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International Women’s Day: Concord Times remembers past Sierra Leonean female icons

By Alhaji Haruna Sani

Women in Sierra Leone have been a major influence in the political and economic development of the nation, but despite all that, Sierra Leonean women face extreme gender inequality, experience high levels of poverty, violence, and exclusion.

Nevertheless, they have also played an important role in the education system, founding schools and colleges, with some being honoured with the erection of a statue for their contributions .

International Women’s Day is celebrated worldwide on March 8th and seems to be emerging as an occasion for private rituals involving greetings, gifts, and flowers much like Mother’s Day.

The first women’s day celebration took place in Chicago on May 3rd, 1908. Organized by the US socialist party.It brought together an audience of 1500 women who demanded economic and political equality on a day officially dedicated to “the female worker’s cause”.

The theme for this year’s observance is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”.

The year 2022 is pivotal for achieving gender equality in the context of climate change, and environmental and disaster risk reduction, which are some of the greatest global challenges of the twenty-first century. Without gender equality today, a sustainable future, and an equal future, remains beyond our reach.

On this years’ International Women’s Day, Concord Times focus on remembrance of some Sierra Leonean women who had played a significant roles in the educational sector, social life and political limelight of the country and beyond.

Latilewa Christiana Hyde

Latilewa Christiana Hyde was born on 14 June 1911, in Freetown, British Sierra Leone. The daughter of Christiana nee Fraser and Jonathan Hyde, she was already a member of a humble and decent family. Her mother was Murray Town’s postmistress and registrar of births and death. She also played the organ.  She gained her secondary education at Annie Walsh Memorial School.

Hyde-Forster did the unexpected in 1938 when she became the first woman to graduate from Fourah Bay College. An unfamiliar spectacle at the time, she was once told, “she’d gone to college to lead a loose life”. Furthermore, Hyde-Forster faced humiliation and troubling times during her days on campus.

In 1947, she got married, eventually adapting the surname Hyde-Forster. In that same year, she was employed as a senior teacher at Methodist Girls High School, Gambia. She returned to her alma mater in 1961 as Vice Principal. Within that period, she became the first black female principal in Sierra Leone.

Madam Yoko or Mammy Yoko

Madam Yoko or Mammy Yoko was a leader of the Mende people in Sierra Leone. Combining advantageous lineage, shrewd marriage choices and the power afforded her from the secret Sande society, Yoko became a leader of considerable influence.    

Aside from her ability to make alliances, it is said that Madam Yoko was extraordinarily strong in battle. It has been said that she used nearby rivers as a defense system and used a sword in defense against her enemies. 

In 1898, the British declared their Protectorate and a law was put in place ordering all chiefs to collect “5-shilling tax on every house in the land”.  Yoko ordered her subchiefs to pay the new taxes. However, the people rebelled and blamed her for “spoiling the country” because of her support for the British. Instead of turning on the British to gain control of her people and popularity, she hid out in police barracks while her people tried to attack.

 As a result of her loyalty to the British she was awarded a silver medal by Queen Victoria. Madam Yoko ruled as Paramount Chief until 1906 when she committed suicide.   Yoko did not have any children so, her brother Lamboi succeeded her.  

Frances Claudia Wright

When Frances Wright returned to her native Sierra Leone, where she would become one of the country’s leading lawyers and president of the Bar Association in the capital city Freetown, her arrival was not quite as she may have imagined. Freshly qualified at the Bar in London’s Gray’s Inn in 1943, that same year, at her mother’s prompting, she took a liner, the California, back home. When the ship was struck by aerial fire and promptly started to sink, Wright managed to escape, but could take nothing but the dress on her back. All her other possessions, her newly acquired gown and wig, the mark of her profession, were claimed by the sea.

In 1968, in the turbulent years following the country’s independence from Great Britain, she led a protest against the regime of Brigadier Andrew Juxon-Smith who had failed to commit the country to civilian rule. It was behaviour typical of a woman unafraid of defending her principles. Ultimately, however, the unrest in Sierra Leone drove Wright back to England. In 1991, she retired from the law and settled in London. She never married and was childless. Her life was so private that her family only learned she had been awarded the OBE after finding the medal in a box under her bed after her death. Frances Claudia Wright was born on March 5, 1919, and died on April 2

Madam Ella Koblo Gulama

Madam Ella Koblo Gulama was born on 26th January 1921 in Moyamba and was educated at the Harford School for girls from 1928 to 1938. She then attended the Women Teachers Training College at Wilberforce, Freetown from 1938 to 1941. After completing her studies she was appointed supervising Teacher for the Provinces, the first to attain this position.

She was married to Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Pathbana II Marampa Masimera Chiefdom, in 1944. The union was blessed with seven children, two surviving, Obai and Soccoh and many other Kabia children

Madam Gulama was born in Moyamba Kaiyamba Chiefdom in Moyamba District. Her late grandfather Momoh Gulama and father Julius Gulama were Paramount Chiefs of Kaiyamba Chiefdom.

Paramount Chief Julius Gulama worked relentlessly to bring people of all ethnic groups together. He supported and worked for the establishment of the BO Government School and was one of the founding members of the SLPP. After his death in 1953, Madam Gulama succeeded him as Paramount Chief of Kaiyamba Chiefdom.

She was the recipient of several awards including the MBE in 1959, the O.B.E in 1966 from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the Order of the Rokel Award from the President of Sierra Leone, His Excellency Alhaji Dr. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. She adored her family and friends and was a strong proponent of African traditional values.

Hannah Benka-Coker

Hannah Benka-Coker, née Luke (born in 1903, died 17 June 1952) was an educator from Sierra Leone. She helped to establish the Freetown Secondary School for Girls (FSSG) in 1926 and has since had a statue erected in her honour. Her contributions to female education led to her being described as a “legend”. She was awarded an MBE in 1944 for her services to education. She died in June 1952, aged 49.

Constance Cummings-John

Constance Cummings-John was a politician in both pre- and post-colonial Sierra Leone who campaigned for African women’s rights. She was born in 1918 in the British colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone, into the elite Krio Horton family. The Krios were the descendants of freed slaves (Jamaicans, Barbadians and Black Nova Scotians) who had been settled in the area by the British in the 18th century.

Britain offered some support and encouraged the Krio to become anglophiles and see themselves as much superior to the peoples of the hinterland. Cummings-John’s families were intellectuals, entrepreneurs and professionals. She attended the best of the local missionary schools, belonged to elite clubs and societies and visited with members of the family living in other West African colonies.

As a woman, Cumming-John’s struggle was two-fold: untying the knot of colonialism and gaining acceptance in the colony of Sierra Leone, where women were not expected to engage in political activities. Cummings-John is noted to have said that her major fault in her political career was ‘naivety in ascribing her own loyalty, generosity and civil courage to her male associates – to the politicians whose rapacity [had], during the past 40 years, brought her beloved country to ruin.’[6] Nonetheless, she will always be remembered in the history books as someone who strove for independence for her people and for equality, as well as for the work she did with women and in education. Her school for girls still stands.

 The purpose of the organization is to help increase access to health care for women and the vulnerable population, Nicole Brassington, co-founder and Executive Director of BGHI added.

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