Out of Africa, to Baltimore

October 24, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, sharing lunch with a group of conventionally dressed men and women at the Johns Hopkins Faculty Club, lights the room with sheer candlepower.

She is diminutive, with small features set in a gleaming ebony face. She wears the garb of an African market woman, an outfit of vivid orange, sapphire blue and black. She has six gold bracelets flashing on each wrist, more gold glinting from her throat, and long fingers that wave gracefully like the wispy tips of willow branches.

With those fingers, she draws pictures in the space in front of her, intriguing holograms, that illustrate her points.

In Baltimore this month to study at the Johns Hopkins' Institute for Policy Studies, she is Ghana's first lady, and no mere ornament to the presidency of Jerry John Rawlings.

Flight Lieutenant Rawlings first crashed his way to power in Ghana in a coup in 1979, retired, then returned in another coup in 1981. He finally became president last year via the more conventional route of elections. During his career, he has had three past presidents executed for corruption.

Nana Rawlings was with him all the way. Students together at Ghana's University of Science and Technology, they were married in 1977.

Mrs. Rawlings, 45, is redolent of West Africa, and not only by virtue of her sumptuous dress. As with many Third World leaders, she is obsessed with national development.

"You have to turn your obsession into reality," says Mrs. Rawlings, who has been likened to Hillary Rodham Clinton because she wields so much influence over her husband. "Our need is to make for the 16 million people of Ghana a better standard of life."

More efficiency

That's why she's in Baltimore. She was encouraged to come here during a seminar given by the Institute for Policy Studies in Accra, Ghana's capital. She wants to learn how to make non-profit organizations function efficiently, organizations like her 31st of December Women's Movement. Hopkins teaches that.

Her mind dwells on her country's problems. They are the problems of Africa: overpopulation and poverty, and their effects and causes. These diminish the lives of all Ghanaians, but because Ghana's is a traditional society they mostly diminish the lives of women.

Thus the focus of Mrs. Rawlings' activity is her women's %J movement, which she founded in 1982, the year after her husband came to power for the second time. The movement is based, she said, "on the assumption that women have much to say about national development." It has nearly 2 million members. Its purpose is to help women fend for themselves, develop their own livelihoods. It teaches them to farm more efficiently, to develop crafts; it stimulates home industries.

"We're not too much into female emancipation" as it is understood in the United States and Europe, Mrs. Rawlings says. "We are fighting a battle against poverty. We are trying to encourage women to become economically independent. We are trying to make sure women can read and write. We believe that women's development will help push the country forward."

A version of that idea emerged as a theme of the September Cairo population conference. It suggests that the only workable strategy to achieve stabilization of population growth rates (Ghana's rate is a very high 2.8 percent) is through the economic and educational betterment of women.

Past and future

In the long slog into Ghana's future, Mrs. Rawlings has occasionally collided with Ghana's past, not hard to do in a country in which most marriages are polygamous. She insists she is not at war with tradition, but some "traditions," she believes, just don't contribute to the country's advancement.

"We cannot go against tradition. We work with traditional people. We go to the queen mothers [usually the influential aunt or mother of a king or chief in a given region of the country]. They are the custodians of tradition. They are the mobilizers. They tell us what they want or don't want."

In 1984, she recalled, the queen mother in the Ashanti region told her that women wanted an end to the ancient regime of "widowhood rites." Mrs. Rawlings knows of those rites. She is Ashanti herself.

"When a woman's husband dies, it is assumed immediately there was foul play, so the woman is put through a ritual of punishment," she says. "She has to sleep on the floor. She has to use a stone for a pillow. Some put pepper in her eyes so she cannot see. So many things are done to make a widow's life miserable."

Then she asks: "Why when a man dies does she have to go through this? But when a woman or wife dies everybody gives sympathy to the husband. Everybody says 'poor man, you need a woman. . . ."

In response to the pleas from the Ashanti women, the government legislated a ban on widowhood rites. Another new law, just as important, gave widows access to their husbands' property, traditionally grabbed up by the husband's relatives after his death.

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