Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.
When Fati al-Hassan first moved to Accra, she was barely able to make ends meet. The middle-aged mother of six came to Ghana's capital city from her home in the north, where her husband, a farmer, struggled to feed the family.
Mrs. Hassan hoped to find work and send money back for her children, but instead she found herself making less than $2 a day doing backbreaking labor, while sleeping on the streets of the city's sprawling slums.
All of that changed when she met Mohammed Salifu, another northern Ghanaian in Accra, who has been helping migrant workers from his home region for nearly 20 years.
Mr. Salifu was able to give Hassan a small loan, which she used to start her own business trading goods from the north in Accra. She paid it back and received a second and third loan. Now she pays for her children to attend school and owns a small plot of land in her village, practically unheard of for a northern woman.
"I just feel like I have to help," says Salifu, who founded the Kayayo Youth Association (KAYA) in the heart of Old Fadama, a shantytown that has become a haven in Accra for outsiders. "I have to help, because I can't say I'm proud to be a northerner while I see my people standing by the roadside, waiting to carry someone else's things for their daily bread. It's very, very terrible."
Salifu is referring to the Kayayo, a term used to describe thousands of women and girls from the north who move to the more prosperous cities of the south. Many work as porters, carrying heavy loads on their heads for tiny amounts of money. They sleep 10 or 20 to a room in cramped shacks. Often they turn to prostitution to supplement their meager incomes.
Hassan is just one of the many Kayayo to whom Salifu has lent a hand. Through KAYA, he holds workshops that teach women to start income-generating projects; counsels them on health, safety, and money-saving issues; and guides them through the process of opening their own bank accounts.
These and other programs are in addition to the microloans, which he has given to hundreds of women so that they can be less reliant on Kayayo work and instead start small businesses.
"Finally, I am able to support my children," Hassan says. She earns more money than the combined income of her husband and his three other wives, who live off the meager earnings from farming in the north.
Salifu understands the incredible challenges of migrant workers all too well. He left Tamale, the capital of Ghana's north, in 1990 and moved to Accra (pop. 1.7 million) on the southern coast to work for a French development company as an accounts officer.
When the company lost its government contract, he found himself jobless and sharing a room in Old Fadama.
"Sometimes, I walked around looking for work from six o'clock in the morning until six o'clock in the evening without any food," he recalls. "I would come home and my friend would be in our room with a girlfriend, and I would have to sleep outside in the rain. My skin was like a crocodile's from the mosquitoes biting me, and I had malaria every few days."
At this same time he began to notice the Kayayo.
"I was surprised – so many northern girls on the streets," he says. "I never knew that such things were happening in this country."
He was introduced to Hajia Sharatu, a woman who was already trying to undertake a number of projects with the girls. The two worked together for several years, funding small projects when they could, until Salifu began KAYA with 15 women in 2002.
Today Salifu, now middle-aged, is a well-known presence in Old Fadama. At more than six feet tall, with a quick, deep laugh, he stands out amid the squalor around him. "From the beginning, people told me that I would fail," he says. "But I've made history here for my people. If I walk three or four steps, about a hundred people know me, Mohammed."
While many aid groups and government programs target poverty and slums, KAYA is one of the few groups specifically aimed at empowering the Kayayo. Salifu fights an uphill battle, as the girls are often looked down upon in Ghanaian society. Salifu has witnessed the girls being subjected to harsh treatment at the hands of their employers.
His work with the Kayayo also led to him solving his own unemployment problem. When he and Ms. Sharatu used to work together, they intercepted Kayayo girls as they arrived in Accra at the main bus station near Old Fadama. He became friends with station employees, who saw that he was a hard worker. They asked him to stop by and do tasks for them when he had spare time. Eventually, he earned a full-time secretarial position.
Despite his secure job, Salifu still chooses to live in Old Fadama among his people, sharing a room with his wife and their youngest daughter. He hopes one day to move back to his home region, but not until his work is finished.
"My settlement is in the north, but I can't return knowing conditions are like this here," he says. "If I manage to solve this Kayayo problem, or even half of it, I will go back."
The real solution would be to create more jobs in the north, he says. Then there would be no reason for women and girls to go south. But until that happens, he will try to improve the lives of the Kayayo in Accra, including urging some of them to return home.
"There's nothing to do but try," he says. "What else can we do? We will try, and we will end it."