As we approached her small dress shop housed in a shed by the roadside, Fadila stood tall in her stunning dress and headscarf and welcomed us warmly in Dagbani. Her attempts to help me reply in the local dialect were met with giggles all around from the young women sitting at her sewing machines. Not all young women in Tamale have reason to carry the easy smiles they do.
There are many organizations here trying to empower women to earn their own incomes. The dusty Northern town of Tamale is often referred to as the NGO capital of Ghana, a West African country known for attracting large sums of foreign aid. Walk down any street of this regional capital and you will be bombarded by signs – UNICEF and NORSAAC, WFP and GIGDEV. You have now entered a world of endless development organization acronyms. Walk down any street, though, and there are still signs of poverty at every turn. It makes one question what these organizations really accomplish in this, one of the most impoverished regions in Ghana.
“Have you been to Kayayei before?” we asked Fadila behind a closed door away from her colleagues.
“Yes,” she answered calmly.
A glaring indication of this poverty are the droves of Kayayoo – Northern girls who escape scarce employment opportunities by migrating to the larger cities in the South to work as head porters. In the capital city of Accra they weave in and out of traffic, artfully carrying heavy trays on their heads selling whatever products or produce people will buy.
Looking back, Fadila said nothing had prepared her, a 20-year-old girl from the rural community of Kakpayili, for the living conditions she would face over 600 kilometres away in Accra. She described sleeping more than 20 girls to a room where the landlord had absolute power to squeeze as many girls as he wanted inside. She was making a maximum of 5 to 10 Ghanaian Cedis a day ($3-$6 CAD), but sometimes nothing. Her dreams of saving enough money to buy goods to bring to her marital home were not being realized. Her family didn’t even know she was there – she was too ashamed to tell them she was working as a Kayeyei.
The girls she lived with were desperate. Fadila’s tone became stern. “It would sometimes lead them to do things that they didn’t intend to do…because you want to survive, in the night, you would definitely make yourself available to any man who wants to achieve his aim and give you some money, so that the following morning, you can get food to eat.”
It has been well documented that many of the girls end up living in unsanitary conditions and are often subject to physical and sexual abuse. The Kayeyei migration phenomenon is the subject of much talk in Ghana, and these young women have become a symbol of the socio-economic gap between the North and South. Despite programs like the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA) introduced two years ago, experts say the government is not moving fast enough to improve the lives of those in the three northern regions of the country.
Fadila decided to return North and come home. “I came because I knew I couldn’t sustain myself on that kind of income. So I came to learn a trade which I believe can sustain me,” she said.
She managed to get herself enrolled into the Ghana Young Artisans Movement, an NGO run by locals and funded by international institutions. GYAM recruits underprivileged youth and teaches them how to sow, die cloth or some other skill in order to provide them with a form of sustainable income, and helps them set up shops. Fadila said she thinks the government should fund more programs like this.
“Trying to compare the past and now, now is far far better,” she said, adding she has achieved financial stability and is able to save money like she never could before. She said getting accepted into the Tamale-based NGO program changed her life.