The "Working in Ghana" Project

Member of Parliament

["Madame Parliamentarian," a Muslim woman in her fifties, is a "Northerner." She comes from a town in one of the poorest and driest regions of Ghana, near the border with Burkina Faso. One of very few outspoken women in Ghanaian politics, she is known for her concern for the voiceless and underprivileged in her country. Her political activities in the eighties led her to flee Ghana. She remained in exile until 1992, when she returned to file for the first parliamentary elections of Ghana's Third Republic. She has four children. Madame made time in her busy schedule to speak with Philip Awekeya at her home, which she shares with several relatives and friends.]

My working day usually has two phases. I wake up for the first time about 3 a.m. when everything is quiet and the time is ideal for reading and writing. The first thing I do at this hour is read all letters and notes I received the previous day. I then take action on those that require a response. When I've finished with correspondence, I take a look at the provisional order as well as the previous day's parliamentary proceedings. I take note of statements, motions, and interventions raised and try to devise solutions to some of the issues raised.

Around 5 a.m. when I feel satisfied that I have done enough preparation for the day's program of activities, I retire to bed and sleep for about an hour. I wake up at 10 minutes before 6 to listen to the morning news. I never miss the six o'clock news, because it carries major issues that affect all aspects of the country. I take keen interest in news of events in my region and more specifically, in my constituency. For example, I might learn that there is an outbreak of an epidemic in my area. With this information I can call the parliament's attention to it so that the sector minister is made aware of the problem. In this way I have played part of my role as a representative of my people--I seek prompt attention to their social and economic problems.

At exactly 7:30 in the morning I leave my residence for parliament house. On arrival I sign in, collect papers at the counter and go to read, taking notes of major issues to be raised before parliament begins to sit. While reading the dailies I take time off to talk to fellow parliamentarians on topical issues. I also receive visitors who call on me there.

By 10 on the dot the bell is rung and I go in to take my seat facing the Speaker of the House and his lieutenants. As soon as I take my seat I take a deep breath, pull myself together and get ready to talk on issues I feel must be addressed by the house. I feel obliged to stand firmly in the house and defend the interests of the many Ghanaians who unfortunately are not represented in the house because they boycotted the last elections. I try to raise my hand high enough to catch the Speaker's eye so I can be called upon to speak on an issue or table a motion. But the Speaker sometimes ignores me and my raised hand throughout the session. He does that because I might say something that will embarrass the government or the one-sided house, which "sings chorus" on almost all issues, and without any sense of guilt. An example is how the VAT (value added tax) was dealt with. The tax was dictated from the top, and parliament, without feeling any guilt, simply pushed it through within a matter of hours, only to shamelessly retract it when the public reacted violently in the streets of the capital.

When the session is over I leave the chambers and continue meeting visitors who could not get my attention before the session began. After I have finished attending to those who called on me, I leave to meet people with whom I have booked appointments. For instance, I sometimes call on ambassadors, high commissioners, and top officials of foreign NGO's (non-governmental organizations) to personally solicit assistance for development projects for my constituency. I never tire of moving from one office to another, trying to convince those who have the means to come to the aid of my people by providing wells or school buildings. These efforts may take me through the day until about 7 at night when I return home to bathe, take supper, and talk to people who might be there waiting for me. I usually retire to bed about 11, feeling tired yet full of joy because I have carried out my duties as a parliamentarian.

There are discomforts, of course, from moving around the city much of the time and from trying to meet the expectations of the people who voted for me. And I have very little time for sleeping, relaxing, or attending to my children.

Yet I am proud of my work. Much is expected from me by my constituents. Because I do not want to fail them I have to exert a lot of energy to succeed in my goals for getting development projects. The job is indeed a very strenuous one. However I enjoy every bit of it, for it has enabled me to push the interests of my constituency to the forefront and to receive a positive response for them. I am happy that I, at least, represent a lone voice of the opposition parties that boycotted the last elections.

One rewarding aspect of my present job is that I have had a very good opportunity to meet people I would not have met in ordinary life. I have also traveled to quite a number of countries and attended a number of international conferences on the ticket of being a woman parliamentarian. This is a wonderful opportunity. I have made quite a lot of good friends in and outside this country; they are of great help to me and my children and I treasure them highly.

