Face to face with Jerry Rawlings’ wife


•My life as wife of a revolutionary soldier
•Why I spent 10 years in villages

It is a sunny, slightly windy Thursday morning in Greater Accra, a scenic neighbourhood situated west of Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. The area, a prestigious residential community, is home to The African Regent Hotel, one of the newest additions to the vibrant hospitality industry in the country. A gush of hot air assails my face as I step out of the hotel’s gleaming lobby, which advertises Africa in a cosmopolitan way. My contact for the appointment welcomes me into his gold- coloured Jaguar car with a broad smile. I feel a sense of accomplishment as I hop into the car, smiling back at the jolly good fellow.

“She is expecting you at 11,” my friend hurriedly announces as he engages the car in gear. I look at my watch as the machine glides with adorable arrogance towards the main road.  We have only 30 minutes left. ‘How far is it from here?’ I ask, feeling suddenly uneasy. “If we are lucky, we’ll make it in 25 minutes,” he replies without looking at me. But after driving through a labyrinth of winding streets, we get to a bank, one of the biggest in Accra, and he stops the car. He fetches his mobile phone and speaks hurriedly in Ashanti. Seconds later, a personable lady zooms out of the finance house and greets my friend with profound respect. I don’t need any soothsayer to tell me she must be one of his about 500-strong employees.

“You will take Shola to Mrs. Rawlings,” he orders. “She is expecting him now.” I begin to feel anxious as the sultry lady warmly welcomes me into a waiting white car, the minutes racing fast. She instructs the driver in her dialect and the handsome young man moves the car. About 10 minutes later, the driver turns off the main road drives into a close. A security man flags us down as we approach the wide-open gate. And once he confirms we are on appointment, he waves us on.

Just like that? I almost ask. As we disembark, I cautiously ask my female-guide: ‘Is this the house of President Jerry Rawlings?’ “Of course,” she answers. I try to veil my shock at that point as pictures of the mansions of some of our past presidents in Nigeria reel in my subconscious.

“Of course,” I concur politely as we enter the house.

Located off Dr. Isert Road in North Ridge, Accra, the house is a classic embodiment of simplicity and modesty. A white one-storey affair, it is devoid of the obscene flamboyance its contemporaries nonchalantly display in other economies. There isn’t much to indicate that this is the abode of a man who rules the former Gold Coast for cumulative 18 years. Quite uncharacteristically, the house does not carry the imperial airs that typify the abodes of men of power, even the home of a former president of one of the most strategic states in the West African sub-region, Ghana.

The house sits approximately in the middle of the fenced expanse. There are trees and flowers in the compound. The parking lot, situated at the right side of the gate, presently accommodates about half a dozen buses, all of decked with party colours and postals. There are a few cars too. From the way the cars are parked, it appears they belong to visitors to the house. Sitting elegantly and closely to the main entrance is a gleaming black jeep, a Toyota Landcruiser (I think), patiently waiting for its next assignment. I don’t need any prophet to tell me it belongs to the Lord of the Manor, ex-President Jerry John Rawlings.

We take our seats at the reception area on the ground floor. Moments later, a lady, who I later learn to be secretary to Dr. Mrs. Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, former First Lady of Ghana, comes round to usher us into a sparsely furnished office upstairs. We are still exchanging pleasantries with the lady, when a trim, tall, personable lady, who, from our position, seems to be approaching the threshold of middle age, struts in. Clad in a predominantly lemon kente, she discusses briefly with the secretary, and comes to join us in the room. She greets us so warmly you would have thought she has known us for ages. It is hard to believe that we are right in the presence of Nana Konadu, wife of the revolutionary soldier-turned-politician, ex-president Jerry Rawlings.   There is nothing to suggest that the woman sitting right opposite us is the same strong, steadfast and extraordinary lady that stood like the Biblical rock of Gibraltar behind the then Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings during the ‘revolution’. Till date, many people in Africa, and beyond, still ascribe the responsible leadership that Ghana has seen for many years now to the revolution. The revolution, many believe, redeemed Ghana from the edge of an apocalyptic economic cliff that some erstwhile Generals threw the former Gold Coast during their stranglehold on the land.

Daughter of the late J.O.T. Agyeman, one of the earliest highflying chief executives of Ghana origin, Nana Konadu was born on November 17, 1948, in Cape Coast, in the central region of Ghana. She attended the prestigious Achimota Secondary School, Accra, in the 1960s, where she met Jerry John Rawlings, the man who would, years later, become her husband and father of her four children, a boy and three girls.

