Just as I finished slicing up the whole watermelon, I could hear the drops like bullets on my tin roof. Of course. Now it rains. Every Friday after school, a group of my girls come to my house. “Why can’t we come!” demand my testosterone-filled students. Because we are talking about girly things. You can come over any other time. And today, I wanted to address one certain girly phenomenon that has affected girls in rural Ghana for some time now: Kayayo. The word originates from Nigeria, meaning porter. Young women from all over Northern, Upper East and Upper West Ghana travel down to the big, bad southern cities in search for a better way to make money than they could in their villages. Most times, they are even encouraged to do so by their families. Girls from all over the North can be found on city corners, hoping to help wealthier Ghanaians carry their heavy baggage on their heads, even for a few blocks for mere change. They slumber in warehouses that end up accommodating up to a couple hundred girls, or makeshift shacks too small for the number of bodies they hold. They are confronted with the realities of living in slums, poverty, sex, drugs, hunger and desperation. These girls will come home, often times pregnant or infected with STD’s from rape or men who offer to protect them in exchange for sex. Kayayo is a paradox of taboo and a completely acceptable means to an end. Because the girls I work with are all in school, it was hard for me to know how exactly Kayayo is affecting my village.

“Oh, it affects Sankpala, it’s a big problem here,” my closest friend Adams assures me. “Many, many girls form this village go to the cities.” He starts naming families that I know like he’s reading off a roster. And then he mentions Azara’s family. “All those women have done Kayayo.” And it hits me. All that talk about leaving school to find work in Accra and coming back at age 19 with a baby boy. There was a name for that. I know that desperation that is swimming in the heads of these girls. To get out of this dry and hopeless, podunk village. Maybe I will be different. Maybe I will actually make it. That was my Azara. That still is Azara.

Anyway, it was raining, so I guessed my Kayayo talk would have to wait another week. As I lay in my bed, watching Slumdog Millionaire for the umpteenth time with cup of hot chocolate in hand (no I promise, I have a very hard life), I hear a quiet knocking on my door. It’s Zuleha and Rahama, two of my students. Well, I didn’t think you were coming because of the rain. I have a lot of watermelon for us to eat. When we have finished stuffing our faces, I start the 21 questions. I’ve quickly learned that that is what it takes to get a response from young Ghanaian girls: keep asking questions while they look increasingly alarmed and confused, until the right one come along, and “Madame!”

Bingo. Someone has something to say!

Do you know what Kayayo is? … Do you know anyone who has done Kayayo? … Isn’t Kayayo when girls leave the village to go to the cities? … So you don’t know what I’m talking about? … Why are there so few girls in school? … Are. There. Other. Girls. In Sankpala. That. Aren’t. In. School? … A grab another slice of watermelon. Want some more? … No? …The girls that don’t go to school, do they go off and do Kayayo?

“Madame!” YES, Rahama? “They do. Their families send them to make money.”

The conversation is short, but we continue to talk about how their childhood friends seem to vanish over night. The overwhelming majority of girls in Sankpala who cannot afford school fees turn to Kayayo, a last resort in hopes of making something of themselves. Somehow, my female students, as few as they are, all have these fantastic heads on their shoulders. “But I’m going to finish school,” Zuleha says. “I want to be an engineer.” Oh yea? I ask with a smile. “And I will finish school so I can become a nurse,” chimes in Rahama.

Unless the rain stops me, I will continue to have open dialogue with my students about Kayayo and how it affects our community. Two Peace Corps volunteers have tirelessly put together a film about the realities of Kayayo, written and acted by Ghanaians, which I hope to show in my village soon.


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