For a long time, not many Ghanaians knew that Theodosia Okoh designed their country’s iconic flag. Like many African countries, the history of Ghana’s independence unfailingly details the contributions of men who are all tagged ‘founding fathers’. Women like Okoh and their contributions, however, are often left out of the archives and consciousness of their country people.
In Accra, Achimota School (formerly known as Prince of Wales College and School) welcomed, trained and produced some of Africa’s most prominent leaders. In 1929, Kwame Nkrumah graced the classrooms of Achimota, while training to be a teacher. The same year, the school welcomed Edward Akufo-Addo. Unknown to both Akufo-Addo and Nkrumah, they would both go on to be heads of government in Ghana. Long after Akufo-Addo and Nkrumah graduated, Achimota welcomed a few more students who would play significant roles in Ghana’s independence. Among the fresh batch of students in the 1940s, was a relatively young, average-height, plump-cheeked, possibly chatty Theodosia Salome Okoh (then Theodosia Asihene). The daughter of Very Reverend Emmanuel Victor Asihene and Madam Dora Asihene, Theodosia spent her time in Achimota attending to her interests: sports and art; the two areas in which she would build a legacy.
Outside the walls of Achimota where young Okoh spent her time playing football, discovering hockey, and earning her fine art certificate, the Gold Coast—as Ghana was known then—and its citizens were neck-deep in negotiations for independence from the British. Among the early nationalist movements, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), was set up in 1947 by ‘The Big Six’—Kwame Nkrumah, Ebenezer Ako-Adjei, Edward Akufo-Addo, Joseph Boakye Danquah, Emmanuel Obetsebi-Lamptey and William Ofori Atta—to swiftly act on the heat of patriotism and nationalism that Ghanaians were yearning for. Disagreements between the conservative and progressive fractions of the UGCC, however, led to Nkrumah’s departure on June 11 1949. Nkrumah’s short-lived tenure at UGCC led him to create Convention People’s Party (CPP) the next day. The CPP’s push for independence was infectious nationwide.
Sometime between the late 40s and the early 50s, Okoh graduated from Achimota. With the growing success of the school’s previous alumni, she inescapably joined the rat race for the most influential alumnus. As an artist, she took her craft seriously. One could imagine she was always well-equipped. She would take on the streets of Accra in search of inspiration, ready to scrawl the rustic versions of flowers and rural-urban landscapes she so often painted. A fateful stroll outside or a trip to the market might have been responsible for the discovery of the newspaper call to action that challenged her to take a huge bet on herself. ‘Call for new national flag designs!’ The large print might have read below the Ovaltine advert in the Daily Graphic. Prominent for any conscious reader to catch, yet discreet enough not to overshadow the CPP daily newsletter.
A LIFE OF OBSCURITY
The few moments of Okoh’s life painted above are strung together from the bits and pieces of documentation online. Outside the basics of Okoh’s birth, brief educational history, and contributions to Ghana’s independence, and sporting achievemnts, the soul of her story is left out of the archives and remains in the hearts of those close to her alone. In a conversation I had with historian and author of The Disappearing of Hannah Kudjoe: Nationalism, Feminism, and the Tyrannies of History, Professor Jean Allman, on the marginalization and absence of women’s stories in the archives, she explained to me that, ‘[O]n one hand there’s a specific story about how women’s stories get erased, and that’s kind of a common universal thing, but there’s something particular about a context in which there’s political instability or disruptions that create these long silences.’
Historians are aware that West African countries’ shared neglect in collecting or preserving documents can be attributed to obscure or unsystematic political administrations and a lack of commitment to funding and maintaining archival repositories. However, it is one thing to have unmaintained archives that create gaps in historical threads and another to consciously (and subconsciously) keep certain stories away from the archives based on prejudice. Although political foundations could have been cracking under pressure in 1950 Ghana, it is difficult to attribute the absence of Okoh and her story in records to political volatility alone.
Abdul Kuba, a PhD candidate at the University of Mississippi’s Department of History well versed in the legacy of Theodosia Okoh and in Ghanaian archives attributes the archival silence of women’s stories in the colonial and postcolonial era to the nature of colonial gender relationships. When British colonialists were in Ghana and other countries in West Africa, they dealt with men directly, in terms of governance, education, and socio-economic activities, leaving women and women’s issues on the sidelines. ‘When it comes to the archives…women’s roles were more seen as supplementary roles to men. You don’t hear the voices of women because men are at the front and the women are backing them,’ Kuba said.