According to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopeadia, Achimota Secondary School has educated and produced many African leaders, including Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, father of modern Ghana, Edward Akufo-Addo, Jerry John Rawlings, John Evans Atta Mills, all of whom have ruled Ghana at one time or another, and, of course, John Dramani Mahama, the current President of Ghana.

After Achimota, the young and sultry Nana Konadu Agyeman proceeded to the University of Science and Technology, Ghana, where took a bachelors’ degree in graphic design, specializing in textiles. In 1975, three years after graduating with honors from the University of Science and Technology, she earned a diploma in interior design from the London College of Arts. In 1979, she took another diploma, this time in advanced personnel management, from Ghana’s Management Development and Productivity Institute, and followed it with a certificate in development from the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration in 1991. In 1977, Nana Konadu got married to her sweetheart, Jerry John Rawlings, an Airforce Officer, in 1977. A year later, she had her first child, Ezenator Rawlings. Two other daughters and a son-Yaa Asantewaa, Amina and Kimathi-followed later. Nana and Jerry have some grandchildren.

Widely acknowledged as a ‘Lady of charm and substance’, Mrs. Rawlings, who bagged an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University, Lincoln, Pennsylvania, in 1995, hit political limelight in 1979 when her husband became Head of State briefly after a military coup. She was also First Lady from December 31, 1981, when he husband struck the second time, till 2001 when he left after his tenure as an elected president lapsed. For the cumulative 18 years that she was Ghana’s First Lady, Mrs. Rawlings stood behind her husband like the Biblical Rock of Gibraltar, working herself to the bones to restore the rights and dignity of Ghanaian women, preventing them from continuing as hewers of wood and drawers of water.

To her, as First Lady, Ghana in which women were equipped mentally, intellectually and psychologically to play prominent roles in national development was non-negotiable. It was an irreducible minimum. To help actualize that, she, in 1982, formed and has, since that time, been the president of the 31st December Women’s Movement. The movement is a non-profit organization, named after the revolution engineered by her husband’s second coming as Head of State on December 31, 1981. “The two million-member strong NGO “has set up more than 870 pre-schools in Ghana and has worked actively to stir up interest for the accomplishment of child development and family planning,” says a citation.

Politically, Mrs. Rawlings has not faired badly. She was elected the 1st Vice Chairperson of her party, the National Democratic Congress, NDC, in 2009. In July 2011, she challenged Prof. John Evans Atta Mills, the then President of the Republic of Ghana, when the contest for her party’s second term tenure held. Of course, she lost to Prof. Mills, now late, and later founded her own party, National Democratic Party, NDP. Last October, she was chosen as the party’s standard-bearer for the December 2012 presidential election. But the electoral commission disqualified her, saying her nomination papers had not been completed before the deadline.

However, devastating as these failures might have been, they have never detracted from Mrs. Rawlings’ vision of a new Ghana. Like her husband, she firmly believes that for Ghana to evolve as a respected economy in the comity of nations, it must be free from the twin–cancer of corruption and cronyism. She also believes that the fulcrum of that evolution remains a leadership that is accountable, bold, inspiring, transparent, and visionary.

Interviewing Mrs. Rawlings, as I discovered during my encounter with her in Accra, is not a tea party. First, you must be superbly alert to keep pace with this fast speaking, highly cerebral former First Lady. Two, you must abide by her ground rules if you want your interview to run its full course. Two of the rules are: no politics, especially local; her husband is no-go area. The interview is all about her, and that also has its limit. If you must break any of the rules, you must be smart about it. You must do so with demonstrable intelligence. If you keep you eyes off the ball, no matter how momentary, you might as well sign off the interview.

I promised to play by the rules, and she set the ball rolling, reframing my greetings of  “Happy New Year.” “It’s a new year, quite all right, but that doesn’t make it a happy one,” she corrects. “Yes, it’s a new year and it should be a reflective one so that through our reflection we can see how productive we can be. If at the end of it all, we see that happiness has come, it’s a plus. So, I will answer you as a reflective New Year.”

Confused, I ask her to show me the distinction between a ‘happy year’ and a ‘fruitful year’ as she vigorously canvassed in our pre-interview dialogue.

“Definitely,” she begins to draw the distinction, “if you are able to achieve some of the goals you set for yourself, not major goals but goals that can bring a certain level of improvement both in your life and in the lives of people around you, even extending it to someone further than people around you, it can bring you some of happiness.”

