It was in the month of December I decided it was time to go. I had kept postponing it for the past two years. My cousin who had taken the lead when the chance arose was now sending money home. For this end of year she had sent money for the whole family and two lengths of cloth. One for her mother and the other for her father. My aunty Muna had come rushing to our house like she always did when the gifts came in. ‘Praise be to the almighty o! praise be.’ She continued singing in our beautiful Dagbani language as she entered their compound. ‘Amina has done it again eh. And who says daughters are worthless this days, who?’ Aunty Muna danced around the compound in circles holding forth the two lengths of cloth. My father who had been reclining in his lazy chair looked up, put his wooden tobacco pipe to his mouth and puffed. Mother who was already getting up from the low stool that faced the fire stood full height and faced her sister, sharing in her joy with expectant smiles. ‘Eii, our God is alive. Look what Amina has sent.’ She said stretching her hands. Mother took one length and felt her hands over the fine texture. Everyone agreed to the beauty of the cloths except my father who sat in the moonlight puffing his pipe as if he never heard a thing. The moon was bright and the gentle night breeze was cold. A few dogs howled in the distance singing my shame.
At my age I was no longer a child. I was bordering on seventeen. Most girls my age were responsible adults and fertile mothers. In Yulinayuli a girl of fourteen was old enough. My cousin Amina had jumped at the opportunity as soon as it came. We were age mates. The very driver who brought the remittance and gifts she sent had brought the woman we all called Hadjia to our little village in Yulinayuli two years ago. Hadjia had a great proposition. In that far away big City of Accra she had various restaurants and needed attendants. She will house them, feed them and then pay them salaries at the end of every month. It was an opportunity too good to ignore. But my mother’s kose and koko business was too big to let her be. I was her only girl. Mother had given birth to seven children. Two she had lost. My four elder brothers and I were all she had left. My brothers had taken trades and wives of their own. They had moved on. The koko itself was porridge we added some pepper and spices to while the kose was the condiment of special fried and spiced beans dough. It took a lot to prepare and mother’s koko had some following. Even with my help she worked deep into the night and she was getting no younger. I had passed on the opportunity to go to Accra so to stay and help mother. But that was before my decision.
The November before my departure father had woken mother and I up and told us Tanko the kola nut merchant had approached him for my hands in marriage. He was ready to give three cows for my hands. I had wept the whole day. Tanko was older than my father but a rich man in Yulinayuli. My father was a man of sixty-two and called Tanko elder brother not because Tanko was richer. No, Tanko was older than my father. I had known Tanko as a child. He came around buying kola nut from anyone who had and stored for sale to exporters who knew him. Tanko was tall and missing his upper front row of teeth. Apart from festive occasions he had always worn the brown long djalabia I knew him for. So much so that when you mention Tanko the brown long flowing dress came to mind. I would do anything to keep Tanko’s hands off me.
The long day after crying I had gone to see Hadjia’s agent in town and begged to go. He was the brother of the driver who brought Hadjia in the first place and a seasoned customer at mother’s koko joint. He agreed he would talk to Hadjia and if I so wished I could be on the next bus that would take deliveries to Hadjia. Deliveries did not only refer to the usual Yulinayuli ingredients that Hadjia perpetually wanted for her restaurants. The willing human cargo was considered delivery as well. I was happy. When I broke the news to mother she wept. ‘My mother, my mother.’ She called. She had always referred to me thus. She believed I was her mother come back to her through birth so she always called me mother. She was sad but like me she reasoned the pain my absence would cause her was far less than that of getting married to Kola Tanko. She resolved to bear her sadness and let me fly from the clutches of toothless Tanko.
My father was sitting in his perpetual chair smoking his foul-smelling tobacco when I broke the news to him. Mother had been too broken to tell him. ‘What is it?’ he barked when I bent down before him. ‘Father,’ I said, ‘I am going to the big city.’
Father looked into my eyes and frowned. ‘So you don’t want to marry Tanko.’ My father replied and continued with his pipe. That was all he said. When there was nothing more coming from him I informed him I was going back to help mother and he ignored this too. I got up and walked away slowly. Mother informed me later he wept when I left.
In January I packed my few belongings into a fiber bag and bid my mother goodbye. Father was conveniently absent. As the big vehicle full of passengers trudged on through the streets of Tamale I took in the entire scenery with already growing nostalgia. It felt as if I might not survive to return. I was heading into the unknown. The polished mud houses stared at me. The call of every bird that dawn seemed to have a message of doom and the trees seemed to wave gloomy farewells. I remembered my mother’s tears and wept afresh.
