The Kaya Girl
“No one expected two girls like us to be walking together as friends or equals.” No truer words can be said about the unusual friendship that blooms between Faiza and Abena. Faiza is a Muslim migrant girl from northern Ghana who comes to the capital, Accra, with the mission to find her runaway cousin. Abena is a typical wealthy adolescent who must temporarily reside with her aunt due to a family obligation. These two meet by chance in Makola, Accra’s largest market where Abena’s Aunt Lydia owns a fabric shop and Faiza struggles as a “Kayayoo” or “Kaya” which simply translates as head porter girl. One might wonder what a girl from a wealthy, well-educated family could possibly have in common with a girl from a less fortunate background who earns her living by carrying other people’s loads. Yet these two form a strong friendship that overcomes class differences and stereotypes. Their friendship introduces them to new worlds that challenge their perspectives on life and propel them into a future that neither of them would have ever imagined for themselves.
The Kaya Girl is more than just a story about friendship and the rewards of perseverance; it also addresses important thematic issues. Wolo uses the market square as a space to examine social relations, beauty standards, and to highlight local cultural practices. In the market, Abena learns about the social distance between kaya girls and students. She learns about the prevalence of stereotypes against people from the northern parts and issues of child labor, especially with kayayes. She becomes aware of the obsession some Ghanaian women have with hair extensions and lightening creams. Wolo also uses the market as a moving background to reveal why the Kayayoo come down south to the metropolitan cities of Accra and Kumasi to seek greener pastures, even with no relatives or means to survive. For some, it is not only a way to escape financial woes but also child marriages. Wolo wisely highlights the problems kayayes face while avoiding the tragic arc of most Kayayoo stories. She shows that with a little push and a solid friendship, the tables can turn in one’s favor and that what matters most is how you develop as a person not where you were born or your upbringing.
A minor quibble. Although Wolo adroitly avoids stereotyping kayayes, she doesn’t provide insight into the plights of house girls. Readers don’t get the opportunity to get to know Gifty, auntie’s young housekeeper, and the factors that motivate Gifty’s devious behavior. However it does expose how sometimes we can be so focused on being nicer to strangers than people in our own homes. This is also applicable to how Abena began to treat her privileged family and friends after her encounter with Faiza. For instance, Abena refuses to spend time with her cousins as she usually does, portraying them as people who are oblivious to their privilege when, in reality, they were simply being themselves and actually caring for her in the absence of her mother. This situation speaks to the need to strike a balance to make room for unlearning and learning new ways of doing things.
Overall, The Kaya Girl is a fantastic story told in a straightforward manner yet peppered with delicious humor and jokes that actually land. Wolo writes about privilege and class, as well as the specifics of the interactions at Makola Market in a way that makes me wonder if there are traces of autobiography in this story. The characters are real, vibrant, humorous, and have depth in a way that captivates and sustains interest. All fans of young adult literature and adults interested in learning more about Ghana are encouraged to read The Kaya Girl. This is a stunningly moving piece that provides a vivid glimpse into two remarkably different young lives in Ghana. It has a wealth of information about culture, people, and, most importantly, language. I highly recommend this novel and rate it a strong 4 stars!
Elizabeth Abena Osei, MA
University of Ghana
Published in Africa Access Review (January 1, 2023)
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