thing you need to know about the Bolga Market, besides the fact that it occurs every three days, is that it is a completely unprovoked assault on the senses. I walk in, expecting to buy a few things and head home, only to get karate chopped in the face and held ransom by the entire experience. Today, while doing my best to keep up with Sylvester (and wondering where the smell was coming from) I got assailed by a cloud of thick smoke flying at me from the left. I had very little time to prepare myself before numerous specks of charcoal were in my eyes, nose, and mouth all at once. It was like being hit by a thousand tiny fists – which caused me to make the same face Brad Pitt makes whenever he gets punched in movies. 95% of the time, Bolga Market makes me feel like Indiana Jones…’s nerdy cousin (who also happens to be a mountain goat). I’m constantly dodging puddles of ‘unknown,’ small children and giant moving carts, only to find myself perched atop random high-standing objects. With ‘Saleminga’ (AKA ‘yo, white-y!’) being shouted out from every direction, it’s easy to get confused and distracted. One has to keep their wits about them; staying calm is the key to getting out. I’m lucky I keep finding my way home – bread crumbs would be eaten immediately by a number of animals milling about and I bet they’re just waiting for the day … but I’m rambling. What I mean to say is that, in Ghana, every day is your birthday … wait … that’s not what I mean to say … where am I, again? Where was that exit? And what is that god-awful smell?

On Roommates:
A word of warning: at any given time there are a number of creatures who will, undoubtedly, plop innocently onto a number of body parts – the suddenness of which, undoubtedly, solicits panic on the part of both parties. Despite frequent run-ins with arachnids and other bug-things, it seems I’ve got quite a few little roommates who aren’t of a creepy-crawly persuasion. Using my latrine one night, torch in hand, I shut the door to find something large had found its way onto my head. Flailing around in the dark, I tried finding out exactly what it was, but the culprit was no where to be found. Not knowing if said creature liked to bite and appreciating its relative size, I shut the door carefully for weeks. It wasn’t until my heavy, tin door slammed shut one day that I figured out what it had been. Once again, something heavy plopped onto the crown of my head; we both froze. Not again, I thought, making the first move … I bent over and tried to frantically rustle it out of my hair. In the same moment, he decided to make a run for it, jumping spread-eagle off of my forehead and into the cat litter. What was it? A tiny lizard. I had to admit, I was slightly relieved as he (presumably shouting expletives to himself) scrambled his way up the wall and out of the house. Now, I’m not sure it’s a coincidence, but since then every time I go to the latrine, at least one lizard runs across the door – usually two. This prompts both of us to pause dramatically and stare as if to say, “you again,” before he scuttles off in the opposite direction and I inspect the top of door just in-case. Considering how many different things live inside of that latrine, I think I have a new motto: if in doubt, assume it’s a lizard … because anything else is probably just gross

(Speaking of Gross) On Flies:
There are a lot of flies in Ghana. As annoying as any other fly might be, I’d be willing to bet that Ghanaian flies take the cake. Why? Ghanaian flies seem to think they are great deal more important than ‘normal’ flies. I’ve yet to have a run-in with a fly in Ghana that wasn’t punctuated with violent buzzing and the kind of urgency flies just shouldn’t have. At least two or three make it directly into my cornea, daily, and causes a great deal of thrashing and cursing as I swing myself in circles. Sometimes, I wonder if they’re trying to tell us something really important … I can’t think of any other reason to hurl oneself in the direction of an eardrum, if it’s not because one assumes the person just isn’t listening. Today I had the thought that some of them are pesky gossips, stopping to dance around anyone (or anything, for that matter) willing listen (or hasn’t a choice … like a cow tied to a post). This would, of course, account for their persistence and lack of tact. The flies that frequent my latrine have made our relationship rather awkward lately – buzzing angrily out of the hole and hurtling themselves at my bum. Aside from interrupting their disgusting little meetings down there, I often find myself wondering what flies possibly have to be so angry about. Maybe, because their lifespan is ridiculously short, they spend it punishing those of us who live longer than 48 hours; maybe they resent the fact that they’re diseased and at the bottom of the food chain. (Who wouldn’t be angry if everyone constantly swatted at you and refused to listen as you attempted to tell them the secret of the universe?) One things for sure, if I didn’t hate them enough already, my feelings have definitely hit an all-time low … I mean, if learning the secret of life means getting pink-eye from one of those little bastards, I’m not sure it’s quite good enough a reason not to send them happily into the next … am I right?!