But when you achieve your set goals, shouldn’t that sense of accomplishment naturally bring you happiness? Or, it doesn’t automatically translate to happiness? I ask her. “Not necessarily,” she maintains. “It can give you a certain level of satisfaction that you are able to improve on somebody’s life a little bit. Or that you have been able to lessen somebody’s plight a little bit or your own to some extent. It can give you some satisfaction, not necessarily happiness.”

So, what constitutes genuine happiness? I press further.

“I probably don’t know,” she responds, matter-of-factly. “I have lived for so long trying to improve on things, getting things fixed, whether it’s in a child’s life or in an adult’s life; or somebody who cannot find a school and they want you to help them. Or somebody cannot get into the university, and they want you to help them; and luckily, you are able to help. So, it’s been more of the help that one gives… I don’t think I can remember the last time I thought of happiness in the context you mentioned and say ‘oh, let me go and be happy.’ No. It has been purposeful.”

She shifts on her seat and adjusts her eyeglasses as she attempts to answer my next question: ‘Have you really enjoyed true happiness?’ “I think that is a difficult question to ask,” she says frankly. “Happiness, in a way, is relative. What I might not find happiness in something, someone else might. And he or she says ‘Waoh! I am so happy.’ If you don’t mind, I don’t want to answer the question on happiness.”

I take the matter further by reminding her of a report, not too long ago, about Africa, being home to some of the happiest people on earth. I ask her pointedly if she subscribes to that assertion against the backdrop of the staggering level of underdevelopment across the continent, the various conflicts and other factors that hamper development in Africa. ‘Do you think we are genuinely and truly happy?’ I put the question to her.

“I wouldn’t put it to happiness,” she answers promptly. “I will put it to our ability to laugh even in the most difficult of situations. I think we are able to laugh about issues; we even sometimes laugh at our difficulties. I think it’s a way of making things light for ourselves. It doesn’t mean you are truly happy. Maybe we should look at the definition of happiness again. How can somebody who can barely eat and, therefore, not feed his children, three times a day or even twice a day, be a happy person? Yet, the person may be able to bring lightness out of his serious situation, and can have a laugh about issues even though he knows there are a lot of difficulties in his way. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think anybody should classify us altogether as happy people. I don’t think so. I think we are just able to laugh off our difficulties.”

I bring the matter to Mrs. Rawlings’ doorstep by asking her how does she laugh when handling dead serious matters, especially during misunderstandings between her and her husband, like any other couple. “I am not going to answer this question,” she says flatly. “Let’s not go into happiness and laughter. They are relative.”

Sensing that the temperature of the interview is spiking rather dangerously, I try to bring it down by urging my subject to allow me use her as a prism to view her husband. She keeps mute. I fire the salvo all the same, asking her when, where and how she met the young and handsome Jerry John Rawlings.

She smiles elegantly as she answers: “I think the first time was through primary school. Yeah, in the primary school. We just met as kids in the same school, not in the sense you are thinking. He was there, I was there; we didn’t notice each other. We were in the same school. It was one of the top schools in Ghana at the time. It was a preparatory school in Accra. I don’t think it’s there any more. It used to be around where the ministries are.”

But does she remember the exact year? Again, a bright smile plays on her lips as she responds: “It’s along time. It was in the 1950s. But I think that we started noticing each other from the secondary school because that was a sort of boarding school. Yes, we went to the same secondary school. Yes, we did. But I left the primary school and went to Ghana International School. And from there, I sat for the common entrance and went to Achimota Secondary School in Accra. He also said he left and went to St. Johns, a Catholic School, I think. It was saint something… a Catholic school in Accra. I can’t remember the exact name. But the fact is that he also sat for his exams and we ended up in the same secondary school, Achimota Secondary School.”

So, they ignited the flame at Achimota Secondary School, I tease. “No,’ she says. “Remember, I said I didn’t notice him and he didn’t notice me (in any amorous way) when we were in primary school. For Christ sake, we were just kids.”

But she admits that they bonded more when they landed in the class in Achimota. So, how did it happen? “We were…” she begins to answer, then stops abruptly. “Are you talking about noticing in terms of amorous noticing? Is that it?”

‘It could be part of it…’ I reply.

“No, that didn’t happen,” she says. “It didn’t happen at all.”

She also would not know, in any way, if their second meeting in Achimota had elicited any feelings within the young J. J. Rawlings. “Within him? How am I supposed to know what’s in him?’ She fires back, rejecting my suggestion that maybe she too had started feeling ‘something’ at that point. “No,” she says smiling. “With me, it was after he left the school.  And he went off to the military academy. I stayed on to do my sixth form and then, I went to the university in Kumasi. That was when I noticed him properly.”

