3 DECEMBER 2015 • 12:08PMFollow
The women came from the far corners of the country by the dozen, from traffic-choked Accra, bustling market towns and remote rural villages – with huge golden rings on their fingers and rows of beads around their necks. ‘We wear a lot of gold and pearls to signify that we are precious,’ says one with a grin.
Greeting each other warmly, they take their seats under the canopy across from the dignitaries on a dais in a courtyard in Legon, a suburb of Accra, talking on their smartphones and consulting their tablets, majestic in their kentes – the distinctive hand-woven cloth in the bright colours and bold patterns of their respective communities. These formidable women are the 21st-century incarnation of the traditional Queen Mothers of Ghana and they are ready to reclaim their power.
We are in the capital today to witness the swearing-in ceremony of newly elected members into the National Council of Women Traditional Leaders. The assembled ministers, chiefs, academics and journalists cannot help but stare in awe as one Queen Mother approaches the microphone and issues a pithy warning, ‘These beautiful clothes that you admire so much are full of knowledge. Don’t underestimate us.’
In Ghana, each town and village has a ‘royal family’ descended from the first family who settled there. Queen Mothers are selected from these families. They are the custodians of the cultural traditions and are mostly responsible for looking after women and children in their communities.
‘We are called Queen Mothers because as queens we are partners to the chiefs, and as mothers we are looking after the whole community,’ explains Nana Amba Eyiaba I, a Queen Mother from Cape Coast. In the south of Ghana, this tradition has existed for centuries, along with chieftaincy (the pre- colonial institution of governance with judicial and legislative powers). Queen Mothers were respected and powerful. Colonialists, however, bypassed women leaders, negotiating only with chiefs, so their influence dwindled.
After independence in 1957, the new government didn’t include Queen Mothers in the institutions representing the regions, and their role became mostly ceremonial. Conversely, chieftaincy retained tremendous social, political and economic clout. Chiefs are revered as the embodiment of the spirits of the ancestors, as well as the living community. Eighty per cent of Ghana’s land is under their control, and whenever something happens in the regions, their traditional authority is seen as the first port of call.
Recently, as they have become better educated and connected, Queen Mothers have started to reclaim their traditional role – and modernise it. They see it as a powerful tool for change for women and girls across the country, and are networking with their counterparts in other African countries. Together, they are playing an increasingly important role in the continent’s battle for girls’ education and against female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriage, poverty and other issues.”As queens we are partners to the chiefs, and as mothers we look after the whole community”Nana Amba Eyiaba I
‘Now we are taking our place,’ says Eyiaba I, as amid much traditional dancing and drumming, 10 Queen Mothers are sworn into the national council for a four-year tenure, giving their association formal recognition. ‘Our societies are male-dominated. We need women in our communities – to represent, listen and talk for the women of our country. We are powerful and people need us.’
Leaving Accra behind, we head north to see how the Queen Mothers are working at grassroots level. The north is a region routinely neglected by politicians. It has poor roads, no factories, little infrastructure and mediocre land, yielding only one harvest so there is a ‘hungry season’ before the start of the rains. It is also a region where men own the land and take all the decisions.
Unlike in the south, Queen Mothers were only formally recognised in the north 10 years ago, following sustained women’s campaigning. Here, they are called Pognamine: the plural of Pognaa, which means woman chief. The Lawra area in the Upper West region is a vast, rural, very conservative territory, but was one of the first areas in the north to embrace the Queen Mothers concept. One of Lawra’s larger communities is Lyssah – a village of thatched mud huts and simple concrete houses, home to some 1,200 people.
It is early morning, and women are cooking a breakfast of millet porridge, sowing corn and pounding shea nuts. Children hoe a field before going to school, while men herd goats and cows. Dogkudome Tegzuylle I ties her blue-and-white- striped kente around her waist and tucks her short hair into a sequinned beanie. She is a thoughtful woman with a strong presence and smiling eyes – and the village’s very first Pognaa. She is the sister of the chief, ‘a learned man’, with whom she works closely, and a mother of three.
‘This is my community,’ she says, with a sweeping gesture embracing her village and the tidy fields surrounding it. ‘I grew up here. I know most of the women and I know their problems. I want to make a difference.’ Now 56, she was selected by her village in 2011 (then approved by the paramount chief, each region’s highest chief, and enthroned during a traditional ceremony).
The job is for life. Villagers say they chose Tegzuylle I because of her leadership qualities and skills. ‘She makes things happen,’ says Africanus Baghr, a young schoolteacher. ‘Even before she was the Pognaa, she used to meet and work with the women and children.’ Like many Pognamine, Tegzuylle I doesn’t live in the village; she works as a midwife in nearby Lawra town.”Before, women depended on their husbands for everything. The man decided what a woman could do”Tegzuylle I
Other Pognamine are teachers, businesswomen, artisans, civil servants and directors of NGOs. Many need an income as Pognamine are expected to cover the costs of organising meetings and ceremonies, and often try to help needy families besides. While chiefs are paid a government salary, only paramount Pognamine receive a small stipend. Tegzuylle I hops on her motorbike once a week to visits her community.