On a Serious Note:
Jokes aside … it’s worth mentioning that, when I’m riding home on my bike – Harry Potter hair fluttering wildly in the wind – and receiving the most genuine smiles in return for my attempts at Guruni: I’m truly satisfied. Radiating from the soles of my feet, pumping in-time with my heart, and reflecting in my eyes – anyone can see that I’m content in ways that can’t be explained. As hard as it is to follow conversations (though I do try) or leave the safety of my house to explore, all anyone needs to know is that I’m happy. I’m right where I’m meant to be.

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Ghana

Okay, okay; first thing’s first: no, I’ve not accepted any marriage proposals; I’m referring to the age old mode of transportation. A taboo in America, it is, unless you want to pay for and suffer the woes of public travel, one of the fastest and most reliable ways to get around Ghana. It’s also, I’ve found, a great way to meet people.

Aside from being impressed with the generosity of Ghanaian motorists, I’ve come to quite enjoy the experience of ‘hitching.’ The first few times were a bit jarring, trying to find an appropriate subject on which to expound, but it’s since become a kind of adventure in and of itself. I’ve met a great number of interesting people, many of whom were taught by or befriended Peace Corps volunteers in their youth. I’ve also managed to form a collection of very eclectic conversations, including the politics of ‘raising Ghana’ to the cultural differences between our two countries (and various plans to make me marry and stay forever). No matter who picks me up, they are always interested in my thoughts (they’re also amazed at the length of time I’ll be here).

I’ve caught a lot of rides in semi trucks – they’re an easy bet because they’re probably going farther than I am; cars are harder to gauge. Sometimes I catch trucks and SUVs; the welcomed addition of air conditioning and ridiculously fast driving make them a hitcher’s paradise. When asked why they pick up hitchers, most people invariably say that they’ve got empty seats and are traveling in the right direction … so, why not? I’m sure some of them pick me up because I’m a harmless looking white girl, but from what I understand hitching is an acceptable form of transportation if one’s willing to wait for it.

Some cars fly past without a second look, but most of them find some way to signal to me and explain why they aren’t picking me up … which I find adorable. I’ve seen various forms of ‘flailing of the arms’ to explain that he/she isn’t traveling far; sometimes it’s a brief honk and flash of the headlights to acknowledge my presence, but no empty seats for me; lately they’ve been stopping and offer to take me as far as they’re going, where they have helped me find a way to continue to my destination. All in all, the whole experience is as inviting as any other experience I’ve had in Ghana and completely different from what I’m used to.

The other day, I caught a ride with a couple of truckers from Burkina Faso. Upon realizing neither of us spoke a language the other could understand, we sat in companionable silence for two hours and, every so often, offered to buy each other food and water along the way. At one point, they stopped to pray (both being Muslim) and I sat and read in the cab, declining their invitation to join. A moment after returning, one of the men turned to me and said, “America o Canada?” to which I replied, “America,’ and got various positive motions and sounds – one of which included a definite, “Obama!”

With as untrusting as we are in America, the hospitality of Ghana has been refreshing. Sometimes I’d rather sit in silence, but for the most part, even if the conversation is much of the same, it’s a completely different experience. Who knows, maybe I’ll be more open to picking up hitchers in America, having been in their position? For now I’m content to learn about Ghana one person at a time. I mean, we’re both traveling in the right direction … so, why not?

PS. Hitched a ride in a Ghana Police car today! woowoo!