For ten hours we travelled. I must have slept during the latter part of the journey. Shouts from excited passengers shouting Accra! Accra! roused me. I woke to the sight of the big city I was coming to. There were no mud houses and thatch roofs as far as I could see. There were tall and great buildings. Finally our vehicle pulled over at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle. Hadjia had sent one of her girls to bring me along. I thanked the driver who had called Hadjia to inform her we were close and set off with the girl who had come for me. She was dressed in a very short skirt that exposed more than I liked. The shirt she wore over the skirt was white and a bit revealing too. I asked her name and she said she was called Sisi. I had never heard a name like that. I was silent throughout the bus ride to Madina where Hadjia lived. Sisi chewed gum loudly and continued filing her painted nails. How she could keep doing that in the bus that kept bumping up and down the road surprised me. I watched her in silence.
I expected to meet cousin Amina at Hadjia’s place but was disappointed. She worked in a different branch, Hadjia explained to me. The house itself was fenced and had a big compound. There were two long rows of single rooms facing each other. At the other side of the compound stood the business itself. One of the restaurants Hadjia talked of. Complete with kitchen and seats. Customers moved in and out constantly and there were numerous girls running chores. I could see robust young men wielding the heavy pestles with which they pounded boiled cassava and plantain known as fufu. It was a constant flow of activity. Sisi took me to one of the rooms that had three low beds. ‘You will sleep on this one.’ She said pointing to the bed close to the wall away from the door. I moved over and dropped my bag on the floor beside the bed that had been indicated. Sisi then proceeded to give me a tour of the house. She showed me the bathroom and where the toilets were located. Everyone watched me when I was shown the restaurant and I guess this was because my simple dress stood out among the style of all the other girls. They were mostly dressed in tight pairs of jeans and t-shirts. I wore this simple long dress my mother had given me. When the tour was over I was sent back to Hadjia who sat under a tree in the compound continually counting monies brought in to her. She asked me to sit on a stool beside her.
‘Rafia,’ she called me. ‘You have come a long way to earn a living. Most of my girls come from afar so you will work with girls from different cultures. All my girls are hardworking and obedient. This city is hard and can be cruel but smart people prosper here. You must work hard but you will be paid for it. If you are nice to the customers you will earn tips from time to time. These you can keep for yourself. Your style of dress does not fit in here so we will get you some nice clothes.’ I looked on confused about the dress issue. I thought my dress more proper and theirs too revealing but like she said I had come from far. The dress code was not enough to frighten me off. My mind went back to the lengths of cloth and money my cousin Amina had sent her mother. I was determined to treat my mother equally good. After a long talk with me Hadjia asked me to take it easy for the day and hang around the restaurant running errands to learn the ropes. That is exactly what I did for the day. I washed dishes, and helped carry food to customers. I even earned a tip at close of the day. At the close of work when dishes were being washed and the place cleaned, those hard-working men who had pounded fufu throughout the day sat down to the left overs. One popular one among them who joked all the while as he did his work and had a ready smile as if he was preparing his own meal asked me for water. I sent him a sachet from the fridge. He drank long and belched the belch of a satisfied man. ‘Kwrasene!’ one of the girls called out, addressing the belch in the Akan word that meant villager. I was alarmed as I thought the insult would incur the man’s anger but I was wrong. He joined everyone in the laughter that followed and handed me a one cedi note. I didn’t know what to do at first. I stood watching the hand that held the gift. ‘Grab it girl.’ Another girl said. I took the money then and the young man nodded in agreement. ‘You have to learn fast if you want to survive here.’ The man said. ‘Or are you not here for money?’ I nodded and curtsied in appreciation while thanking him. They all laughed as if this was awkward. I was taken aback as this was usual back home.
