find your way back  

“Come home and sleep? We’d be divorced the next day”

As the groundnut soup simmers over the gas-lit stove I ask her how she does it all. My step-mother, still in the dress she wore to work that morning, shakes her head. Laughs at the idea that it could be otherwise. She tells me that she wakes up with a list in mind. First are the kids and the barely-yet-awake bodies she shepherds through baths had, teeth brushed, and uniforms worn. Then, there is breakfast to be made, laundry to be washed, with maybe yesterday’s folded and packed away. Occasionally, there is time to prepare an evening meal in advance. Mend something. Follow the marks we have left behind with a mop. As she speaks, her movement around the kitchen echoes her. She peels the skin off the oranges and dices them into quarters. Digs out the seeds and strips away the tasteless pith. Places them in the fridge, so that my father, after some rounds of golf, maybe a session at the gym after work, will have something sweet to come home to after a too-long day they will later unravel together at the dining table. Of course, she tells me, there isn’t always time to finish all that she would like to. There are mornings when the list comes to a close and takes with it any evidence that a one-woman show has been performed. Other times, like today, the morning looks towards the evening for a conclusion.  

I make the mistake once of referring to it as a burden. This work she does that transitions quietly into that other one she gets paid for. Where along with being a mother, a wife, she is a pharmacist in Adjiringanor in the North East of Accra. Gently, though firmly, she corrects the word for joy and attempts to explain what it means to make sure her home is comfortable, and that the people she loves are happy. I understand and don’t understand, and my mistake unveils the gap between us. I, armed with an arrogance I mispronounce as feminism, make a joke that’s not a joke about my inability to do what she does. I don’t have the will or the patience. I get tired easily, I enjoy sleeping too much. She, practising a love I don’t (yet) know, makes a joke that’s not a joke about the ridiculousness of sleep. The kids won’t get to school on time. The house would fall apart. My dad would divorce her the next day.

One evening, I bring home a new term: Unpaid Care Work. This refers to non-remunerated activities performed within the household for its maintenance and well-being such as childcare and housework. It is considered work because in theory, a third person could be paid to perform them. The United Nations maintains that “women’s unpaid work subsidizes the cost of care that sustains families, supports economies and often fills in for the lack of social services”. Additionally, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development considers that “the unequal distribution of unpaid care work between women and men represents an infringement of women’s rights and also a brake on their economic empowerment”. Around the world, and irrespective of the country’s level of development, income or socio-cultural factors, women spend more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work. Narrow in on Sub-Saharan Africa, and women, who make up almost half of the active labour force (46.4%), face a double workday of at least 50% longer than men’s. Women, generally, are therefore left with less time for education, employment, civic engagement and leisure. Meanwhile, somehow, they are expected to lean in and do it all.  

The experiences of women are not homogenous however. My step-mother is able to employ Sarah, who comes every Saturday to help with the house keeping. My little brother and sister are picked up by a private bus that takes them to and from school in the morning and afternoon. Sitting comfortably in the Ghanaian middle class, my stepmother wields a socio-economic privilege that, while not precluding her from care work, allows her to escape the more dire situations of others. About five miles away, on a street in East Legon, the toddler of the woman who cuts pineapples for me before I go to work, plays or else sleeps in the shadow of the kiosk where her mother sells fruit from the morning until the early evening. Further up the same street, Cynthia, from whom I buy my fried yam in the afternoon, tells me that her unexpected absences may mean that she has been unable to find someone to look after her children or that probably there was no one available to drop her here.

Then there are the somewhat more mobile urban informal workers like the kayayei, female headporters, you see on the streets of Accra carrying your convenience on their heads, arms, backs. Puffpuff or eggs with red pepper for when you forget your breakfast in the morning. Ice water, juices, gum and mobile top-ups. These women, contributing to local economic development through market exchange, are then tasked with the additional responsibility of unpaid care work and are thus further restricted from taking up formal and better paid work. While there are clear merits to such informal work, such as flexibility, the promise of employment, and, for those who migrate from rural regions of Ghana, the possibility of improving one’s standard of living, those who engage in this type of work do so under poor conditions. And there are male head porters too, of course. And they also suffer from the precariousness that comes from this type of work, yes. Even so, women form the majority of the informal sector and are also the most vulnerable. Not only do they suffer from a lower and irregular income, they also have less access to basic protections and services of the state and experience poor living conditions in terms of nutrition, healthcare, education, sanitation and accommodation. Other risks include verbal, physical and sexual abuse and greater exposure to gender-based violence. Along with their usual wares, women must also carry the social and cultural norms that assign unpaid care work exclusively to them. So that while it is true that you will see male headporters or kayayo , it is also true that it is unlikely that you will see a kayayo with a child wrapped around their back, another in their hand.

We then travel further up to a rural woman in the northern part of Accra, who, more prone to exist in poverty, must shoulder more cases of unpaid care work. This woman, from Bolga or Kete Krachi or Bagliga, faced with poorer infrastructure has to -besides preparing food and looking after the elderly- also spend long hours fetching water and collecting firewood. This woman, perhaps one of the 52% of Ghanaian women in the agriculture sector, then has to deal with the structural and discriminatory nature of the land and agricultural business that means that despite all the work she does, she still faces barriers to accessing and owning land based on her gender. In being excluded from decisions over land use and ownership, she may be forced to rely on the goodwill of husbands, brothers or fathers. More so, and crucially, she may also be excluded from the knowledge needed to claim her rights.

