Efua Theodora Sutherland (née Morgue) was a Ghanaian educationalist, playwright, director, poet, children’s author, and cultural activist.
Born 27 June 1924 on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), Sutherland grew up in a Ghanian royal family. Her mother, Harriet Efua Maria Parker, was from the royal families of Gomua Brofo and Anomabu, while her father was a well-known English teacher. Still, Sutherland had a difficult childhood, having lost her mother when she was only five months old and was then raised by her grandmother Araba Mansa.
Sutherland went to St. Monica’s Training College in Ansate Mampong to study teaching. The Anglican Sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete, located in Yorkshire, England, founded the St. Monica’s Training College, and the nuns who taught there left such an impact on Sutherland that she seriously considered attending convent school, but her grandmother dissuaded her.
Eventually, she moved to England to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree at Homerton College, the University of Cambridge, where she matriculated in 1947 as one of the first Black African students. While at Cambridge, Sutherland completed her teacher training practice in the girls’ section of Chesterton School, where she taught geography, arithmetic, scripture, English, and the works of Shakespeare. Sutherland later studied Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
Sutherland returned to Ghana in 1951, and dedicated herself to teaching, first at the Fijai Secondary School at Sekondi, and then at St. Monica’s School (1951–54). Sutherland began writing soon after, out of concern about the limited scope of literature available to children in her birth country. According to her, “It [children’s literature] had nothing to do with their environment, their social circumstances, or anything.”
Subsequently, she founded the Ghana Drama Studio (now the Efua Sutherland Drama Studio, University of Ghana, Legon) as a workshop with other authors of children’s books, which blossomed into a wider community and place of training for Ghanian playwrights. Her best-known children’s books are the animated rhythm plays Vulture! Vulture! and Tahinta (published in 1968) and the pictorial essays, Playtime in Africa (1960) co-authored with Willis E. Bell and The Roadmakers (1961).
Sutherland’s involvement in child advocacy led Ghana to become the first country to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Between 1983 to 1990, Sutherland served as the chair of the National Commission on Children. In this role, she oversaw many innovative programs, such as the Child Education Fund, which supported underserved communities, the Mobile Technical Workshop, which extended science learning to poor and rural children, and the construction of child-centered parks and library complexes across the country. Sutherland created the basis for the Mmofra Foundation, which has existed as a civil society organization since 1997 to enrich Ghanian children’s cultural and intellectual lives.
Sutherland helped establish several other cultural institutions in Ghana, such as the Ghana Society of Writers (later the Ghana Association of Writers), which published the literary magazine Okyeame, the publishing company Afram Publications, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture and mausoleum at the Du Bois’ Accra home.
Her vision for a pan-African historical theatre festival in Ghana inspired the biannual Pan-African festival of theatrical arts known as PANAFEST, which first took place in 1992. Her commitment to pan-Africanism was reflected in her support for and collaborations with multiple Africans and people from the African diaspora, such as Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Her written works often drew on indigenous Ghanaian storytelling traditions and borrowed from Western literature. She wrote both in English and in Akan. Sutherland’s most prominent plays include Foriwa (1962), which explores the relationship between new ways and old practices, and Edufa (1967), based on the Greek tragedy Alcestis by Euripides.
Many of her poems and other works were broadcasted on The Singing Net, the first radio program on new literature in Ghana which was started in 1955 as part of a national effort to promote the works of Ghanian artists, having previously relayed only BBC news and entertainment programs. Google doodle honored Sutherland on 27 June 2018.
Sutherland’s legacy lives on through the continued works of the Mmofra Foundation to support young people’s creativity. A children’s park in Accra, a street in Amsterdam, The Netherlands called Efua Sutherlandstraat, and one of the houses of the Park Street School in Cambridge were all named in her honor.