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Market porters also known as Kayayei or “living shopping baskets” work tirelessly in the bustling markets of Accra carrying loads and wares for it’s many patrons. “Hafsah” is a short story that follows a day in the life of one young Kayayo, her struggles and triumphs (both big and small) and shows us the world through her sweat stung eyes.

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Like any other day alive with chaos and an electrifying jitter that seemed to infect all its occupants, the market roared up like a kindled fireplace.

The distinct clinks of coins from money transferred among the buyers and sellers rang through the air as the clamouring of impatient patrons resounds from it’s various corners. The vibrant stores each of their own unique fabrication overflowed into the vendor littered streets leaving a narrowly tapered path for persons to weave through. Scorching heat rippling in waves through the air brewed the stench from discarded trash and sweat into something nauseatingly repugnant. A young girl took a deep breath as she walked amongst it, melting seamlessly into the stream of flowing bodies. She had become accustomed to it all, numb even to the deafening noises, the foul smells and the sharp elbows digging into her sides as people squeezed by.

It was half past 12 when Hafsah had finished helping her third customer for the day, with nothing to show for it but the searing ache in her neck and the sting from the salty rivulets of sweat in her eyes that had already bled through her clothes. Nothing to show for it because not only had her first two customers flat out refused to pay the full fee of 3 GHS but as it turned out, a young boy, under the guise of aiding with her load had made off with all her morning earnings. Pickpockets!

Hafsah tucked her empty pouch into the cup of her worn-out bra with a heavy sigh, echoing the exhaustion and dejectedness brewing in the depths of her soul. It had seeped through her very bones, now mingling with the sweat that soaked her threadbare sandals. If she was lucky enough to find any other customers today, she would remember to take better care of her takings.

The bustling sounds of the market drew Hafsah from her thoughts, as patrons and traders alike trod past her with relentless determination to reach their respective destinations. Welcoming the ever so slight cooling relief the sweat had brought her as she took a minute to rest her limbs, Hafsah couldn't help but notice standing there; the way the people moved like schools of fish through a stream. In fact, had it not been for the sweltering heat and the growing hunger in the pits of her stomach she might have even thought it beautiful.

“Move! Move!”, a voice bellowed from behind her. While it had only been a few seconds, idly standing in a pathway was a few seconds too many. She was holding up a line of angry, equally frustrated people; she had stopped the stream. Sandal clad, her feet quickly strode along, allowing the stream to resume it’s flow. Before she could process what was happening, her body, it seemed, had become accustomed to following the every whim of the market place. Walking on through the crowds and past the slow moving traffic her feet had brought her to a halt before an old poorly constructed shack with the words, ‘Eddy’s Elektroniks’ boldly painted atop. It was the only shop close by with an awning large enough to shield her from the inexorably harsh rays of the afternoon sun. It would have to do.

She drew closer and set the basket to her side, as she joined a small group that had formed around a booming radio, most likely waiting on a football game due to start soon. At the moment a group of men on the airwaves were loudly discussing something she could barely make out until they quieted down as a man who she assumed was the radio show host spoke up, “ Now Kwesi look, we need to recognise that Ghana is in the vanguard of development and entrepreneurship in Africa and the youth are taking full advantage of it!”. Hafsah scoffed loudly at that remark causing some of the other listeners to avert their gaze from the old radio and unto her. The remark didn't surprise her as much as it amused her, it made sense for some man who spoke words she had never even heard with such ease to think that way. He was probably right too. It just wasn't the way things played out on her side of the tracks. Another scoff, rivalling the first left her lips, earning a stern glare from the owner who had until now been tinkering with some tools behind the counter. “Hey Hey, what is it? Ehhh? You’re blocking the way oh! How are my customers supposed to come in?”, he yelled eliciting even more stares from the growing band of onlookers. Mumbling her apologies, Hafsah quickly picked up her basket and continued on her way. It was probably for the best, she wasn’t sweating quite as profusely any longer, and, if she was going to make enough money to save her daily 5GHS with some left over for a meal, Hafsah needed to get back to work.

Walking back through the market streets thankful for the shade some of the high rise buildings gave, her mind couldn't help but drift back to the well spoken man on the radio. She was sure he never had to walk for hours in the blistering heat to make ends meet. The heat which had currently left a glistening sheen on the surface of her skin and had already begun drying out her clothes, soaked from the earlier sweat bath. Maybe if she had gotten a good education like him she would have found herself being invited to air conditioned radio stations and talk out of line because her privilege gave her a myopic perspective. Hafsah smiled to herself, jumping over a puddle from a burst pipe in her path; maybe that could have been her on the radio. “Me too I can talk big words”, she mused.