Notwithstanding the many good things associated with my work, there are some quite obvious problems that I encounter. Most of the other members of parliament, including those from my region, do not want to get close to me. The reason is simply that they might be black-listed as being among those who provide me information about the misdeeds of the government of the day. A culture of silence still persists. Anyone who attempts to cry foul of the social injustice and economic mismanagement being carried out by the government is seen as an enemy. Only a few people are bold enough to stick out their necks and criticize the bad policies. It is therefore not surprising that parliamentarians from my own region shun me, since I am black-listed by the powers that be at the Castle (residence and executive offices of the president of Ghana). Some people may also feel that I am developing a big following, and that the best way of pulling me from the limelight is to marginalize me so I will feel desperate and therefore become mellow.

For example, I have been marginalized on a number of occasions by the so-called powerful men and ladies here in Accra and even back in my region. Often I am not invited to attend meetings out of fear that I will get to know the bad tricks that the "big men" play on innocent Ghanaians. On a number of occasions I have received anonymous letters and telephone calls threatening my life and warning me because I organized a press conference on some major issue that directly affected the government.

Despite the many threats and open hatred displayed by some of my fellow parliamentarians, and more so by those in the cabinet, and despite the absence of other opposition parliamentarians in this Third Republic Assembly, I stand as a lone tree in a desert, without support of any kind. Still, I do not regret standing for election in 1992 and entering parliament after my election. I have gained a lot of experience through this job--something that someone with billions of cedis could not buy in any part of the world. It has been a sweet and savory taste these past three years. I have enjoyed the work and would like to be voted back so I can continue the fight for social justice and political openness.

I believe I have made and continue to make reasonable and positive contributions to parliamentary debates on most topics. And it seems as if I carry the voice and weight of ten opposition members. I have been fearless and vocal both in and outside parliament in representing both my constituents and the opposition parties that did not participate in the elections. It is no wonder that some people to call me "Iron Lady." I work very hard under extremely difficult conditions, yet am able to withstand the heat, comparable to real iron. I am just thankful to my God for giving me the strength of mind and courage to be able to carry out my expected role down here in Accra.

Contrary to the wishes of my political opponents, I am liked by very many people outside of parliament. Quite a good number of Ghanaians and foreigners admire, respect, and honor me for standing up to the test of threats and intimidation. It is therefore not surprising that very many people in Accra were seriously mobilizing to take to the streets and demonstrate in protest when for no reason my name was dropped from the list of delegates to the women's conference in Bejing, China. It took me a hell of a time to appeal to the people to drop the idea of a protest march. But this and the scores of development projects that I have initiated in my constituency testify that I am making quite an impact in my political career.

I think I have a good chance of being voted back into office in the next elections. Through my work some people in remote areas now have access to water from wells and dug-outs (small dams) constructed by development organizations. And some schools which previously were housed under trees now have permanent buildings in which to hold classes. And next time, if I return alongside the opposition parties that boycotted the elections, I stand a good chance to get a ministerial post.

The monthly allowance I get as a parliamentarian is quite handsome. I have no complaint about it. I did not go into partisan politics to reap additional income, but to look for ways of serving my people and the larger community as well as to make a name for myself. I have a private business outside the country, so money is not my problem.

Most people think that my close relatives and children would be pleased with what I am doing. But my sisters and especially my two children who are living in London, are apprehensive about my coming back to Ghana and engaging in politics on the noses of those whose activities were a threat to my life, and who forced me to go into exile in the early eighties.

Despite the fact that my children and sisters want me to stop what I am doing, leave parliament, and seek peace and quiet outside Ghana, I hold a different view. I have become so popular in Ghanaian politics that generations yet unborn will read about my contributions in trying to shape the political destiny of our dear country, Ghana, which is so close to my heart. I feel that what is important in life is to brave all odds and do something worthy--to promote the welfare and interests of the underprivileged--rather than to recoil into one's shell simply to please relatives.

I feel strongly that people should endeavor to identify their potential and get into an occupation or career that matches their aptitudes. Once you take on a given job you should devote your time and energy to it. You should be ready at all times to suffer some inconveniences, both physically and mentally, without giving up the fight too soon. You should also learn to be sincere, trustworthy, and above all prepared to sacrifice your stomach and call a spade a spade when it comes to playing politics. In short you must endeavor at all times to play real politics instead of the politics of stomach stability, as is the current practice in most African countries. Most politicians simply sing chorus to their political bosses in order to win favor, in hopes of receiving a ministerial post or head of an important board or a public corporation.