Ellen Lande
Film director and critic.

Thousands of Ghanaian girls as young as six are systematically sent away from their impoverished rural homes to the capital to scrape together a few pennies – burdened with loads that could break the back of a strong adult.

The title of the film, Kayayo, conjures up a sort of hideous paradox – an amalgamation of a human slave and a self-driving commodity. The tiny bodies of young girls transport monstrous loads on their heads as they trundle behind brisk, overdressed madams, their thin necks somehow staying upright under the weight. The laws of gravity are defied on the dusty, noisy market streets of Accra, Ghana. Reality is merciless.


Highly moving

The already award-winning Norwegian documentary film has received an Oscar nomination. It is only 33 minutes long, competing in the short documentary film category. The family-run production company Integralfilm, which created it has already made waves internationally. Previous significant films included Manislam and A Balloon for Allah – both have a strong focus on minority issues, gender and sexuality via captivating forms of expression mixed with strong poetic elements. Kayayo fits comfortably alongside them.

In Kayayo, the camera trails the historic exploitation of young girls for labour through the eyes of eight-year-old Bamuni – an extraordinarily warm and vivacious protagonist given her circumstances. The film revolves around her and her living situation, through which she becomes a representative of the many «Kayayos». She trusts the camera completely, and displays a wide spectrum of emotion, drawing the viewer completely into her world. A world full of deceit and lack of control, and an early awareness of injustice.

Perfect victims

One scene shows a large woman looming intimidatingly over the child. Bamunu has just been released from carrying her inhuman load. The sound of something breaking is the excuse the woman has been waiting for: she hands out a smaller payment. Bamunu gazes at the coin. She has experienced this before. This time, she will not let the slick customer off so easily. Bamunu stares at her with a threatening look but the woman lifts her hand against her. Screaming, she chases the small human shopping cart away. After all, she no longer needs the girl now that the goods are where they need to be. There are plenty of others to choose from. It’s a veritable Dickensian nightmare.

My 12-year-old daughter looks at me. She is terrified and is wondering if this is real. Does this happen in real life, she asks. «Yes, it’s a documentary,» I answer. «So they are not actors, then?» «No.» «Terrible! They are being fooled!» The film is a kick to the stomach and shakes us to our cores, from the moment it starts. And some of these girls are half her age.
The children live without any rights or protections. Bamunu can’t keep the money she earns herself, safely, and therefore keeps it at a madam’s place. She cannot read or write, and has little idea how much she has saved or whether any has gone missing – which does happen.

Kayayo – de levende handlekurvene / Kayayo – the living shopping carts Director: Mari Bakke Riise

It is obvious that the madam views the money as hers – one day she even yells at Bamunu for not earning enough. «It’s not fair!» screams the Norwegian child next to me. I’m silent. Bamunu is so easy to like, with her wonderfully lively face. Her pain spreads. It has lasted for a long time, her pain – having spent two years away from home, she is so incredibly sad and tired. She works and works, and still, she can’t manage to save much.

Children’s games

Bamunu knows what to do. She goes to the coast together with a friend – another of the human shopping carts. The Ocean God can help them if they just sacrifice a few of those hard earned coins to the salty waves. «Don’t throw the money into the sea!» My daughter is freaking out – that won’t help them, rather the opposite. I carefully reply that your dreams might be the only thing you have in such a hopeless situation. Bamunu dreams about the day she will get a call from home asking her to return. And halfway through the movie the unexpected happens – she gets that very call. Her joy is heartmelting.

She doesn’t mention a single word of her suffering to her mother. Proudly, she says her goodbyes and swears never to return to the hated city Accra. A long bus ride later, she is greeted with joy by her extended family. Only now does it occur to me how lonely she has been in the big city. The whole time, the dream of coming home and learning how to ride a bike, just like her brothers did, has kept her spirits high.

Kayayo – de levende handlekurvene / Kayayo – the living shopping carts Director: Mari Bakke Riise

The film’s ability to communicate metaphorically gives it a big lift. Back in the village, one of the first things she does is try to ride a bike. When her father says that her little brother should have a go instead, she exclaims angrily that he already knows how to ride a bike.
A predicted betrayal.

Her parents tell her that she has to return to work. The other girls have brought home much more money than her. Did she take such bad care of her savings? Bamunu explains how the madam was supposed to conserve them and how her lack of math skills prevented her from keeping oversight. Her father gives a speech about failing crops and he insists on that her family is entirely dependent on her earnings. Her brothers are at school. The money she makes is required to repair the roof. Bamunu will rather have to go to bed hungry when she returns to the city

My daughter is angry because the parents let girls like Bamunu suffer due to the poor behaviour of the adults. She considers they may not be acting, after all. Is the life of these girls in the movie really like that? Why does Bamunu not just learn mathematics so that she can look after her own income? Why does the film crew not help her? Why don’t they save her from going back to hell? And seeing as how Bamunu has had such an awful time, the filmmakers surely pay her well for being in the movie? I explain to my daughter that documentary film has its own rules – in order to ensure that reality is accurately documented, participants do not get paid.

The chain of exchange

«But it’s her life that the film dives into,» my daughter exclaims. She unknowingly hits the nail of an important debate squarely on its head – the ethics of profiteering from the stories of the poor without giving anything back. The balance between getting the message about the chain of exchange across, and being an exchanger oneself, is indeed a tricky one.

The movie is available free of charge with the Deichmanske library card and movie code
After the film was made, Bamunu started receiving help in the form of voluntary donations via Kayayo’s Facebook page – she now receives an education and is able to stay in the village.

A link to a fund supporting the education of other girls currently working as human shopping carts can also be found here: www.facebook.com/thelivingshoppingbaskets

The film is a kick to the stomach and shakes us to our cores, from the moment it starts.

Bamunu dreams about the day she will get a call from home asking her to return.