Sisters telling it for themselves: Women photographers of West Africa

Memunatu Bangura, a fruit seller in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Explore the impact of COVID-19 on people in West Africa through the eyes of women photographers.

Photojournalism still remains a very male-dominated profession across much of the world. That’s why CARE commissioned 5 women photographers in 5 West African countries to go out and tell the stories they felt were most important – through their own photos, and in their own words.

Laeila Adjovi – Benin

In my day job I’m a radio and TV journalist. I’ve always been a photographer on the side, and it has become an increasingly important part of my life over the last few years – especially photojournalism and documentary photography. I hope these photos show how these women have been able to adapt in the face of COVID-19. They show the resilience they have as well as the effect the epidemic has had on their everyday lives and businesses and their personal lives as women and mothers.

Katraelle and sewing machine, Benin

This is a photo of Katraelle. I chose it because the machine is in the forefront: she used to run a food store but during this crisis she has turned to making children’s clothes which she sells online.

What I found important is the support she was able to get during the pandemic from others and the way she adapted with creativity and economic resilience – like many African women, and women here in Benin! Her friend Mariam lent her a sewing machine and taught her how to use it and as a team they are now surviving the crisis together.

Sandrine in her clothes shop, Benin

Sandrine is a second-hand clothes seller. This image is very typical of the pandemic here in Benin. There has been a lot of misinformation and anxiety during this epidemic. There have been many rumours around clothing coming from far away – from China or Europe – and bringing the virus with it, so she’s had to do a lot of awareness-raising herself around the fact that [second-hand clothing] doesn’t spread the virus, to try and maintain her livelihood.

Evelyne and her daughter, Benin

This is Evelyne, she’s a student, but is currently taking a break after giving birth to her daughter. She has also been personally affected by the crisis. Her mother got sick at the start of the epidemic and it was really hard to get her to hospital and there was a real worry and risk of her getting the virus if she did go in.

I selected this picture because her 7-month-old daughter Bestie is also in it. She and millions like her will only know this COVID-19 era – we don’t know how it will turn out and it makes me wonder what life will be like after, and how our children will live with this new normal with masks, social distancing, that has affected everyone’s day to day so profoundly.

Jessica Nadi – Cote d’Ivoire

Since the start of COVID-19, the government in Cote d’Ivoire has taken quite a lot of measures to stop the spread – but the virus, as well as these measures, has had a big effect on people, especially women working in the informal sector.
Doing this piece of work really let me see the effect of this public health crisis on them. It was a window into the lives of people. For me this project was a different experience, and rich in emotion. At times it was also very challenging as currently it is rainy season here in Cote d’Ivoire which posed real challenges.

But all the difficulty was worth it as I met some exceptional women. Generally, I was really struck by the tenacity of these women; they’re the ones supporting their families. It made me realise the veracity of the African proverb which says ‘if the woman gave up, the world would collapse’. And these women did not give up because the world, their family, they are the ones managing it. So, they did not give up. The women did not collapse.

'thumbs up' from Farida in Ivory Coast

This is a woman named Farida. She started her economic activities, as a restorer, just before the crisis struck. But with the pandemic she didn’t give up, and thankfully she has managed to persevere, despite it.

I really loved her capacity for resilience; she embodied it and kept up a great attitude throughout the time we spent together.

Clarisse, an entrepreneur in Ivory Coast

This is Clarisse, she is 53 years old and is divorced with two children who she is responsible for as well as her sick mother. She owns a gas store and is a rice trader, but when COVID-19 struck it became hard for her to keep selling as it involved having to travel a lot to deliver to her clients.

So she quickly switched up her strategy; she ended up moving to a friend’s house who lives next to her gas store which had become her sole source of income. Alongside all this she also advocates for the rights of women and their wellbeing and livelihoods within society generally and is passionate about microfinance and helping women gain access to finance and be able to save. Her story really touched me and also taught me a lot.

Portrait of Alima, in Ivory Coast

This is Alima. I call her the ‘positive woman’: throughout the whole time we were together she kept repeating positive statements and exuding positivity. She is the mother of two children and before the crisis she sold juice, but she was forced to stop when COVID-19 began as too many of her normal clients switched to working from home. But she wasn’t discouraged! She reoriented her business to sell peanut butter and pistachios, seeing as people were more focused on food stuffs.

She said something that really affected me while we were talking: that in life there are ups and downs and we can’t stop everything just because we are currently in a down – we have to continue on the path. That really resonated with me – I found it amazing that she could stay so positive and it truly inspired me and also resonated with me as this is what I have been trying to tell myself.

Joy Addai – Ghana

I have a passion for telling stories and seeing things in a different light; capturing moments and themes that would be considered ‘out of the box’. I would not say I am a very experienced photographer but it is something I am passionate about and always looking to improve.

I actually found it easy being a female and approaching men as they reacted positively; their main issue and question was where the picture would end up. Many asked me to share their pictures with them afterwards as well.

Sarah and customers in hairdressing salon, Ghana

Sarah is a 36-year-old hairdresser and a devout Christian. I wanted to look at her story from the point of view of impact and her future aspirations.

For me, this story was based around religion and faith as a bigger context to it all. When I asked her what she thinks about COVID-19 she said she believed God would take care of her. You can see it even in this picture with the writing on her face mask.

In her local community she’s known as ‘anointed hands’ because whatever she touches is made beautiful and she has aspirations of one day being able to set up her own beauty school and train more women.

She’s ambitious and has put measures in place in light of the pandemic – she has set up handwashing facilities outside the shop and uses a mask. But she also told me that if a client comes in without a mask she’s not in a position to turn them away, she needs to make money – in that situation she can only do her best to protect herself and her staff.

