Destination: Ghana

The term “agnotology”, coined by Robert Proctor in 1995, describes the cultural production of ignorance.  Hannah Kudjoe is one of a multitude of strong, intelligent women that have fallen victim to this phenomenon, as certain elements in society have ensured that her memory has been lost to history.

When researching and reading about history, we always find that the number of men who are documented, even as a result of quite trivial actions, is overwhelmingly higher than the number of women.  This is not only true of history books but also of digital tools of collective knowledge such as Wikipedia. This article is a result of sheer coincidence, a name that appeared once on a page surrounded by men, during a search for new material. In fact, this is one of the very few photos of her.

Hannah Kudjoe was one of the first high profile female nationalists in the movement for Ghana’s independence from Britain’s colonial empire, but this is what “history” has to say.

Though there had been nationalist movements since the late 19th century, it wasn’t until the post-WWII era that the masses sought an independent and self-governing Ghana. In 1947 the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was founded by educated Ghanaians, later known as “The Big Six”. On the 20th of February 1948, two of the six leaders of the UGCC, Dr Nkrumah and Dr Naquah, met with WWII veterans who had been protesting over their post-war neglect. The UGCC gave their support and encouraged them to keep protesting.

On the 28th of February, some veterans marched to the Christianborg Castle, location of the colonial Government, with the intention of submitting a petition to the Governor about their poor conditions, unpaid benefits and neglect. Police Superintendent, a British police officer, ordered the veterans to disperse, but they refused. He then ordered his men to open fire on the unarmed soldiers, and when they refused he opened fire himself taking the lives of 3 protesters and injuring over 60.

On the 1st of March, an order was issued for the arrest of the six leaders of the UGCC. Following their incarceration, they became known as “The Big Six” as their popularity increased.

So where were Hannah Kudjoe and so many other women who in the following years became ministers in Independent Ghana, apparently out of the blue?

In Hannah’s own words, recorded in her last public appearance, she described how she entered the world of politics:

“Somewhere in June 1947 we received a charming gentleman, he was introduced to me as Kwame Nkrumah. He and my brother would spend days addressing various meetings of the local UGCC branch. One day, as they came back and I was serving Nkrumah, he asked me why I had not been to the meetings. I was amazed, and I honestly told him that I thought politics was only men’s business.  For the next 20 or so minutes he explained to me everything they were doing and the importance of women getting involved. By the time he left, my interest in politics was aroused. When I went to work I began explaining issues to my colleague seamstresses and customers. Whenever I was travelling to visit my dressmaking clients, I talked on the trains about the need for our liberation and urged people to join the UGCC, summoning people together to hear news of the campaign for self-government.”

Though barely recognised, according to few records that exist about Hannah’s life, she almost single-handedly organised the mobilisations to release “The Big Six”, raising money and leading the campaign.

Hannah Kudjoe was involved in the founding of the Committee on Youth Organization (CYO) within the UGCC. When CYO grew increasingly critical of the UGCC’s elitism and slow progress toward independence as well as the debate of removing Nkrumah from his position as General Secretary, Kudjoe was one of the seven signatories, and the only woman, on a document that threatened a full split from the UGCC. The result was the founding of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) by Dr Nkrumah. The party identified itself more with ordinary working people and the movement found support among workers, farmers, young people and “ market women” (this last “segment” of the population appears in some articles on Ghana’s history, though the term is obviously far too limited to do justice to the women involved).

 In the following years, Hannah played a pivotal role as CPP organizer and Propaganda Secretary. When the CPP initiated the Positive Action Campaign, a mass civil disobedience movement that would force the British to negotiate an end to colonial rule, Hannah would be found moving around the country, sometimes clandestinely, evading police detection, organizing rallies. She organised and galvanised women to make them conscious of their right to partake in national affairs and take part actively in the struggle for independence.  

When Dr Nkrumah went on extensive tours preaching the message of independence, there are reports of Hannah being by his side on most of the tours.  She got to know the country very well and was shocked by the living conditions of the people in rural areas, especially in the north.

After the 1951 elections, CPP won and Nkrumah became the leader of Government Business. Hannah Kudjoe focused on her role as the party’s Propaganda Secretary and on building party support.  With independence in 1957, she founded the All-African Women’s League, which reflected the Pan-African agenda of the CPP in its early years. In 1960 it would become the Ghana Women’s League with Hannah still at the helm.  Kudjoe was also active in the Department of Social Welfare and Community Development, where she championed the development of day nurseries throughout the country and focused her work on improving the quality of life of women in the northern region of Ghana, especially in terms of health, child welfare and intimate and infant hygiene. She also helped and organised the distribution of food in times of scarcity and encouraged women to grow their own food.

At the time of independence, the role of women was equal to that of men.  Some were rewarded with ministerial post and seats in parliament and on boards of Government and Public Corporations.  It is unclear whether Hannah was granted a Government position which she rejected or whether she wasn’t considered at all, as many sources have conflicting chronicles of this part of Hannah’s story, but what is clear is that she dedicated her life to women, children and poverty. She worked especially hard in the establishment of day nurseries.  People who worked side by side with Hannah were aware that she personally recruited teachers, attendants, cooks, watchmen, labourers, etc. The infants in the nurseries learned basic English, their local language and arithmetics. They were also provided with at least one free good meal a day.  To ensure that they were properly run, Hannah had a group of inspectors although when time permitted she would visit most of them herself.

After Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup in 1966, Hannah Kudjoe disappears almost completely from historical records.  It is evident only from her family and funeral programme that she continued her philanthropic work in the northern region.

It is true that there have always been very strong, important women in Ghana throughout its history.  However, the reason that Hannah particularly stands out, and is the subject of this article, is because of the scarcity of information about her, considering her relevance.  Even in Nkrumah’s biography and in his interviews, he never names her and only sometimes would she be referred to as “a woman in the room”.  Historians were able to find out later that it was, in fact, Hannah who he was referring to.

When Ghana celebrated a half-century of independence in 2007, its heroes were publicly honoured with street-naming ceremonies, the unveiling of statues and historical reenactments. Hannah Kudjoe was nowhere to be found.  Two days after the Independence Jubilee, Ghana celebrated Women’s Day with the opening of a large photographic exhibition dedicated to the great women of Ghana’s past and present. Hannah Kudjoe was also not included.

Hannah Kudjoe is just one of too many women that have been erased from popular memory, history books, or who are mentioned in passing as “the woman in the room”, but there are many more, around the world and throughout human history.  This category will continue to try and find these forgotten heroines from all over the globe, so stay tuned, you might discover a “woman in the room” near you!

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