‘People call me on my mobile or send for me when someone has died, so I can sit with the family until the funeral is over. They call me when there is a land dispute, or if they want to build something in the village, so I can sit and negotiate with the elders.’ Tegzuylle I exudes natural grace. As a Pognaa, she is not supposed to eat in public, go to the market or do anything ‘undignified’, and always carries the symbols of her status: a ceremonial sheep-hair fly whisk and a hand-woven traditional basket.
With the sun now reaching its height, the heat is sweltering. A few elders are sitting in silence under a mango tree, while young men are sleeping in the shade nearby. Women, however, are hard at work, pounding shea nuts in tall clay pots and roasting them over pit fires. Other women grind the nuts between heavy stones and whisk the heavy chocolate-looking paste in large aluminium basins, then boil it and let it cool into a yellow butter, which they transform into various cooking and cosmetic products and sell at the local market.
This labour-intensive activity is one of the Lyssah women’s principal occupations and sources of revenue. ‘Our main challenge is poverty, especially among women,’ explains Tegzuylle I. ‘Our men are difficult.’ It is the same state of affairs in other communities. ‘Look around you; women are the vast majority in our villages,’ says Maabuora Sanduo I, the Pognaa of Nanyaare, a nearby community. ‘Many of our men die young because they drink and don’t look after themselves, leaving widows; others leave the women and children to fend for themselves.’
To help women be financially independent, the Pognamine have created small income-generating projects based on their communities’ natural resources and their own skills. Sanduo I is a weaver: she had looms fashioned from old bed frames and started cloth- and basket-weaving groups. They have also initiated soap-making, beekeeping and hairdressing groups, as well as informal savings and loan clubs called susus.
‘Pognaa initiated the susu because we cannot wait for donors or government’s help. She paid for me to go to Canada to learn leadership, communication and health impact assessment. In turn, I now train other women,’ says Anita Sutha, a junior high-school teacher.
‘Before, during the dry season, women sat under a tree, doing nothing. They depended on their husbands for everything, even to buy clothes or pay school fees. The man decided what a woman could or couldn’t do,’ Tegzuylle I says. ‘Now, women can earn a living and some money for their children. They gain self-confidence and respect from their husbands. Before, women were not included in any decisions; now they are listened to.’
In some villages, men have emulated the women and started susu clubs too. Tegzuylle I is determined to engage them more in community affairs. ‘Now that I am Pognaa, I say that everyone has to come to the meetings and get involved – women, men, children – and they start to come. We are seeing a change: an understanding that men can mix with women and vice versa. We can interact and exchange ideas. Things are slowly improving.’”We need women in our communities – to represent, listen and talk for the women of our country”Eyiaba I
Each Pognaa has her own vision and priorities for her community. In five Lawra villages we have visited, we have seen programmes on everything from climate change, girls’ education and teenage pregnancy to sanitation, HIV, finance and more. Often the Pognaa will arrange for an NGO to come to the community and give a talk, or arrange for a villager to get trained in Accra or abroad, so that they, in turn, can coach others in the village.
‘Education, education,’ says Tegzuylle I emphatically, as we watch clusters of children in neat uniforms walk back from school on the red earth road alongside the village. ‘Education is what is really going to change the life in my community.’ Most children go to primary school, but many, especially girls, drop out before secondary school because parents cannot afford the school fees and want girls to help on the farms, she says.
When girls drop out, they either marry too young or go south to work in chop bars on the side of the roads. Tegzuylle I urges parents to leave their youngsters in school and has paid for a young village teacher to get trained in Accra, to lead a remedial course for dropouts. Other female traditional leaders work at regional and national levels, devising strategies and campaigns.
They are also fighting for full representation in the regional and national Houses of Chiefs, where all major decisions are taken. So far, women leaders can attend the chiefs’ meetings, but don’t have the right to vote, even on decisions affecting women and girls. ‘When they’ll be able to vote, their decisions will be binding. They will be formidable,’ says Professor Irene Odotei, director of the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Training (INSRAT) in Accra, which trains Queen Mothers in leadership, communication and other skills.
Most clans, neighbourhoods, villages, districts and regions in Ghana now have a Queen Mother or a Pognaa. Their number is estimated at around 10,000. ‘We exchange ideas and contribute different strands to the fabric of our country. And when all the strands are woven together, we get a beautiful cloth,’ says Mama Agblatsu III, a Queen Mother in the Volta region.
Two years ago, Ghana’s national association encouraged similar organisations in other African countries to form the African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders Network (AQWCLN). The network numbers 20 countries and hopes to have all African countries on board within the next few years, says Nana Adwoa Awindor, executive board chair of the association. They are planning an international conference next year on the theme of child protection and are working toward eliminating FGM across Africa within the next five years.
‘This is our first target. As queens, we will use whatever strategy available to eradicate this practice,’ says Awindor. ‘Our organisation is one place where we can find information, share expertise and speak with one voice on Africa-wide issues. We can have a real impact.’
For more information, visit the multimedia The Formidable Queen Mothers of Ghana
This article was supported by a European Journalism Centre (ECJ)’s Innovation in Development Reporting Grant (IDR)