People making a difference: Mohammed Salifu
This street-savvy youth counselor helps women and girls who leave home to look for work in Ghana's capital.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."
Peter DiCampo traveled to Ghana on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.