Ghana and the Black Star of Africa: an interview with Ama Okoh

Ghana flag

The Nana Project is an online archive dedicated to preserving Ghana’s history through the voices of Ghanaian elders. I first had the idea in 2007 after my maternal grandmother’s passing and the regret I felt about not preserving any stories from the 96 years she lived. It would be another eight years before The Nana Project became a reality. Today, The Nana Project is working to collect the life histories of Ghanaian elders through video, audio, photo or written stories; some stories are submitted by members of our online community and some stories we source ourselves.

This piece is an abbreviated version of an interview we did with Ama Okoh, the daughter of Theodosia Okoh, in 2016. In Ghana, Theodosia Okoh is most famously known as the woman who designed Ghana’s flag: red for those who shed their blood fighting for independence; yellow for the mineral wealth of the nation; green for the vegetation and deep connection to nature; and a black star in the middle as a symbol of African freedom. Theodosia passed away in 2015 at the age of 93, but every time the Ghanaian flag waves, her memory lives on.

In the full interview, Ama discussed her earliest memories of life in newly independent Ghana, her secondary school days, and her mother’s importance in Ghana’s history, including her role in popularizing field hockey in Ghana. You can read the full interview here. 

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The Nana Project: Did your mother ever tell you what inspired her to design the flag?

Ama Okoh: Growing up it didn’t seem like a big deal. She was an artist. I remember as a kid she was always painting and doing her art stuff. She had a little studio in the house where she’d do her art and we knew that prior to independence she had entered into a competition for a design and hers was chosen. It’s as simple as that. She never made a big deal of it—in fact I don’t think even my friends knew that my mother designed the flag. Later when Jerry Rawlings was in power, he decided to give her an award for it and somehow that’s when it became a big deal. Prior to that it was just a neat thing that my mom did.

Back then there was strong Ghanaian pride in getting independence and becoming Ghana. In that generation, everyone wanted to help and a lot of people had been educated to help build Ghana… but you didn’t have to be political. It wasn’t a political thing. I don’t think either of my parents were members of any political party, even though they both worked for the country in a way.

Theodosia Okoh

TNP: Did your mother meet Kwame Nkrumah [former President of Ghana]?

AO: She did meet Nkrumah. I met him as well, since my father was Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. We went to Flagstaff House often for some show or other event going on, especially when most of the top civil servants were invited. Nkrumah even came to our home but not because she was the Ghana flag lady or anything.

She became the “Ghana flag lady” much later in life, which was thrilling. I was very happy for her because in her old age she had something thrilling. In the neighbourhood where we lived, where she lived before she passed last year, everyone knew her as the Ghana flag lady. School children would come and visit because she was the Ghana flag lady. They’d come on field trips just to come and see her.

TNP: Did you know about her role in hockey?

AO: That’s what I was more aware of growing up. Hockey was part of our every Saturday and we would go to a hockey match even during the week. She’d often travel around because she had teams playing somewhere or another—so I’d tag along. She really loved the sport and she just took the helm of the association and promoted it because the only thing Ghanaians knew back then was football. Football was the sport. She did her bit for hockey and she really loved it.

Theodosia Okoh Hockey Stadium

TNP: How has Ghana changed since you were growing up?

AO: I was privileged enough to grow up when I did because the country was totally different, but then these things are cyclical. Ghana was a bright, shining star in the 50s and 60s. If you were outside of the country, and you said you were from Ghana, people reacted positively. They knew or they’d heard of Ghana. You felt really proud. Then we went through a period where people were leaving the country to go and work as migrant workers in Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, but then the cycle came back. Ghana was on the rise again.

About 10 years ago, you started to hear wonderful things about the Ghanaian economy; the economy was really doing well. That put pride back in our hearts again. Unlike my generation, a lot of whom came to the West to study and stayed, the young people are going back home because there’s a lot more happening and they want to feel like it’s possible to live there and make a difference helping the country. That’s encouraging, and maybe we will see the Black Star shining again one day.

I think Ghana is very unique – and I say that not because I’m from there – but it’s really unique among the African countries. The people are different; the way of life is different. When I go back to visit, I hear people come to Ghana because it’s the only place that’s ‘normal’ and they can relax. That says something. Also, people are always commenting on how Ghanaians are so wonderful. I think it was unique back when I was growing up and it has remained so. A lot has changed from then, since it was so close to independence and being a recent colony, the British influence was definitely there. That’s worn off over the years and it’s kind of a different place now from when I grew up. Different, not necessarily worse or better, just different, a new Ghana.

TNP: Any final thoughts?

AO: I think even though I was a child back then, there was a strong general sense of the country and of being Ghanaian. There were people like Efua Sutherland, who was always doing things to promote culture and learning, especially for children. I remember she had a drama studio for children and we would all go there and perform plays. There were lots of community activities when I was growing up.

I don’t know if it’s the same now, my world was very small, so I don’t know how it was in other communities and other places. In Ghana now, there’s a lot of buying and selling, including selling of cheap goods from China. When I was a child, it was more about starting industries. There were lots of people, and lots of women especially, who were very enterprising and entrepreneurial and doing their own thing.

The government – even though I was a kid, I was aware – was doing a lot; building the port in Tema, the motorway, and a number of industries. People thought Nkrumah was being wasteful in spending so much money, but these are what ended up being foundation infrastructure for Ghana. If those things weren’t done in the First Republic, I don’t know where we would have been. They really helped the economy even in just getting goods from one place to another. I hope that spirit is still there. I think it was lost for a while but in the last 10 years it seems like it’s back, and I’m encouraged by all the young people who are going back and trying to help the country. I think Ghana will be an even better “Black Star” for Africa. 

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Theodosia’s work for Ghana should not be underestimated. By creating Ghana’s flag, she created the nation’s most recognizable symbol and one of its most exported icons. In 1997, she received the Grand Medal as part of Ghana’s 40th Independence Day celebrations, a recognition for both her work creating the flag and popularizing field hockey during her tenure as the chairman of the Ghana Hockey Association.

Theodosia is one of many women who used their skills to support Ghana in its independence era. The roles of these women tend to be erased or ignored, but with the rise of digital technology, platforms like The Nana Project are working to shed more light on their stories, expanding the narrative on the past and our collective imagination of what can be possible in the future. We look forward to sharing more stories on the women of Ghana’s past and present who have helped the Black Star of Africa shine brighter. 

Kirstie Kwarteng is a PhD candidate at SOAS University of London in the Department of Development Studies. She’s also founder of The Nana Project, an online platform dedicated to preserving Ghana’s history through the stories of Ghanaian elders.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.

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