It wasn’t so farfetched. When she was 8, her mother, Aminata, soon after her husband Salifu’s death, had packed all their paltry belongings in the middle of the night, grabbed her and set course for Accra. The big city. Aminata would have otherwise been expected to marry Salifu’s brother, who was widely known to be an abusive drunk. Her cousin who was married to a small business owner and restauranteur convinced her to migrate to the city where she could work as a cook in one of her husband’s chop-bars. So that’s what she did.

The first few months had proven to be challenging to say the least. Adjusting to city life with her cousin’s help, while easier than expected, did little to ease the pressure of having to learn not one but two languages. Aminata had, until then, no need to learn Twi or English (both widely spoken in the city).

After a year, Aminata had become settled with life in Accra. In no time, she was able to afford a small single room in a compound house, a stone-throw away from a school Hafsah could attend. Their quaint little life might not have seem much. To Aminata, it was everything they needed and more. A roof over their heads, enough food to keep them sated and happy; and above all the opportunity for Hafsah to get a good education and make her wildest dreams come true. That’s how it stayed for the next few years, Aminata kept a steady job and Hafsah now 12 was growing up very quickly. She had her mother’s big brown eyes, soft mahogany skin and same motivated thirst for knowledge…That’s all she had left of her mother now.

Breaking from her thoughts, Hafsah felt her head hit a warm soft wall, realising very quickly such walls did not exist. She mentally cursed herself for walking into yet another pedestrian (it was the sixth time this week, she was going to have to learn to pay attention). Hafsah begun a slew of apologies, looking up to a woman who was, by far, too well dressed to be doing her own shopping. She braced herself for an onslaught of insults, yet another thing she had become accustomed to. The insults never came. Instead the woman simply smiled fondly at Hafsah and placed a calming hand on her shoulder, “Sweetheart, don't worry its alright, ok? Look I didn't drop anything and I should have been paying attention myself.”, said the woman gesturing to the bags in her hands. Hafsah lowered her head and pulled her eyes away from the woman. She was at a loss for words. Why was this woman being nice to her? She was the one who wasn't paying attention not the other way around. Maybe she really had hit a wall and now she was imagining things. It wasn't until she looked back up that she realised the woman had been talking to her.

“Sorry Ma, I couldn't hear you.”

“I was asking if you were a Kayayo?”

“Yes Ma!”

“Oh great, how much?”

“Long distance 7, short 3.”

The woman smiled and explained that her car was only parked a few meters away in the car park but she could still use the help. Hafsah quickly bundled up the load and swiftly followed closely behind the lady, as she made a few more purchases on the way to the car. The young girl made sure to note the way the older woman hardly bargained with the vendors, her perfectly manicured nails and the way her shoes looked liked they had only ever been worn once before. She looked back down to her own sandals that were tearing at the seams, and made a mental note to work a little harder that week so she could get a new pair; new to her at least.

Soon enough they had made it to the woman’s car, she recognised it as a V8. Cars weren't really of interest to her, but Nana Adjoa, another Kayayo, had told her to watch out for these. The people who drove them often had a lot of money to spend. As they stocked the wares and groceries into the back of the car, a group of watch men quickly gathered, asking for some money before she left. Hafsah counted a total of 15 GHS split between them by the time the woman was done ‘thanking them’ for watching her car. She watched the young men caper off with the money, and couldn’t help but wonder if that would put a dent in her payment. Not that she was expecting much after all, it was only a couple hundred meters. As if reading her thoughts the woman looked to her with that same warm smile and said, “Oh don’t worry let me finish packing this away and pay you, alright?”. Hafsah smiled back sheepishly, and waited as the woman got into her car and reached into her purse to retrieve a crisp 20 GHS note. There was a flash of what can only be described as horror on the young Kayayo’s face, as she tried to explain that she had no change. The woman only laughed, telling the young girl she didn’t expect any change. “I know you need the money, I only took you up because I wanted to help you out a little”, explained the woman.

Hafsah quickly tucked the money into her bra. She was not going to repeat her earlier mistakes. She showered a full bout of thanks and praises on the woman, who was now in the passenger’s seat; her driver revving up the engine. She watched in awe as the woman drove off. Who would have thought that with such a horrid start to her day she would have the best luck she’s had in months?! With this money she could not only have enough for a meal and to deposit a portion in her savings at the Susu Kiosk, but she could even end her shift early and pay to sleep outside the container store tonight. Whenever she had enough money Bra Kwaku who was in charge of one of the containers near the bus station would let her sleep outside it for a fee. He was always very nice to her but perhaps anyone would be when you’re giving them money.