The issue of land rights for rural and smallholder women farmers occupies the work of the women’s rights organisation I work for in Accra. Along with this issue, my boss and I discuss the importance of reinforcing the subject of women’s economic empowerment regionally and globally in our work. We do not talk about how around 3pm on certain afternoons all work stops. The grandchildren of my boss are dropped off here, in our office. One afternoon I get sent out to buy baby formula for the youngest who cries whenever she sees my face. In the middle of a meeting, upon seeing me, she starts to wail, and my boss, holding and soothing her, looks at me apologetically over the top of her grand-daughter’s bantu knots. We laugh at the absurdity of this baby’s reaction to me, and maybe also at this situation we are in. We laugh, but then we carry on and resume with our meeting. Her daughter-in-law comes in a little before 5 to pick up the children, who may still be raining stories and questions on their grandma, or else, exhausted from play, may be sleeping on a mat in the corner of her office. I wonder about her husband, my boss’s son. What he does, where he is. I don’t ask, it’s not my place. Though I vaguely remember that it is something important. It is at these moments that I recognise and appreciate the particular work of this organisation. My boss, undoubtedly mindful of her own experience, makes sure that our projects are accessible to all woman and inclusive of men. We make sure that there is a nanny onsite, that travel is paid for, and that women are given a space where they can both learn and be heard.

You bring your work home, and new terms, new knowledge, provide you with a language that helps you to see clearer. After I began to speak about unpaid care work with my step-mother, I asked her whether I could take pictures of her around the house. Bemused, she accepted and allowed me to try and set images against my new-found term. In the process I realised that though I sought to centre her, the photos I took were not really about her at all, and they were severely limited because of this. In choosing the home exclusively as the setting, her setting, I insinuated that this is the scope of her world. I observed her at a specific place and time in her life without being able to demonstrate and thus acknowledge all the experiences that brought her here. These are, after all, only snapshots. It is not about her because these photos -against its intentions- objectify her and in their own way imply that her identity is to be found only here: as a mother, as a wife, and as a woman whose interests lies predominantly in taking care of her home. Notice that there are no photos of her at work. Or at church, where she, my Auntie Cecelia, organises with other women. Moreover, these photos are not just about her, because they are also about me. About a positionality that allows me to be both in awe and indignant of a woman able to stretch herself out in this way. As a spectator, I placed myself as an outsider, so that though she is a woman, I am a woman, I somehow see her as an other. And yet, still, she remains a subject of this story. After all, the individual is never able to completely extricate herself from the structures, norms and histories that help to bring her into being. When I hear my step-mother tell me that it is a joy to make her home as comfortable as possible for her husband and children, I believe her, yes. I feel her and I hear her. Nevertheless, I wonder if her joy belongs to her or the culture that raised her. Still, is my aversion to this feminized labour an empty protest that in the end benefits no one, least of all me? Who wins, and does it even matter?

Because the policy issues exist and can and should be addressed. Under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals No.5, one of the targets is to “recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate”. This means, for example, issuing quality public child care services and thus empowering women to be able to participate in the labour force and diversify the type of work they take on. For example, in EU countries with family-friendly policies such as paid leave and child-care policies, women’s employment rates are significantly higher than in countries without such support. In the long run, this is beneficial not only for women and their families, but for national economies. In the particular context of Ghana, and in taking into account the distinct experiences of women, coherent policy responses should be pursued that bring together women informal workers and their organisations such as PAYDP Ghana, with municipal authorities, urban planners, early childhood development experts and relevant national ministries. Moreover, at a cultural and social level, care should be normalised and extended beyond the role of women. Perhaps, then, it is worth questioning whether “unpaid care work” is a misnomer. Rather than suggesting that acts of care in the family should be remunerated, it is important to instead recognise its social value and challenge how it is disproportionately relegated as the duty of women who are often left without structural support. In this way, care becomes political, and its benefits can be understood to extend well beyond the crudely drawn confines of the family.

The day that Auntie Cecelia goes away for a weekend, my father gathers my siblings and I, his troops, to his office. I see the panic in his usually self-assured face as he tries to recreate the list we must work through together- though his, he writes down. As the eldest girl there, I am told that this is the moment where I get to shine. Of course, Auntie Cecelia has prepared dinner for us in advance but there is still the question of lunch. What can I cook? Not much. And here, pasta and pesto does not suffice. My father, to my surprise, shows me the right way to fry plaintain (add salt to it just before), helps me to cook the black-eyed beans and tells me the importance of finding the right balance between the gari and palm oil. He tells me that it’s important I learn how to cook well and look after myself. How one day I’ll have a family to look after as well. I don’t disagree with him. I want to be able to personally fill a dinner table with jollof rice, waakye, fufu, banku and pepper. I ask him why he doesn't cook more in the house, he tells me he doesn't need to. I think about how we laugh at the struggle we believe my little brother, Junior, will have when he's older: he's a picky eater and Auntie Cecelia normally prepares two dinners, one for him, another for the rest of us. There is a joke that his wife will struggle, he'll have to choose her carefully. I think about this, and wonder whether some day Junior will find himself in the kitchen taking lessons from our father too.