Shortly after noticing him ‘properly’, they started dating. And “it was long, lasting about eight years,” she says. “But it was on and off.”

I try to veil my surprise at the unusually long period of dating before it happened and seek to know the qualities that she saw in the young Rawlings that made her decide to spend the rest of her life with him.

“When you are young and you want to go into marriage, you don’t study the qualities of the person in those days,” the 64-year-old elegant grand mother educates. “At least we didn’t. I don’t know about now. But he was a forthright person. If he has to stand up for you, he would stand up for you in total. If need be, he would put his life into it because he believes in justice. He believes God created us equally even though the circumstances of our births may differ. He believes that nobody has the right to deprive you of what rightly belongs to you. He hates bullies. In fact, if he sees somebody bullying another person, he goes to the side of the one being bullied. He supports that person against the bully.”

He loved to fight for the underdog? I ask Mrs. Rawlings for emphasis.

“Later on in life, I could use that word (underdog),” she says. “But at that time, I wouldn’t use that word, but I guess it was the same. I would say so because if he felt that somebody was underprivileged, not in terms of finances, maybe in terms of age or ability to defend himself, he would go to their rescue. Yeah, he loves to fight on the side of underdogs. Of course, he was also generous. Oh yes, he was generous. If he has something and you need it, he won’t think twice before giving it to you. He would give it to you.”

Since Mrs. Rawlings seems to have conveniently forgotten to tell me how her man’s good looks swept her off, I throw the poser. “Oh, really?” is all she says, and she leaves the matter hanging. Again, the interview becomes a ding-dong the moment I ask her how J.J. proposed to her. “Is that why you came here?” she asks, looking straight into my eyes. “Let’s keep that.”

If that question appears to want to make the highly respected former First Lady of Ghana recoil to her shell, the next question seems to thaw the ice. “You are from a family we could describe as ‘aristocratic’, I begin. She cuts in, laughing, asking: “Who has been telling you things?”

“Of course, I have my ears to the ground,” I tell my VIP interviewee with some sense of importance. “Your father, J.O.T. Agyeman, was one of the earliest, if not Ghana’s first indigenous Managing Director of a vast business concern. And your husband, with due respect ma, came from a poor background. How did the two of you jell?”

“First,” says the lady, “the secondary school we went to was a leveler. The school we went to was not discriminatory. Achimota School brought everybody at par. It brought people from different villages, from different parts of the country together. They will tell your mother, this is a school, a place to mold people. This is a place to shape character, not a place to display how rich you are or flaunt anything. Whatever you are, you keep it in your house. You don’t come to show us anything beyond what the school is teaching you. If you must flaunt anything, it is your brain. Nothing more. The school was an equalizer. And anybody who thought he could come on a high horse must come down, and bring his behaviour to comply with the school’s acceptable standard.

“That was the way it was for everybody. That was the orientation they gave everybody. So, that (his humble family background) was not part of my thinking, either when we met or when he proposed or even when we were dating. I looked at the person standing before me, and I asked myself: who is this person? Do I like him enough? Do I want to go out with him, and ultimately marry him? Those were the questions. And the answers that I got were positive. Very positive.”

But did she nurse any secret fears about him, especially after he proposed and she had accepted, and she now had to review the whole matter?  The stylish grandmother says ‘no’, but quickly points out: “But remember, I told you it was an on-and-off kind of affair. At some point, he went off and I went off.  But I remember, one day, I was dating somebody and the guy wanted to marry me. But I remember telling him, ‘Hold on, this is not marriage matter. We are dating each other, it’s not marriage matter.’ My friend was standing by. When he left, she said, ‘why did you do that? He is a nice guy. He has this; he has that. He wants to marry you and you said he should hold on. Why? You don’t even see the other one (Rawlings).’ I said ‘yes, I know. I said if ‘the other one’ gives me just one hour in a week, I would be okay with it. I don’t need anything from this guy.’

“In effect, I was saying that the qualities that he (Rawlings) showed me were more important than any riches that he had or didn’t have. The quality and content of his character far negated any mundane consideration. Once, I said ‘Yes’, that was it! I left my family, and we got married, I never looked back. I didn’t look back. My father’s treasure, his money, his houses never mattered to me. I didn’t gain from my father’s treasure, or his money, or his houses. No. I just shut the door.”

(To be continued next week)

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  1. Let all first ladies globally emulate Mrs Rawlings. It continues to be unacceptable that an imaginary office (not constitutionally recognized) could be a problem factor in the polity. Much lessons are contained in this life-saving interview.

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