Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
By Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy (eds)

Ama Biney reviews , edited by Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy. Finding the book to be a stimulating work on Sutherland's life and influence, Biney argues that Sutherland's ideas around the role of theatre in community development should be integrated into national curricula across Africa.

The editors have succeeded in ‘achieving a synthesis of [Efua Sutherland’s] work for Ghana, in particular, and for Africa, in general’ (p.10). A comprehensive overview of the contribution, personality and cultural work and impact of Sutherland’s pan-African cultural activism is gained from these 241 pages.

Divided into three parts, Part I examines ‘Efua Sutherland’s Artistic Space'. It explores her artistic work and work in children’s literature. This section of the overall book examines Sutherland’s ideas as a cultural thinker in the field of African drama and literature. In addition to this, there is the theory and practice underpinning her institutional legacy and which led to the formation of a programme of experimental theatre between 1958–61 in Ghana, i.e., soon after the country’s trailblazing independence. In addition to this, Sutherland also established the Children’s Drama Development programme and the Ghana Drama Studio, which was set up between 1961–63.

Part II ‘Efua Sutherland and Cultural Activism’ is made up of interviews and accounts by colleagues influenced by her work. The final part, entitled ‘Reminiscences and Tributes’ comprises personal memories of Sutherland from admirers and friends.

Born in 1924, Sutherland would die on 21 Jan 1996 after an illness as ‘the first African female playwright/director south of the Sahara’ (p.18). She was grassroots in her approach and considered ‘that theatre has the potential to contribute significantly to social change’ (p. 13). She believed drama and its functions in African societies were not only to create social cohesion, but could be used as a tool to validate African indigenous thought and challenge negative African practices and traditions. One of Sutherland’s many institutional impacts in Ghana is the establishment of the Ekumfi Atwia House of Stories (more commonly known as Kodzidan, based in Cape Coast). It is a national indigenous theatre with the aim of motivating ordinary people to engage in self-reliance. Hence, community development was recognised by Sutherland long before Europeans in their Western NGO outfits and guises and Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal began to champion such approaches. Essentially the Kodzidan programme, involving theatre performances by the people of Atwia, allowed them to explore problems and issues via, for example, storytelling, puppetry and artefacts. As Sandy Arkhurst writes, ‘The Kodzidan programme should not be seen as having been capable of solving the social and economic problems of Atwia. It should be seen as a forum for the rural population to discuss issues and to try to understand their complexities. The critical analysis would lead to awareness and the desire for change. The programme introduced a new method of discussion through the practice of theatre and encouraged the use of this new method by the people themselves’ (p. 173).

Similarly, the article by Penina Mlama entitled ‘Empowerment for Gender Equality through Theatre: The Case of Tuseme’ is one of the most inspiring in the book. It illustrates how theatre as a transforming and engaging cultural process can ‘empower girls to understand the gender constraints to their academic and social development, give the girls a voice to speak out and express their views about the identified problems, find solutions and take initiative to solve the problems’ in Tanzania (p. 56).

Tuseme – which means ‘let us speak out’ – not only involves girls in Tanzania but boys and the male and female teachers of the school in order that they are also actively involved in the process of challenging gender oppression. Through the forms of dance, drama, song, storytelling, rap, recitation and other forms, theatre performances are seen to be influential to social and political transformation in Africa. This needs to be widely supported and implemented throughout Africa and not simply in extracurricular school activity in Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal, Gambia, Namibia, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, where it currently operates. It needs to be integrated into the mainstream curriculum.

In short, the legacy of Efua Sutherland is a profound one. Culture, which enshrines a people’s human values and beliefs (in short, their relationship and treatment of one another and others) is a lens on how a people interprets the world and interact with it. It is through cultural activism that a pan-Africanist world can be envisioned. Culture is far from being fossilised and static but is a terrain of struggle that is critical to pan-Africanism.


* Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd (ISBN 978-0954702311).
* Ama Biney is a pan-Africanist and scholar–activist who lives in the United Kingdom.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.