IMG_9322The term “Kayayei” combines two words, “Kaya”, meaning load or goods in the Hausa language, and “Yei”, meaning women in the Ga language. The kayayei role is almost exclusively female, some as young as eight (8) years old and predominantly young mothers. They are called head-potters. These head-porters consider it their job to help shoppers carry their heavy loads as they make their rounds in the markets.

Serving in the markets of major cities here in Ghana, the Kayayei is okay to pass the night somewhere on a street corner.

Most of these young women migrate from Ghana’s poorer northern regions where farming is seasonal with little to earn outside the harvest seasons. Some of them are also run – away brides or young wives from polygamous marriages. The husband, may be old, maybe married to four wives with range of domestic issues that can make the young wife leave home.  Whatever the reason, the more prosperous southern Ghana becomes an attractive magnet for these young economic migrants. They end up as market porters in the bustling markets of Kumasi and Accra. Majority of them earn less than $4 a day and sleep on the streets.

Some Kayayei also work in people’s homes performing domestic chores like washing and ironing. Others work in local food joints, cooking or washing plates. Due to the lack of a stable domestic environment, Kayayei generally do not cook but buy food from the streets. This causes nutritional issues. They also have to use paid toilets and bathrooms and usually pay a daily tax to work in the markets.

Usually identified by their large pans and specially crafted headgear, they carry loads of goods bought by customers. The rich and the poor alike seek their services but pay little. Often maltreated by their clients, they are paid what the client thinks they deserve.

A baseline research undertaken by Maternal Health Channel Television Series (MHC) indicates that Kayayei face a range of personal and collective challenges daily, ranging from homelessness, physical, verbal and sexual abuse and do not come under any health care provision. Many Kayayei have not been to hospital before and suffer discrimination when they do. The living conditions of Kayayei are perilous as they live, work and sleep in the open where they are exposed to the open skies, rapists and armed robbers. When it rains, they pick up their beddings and huddle together standing on their feet until the rain is over. This is more challenging when children are involved.

The study found out that Kayayei and their children are exposed to daily dangers as they struggle to earn a living under perilous conditions. One of such dangers is vehicular accidents as they are frequently knocked down by vehicles as the criss – cross the streets soliciting for loads to carry. Sometimes their young children are left unattended as the mothers struggle for customers. In that situation, some of the children face similar dangers. In spite of these negative experiences, many Kayayei send remittances home to their families and help them survive, especially when harvests fail or during environmental calamities like flooding that plague the northern regions of Ghana.

In Accra alone, 13 Kayayei locations have been identified. A cursory look at some of them reveals deeper plights of female porters.


Most Kayayei live typically in slum areas or sleep at lorry parks close the markets where they work. Darkuman is located in the North of Accra close to the big Kaneshie market. Most of the Kayayei here sleep under canopies in front of shops. Some also sleep in kiosks and sheds of the local GPRTU Branch in the TroTro lorry park. They pay and use a privately owned public washroom facility. Whenever it rains, they have nowhere to shelter from the rain except to huddle together temporally till the rain stops. The floor is usually wet after the rain.

Majority cannot access health when they fall sick because they have no health insurance or cannot afford to pay as private patients.  Lack of education is a major concern and many Kayayei and their children out of school and non literate. “These are all our people. Ghanaian citizens and they deserve better,” says the local Assemblyman Mr. Antwi and “If we can’t help the mothers in terms of education, we should help their children because “we need to break the cycle of poverty for Kayayei by sending their children to school. Education is key to breaking this cycle,” he concludes.

Lariba the leader of Darkuman Kayayei Youth Association recounted the harsh realities of living on the streets and the frequent attacks by armed robbers and “ritualists” who sometimes attempt to steal their babies in the middle of the night. Lariba has two children, the second of which she delivered herself in a street corner. She believes that in spite of being Ghanaian citizens, they are treated as second class citizens.


Agbogbloshie, is one of the biggest slums in Ghana and home to several thousand Kayayei. It started expanding during the ‘80s as a small market of petty traders and yams traders of Kokomba origin. Later it became a refuge for internally displaced persons fleeing ethnic conflicts in northern Ghana. Currently, Agbogbloshie is densely populated and reported to be home to well over 40,000 residents, mainly poor.
Largely unplanned, Agbobloshie faces serious sanitation challenges. According to Blacksmith Institute, a New York NGO, Agbogbloshie is “The most toxic place on earth”. The almost dead Korley Lagoon serves as a refuse dump for all manner of waste: organic, plastic and electronic. Here Kayayei residents face similar challenges to those of Darkuman and Makola (Tema Station)

Tema Station

Kayayei sleep at the bus terminals at Tema Station and Tudu Lorry Station. Some also spend the night at the railway station by the Cocoa Marketing Board (CMB). For their sanitation and hygiene, they rely on the public faculties provided by the City Authorities at a cost of 0.30p to use the public toilet and 0.50p for a shower.
On this day as we celebrate International Women’s day and the nation Ghana turning 57 years of Independence, we must demonstrate the true meaning of freedom by tackling the kayayei phenomenon.

The way forward

It is clear that seasonal migration of young women and girls from the poorer northern regions of Ghana to cities like Accra has brought in its wake, a complex range of social, economic and health challenges. It is also clear that whilst longer term solutions need to be found to stem the tide of migration, there are immediate and pressing challenges that need to be met. Significantly, efforts must target promotion and strengthening of social protection solutions for these poor and marginalized citizens.

One of the critical initial steps is to integrate the Kayayei into the city’s health sector, starting with provision of health insurance cover. This will secure access to a range of health services locally and help meet critical health needs. The empowerment of Kayayei through health awareness campaigns and education on the rights and responsibilities as citizens is also necessary to build the confidence to make improved health choices. The long term impact on the spine / body of carrying heavy loads as well the critical need to find alternative livelihoods for kayayei is paramount. Eventually, the setting up of a health hot line and counseling centers where Kayayei can drop in will ultimately go a long way to help their dying situation.

By: Victus K. Sabutey
Research & Productions Co-ordinator, Maternal Health Channel
Member, QuestGH Network
+233 249 114 32