Thu, 28 Aug 2003 Feature Article

Hunt for a Dowry - Rags or Riches in Kumasi

By Press
Hunt for a Dowry - Rags or Riches in Kumasi

Alhassan Imoru for Ghanaian Chronicle A pretty young girl glances over her shoulder. Her only luggage is a black polythene bag, which she holds fast to her side.

On a recent morning, a queue of travelers clogs the Aboabo market in Tamale. Most of the people are waiting to buy tickets to the South of Ghana, where the cities are bigger and richer.

The girl hails from Gbanjong village, near Tolon, which is the capital of the Tolon-Kumbungu District in the Northern Region. Her name is Zelia Ibrahim, aged 20.

On this day, Zelia is about to travel to Kumasi, hours from her home, in order, she says, "to look for money to buy my clothing and utensils in readiness for my marriage." It will be her first visit to the city.

Zelia comes from one of two districts in the Northern Region (the other is Savelugu-Nanton) that is most involved in the practice of "kayayoo," which occurs when young women leave their homes to serve as porters in urban markets. Usually, these young women earn small amounts of money from carrying goods on their heads all day long. Every year in Ghana, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of women make a similar journey - from country to city -- to seek their fortunes. Some find relative riches, while others find only rags.

Zelia says she is paying for her trip to Kumasi with money she saved from working on farms near her village. She says that her mother, who processes shea butter, opposes her move to Kumasi. Her mother fears that no good will come to her daughter in the city.

"I took the decision on my own, fully aware of the risk involved," Zelia says.

She is not travelling alone. A female trader, Fatima, is travelling with her. Fatima does not explain who she is, though she appears to be Zelia's escort. Zelia is one of nine children from the same mother and father. Both her parents are farmers.

Zelia is determined to move to Kumasi, even though she expects to miss her siblings and is unsure how she will support herself and whom she will rely on for help.

Migration from the economically deprived northern parts of Ghana to the relative richer South is part of Ghana's history. Movement is especially in the long dry season and has been going on for hundreds of years.

Men have traditionally been the migrants, usually heading to the cocoa growing regions and other plantations. But in recent years, young women have dominated the migration from country to city. These young women work in low-paying jobs, such as "kayayoo."

Why do these women move? For those getting married, their future status depends on how much clothing and utensils they can deliver to the house of a prospective husband. Zelia wants to save money from toiling in Kumasi in order to build a dowry. Her aspiration is typical of rural women who may move from country to city.

The movement of young rural women from country to city worries many people who are concerned with the welfare of women. They say that conditions under which these women toil -- in cities -- threaten to expose these women to the ills of urban life: alcohol, promiscuity and irreligion. But despite the risks, young women continue to migrate in droves. One non-governmental organization, the Gub-Katimali Society, identified more than 500 "kayayoos" from the Savelugu-Nanton District who had gone to work in Kumasi, Accra and other cities of southern Ghana.

The Gub-Katimali Society arranged to return these women to their home villages, thinking they would be happier with their families. Not all the women are. The Gub-Katimali Society found that half of the returnees had since gone back to the south to resume menial labor because even menial labor in a city pays much more than farm work in the country -- and is often more exciting for the young women. Besides, these women need the money and lack alternative sources of income.

Observers say that these young women also suffer from the widespread practice of polygamy in their part of Ghana, making marriage less attractive to them.

Sheik Yakubu Abdul-Kareem, Programme Co-ordinator of Gub-Katimal Society, said his NGO had so far trained 100 returnees in the two districts to acquire skills, with financial assistance from the German Development Service. Abdul-Kareem believes that young women are better off remaining in their home villages rather than experiencing the stresses of the city. But he admits that without skills and the ability to earn wages, rural women will continue to be drawn to city life.

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