KayayooRising’ photo exhibition held in Accra

Blend a love for storytelling through compelling visual imagery and a passion to reach a broader audience with knowledge through higher learning, and you have #KayayooRising – an initiative culminating in a photobook, and photo exhibition curated to reveal the stories of four Kayayei (Ghana’s female head porters) through a unique lens and raise funds to support their welfare.

The photo exhibition was opened at the serene precincts of Nubuke Foundation in Ghana’s capital Accra on Friday, June 23, 2023, when researcher Rose Aba Dodd, photographer Nana Kofi Acquah, and writer Princess Umul Hatiyya collaborated to produce an extraordinary body of work.

The project and research had funding support from Ashesi University.

Kayayei are not difficult to come by in the national capital or any major city in Ghana. In fact, from an aerial view of Accra on any given weekday, it is easy to spot several slanted head pans in the maze of thousands briskly combing their way through the central business district.

These slanted head pans do not move on their own. They often sit on rolled pieces of cloth used to cushion the sheer weight of loads their carriers balance on their heads for a fee. These loads could be anything from home appliances, like deep freezers, to bulk foodstuffs.

Though these loads are sometimes heavy enough to almost break a camel’s or donkey’s back, they are not often carried by these beasts of burden. They are carried by Ghanaian women, mostly migrant women from the northern extraction of the country who are commonly referred to as kayayei.

Kayayei are so ubiquitous: it is easy to forget they are also human beings with families, valid dreams and a sense of dignity. Unfortunately, Ghana’s poor social welfare implementation has meant that these women, many of whom escape the threat of childhood marriage and chronic poverty by migrating from the north to the south of the country, are often left to the vagaries of the cruel streets of Accra.

Some get raped, robbed, exposed to diseases and all sorts of vices. Out of this mountain of despair, however, a small stone of hope was hewn in 2017 when the Early Childhood Development Program for Children of Kayayoo under age 6 was founded by Rose Aba Dodd in Madina.

After several years of providing a structured formal ECD program for these children, Rose sought to reach a wider audience with a 360-degree view of the lives of kayayei, hence the KayayooRising project and photo exhibition. Proceeds of exhibition sales will be used to establish kayayei like Naimah who aspires to venture into dressmaking and has already started at it.

The exhibition brought together, photography enthusiasts, artists, diasporans and a cross-section of the public drawn to the sheer quality of work produced. One of the participants, Ivy Prosper, who has previously done some work on kayayei giving birth in the streets said, “The image on the flier was very powerful. It’s the reason I’m here. It’s really good the organisers are using their resources to draw our attention to these women who are living under conditions that make people look down on them. We need to understand they are also human beings.”

Farmer and traveller Edem Adjaho found the photo exhibition to be “exceptionally fantastic, one that inspires audiences to hear the stories of women who have supported many of us carry our stuff even back in secondary school”. He added, “The quality of photos on display is phenomenal, and I cannot wait to read the stories in the photobook yet to be launched. This inspires us to step out of our own bubbles and our own worlds to have a perspective of what our fellow Ghanaians are going through and contribute to make their lives easier.”

Writer Princess Umul Hatiyya was optimistic the photo exhibition will highlight the plight of kayayei to enable policymakers tailor programmes to support them. “None of our respondents want to continue being kayayei as it is no longer lucrative despite the increasingly dangerous nature of the job.”

The exhibition remains open till 8th July at the Nubuke Foundation, and the photos can be purchased at the venue.

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