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. They talk on their smartphones and consult 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. The gathering today is to witness the swearing-in ceremony of their newly elected members to the National Council of Women Traditional Leaders. As the assembled ministers, chiefs, academics and journalists look on at this colourful ensemble, 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” descending from the first family who settled there. Queen mothers are selected from these families. They are the custodians of the cultural traditions of their communities and are mostly responsible for looking after women and children in their areas.
“We are called queen mothers because as queens we are partners to the chiefs and, as mothers, we are looking after the whole community,” says Nana Amba Eyiaba I, a queen mother from Cape Coast.
Reclaiming their place
In the south of Ghana, as well as in other African countries, this tradition has existed for centuries, along with chieftaincy, the precolonial institution of governance with judicial, legislative and executive powers.
Queen mothers were respected and powerful – especially in the Ashanti region, one of Africa’s few matrilineal societies. Colonialists, however, bypassed women leaders, negotiating only with chiefs, so their influence dwindled. After independence, the new government didn’t include queen mothers in the institutions representing the regions, and their role became mostly ceremonial.
On the other hand, chieftaincy retained tremendous social, political and economic clout in Ghana, unlike in some other African countries. Chiefs are revered as the embodiment of the spirits of the ancestors, as well as the living community. Eighty-percent of the land in the country is under their control and, whenever something happens in the regions, the traditional authority is seen as the first port of call.
Recently, as they are becoming better educated and connected, queen mothers have started to reclaim their traditional role – and to modernise it. They see it as a powerful tool for change for women and girls across the country. They are learning new skills and networking with their counterparts in other African countries. Together, they play an increasingly important role in the continent’s battle for girls’ education and against female genital mutilation, early marriage, poverty and other issues.
“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.”
Making a difference
Leaving Accra and the ceremony behind, Ghana’s 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 make 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 vast, rural Lawra traditional area in the Upper West region is very conservative, 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 for their families, 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 fetching sequined 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, although one of her sons died in childhood.
“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. I want to help my community and be a real leader.”
Queen mother Dogkudome Tegzuylle I (Nyani Quarmyne) talks to women making shea butter in her village.
Now 56, she was selected by her village in 2011, then approved by the paramount 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. Otherpognamine are teachers, businesswomen, artisans, civil servants and directors of nongovernmental organisations. Many need this income, as pognamine are expected to cover the costs of organising meetings and ceremonies, and often try to help needy families. Although chiefs are paid a government salary, only the paramountpognamine – each region’s highest pognaa – receives a small stipend.
Tegzuylle I hops on her motorbike once a week to visits her community or whenever she is called.
“People call me on my mobile or send for me whenever 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.
Hard at work generating income With the sun now reaching its zenith, 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 to sell at the local market. This labour-intensive activity is one of Lyssah women’s main 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 support themselves, 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 themselves. 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. Gradually, 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.”
Each pognaa has her own vision and priorities for her community: from climate change, girls’ education and teenage pregnancy to sanitation, HIV, finance and more. Often the pognaa will arrange for a nongovernmental organisation 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.
A force force to be reckoned with
“Education, education,” says Tegzuylle I emphatically, as we watch clusters of children in neat orange and brown 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.
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.
Queen mother Dogkudome Tegzuylle I arranged for Africanus Baghr to attend a teaching course and he now runs free afternoon classes in the vernacular for children after formal school has closed. (Nyani Quarmyne)
Other female traditional leaders work at regional and national levels, devising strategies and campaigns. They are concerned with issues such as land grabbing, climate change, and women’s and children’s rights. 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 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 pognaa. Their number is estimated at around 10 000. Together, they have formed local, regional and national associations, where they support one another and exchange information and good practices. “Ghana’s 10 regions have a variety of traditions and cultures. 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. The network now 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 newly formed association. They are planning an international conference next year on child protection and are working toward eliminating female genital mutilation 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.”
Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist. Follow her on Twitter @VeroMistiaen. This article was funded by a European Journalism Centre Innovation in Development Reporting grant.