50.50: Review

Film tells forgotten stories of Ghanaian women’s fight for freedom

A new documentary, ‘When Women Speak’, weaves back into history the roles of women in Ghana’s struggle before and after independence

Akosua Hanson.jpg
Akosua Hanson
17 February 2022, 2.35pm
Still from the new Ghanaian film ‘When Women Speak’

Ghana’s struggle for freedom and liberation is a long and arduous one. At its heart are women, with whose hands the country’s foundations were built. Ghana today stands on the toils of brave women and the sweat of their labour.

Yet this story has been largely erased by the violence of patriarchy. Women’s contributions to the independence struggle in the 1950s, and nation-building following independence from Britain in 1957, form a history that is barely taught in Ghanaian schools, if at all.

Ghana, land of freedom
Toils of the brave
And the sweat of their labour
Toils of the brave which has brought results

‘Ghana Freedom’ by ET Mensah

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The ‘official’ history of this West African country, as well as who tells it and how, has seen women’s efforts diminished, pushed to the fringe, marginalised and erased. When we appreciate the lives that were lost, the blood shed, the physical and mental toll it had on the bodies and spirits of these women, the sharp violence of this erasure is heartbreaking.

Women’s roles in the story of Ghana’s formation and growth are as fundamental as the role of a seed in the story of a plant. The struggles for freedom from colonial rule, freedom from economic hardship, freedom from corruption and bad governance, and freedom from oppressive sociocultural structures are built on the backs of women.

This is why the new documentary film ‘When Women Speak’ is so important. It uses interviews, archival footage and animation to tell the stories of 16 women in Ghana from the early 1950s to the early 2000s. By retrieving, recapturing and reconstructing, the film weaves back into history the ‘her-stories’ and ‘their-stories’ of women’s roles in Ghana’s creation. It’s directed by Aseye Tamakloe and produced by Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo (from the University of Ghana) and Dr Kate Skinner (University of Birmingham).

I watched the film in a socially distanced cinema in Ghana, but there was a warm sense of togetherness and celebration. The editing is subtle enough to catch a joke at just the right time, and to leave a thought in just the right place so that it continues to linger in one’s mind.

The interviewer, Professor Ampofo, remains off-camera – but she has a strong affinity with her subjects, which makes for rich conversation. The amusing anecdotes; the interviewees’ incredible depth of knowledge; the rich and vivid stories unknown to younger generations; the behind-the-scenes accounts of pivotal historical moments; the witty quips – all these make for a pleasurable watch. The film’s use of animation is also important in filling gaps and bringing struggles vividly to life.

Military regimes and women’s collectives

‘When Women Speak’ paints a vivid picture of the struggles of Ghanaian women from pre-independence to the 21st century, via the key organisations and personalities of the time. It provides a clear trajectory of women’s efforts in Ghanaian nation-building and sociocultural change.

In the 1970s and ’80s, women organised amid the turbulent backdrop of coups d’état and bloody military regimes. Women activists were vocal against cruelty and abuse, and were essential actors in movement-building, despite the threats to their lives and freedom that were always hanging in the air.

Collectives of market women and women entrepreneurs thrived during this time, and there was a growing synergy between the different organising spaces. A vivid example: women bankers encouraged market women to wear aprons, to prevent them from damaging bank notes by stuffing them into the cloth they tied around their waist.

Issues such as widows’ rights also gained national prominence. Wives were commonly stripped of all property when their husbands died, rendering many women and children homeless or in poverty. Women were also heavily involved in environmental activism, organising and educating farmers about the dangers of surface mining and how it would affect their livelihoods.

The film also covers the quasi-governmental form of women’s organising that was the 31 December Women’s Movement. Named after the date of the coup in 1981 that brought Jerry Rawlings to power (for the second time), it was headed by his wife, first lady Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings. The movement reached out to women in rural areas, and included a wide cross-section of society: market women, bakers, prisoners, farmers, fisherwomen and so on.

Remain vigilant

In 2022, the feminist struggle continues with LGBTQI+ activism gaining prominence in an increasingly violently homophobic and transphobic Ghana. Young feminists today, carrying the fearlessness and patriotism of their forebears, are changing sociocultural norms using the new technology of the times – digital activism.

“Why start when there are shoulders to stand on?” The words of Professor Dzodzi Tsikata – director of the pioneering Institute of African Studies, set up in 1961 – ring in my ears as I leave the cinema. Often, in our struggle for liberation, forward movement is accompanied by backward movement. We may achieve some wins only to be hit by setbacks, which can be demoralising.

But knowing our past is the foundation to building our present and our future. The feminist struggle is never ‘finished’. Patriarchy always dredges up new villains. We must passionately protect our wins, be inclusive of all women and evolve to meet the struggles of our present.

‘When Women Speak’ is a reminder of the constant need to remain vigilant in the face of patriarchy, and to keep the momentum going and the spirit alive.

The next screening at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies is in March. For screening dates throughout the year, follow @womenspeakfilm

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