British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Eirwen Lewis (wife of Administrative Officer; Gold Coast/Ghana 1951-59)
Election Day in the Northern Territories of the
Gold Coast
Northern Territories Polling Station
At the first polling station we visited, the Tamale Courtroom, there was the usual noise and friendly argument associated with a crowd of Africans. The polling assistants were trying to find the names of would-be voters on the register of electors at a table on the veranda of the courtroom. As no one could vote until his or her name had been checked on the register the first job was obviously to get order out of chaos here. With the assistance of Abdulai, the interpreter, it was explained that benches would be placed in the shade of the nearby trees and only one name could be dealt with at a time. Soon the scene changed and on the right the men settled down peacefully, quite content to wait their turn and meanwhile talk and enjoy one another's company in the cool shade, and watch the business of elections. On the left, under more trees, the women assembled with their babies. The African baby is never separated from its mother even on such a great occasion as this, and he is either perched on her knee or slung, sleeping, on her back. As the women all wear colourful cotton cloths, wrapped from shoulder to ankle, the scene is far from dull.

This was the first time for the Northern Territories people to be given a vote in electing members for the Legislative Assembly of the Gold Coast (1954). The majority of them are illiterate and the great problem for the organisers was to find sufficient literates to man the polling stations. The problem was solved by deciding to hold the elections on two days, June 10th in the rural areas, and June 15th in the towns, so that the same polling assistant could be used twice. These assistants had to be carefully briefed three or four times before the elections.

They were taught that the voter's name had to be found on the register of electors; he had then to be given a ballot paper with a secret stamp on it, this in case someone should try to use ballot papers illegally. The voter's left thumb had then to be pressed on an inked pad to make doubly certain that he could not vote a second time. At the polling stations we saw that this procedure was watched with interest and suspicion. I wonder, did they think it was some new ju-ju that the Government had thought up? As it turned out, many of the women did not vote because they thought they would then have to pay taxes the same as the men. But the women who did vote carried themselves with dignity, perhaps instinctively conscious of the fact that they were ahead of their European sisters in achieving the vote at the same time as their menfolk. After receiving the blank ballot paper, the voter moved to the polling booth to cast his vote into the appropriate ballot box. Every box was marked with a symbol. For example the ballot box for the candidate of the Convention People's Party (which was, incidentally, the party in power during the last parliamentary session) was marked with the picture of a red cockerel; the Muslim Association Party with a green crescent and star.

The Independent candidates had various symbols such as a fish, a cooking pot, or a house. Of course, it was expected that the candidates had done their propaganda and convinced voters of which symbol they should choose. Even so, the returning officer was not surprised when after explaining the election procedure to the chief of a certain village, he was asked, "Ah yes, we understand all that. But whom shall we vote for?"

Election Day in the Northern Territories of the
Gold Coast
Eirwen Lewis
The influence of the chiefs is very strong in the villages and, in almost every village, thanks to the co-operation of the chiefs, there was quite a heavy poll. In the town of Tamale, however, where a thin veneer of "progress" has undermined the influence of the local chief, there was only a 20% poll. We went to see the village of Zuo on Election Day. Polling was well under way, the people casting their votes as though they had been doing it all their lives. The chief was sitting under a tree with many of his people at his feet. A mangy-looking hobbled horse waited for his rider nearby. On the walls of a householder's compound was a poster with the words "Polling Station" on it. With the permission of the invigilating policemen we entered the compound and saw the assistants with their copy of the register sitting at a table under a tree. A few yards away was a little round mud-house, thatch-roofed, where the ballot boxes had been set up on a bench. To enter we had to bend to get through the "doorway" which had no door. It was surprisingly cool inside, rather dark, a perfect setting for a secret ballot.

We later visited Nanton, a typical little bush village where the round thatched mud-houses nestle in little compounds, where the inhabitants are justly proud of their Court-room and Council Office and of the Rest House, which they built specially so that the Government Agent could spend an occasional night with them. Polling here was a friendly affair, no sign of political argument in such a peaceful sun-filled place. The children who only very rarely see a white woman were at first cautious, but soon approached near enough for me to take a group photograph. After my husband Evan had checked the polling procedure he was surrounded by young lads on their way home from the fields, carrying their hoes and eager to be photographed. Since they could speak no English and we no Dagboni it was fortunate that their smiles were so expansive as to make speech unnecessary. They were glad to see us and as long as the white faces were smiling too they were happy.

Just before voting was to stop, at 6 o'clock, we arrived at Zion polling station. The setting was similar to that of many other villages, the assistants at a table under the ubiquitous tree, the mud-house polling booth nearby, but here I noticed an old woman making shea-butter on a stone slab on the ground. She was squeezing the juice out of a revolting mess of shea butter nuts, and probably taking in all the election gossip at the same time. It would make little difference to her life whichever candidate got in. To her the Government and Legislative Assembly were far away nebulous things; the chief was the guide in her life and the Government Agent a friendly liaison officer between her Chief and the powers that be.

It seemed a sad thought that she had to learn a new idea, and that all was not right with her world.

Colonial Map
1946 Map of Gold Coast
Colony Profile
Gold Coast
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 111: April 2016


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by Stephen Luscombe