Africa: Celebrating phenomenal mothers

Africa: Celebrating phenomenal mothers

Date: May 8, 2015
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Johannesburg, 8 May: Mother’s day is here with its splash of pink and the usual commercial fanfare. For my family, it will be a sobering day of remembrance, but also a day of celebration. My mother-in-law, Akua Morna, passed on peacefully at her home in Accra, Ghana on 5 May, after a four-month battle with cancer.

She is the inspiration for a book I am writing on Africa’s third revolution- the struggle against colonialism, one party rule, and now gender inequality. The unsung heroes – or ‘sheroes’ – of Africa provide a key to that great puzzle: this continent’s resilience against all the odds – poverty; war; military rule; malaria; HIV and AIDS; ebola. The list is endless, yet somehow we survive. That is in no small measure because of our mothers.

“I am a small woman,” reflected Morna in her native Dagari, with a humility characteristic of northern Ghanaians, often regarded as backward by their more prosperous coastal compatriots. “But I believe that I will leave behind large footprints.”

Akua Morna gives a new meaning to the old adage, “You educate a woman; you educate a nation.” She had no education. Yet all her children are literate; 12 have a tertiary education, and seven of these have post-graduate degrees. These include a surgeon, Masters in Business Administration, journalist, environmental engineer, library scientist, monitoring and evaluation specialists. Two grandchildren are lawyers with master’s degrees. They count among their alma mater all Ghana’s main universities, as well as Princeton, Columbia and Cornell Universities in the US; the London Business School, Mc Gill University in Canada, and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Morna’s is an epic story of defying the forces of poverty, ethnicity, culture, class and gender to become a titan in her local context. Back in 1937, her estimated year of birth, there were no schools in Nator or neighbouring Goli, where she grew up. But, as one of seven daughters and one son in a polygamous family with three wives, she vowed from an early age to prove that girls could be just as good as boys, after seeing her mother derided for failing to produce sons.

She gained a reputation as a rebel when, as a teenager, she refused to submit to an arranged marriage, preferring to follow her suitor and first love, the late Abu Morna. They had nine children; seven survived. Soon after the birth of their first daughter Adjua, the couple joined the throng of poor northerners who went to the gold mines in Obuasi to seek their fortune in the heady days of Ghana’s independence in 1957.

Ghana’s first leader Kwame Nkrumah embarked on an ambitious education programme, building schools across the nation. Morna made sure all her children went to school, first through cooking food for the mine workers, and later as a brewer of “pito” – the local brew, in Bolgatanga- capital of the north, where she retreated after her husband’s brother died and he “took over” his wife.

“It’s the tradition, that is what was expected,” she said. When both her husband and the second wife died in the early eighties, Morna raised their eight children as well. As the Tanzanian writer Ali Mazrui once put it, “In Africa there are no illegitimate children: only illegitimate parents, from time to time.” Morna accepted her lot, but formed a strong view against polygamy, instructing all her sons to marry only one woman and to show them respect.
In 1975, Akua Morna withdrew her last cedi from a Standard Bank account she had opened a decade before. She sent it to her eldest son Kofi, who had achieved the best “O” level results at Navrango Secondary School and in the whole of Ghana, so he could enrol at Princeton University in the USA.

I first met my mother-in-law in 1981, in the days when telecommunications in northern Ghana were close to impossible. After an 18-hour bus ride, I arrived in Bolgatanga. No one was expecting me as I had not been able to communicate my arrival, not even to Kofi- whom I had met at Princeton University.

It must have been unsettling to have a young white woman from Southern Africa arrive at her doorstep. I had been warned that the brothers of my late father-in-law (whom I never met) would not welcome me. But by then, Akua Morna had established her independence, refusing to be “taken over” by any of them. She also insisted that the happiness of her children came first.

I will always remember my mother-in-law’s warm embrace. We have only ever been able to exchange a spattering of words, yet we have never failed to communicate. We shared a certain work ethic and I’m told that is one of the many things she loved about me. Soon after the birth of our eldest daughter Janine, Amai Morna visited us in Zimbabwe and met my mother, Joy Lowe, who had the great gift of being able to communicate with everyone. Despite the geographical, language and cultural divide, the two mothers got on like a house on fire.

Both these monumental women in my life lost their life to cancer. They shared one thing in common – neither of them wanted to be dependent on anyone. When I brought my mother-in-law back from the Don Gordon Hospital in Johannesburg not so long ago I felt a sense of déjÁ  vu- the day my mother told us to let her go. Women like this have no problem letting go, because their legacy lives on. Their legacy is not just in the number of people they educated, but the values they instilled in everyone around them.

I know my mother-in-law best through her eldest son, Kofi- my husband, my partner, and best friend. If generosity had another name, it would surely be his: long before Akua Morna fell ill, Kofi started building a crèche in Nator, named after her. Our daughter Michelle designed this testament to the power of education in the desolate Sahel landscape of northern Ghana. Every day the children get lessons and they get a square meal. This is Kofi’s tribute to his mother who always made sure her children had one square meal a day.
Kofi’s younger brother, Dr Martin Morna, takes care of their health.

Seventy percent of the pupils are girls. That’s because in northern Ghana all the boys get sent to stay with their more prosperous relatives in the south. The girls on the other hand, get married off, sometimes before they even reach fifteen. For them, Akua Morna is an icon and a role model. She rose above her humble circumstances, believing in education even when she had none. We grieve and we celebrate.

Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links. This article is in written in her personal capacity. This Mother’s Day tribute forms part of the Gender Links News Service.

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