That night when I was just about retiring to bed a lot of the girls had changed into more revealing dresses. Some went out that night and some sat in the compound chatting with Hadjia. I had had my bath and lay on my bed thinking about home, thinking about mother. I didn’t know what she might be feeling at the moment back in the village while I lay here for the first time not on a straw mat on the earth but on a soft mattress in a bed. I was in the big city. I was in Accra. The two girls that shared the room with me were Sisi who had picked me up earlier from Kwame Nkrumah Circle and a smallish girl with short hair called Liza who seemed to talk forever. She continued talking even when Sisi turned the lights out. Liza was inquisitive. She wanted to know everything about Yulinayuli and talked a lot of her home where she had left her mother and little son. She said she came from a part of the Volta region called Keta and that it was the loveliest place on the planet earth. The sands were golden and the sea bluer than the sky. In Keta the coconuts were so big it took seven people to drink up the water in one. Liza had fallen pregnant after a brief affair with her boyfriend in school who happened to be the football captain and was so handsome all the school girls wanted him. That was until he deserted Lisa. That was when he turned so ugly no girl will want him anymore. She asked Sisi whether her rich man wasn’t coming for her that night and Sisi replied he had grown stingy and didn’t pay well any longer. She was still talking when I slept off. I heard the door creek in my sleep and then voices followed. This woke me. They spoke in undertones. I guess they didn’t want me listening so I remained as I was and pretended to be in sleep. There was a male voice and that of my two roommates. ‘You no go come?’ The male voice asked in broken English. He was asking whether the person he addressed would not come along. ‘Look, Soja we don’t take those your coins anymore.’ I heard Sisi say. ‘How much do you have Soja?’ Liza asked. ‘Oh wetin? Liza no be you I dey talk o. I no wan no born one again.’ This was the man explaining to Sisi she was not the object of his choice. And that he didn’t desire someone with a child. ‘Aha, today you say I am born one. Shia that is because you don’t have money. I am not cheap o. I was only being kind to you those other times.’ Liza rationalized. ‘Ok, how much do you have?’ Sisi enquired. ‘I go pay twenty Ghana. Only short time.’ The man said. ‘That your long thing?’ Sisi countered. Thirty or no business. She offered. ‘Ok thirty,’ Soja agreed. ‘Money na hand, back na ground.’ Sisi said and Soja pulled money out of his pocket and handed it over to the service provider. In silence I wondered at what I had just witnessed. Money na hand back na ground I understood well. It was a prostitute’s way of saying I will lie down for the act only if you pay. Upfront payment. With fear I came to understand my roommates were up for sale. They were trading sex for money. I don’t think I slept a wink again before daybreak. What had I gotten myself into?
At dawn the whole household was up. We had our baths and it was work as usual. I helped in packing the various foods from the cooking place to the sale spot. As early as half past six in the morning the inflow of customers started and never stopped till night. I learnt another lesson again that second night. I had shied away from Sisi that whole day knowing what she had done the night before. I became closer with Liza who talked any chance she had. Before we went to bed one of the girls got dressed real attractive and came out smiling from Hadjia’s room. ‘I got the big one.’ She said to Liza. I asked Liza if we could go to have our baths after the others were done? I wanted to have a word with her. She agreed. When I asked in the bathhouse about the incident of last night and what the other girl meant when she talked of getting the big one, the explanation tore my heart to shreds. I wondered whether the fate I was opened to now was not worse than having to settle down with kola nut Tanko.
The matter at stake was huge. Ostensibly we were all prostitutes. The customers who flocked Hadjia’s eatery did not only do so because the food was good. They knew they could have easy lays with money in their pockets. Many came there to see and pick. We were all on show. The matter of the previous night with Soja and Sisi was one Hadjia permitted. Those were side issues for the girls. Those little lays with coworkers and small timers were all for the girls. The big timers were the rich men who were patrons. Once they spotted a girl they liked they would contact Hadjia to season the deal. That was the rule. These men, some of them powerful men, some married, could not be seen trying to pull the girls on their own. Hadjia accepted consultation fees and called in the girls. She then instructed them on time and place of action. She arranged a good deal for the girl in question and received twenty percent of earnings. Saying no to Hadjia meant being thrown on the streets and earning a good beating from enforcers she had in place. It was whispered some deaths had even occurred as result of these beatings. Hadjia herself had started earning her wages out of prostitution and was still available if the purse was right. I had come all the way from the North. What was I to do? One thing I was sure of was that I would never be involved in any of these transactions. But was I ready to be thrown out? Was I ready for the beating? I was in a dilemma. I did not know where to turn. I had nobody in Accra. No known relative except Amina whose whereabouts I did not know. The problem loomed mightier than I could handle.
The Saturday after this revelation Hadjia went with me to the market. We had to replenish the storehouse with foodstuff. Along with that I got new clothes. For the first time I owned pairs of jeans trousers. I had always considered trousers dress-up for men but I was used to women wearing it now. When we got home Hadjia made me wear the clothes so she could see how I looked in them. ‘You are beautiful Rafia.’ She said over and over again. The fate I had dreaded never befell me. I was spared for one whole month. The night it threatened I had almost forgotten about it. I had received my pay too. One hundred Ghana cedis for a month’s work with free food and boarding. I felt blessed. My plan was to buy a new phone, add a length of cloth and a new pipe for my father when I added the next month’s earning.
