Prime News Ghana

Elizabeth Ohene: Our first female PhD scientist

By primenewsghana
Dr Letitia Obeng
Dr Letitia Obeng
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She achieved everything that there was to achieve and more. It is her work with the Volta Lake that is my abiding memory.

In paying my last respects to Dr Letitia Obeng, Ghana’s first female PhD holder in Science, I have gone back to her seminal autobiography, A Silent Heritage, and selected some passages from the book on different subjects to show what a thoroughly dynamic and forward-looking woman she has been.

Here she is, describing the home she lived in as a child in Afidwase:

The roof was of corrugated iron sheets.

All “respectable” houses were roofed with corrugated iron sheets.

The iron sheets had been introduced, (no doubt as part of a foreign export drive during colonial days) as an alternative to the African grass-thatch roof which was considered “primitive”.

The promotion had been vigorous, in spite of the fact that, in the climate of the country, the grass thatch roofs made rooms cool.

Granted, the corrugated iron sheets made rainwater harvesting feasible but they also heated rooms up and, with the rains, they soon became rusty, leaving roofs disgustingly ugly.

As I have travelled around the world, I have seen cottages and houses in several places including Europe, roofed with grass and they are highly rated.

I have seen attractive homes and hotels in Kenya, Lesotho, Burundi, as well as in Britain, France and other places, with safe, protective grass thatched roofs.

They were neither rusty nor disgustingly ugly.

Who knows what effective and pleasing roofing may have evolved from our kind of roofing if we had not been brainwashed into accepting that the grass-thatch roof was primitive?

And could the colonial masters not have organized the making of roofing tiles? We had the raw material and abundant labour.

But then, that might have caused the business of the foreign exporters and importers of the corrugated iron sheets to collapse!

Here she describes her Ntama Campaign.

I might add for the sake of the young people that back in those days, if you were an “educated” woman, you were not to be seen in cloth, “ntama”, you had to wear European dress:

I was still fired with nationalism and I continued to use ntama as my standard attire.

I remember we went in a group one evening to a popular night club in Kumasi.

At the entrance, although I had bought a ticket, the doorman would not let me in because I was wearing ntama.

The others in the group had European attire and they were let in.

George and I were left standing outside.

Just as my fury began to build up, the Proprietor happened to be visiting the club and when he saw what was happening, he apologized and invited us in.

I was the only one inside wearing ntama.

Thereafter, others wearing the traditional attire were also allowed in the club.

That strengthened my resolve to make the ntama acceptable and I started designing and sewing my kabas to look so attractive and different that at social functions, I stood out in my ntama.

The more conservative among the campus wives did not approve of me being in ntama at serious functions.

In fact one of them said to George, “Why does your fiancé continue to disgrace herself by wearing cloth all the time as if she does not know how to wear a dress.”

I decided to organize an Ntama Fashion Show to demonstrate how to be proud of wearing ntama for various occasions.

I had no problem with finding willing models from the Women’s Hall where I was Warden and had friends among the students.

I designed the ntama styles and sewed a variety of nicely fitted kaba for many occasions: sleeveless kaba with a little collar as a secretary’s outfit, a smart one with little straps, for early evening social events, an off-the-shoulder, strapless “will-power” for formal evenings, and others with overlapping peplum, short and long flared out sleeves.

All of them were designed to fit and show the curves of my lovely models.

The show took place in the College Assembly Hall and it was well applauded.

I followed the show-up with articles in a daily newspaper about how to sew and wear zip-fitted kabas and feel good in them.

Of course, I was only addressing a minority of literate women.

It was not the done thing to be a “cloth lady” at formal functions and there certainly were those ladies who, at that time, wouldn’t be caught dead in ntama in public!

Here she is on the subject of food:

Mama was an excellent cook.

Her local traditional dishes were really great.

Using vegetables, she would make a variety of soups and stews.

Then, there were all the dishes from ripe plantain and sweet potato and maize and yams that I hardly hear spoken about these days.

Obrodokono was a popular dish made from ripe plantain and ground, roasted maize.

The mixture, suitably seasoned with peppers and ginger and blended with a little palm oil was wrapped in green plantain leaves and steamed in a pot.

Then there were the rich and tasty soups, there was always a variety of them: palm soup, groundnut soup, garden egg soup and even plain soup – and they were all delicious.

There would be in the soups, a variety of meats including venison and smoked freshwater fish.

Papa was a hunter and quite often he would return from night hunting with large game.

Palm oil-based dishes were made with finely chopped spinach, garden eggs or different kinds of beans.

They were eaten with yam, plantain, cocoyam, cassava, cooked powdered maize and sometimes but rarely, rice.

l am glad that as a people, we in Ghana, even now, have a large stock of recipes and different ways of making delicious dishes from the same ingredients.

It is no exaggeration to say that there are enough varieties of local dishes for one to eat for many days without repeating a recipe.

Meal times when I was young were always great.

As I grew up, I used to hear quite a lot about how Africans do not eat “balanced diets”.

Thinking back, in my home, at any rate, I think the meals were reasonably balanced.

And here she is, reporting on her first trip to China in 1975 on a favourite subject, always the scientist, ever the pragmatist:

The safe management of human waste was strictly observed.

Traditionally, human waste had been used as manure on the farms.

The Chinese had devised a special three-chamber latrine which rendered parasite eggs infertile by the time the waste was scooped out to be used as manure.

They could also produce biogas from the latrine.

When we visited a house to inspect one of the latrines, there was a plastic hose through which biogas was being evacuated.

We followed the hose and it led us to a kitchen where the biogas was fed into a stove and used to boil water to make tea for us!

I was so impressed by this direct, no-nonsense utilization of human waste that I passionately rendered an account of it to my sister when I returned home.

Imagine my surprise when, instead of catching my excitement and showing the enthusiastic interest that I expected, her face went funny, as she asked, “And you drank the tea?” I got a similar reaction from other people, not only in Ghana, but also elsewhere, whenever I told my story.

Fare thee well, Dr Letitia Obeng, you were special, we haven’t got anyone like you.

Sleep well, Auntie Letitia