The word kaya derives from the Hausa language and indexes goods/loads/ luggage (Opare 2003). Within the Ga language, which I am communicatively competent in, the words for a woman and women are respectively ‘yoo’ and ‘yei’. Together, the compound kayayoo (singular) refers to a labor-intensive goods-transportation system at market areas and commercial transport yards where “a young woman or teenage girl [. . . ] carries other people’s loads on the head for a fee” (Opare 2003:34). When in any of the main commercial centers, such as Domi, Madina and Makola in Accra, and Kejetia in Kumasi (all of which are) in Southern Ghana’s major cities, one makes an important observation about kayayei (plural). Such an inspection involves kayayei carting merchandise such as bagged rice, cartons of cooking oil, and bales of used clothes. These porters’ activity forms a unique component of the popular ways of earning a living outside of the formal sectors in Ghana. In academic speak, kayayei labor is core to Ghana’s informal economy and urbanism. In examining the emergence of this wage-earning practice, one concludes that this tradition is a factual legacy of internal migration, as a majority of those involved in the profession are migrants from some Northern parts of Ghana (Kwankye, Anarfi, Tagoe & Castaldo 2009).

Whether walking by, sitting in one’s vehicle, a taxi, or tro-tro and watching these hardworking female workers perform their physically challenging jobs, waiting to get work, taking breaks by babysitting their co-workers’ children or plaiting colleagues’ hair, it is impossible to obtain a grounded understanding of kayayei actual lived experiences. In other words, a superficial engagement with kayayei does not allow us to fully comprehend other aspects of their lives. Such traits include their actual struggles outside of their work zones, aspirations for better lives for themselves, their children and their partners, career goals, and critical reflections around events within and outside their control.

It is this need to capture the complexity of such experiences, beyond a one-dimensional standpoint of kayayei, as just manual and/or exploited workers, that animates this photobook project. Towards this end, the work stays true to the essence of qualitative research imperative and is thus uninterested, for example, in the measurement and analysis of causal relationships between variables or processes (Denzin and Lincoln 2000) associated with kayayei and their work. As well, this work is not concerned with generalizing its cumulative insights regarding the overall kayayei population in Ghana. Rather, this book, through in-depth interviews with participants allows crucial insights into the specific lifeworld of four kayayei – Samata, Zaharawu, Rukayatu, and Naima. Such insights come alive through a creative writing process that allows us to clearly experience participants’ voices, for instance, around their unique circumstances that ushered them into being a kayayo. The approach simultaneously enables such insider perspectives to be understood within facets of the larger academic research focused on kayayei.

More importantly, the work utilizes ethnographically grounded photographs to highlight and thus capture aspects of the complex lives of the specific kayayei in this book that are invisible within known stereotypical portrayals of this informal labor force. Here, the approach to include visual narratives forcefully validates the view that “images, like [literary] texts and oral testimonies [as employed in this book], are an important form of evidence” (Burke 2001: 14; Morgan 2005). In all, this work through its accompanying ‘photographic tales’, via the camera lens of the well-respected Nana Kofi Acquah, greatly complements prior research on the kayayei1 phenomenon in Ghana.

Joseph Oduro-Frimpong (PhD)
Centre for African Popular Culture,
Ashesi University.


For example, see some of these studies in order of year of publication:
Opare, J. A. (2003). Kayayei: The Women Head Porters of Southern Ghana. Journal of Social Development in Africa 18 (2), 6-20.
Awumbila, M. & Ardayfio-Schandorf, E. (2008). Gendered poverty, migration and livelihood strategies of female porters in Accra, Ghana. Norwegian Journal of Geography, 62(3), 171-179.
Baah-Ennumh, T.Y & Owusu-Adoma, M (2012). The Living Conditions of Female Head Porters in Kumasi Metropolis, Ghana. Journal of Social and Development Sciences, 3(7), 229-244.
Agyei, Y. A, Kumi, E. and Yeboah, T. (2016). “Is Better to Be Kayayei Than to Be Unemployed: Reflecting on the Role of Head Portering in Ghana’s Informal Economy.” GeoJournal 81(2): 293–318;


Burke, P. (2005). Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence. The University of Chicago Press. 

Denzin, N. K and Lincoln, Y. (2000), ‘Introduction: The discipline and practice of qualitative research’, in N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research. Newbury Park: Sage Publishers, pp. 1-32.

Kwankye, S.O, Anarfi, J.K, Tagoe, C.A, & Castaldo, A. (2009). Independent North-South

Child Migration in Ghana: The Decision-Making Process. Working Paper (T-29) from Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty, University of Sussex. Accessed from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57a08b8840f0b652dd000d22/WP-T29.pdf

Kwankye, S.O.  (2012). Independent North–South Child Migration as a Parental Investment in Northern Ghana. Population, Space and Place, 18(5), 535-550.

Morgan, D. (2005), The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice. California: University of California Press.

Opare, J.A. (2003). Kayayei: The Women Head Porters of Southern Ghana. Journal of Social

Development in Africa, 18(2), 33-48.

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