The practice and attitude towards collation and preservation of women’s stories in the archives particularly emerges from religious, cultural, and socio-political factors. From a cultural standpoint, West African society has harboured a belief that women belong in the shadows of male excellence and this belief was politically and economically reinforced by Westerners through colonialism.
In addition to earlier stated viewpoints, Professor Allman proffered another possible explanation for the disappearance and/or burial of African women’s stories in the archives. According to Professor Allman, ‘there’s an archival diaspora that exists,’ in which parts of Ghana’s history were taken by Ghanaians who emigrated for several reasons over the decades. ‘If you go to the Schomburg library in New York, you’ll find in the papers of somebody like St. Clair Drake and Julian Mayfield, you’ll find parts of Ghana’s history there from people’s own experiences who were living in Ghana at the time,’ Professor Allman said. Additionally, Kuba explained that the use of pseudonyms by African women in colonial and post-colonial times also plays a role in the archival invisibility of African women, despite their obvious contributions to socio-political issues. He noted that, ‘You may have women being prominent entrepreneurs, but you don’t hear them, you hear them hiding or using some kind of pseudonym because they don’t want to be known.’ According to Kuba, this is ‘because of the political and cultural dynamics of the period. A period where people felt the ideal woman should be in the home.’
After working on a few designs, Okoh finally settled on a design for the flag she was confident captured the vision of the new country about to be birthed. Satisfied with her attempt but not expecting any luck, she submitted and went about her business. It was not until 10 October 1956 that Okoh recognized her design in the newspaper as it was announced as the new official flag.
Whenever she was asked about that moment in interviews, Okoh hardly opened up about what it felt like to see her hard work publicized (and without any acknowledgement). I wonder why the interest in her backstory was delayed for so long. Details of important moments like these have been left to be consigned to oblivion. ‘When you talk about the national flag everybody knows Theodosia Salome Okoh designed the flag and it doesn’t go beyond that,’ Kuba said. Perhaps a brief wave of shock, followed closely by excitement and pride might have washed over her upon the discovery of her success. Disappointment may have set in after noticing the absence of a congratulatory message or some form of attribution for her work. ‘Eii look, this is my design!’ she might have exclaimed, shoving the paper to her husband and pointing to the flag. It would be justifiable if she felt similarly hurt watching the red, gold and green flag hoisted up on 6 March 1957.
On that fateful evening of 6 March 1957, at the Old Polo Grounds, thousands lined the streets and filled the grounds, cheering Kwame Nkrumah and themselves for the historical event they were witnessing. Perhaps Okoh made her way through the crowd and found a comfortable spot, one close enough to get a good view of the podium but far enough from the deafening cheers. ‘At long last, the battle has ended!’ Nkrumah started, causing an eruption of screams and claps. Okoh may have wondered if anyone in the crowd knew she was responsible for the flag they all admired with pride. Did they know the crimson red signified the blood of all those who lost their lives to get them all to this very moment? That the green augustly represented the greenery that Ghana and its neighbouring countries were surrounded with? Did they know that the gold represented the minerals Ghana was blessed with? It would have been unlikely; all everyone cared about at that moment was that the British were finally leaving and that the Gold Coast could now be its own country.
Before people finally discovered Okoh was the woman behind one of Ghana’s most popular symbols, many believed the flag’s design was Nkrumah’s idea. Nkrumah’s friendship with and admiration of Marcus Garvey—a pan-Africanist who believed so much in the idea of a United Africa that he started a shipping line, to transport African-Americans back to Africa, called the Black Star Line—reinforced the notion. The black star in the middle of the Ghanaian flag was believed to be a nod from Nkrumah to Garvey. In actuality, the flag is more of a nod to the pan-African movement symbolized by the colours of the Ethiopian flag. The black star in the Ghanaian flag, however, was also borne from a deep pride in Black people. ‘People thought black wasn’t nice, but I decided black is nice so I’ll use black, and those who don’t like it will see that after all, they wished they were Black,’ Okoh revealed in an interview with Adom TV.
Okoh’s story isn’t particularly unique to her as it shares similarities with others like Philip Gbeho’s. Gbeho’s status as the composer of the Ghanaian national anthem can also be traced to his earlier success in an open competition for a new national anthem. However, the outcomes of their stories differ. In the case of the national anthem, the four shortlisted entries were played on the radio for audience voting before final selection by the National Anthem Selection Committee and Gbeho’s victory was reported to have been followed by a £3,000 reward. ‘It is sexism and misogyny,’ Professor Allman said in response to Okoh’s case.
