by Laurian B.

On July 17, 2007, Ghana’s state-owned newspaper, The Daily Graphic, ran this story. The article chronicled the story of a young migrant woman, Mahad Seidu, and her ‘three-hour ordeal’ chained between the seats of a Mercedes Benz mammy-wagon to await transport from Accra to a small town in the Northern Region. The article describes the way Mahad, ‘fled’ the town of Walewale to avoid the “conspiracy of her parents to trade her love for the wealth of a businessman whose lust had been aroused by her 19-year old body”. After spending six months at work as a head porter in Accra, Mahad’s family a bus station agent to find her and send her back to her hometown for an arranged marriage. In the eight images that accompany the article, we see the young woman carried in chains from the rear of the passenger van, “saved from a forced marriage [that] could be a classic set in primitive times”.

That Tuesday, I struck up a conversation with a small group of people having breakfast at a roadside stall near the newsstand. Asking their opinion on the article, Samuel, a civil servant at a nearby government office, tsked-tsked offered what he called a “clear, simple” solution for Mahad and other porters. Samuel said, “Porters like this girl should either, “go back to where they came from,” “go to school” or “find a good husband.” A few people sitting nearby nodded in agreement.

Samuel’s comments resonate with widely held perspectives of female porters in Ghana. Often imaged as failed Ghanaian women who are unable to secure their futures through education or marriage, porters are described as unwanted street children, and in Mahad’s case, still dismissed despite her family’s desire for her return to her hometown. James Opare suggests that head porters physically represent the fractures of urban class and a “failure of modern” Accra to project cosmopolitan middle-class ideals.

At the Agbogbloshie neighborhood, also known as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ after the troubled Biblical city, where many head porters live while in Accra, there is little residential security for the 23,000 people who live in the urban slum. Shacks are sub-leased through negotiations with long-term squatters and porters rent space in wooden shacks on a weekly to bi-weekly basis. Rent fees are per person, often absorbs 40% of women’s earned wages and the growing number of women who migrate to the city to porter creates increased competition for all. Contradictorily, Agbogbloshie Market is the arrival point for fresh produce from the hinterland, even as the muddy field behind the market operates as the central repository for human, hospital and electronic waste from abroad.

Stories like this one allow us to see the way gendered dynamics of marginality, but Mahad’s account also allows us to understand something internal; the implication of poor people in moral discussions, the levels of detachment associated with state responsibility towards the margins and the resilient patronizing view of porters amid their essential role in human transportation throughout Ghana. The marginality of porters unfolds in the backdrop of a persistent downward mobility for agricultural communities. In a time when NGOs and governments shroud poverty reduction in neoliberal development models, it is crucial to continue our questions about the gendered patterns of social differentiation and inequity.