That night my two companions had gone on trek as they called it when they went to spend the night with men. Hadjia and I had never discussed anything close to the issue. I was alone in the room as did happen sometimes. There was a knock on the door which was rarely the case. The doors were never locked during the night. It was only so when we were at work during the day. The man who had given me my first tip and a subsequent others came in. we had become somewhat of friends now and talked freely around work. He had complemented me over a hundred times on how my new fits looked good on me. He was one of the male workers who shared a room in the compound. Just a handful of them did. The rooms were mainly for the girls. ‘Jojo aren’t you going to bed?’ I asked him. Straight away he told me he wanted me with no beating about the bush. ‘I have loved you from the first when you came in here.’ He tried. When I told him in plain words I would have nothing to do with anybody he offered me money. ‘Here, see.’ He pulled out a wad of ten cedis notes. ‘Here, count it. It is yours.’ I got angry and asked him to leave. That was when he grabbed me and the struggle ensued. I shouted and screamed so loud that my shrill voice through the night got the household’s attention. He tried to silence me by pressing his mouth against mine and I bit into it so hard the top lip was almost severed. His own scream in terror and pain joined mine now and the door burst open. Hadjia and many of the girls pushed in. No one recoiled in anger or shame when the story was told. ‘Are you not a woman?’ Hadjia had asked. ‘And you screamed as if he was killing you. Look how you’ve hurt him.’ She fumed. He was rushed to the hospital.
The next day most of the girls shied away from me as if I had committed a terrible act. It continued throughout that week. At the end of that week Hadjia called me. ‘Rafia, you can earn a living under my roof or you can starve on the streets.’ She started. ‘I had to pay over a hundred cedis for Jojo’s treatment. You will pay it back. I shall take your salary for this month ending and the next in place of what I spent.’ I looked surprised. I was so horrified she must have seen it. Then she came through with her proposition. ‘A good man.’ She said wanted a night with me for which she guaranteed me two hundred cedis. ‘Two months’ salary in just a night you see. Your beauty is going to turn you rich in no time.’ Hadjia reasoned. Of course I turned down the offer. The next dawn she marched to my room with two girls and gave me a sound thrashing. She demanded all the clothes she had bought me. They threw me out in my mother’s old dress I had worn to Accra. I wept.
That is how my journey as a kayayo began. Kayayo, that is what they call those of us who bear loads on our heads to various destinations for pay. That morning on the streets of Madina by some fortune I met a girl from my hometown. She heard my story and offered me respite. She slept on the streets and carried loads. I joined her in the trade. She was a good teacher. Maami was. The busier spots were the big Makola market and Kaneshie. We went wherever there was work. Within a month I did not need Maami’s help again. I had learnt the trade. I knew the busy market stalls to hangout. I knew how to catch the eyes of customers. Most importantly I knew safe spots to pass the night away from prying eyes of rough men who are ever trying to take advantage of us.
I carried grocery loads for a man one day from the stalls to the car park where his vehicle was parked. He liked my service and turned to a regular customer. He gave me my first phone and called whenever he needed my service. As time went on he showed me his house and introduced me to his family. A beautiful wife and four children. They called me now and again and I shopped and sent it to them. It was this benefactor of mine who turned me into something else. I had shopped the family’s weekly groceries and sent it, expecting the money I used for the shopping and the extra always waiting for me. A bad day indeed. This gentle man was drunk when I got there. I smelt the alcohol when he opened the gates but was not alarmed. His wife and children were home as usual. I had miscalculated. When he set on me my screams did not bring his wife. I am sure they would have helped me if they were in. My struggle was in vain in the face of his strength and determination. I was still crying and begging when he took me.
When I left I threw all the money he gave me at him. I was no longer chaste. The way I saw it, the men could have their way and I could have my money. I became what I had fought against this long while. A prostitute.
I returned to Yulinayuli after six years. Within those six I had come to discover Amina my cousin. She was in the same trade but she was luckless. She died of AIDS and I was part of the delegation that took her body home. My mother could not recognize me until I called to her. She was at the bus station to welcome us. I had aged and looked I believe older than mother. She took in all with the subtle understanding of a woman and wailed in sorrow. She wailed, I believe not for the dead daughter of her sister but her own daughter whom life had dealt a savage blow. She wailed. ‘My mother.’ She called me over and over as she clung to me. If only she knew, knew how I managed to send her the phones I did, the lengths of cloth and money. ‘I am home mother and that is sufficient.’ I told her. She understood and wiped her tears as she led me home.
(As narrated to me by Rafiatu Ibrahim)