‘If she was a politician and a man, her story would have been different,’ Kuba said. According to Kuba, regardless of women becoming more educated and even more involved in politics, the issue of misogyny persisted in colonial Ghana. Despite the amount of education received or skillset acquired, it was difficult for society to accept women’s contributions as valuable. According to Professor Allman, Okoh’s lack of recognition and explicit disregard from the national government can be attributed to the fact that people believe that ‘women’s work is not ideological, it’s not intellectual, it’s not scholarly, it’s not even patriotic, it’s just kind of women’s work.’
Regardless of whether the committee set up to select the national flag design was prejudiced or not, Okoh’s design is a monumental contribution to Ghana’s national identity and history cannot be disputed. ‘You cannot talk about Ghanaian identity without talking about the flag,’ Kuba said. With an estimate of over 92 separate ethnic groups, the national flag stands as a symbol of national identity that unites all ethnic groups, languages, and religions.
FROM FLAG TO HOCKEY
The flag is not the only major feat Okoh achieved for Ghana that the Ghanaian government failed to rightly acknowledge her for. Okoh played a pivotal role in fashioning sports in the Ghana in the 1960s-1980s. Before her commitment to hockey, it had been a forgotten sport in the country. Her dedication to developing the sport led to her becoming the first female chairman and later president of the Ghana Hockey Association. One of her many feats during her tenure as chairman of Ghana’s hockey team, was the team’s qualification for the Hockey World Cup in 1975. In 2013, the Accra Metropolitan Association converted the name of the hockey pitch—which Okoh secured from the government in the 1960s and turned from waterlogged land to a functioning hockey pitch—from Theodosia Okoh Hockey Stadium to Prof John Evans Atta Mills Hockey Stadium. It was later changed back to Theodosia Okoh Hockey Stadium in 2013, after she voiced her displeasure over the issue, and she received an apology from President John Dramani Mahama.
It has been 66 years since the official Ghanaian flag was announced and there have been few government acknowledgements for Okoh’s work. Before she passed on in 2015, she revealed there had still been no official letter of confirmation, formal attribution, or approval letter for her flag design. ‘Nobody even said we’ve received your competition drawing or anything,’ she said in a 2013 interview. She suspected that perhaps the government did not want people to know where the design had originated from. Asides from President Mahama’s speech honouring Okoh’s passing, the other closest official recognition Okoh received is a statement from Emmanuel Kwame Asiedu Antwi, Ghana’s ambassador to the Swiss Confederation and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Other International Organisations. Antwi delivered the statement in Geneva in March 2023, on Ghana’s 66th Independence Anniversary.
The story isn’t all sad as there’s a better future for African women playing important roles in Africa’s development. According to Prof. Allman, ‘There’s more documentation now since the 90s, speaking as someone who hangs out in the archives.’ More stories about figures like Okoh, women’s movements—like the Ghana Women’s League and the Ghana Federation of Women—are being unearthed and placed onto the shelves they belong by scholars like Adwoa Opong, Susan Geiger and Dzodzi Tsikata, who dig deeper into official and unofficial archives of African history. In The Disappearing of Hannah Kudjoe, Professor Allman talks about the role of women historians:
It is generally from this point (the point of disappearance) that women’s historians begin their work of recuperation—from the foundational premise that women are marginalized or absent in the archives and then disappeared by a discipline whose grand narratives have proven stubbornly male focused and male–centred.
Allman cites another scholar, Susan Geiger, who highlights a pattern of the marginalization of women in Tanzanian histography. A pattern that includes the accumulations of male-centred bias in primary (by missionaries and travellers) and secondary (by recent Western and African scholars) written archival records. According to Geiger, women’s political actions and contributions are ‘disappeared’ by a collective process of reinforcing and echoing ‘the silence of previous (written accounts)’.
‘Women have been actively involved in the major events of Ghanaian history. However, many of their accomplishments have not received the needed attention from historians,’ Adwoa Opong said in her 2012 research Rewriting Women into Ghanaian History 1950-1966. With an increasing number of female scholars, historians and journalists dedicated to solely highlighting women’s activities in the continent, it seems unlikely for there to be unsung heroes in this generation. According to Opong, the task of rewriting women into history goes beyond simply establishing that women contributed to their societies but to go further in discussing how these contributions looked and the impacts they had. Okoh’s story may remain devoid of the definitive personal moments that shaped her being, but with scholars and journalists who are persistently curious, her story and that of many forgotten African women may one day be fully pieced back together⎈
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