The harsh sun rays were slowly starting to dim with the helplessness Hafsah had felt earlier in the day. She thanked God for sending the kind woman her way. Not since her aunt had she been shown such kindness.

When Hafsah was 12, her mother had been hit by a man on a speeding motorcycle. She had been walking home from work. The assailant never even stopped. Hafsah only found out because it happened just shy of 100 meters from their home. Aminata died at the scene. Everything changed that day. Her aunt took her in; she was expected to drop out of school and become a live in maid of sorts. The roof over her head and the leftover food she would eat at the end of the day was enough compensation for her. At least that’s what her aunt said. The years passed slowly. At first, she missed her mother everyday, she missed going to school; her friends, learning. Above all, she missed feeling like a human being, something she hadn’t felt since she moved in with her aunt.

Soon enough she was 15 and blossoming into a fine young woman, but the more she grew up the more disdain with which she was treated. It wasn’t long before her aunt begun to accuse her of trying to seduce her husband. Hafsah thought it absurd, her uncle was old and unattractive. Moreover, the thought made her quite frankly sick. She probably shouldn’t have said that when she was accused, but it was the truth. She had heard a lot of people say, “The truth will set you free” but maybe she should have asked, “how?”. The young girl was kicked out that day with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Now that the young Kayayo thought about it, maybe no one had been so kind to her since her mother.

An angry rumbling from her stomach drew her from her musings. She still needed to find some food before all the ‘good stuff’ was gone. It was already nearing 4 o'clock. Hafsah made her way through the slowly dwindling crowd of people to a small stand on the side of the road with strategically placed pictures of food printed on its side. Hajia Muni’s waakye was the best around these parts and the closer Hafsah got, the more her mouth watered. She couldn't say for sure if it was the best but Hajia often made sure to save some food for the Kayaye, and often gave them discounts when they didn't have enough money. It also helped that it reminded her of her mother's cooking.

Hajia Muni looked out from the glass partition and smiled up at Hafsah when she arrived. There was no queue. The middle aged woman had already closed for the day. “You’re early, the other girls haven’t come yet.Would you like your usual?”, she asked, happy the young girl wouldn’t be left with the scraps for a change.

Hafsah asked for her regular with an unusual order of a bottle of coke. At the questioning glance she received, the girl excitedly told Hajia about the kind woman and how she couldn’t wait to set aside more money today at Master Philip’s Susu kiosk. Upon hearing Master Philip’s name the older woman exclaimed:

“Which kiosk? Hafsah haven’t you heard?!”

The poor girl tilted her head in confusion.

“Please, heard what Aunty?”

“The police arrested him early this morning, my dear. You better forget about that man oh!”

Her whole body slumped, Hafsah quietly collected her meal from the older woman with a forced smile and thanks as she heard a group of young women approach the stand. Sitting in the corner of the makeshift bar, what should have been a delightful meal had been poisoned with despair. Even the coke left a bitter taste in her mouth. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do. Philip gone meant all her savings in the past year were also gone. Had all those days toiling in the sun been for nought? Maybe her friend Nana Adjoa would be able to help. She always knew how to fix things. The first night they met Nana had helped fight off a drunk squatter who had been trying to rape her. Hafsah remembered that night like it was yesterday. The cold night air on her thighs where her skirt had been ripped away, the alcohol-drenched breath that smeared the side of her face. She still had the scar from Nana Adjoa pulling off the man, whose nails were digging into her. Yes, if anything could be done, she would know.

A tortured wail brought Hafsah back to reality, blinking down at her food, wondering when she had finished eating. She must have spaced-out for quite some time.

Recognising the voice to be Hajia Muni’s she turned her head to the direction of the sound only to be met with a growing crowd at the side of the road. “Hafsah, come!” She dropped her spoon and ran towards the commotion, pushing through the people with reckless abandon. The beads of sweat already forming on her furrowed brows betrayed her instinctive fear. Now standing next to Hajia, she followed the woman’s gaze to meet the lifeless body of a young girl, lying face down in a growing pool of blood. Another hit and run.

Looking closely, Hafsah felt a cold chill rush over her. The scarf, slowing soaking up the crimson was one she knew well. She had given it to Nana Adjoa as thanks that first night. An elemental growl of anguish burst from her bowels. Was this the card life dealt her? Was she destined to lose everything she ever loved?

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