Perhaps you have heard of the Black Stars. Ghana’s famous soccer team gets its name from the star in the middle of its flag—an allusion to Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. Ghanaians are also taught the significance of the other colors in the flag designed by artist and activist Theodosia Okoh: the red for those who shed their blood fighting for independence; yellow for the mineral wealth of the nation; and green for the vegetation and deep connection to nature.
Mrs. Theodosia Okoh, the designer of the flag passed away in 2015 at the age of 93. We caught up with her daughter Ama Okoh—born in Accra in 1954—to discuss her mother’s legacy and to learn more about the culture and politics of Ghana in the 60s and 70s.
The Nana Project: Growing up in Ghana in the 60s, what did you do for fun?
Ama Okoh: I lived in a neighborhood [Ridge] that had lots of kids. It was a very cohesive neighborhood, and all the parents knew each other. We rode bikes, formed clubs and got into all types of adventures. We would perform plays we made up from books we had read. “Ampe” was also popular with us girls. It was the early 60s/late 50s, so boys would sing Elvis and pretend to play instruments. I got to know more about highlife as a teenager when I went to boarding school. As a child a lot of the highlife we heard was big band music.
TNP: Do you remember when famous people came to Ghana?
AO: Back in the Nkrumah days, the president was very interested in other cultures. He was very popular since he went to school in the U.S. and had lots of connections with the U.S. and the struggles of the African Americans. Lots of people came to Ghana. Then of course he was a socialist so there would be people from Russia. When Muhammad Ali came to Ghana, I don’t think I was in the country but my brother saw him. I remember seeing Louis Armstrong, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip when they came. When the Queen came, at school we were all given flags and we all went to line up on Castle Road to wave our flags and all of that. It was exciting to see some of these people. You heard about them on the radio, so to see them in person was very exciting; it made them real.
TNP: Which secondary school did you attend?
AO: I attended Achimota school, and then went to the sixth form at St. Monica’s. I started at Achimota in fall of 1966. From primary school we took our common entrance exam. I took mine the day after the 1966 coup, which was very interesting because we thought it might be cancelled, but we took our exam.
TNP: What was it like?
AO: As you can imagine it was hard to concentrate, but we got through it. Back then I think the number of kids in school was extremely high; I don’t know the stats but I think it was high. Ghana in those days was a great country; a leader in almost everything. It didn’t matter if you went to a private or government school, they were all equally as good. I remember there was a government school—Accra Newtown Experimental—they could beat the kids in Ridge Church and Ghana International any day. I think the standard of education was very good back then. I don’t know what it’s like now but I’d fathom to guess that it’s not as evenly good. Don’t get me wrong, there were still schools that were better than others but the gap wasn’t as big.
TNP: Did your mother ever tell you what inspired her to design the flag?
AO: Growing up it didn’t seem like a big deal. She was an artist. I remember as a kid she was always painting and doing her art stuff. She had a little studio in the house where she’d do her art and we knew that prior to independence she had entered into a competition for a design and hers was chosen. It’s as simple as that. She never made a big deal of it—in fact I don’t think even my friends knew that my mother designed the flag. Later when Jerry Rawlings was in power, he decided to give her an award for it and somehow that’s when it became a big deal. Prior to that it was just a neat thing that my mom did. Back then there was strong Ghanaian pride in getting independence and becoming Ghana. In that generation, everyone wanted to help and a lot of people had been educated to help build Ghana… but you didn’t have to be political. It wasn’t a political thing. I don’t think either of my parents were members of any political party even though they both worked for the country in a way.
TNP: Did your mother meet Nkrumah?
AO: She did meet Nkrumah. I met him as well, since my father was Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. We went to Flagstaff House often for some show or other event going on, especially when most of the top civil servants were invited. Nkrumah even came to our home but not because she was the Ghana flag lady or anything. She became the “Ghana flag lady” much later in life which was thrilling. I was very happy for her because in her old age she had something thrilling. In the neighborhood where we lived, where she lived before she passed last year, everyone knew her as the Ghana flag lady. School children would come and visit because she was the Ghana flag lady. They’d come on field trips just to come and see her.
TNP: Did you know about her role in hockey?
AO: That’s what I was more aware of growing up. Hockey was part of our every Saturday and we would go to a hockey match even during the week. She’d often travel around because she had teams playing somewhere or another—so I’d tag along. She really loved the sport and she just took the helm of the association and promoted it because the only thing Ghanaians knew back then was football. Football was the sport. She did her bit for hockey and she really loved it.
TNP: Did the 1966 coup impact your father?
AO: He was with Nkrumah on the trip to Hanoi he wasn’t even in the country. It was a very traumatic time. He returned about a month after the coup, he and a bunch of senior civil servants who were on the trip came back after they heard there had been a coup.
TNP: Were they afraid to come back?
AO: I was only 11 years old at the time. No one told me anything but I know as soon as they heard there was a coup they thought about coming home. I don’t think they shared that with the president, they kind of abandoned him and left.