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 …