Ivy in her bottle shop, Ghana

Aunty Ivy runs a small drinking spot. I chose to photograph her because of her age – she’s in her 60s – as an older woman at higher risk of contracting the virus I asked why was she not staying at home? She told me that even though COVID-19 had come, this was how she feeds herself so she has to sell. In Ghana we had a lockdown for around three months. After this she went back to work immediately but found that most of the drinks she sells had expired.

Before COVID-19 hit she had planned to get a bank loan to expand but she told me now she doesn’t know how she can for the moment. But once COVID-19 passes she will still try and get the money to expand so she can hopefully retire. What really struck me was what a hard worker she was and how she was so happy and had such an infectious smile!

Soloman and Foster in Ghana

Soloman and Foster caught my attention from afar – Soloman had this rubber bag as a face mask. When I asked how COVID-19 had affected  them they told me they were both in school before it hit, but that their families couldn’t afford TVs or the necessary digital means to carry out the home-based schooling the school was offering so rather than just sit around and support their families they decided to go out and sell polythene bags during the day. They use these same bags over their faces in order to advertise and market their product better!

For them COVID-19 means they are basically out of school and waiting for COVID-19 to pass to be able to go back and continue their studies and explore their future careers and lives. So, this story is, for me, about the impact of COVID-19 on education.

Fatmata Jalloh – Sierra Leone

As well as a photographer I am also a motivational speaker for girls and women. I started photographing at the age of 16 and I like to use it as a social platform for good. I usually photograph inside in a studio and don’t really do street photography, so this has been a great opportunity for me. I have always felt that pictures tell a lot without having to use any words. It’s such an important medium and responsibility and I don’t take it lightly.

Photography means a lot to me because with photography I can take care of myself, my siblings and older relatives. So, I see myself as a strong woman in photography, and also a role model to other young ladies coming up.

The photography space in Sierra Leone is very male-dominated. As a female photographer I am often not taken seriously or my ability to take photos isn’t taken seriously. They often think it is something we do for our own amusement and not as a profession. But through this project I have proved them wrong!

I have already used the money from this CARE assignment to buy more equipment and start training up other girls in photography – I am starting with just five for now, but I hope to expand.

Tutu, at her fruit stall, Sierra Leone

Tutu is a fruit seller at a local market. I love this photo because it is of an older woman who is more vulnerable to COVID-19. I was moved by her story and I feel this photo tells a lot in itself; the food is all there, but there are no customers.

As a fruit seller your produce doesn’t last long, and now because of the virus people aren't there to buy it and it’s going off. Tutu explained to me that she used to make 200,000 leone per day [about £15] and now it is hard for her to even get 50,000 a day. Not only is it harder at her age, but she is also a single mother.

Saidu on his motorbike taxi, Sierra Leone

Saidou is a motorbike taxi driver. In Sierra Leone the majority of youth are bike taxi riders, as there are no other jobs out there. The first few riders I talked to said they wouldn’t speak to me, and it was hard to convince them as they’re used to having their pictures taken by strangers without asking or explanation.

He told me that things had been very difficult since COVID-19, riders are sitting around waiting and there are no passengers. People are afraid to ride the motorbike taxis as they are seen as transporting lots of people and therefore there is stigma around them that they are more likely to pass on the virus. Before COVID-19 he could make [enough] to pay rent for the bike as well as feed his family. He used to eat twice a day but now he is only able to go buy food once in a day.

Unemployment amongst young people has increased greatly due to COVID-19, so the number of bikers has also increased.

Sorie at his shoe stall in Sierra Leone

This is Sorie Alimamy Kamara – a shoe seller, but when I went to visit him there were no customers. He told me that even if people were to buy shoes, they have nowhere to wear them as the churches and mosques are all shut, so they don’t come. I asked him how he is managing to survive, and to eat a daily meal even, and he told me it is very difficult – some days he doesn’t manage to sell anything at all and so he has to borrow money from other traders to be able to eat for the day. He told me it had been about 2-3 weeks since he had been able to earn, and I ended up buying shoes from him just to help him out.

Lina Mensah – Togo

My trade and passion is photography. It is, in fact, a family trade – my mum and dad are both photographers, as were my grandparents before them. I chose this profession to be able to be independent and sustain myself and my family.

I was interested to learn how women are surviving COVID-19 in Togo. People have been really affected here and there is a lot of fear. People are staying at home, but many aren’t able to and are forced to go out to sustain their families, putting on masks and going about their work, which is very inspiring.

Boukari at hospital, Togo

This is Mrs Boukari. She’s a nurse, she works at a community health unit that supports those affected by COVID-19 after being transferred from her home hospital without hardly any notice. She told me how in the beginning there was a lot of anxiety and people did not want to go to hospital for fear of contracting the disease – as you can see from the photo, there is no-one behind her.

But I chose this photo because she is a remarkable person with a beautiful soul and when we met, she really opened her heart up to me.

Portrait of Sika at his woodwork stall, Togo

This is Mr Sika. He is a woodworker, making furniture and other wooden goods, and is around 66 years old. He was kind enough to offer to make personalised jewellery boxes for me and my team as we were mainly made up of women. He is a really resilient and moving person.

During the interview he almost cried because COVID-19 has had a big effect on him and his family – especially his wife, who was unhappy he didn’t manage to make enough money and would treat him badly at home as a result.

I even took some photos for him as well to help him promote his business further.

Nadine pictured at the market, Togo

Nadine is a university student. But when COVID-19 hit she didn’t want to stay at home watching television, so she went out with her big sister to sell oranges to try and make some money. When I entered the market it struck me just how empty it was. She told me that she only sells about 30% of produce and that life is very difficult, but still she keeps smiling and that is something I really admired.

I think she appealed to me because she reminded me of a girl who used to help in my father’s photo studio and I think a lot of other young people could learn a lot from her.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.