Efua Sutherland was a phenomenal Ghanaian writer, dramatist, teacher, scholar and cultural activist. For about 40 years, she was in the forefront of literary and theatrical movements in Ghana (from the 1950’s) and was a key player in pushing African performance to the university level. She was instrumental in founding various literary establishments like Ghana Society of Writers, the literary magazine Okyeamethe Ghana Drama Studio and the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan African Culture (which is still in great shape in Cantonments, Accra). She’s well known for her works: Foriwa (1962)Edufa (1967), and The Marriage of Anansewa (1975). Find out more about Sutherland at the Mmofra Foundation – where children and culture connect, for which she is the founder.


Efua Theodora Sutherland (27 June 1924 – 21 January 1996) was a Ghanaian playwright, director, dramatist, children’s author, poet, educationalist, researcher, child advocate, and cultural activist. Her works include Foriwa (1962), Edufa (1967), and The Marriage of Anansewa (1975).

She founded the Ghana Drama Studio, the Ghana Society of Writers, the Ghana Experimental Theatre, and a community project called the Kodzidan (Story House). As the earliest Ghanaian playwright-director, she was an influential figure in the development of modern Ghanaian theatre and helped to introduce the study of African performance traditions at the university level. She was also a pioneering African publisher, establishing the company Afram Publications in the 1970s.

She was a cultural advocate for children from the early 1950s until her death and played a role in developing educational curricula, literature, theatre, and film for and about Ghanaian children. Her 1960 photo essay Playtime in Africa, co-authored with Willis E. Bell, highlighted the centrality of play in children’s development and was followed in the 1980s by her leadership in the development of a model public children’s parks system for the country.

Sutherland’s pan-Africanism was reflected in her support for its principles and her collaborations with African and African diaspora personalities in a range of disciplines, including interactions with Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Maya Angelou, W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois, Margaret Busby, Tom Feelings, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Femi Osofisan, Félix Morisseau-Leroy, Es’kia Mphahlele, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Having in 1980 written an original proposal for a pan-African historical theatre festival in Ghana as a cultural vehicle for bringing together Africans around the globe, Sutherland was the inspiration behind the biennial Pan-African festival of theatre arts known as PANAFEST, first held in 1992.

Efua Sutherland died in Accra aged 71 in 1996.

She was born as Efua Theodora Morgue in Cape Coast, Gold Coast (now Ghana), where she studied teaching at St Monica’s Training College in Mampong. She then went to England to continue her education, earning a BA degree at Homerton College, Cambridge University — one of the first African women to study there — and studying Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Returning to Ghana in 1951, she taught first at Fijai Secondary School at Sekondi, then at St. Monica’s School (1951–54), and also began writing for children. She would later say: “I started writing seriously in 1951. I can even remember the precise time. It was at Easter. I had been thinking about the problem of literature in my country for a very long time.

I was on teaching practice with my students once in a village and I got positively angry about the kind of literature that the children were being forced into. It had nothing to do with their environment, their social circumstances, or anything. And so I started writing.”

In 1954 she married Bill Sutherland, an African American and Pan-Africanist who in 1953 had moved to Ghana (they had three children: educationalist Esi Sutherland-Addy, architect Ralph Sutherland, and lawyer Amowi Sutherland Phillips) and she helped her husband in the establishment of a school in the Transvolta area.

When the Gold Coast became the independent nation of Ghana in 1957, Efua Sutherland organized the Ghana Society of Writers (later the Ghana Association of Writers), which in 1960 brought out the first issue of the literary magazine Okyeame, of which she eventually became editor.

Sutherland experimented creatively with storytelling and other dramatic forms from indigenous Ghanaian traditions. Her plays were often based on traditional stories but also borrowed from Western literature, transforming African folktale conventions into modern dramatic theatre techniques.

Many of her poems and other writings were broadcast on The Singing Net, a popular radio program started by Henry Swanzy, and were subsequently published in his 1958 anthology Voices of Ghana. The 1960 first issue of Okyeame magazine contains her short story “Samantaase”, a retelling of a folktale.

Her best-known plays are Edufa (1967) (based on Alcestis by Euripides), Foriwa (1967), and The Marriage of Anansewa (1975).

In 1958, Sutherland founded the Ghana Experimental Theatre, which was based at the Ghana Drama Studio built by Sutherland and launched by President Kwame Nkrumah in 1963 with Joe de Graft as its first director. Sited in downtown Accra, the Drama Studio became a training ground for a range of theatre practitioners from all over Africa.

In 1962 she joined the staff of the new School of Music and Drama, headed by J. H. Kwabena Nketia. In 1963, when she took on the role of Research Associate at the Institute of African Studies, the University of Ghana she brought along with her the Ghana Drama Studio which became an off-campus training space, called the University of Ghana Drama Studio.

Sutherland, in addition to her field research and teaching in African Dramatic Forms, was a core member of the team which conceptualized and established the School of Performing Arts. Also concerned with traditional storytelling and developing community theatre, she founded the Kodzidan (Story House) in Ekumfi-Atwia, Central Region, which was recognized worldwide as a pioneering model in theatre for development.

Sutherland mentored and was in turn inspired by many of Ghana’s accomplished writers, including Ama Ata Aidoo, Kofi Anyidoho, and Meshack Asare.

In the early 1970s, Sutherland co-founded the publishing company Afram Publications, which was incorporated in 1973, and in March 1974 began operating from her private studio in “Araba Mansa”, her compound at Dzorwulu, Accra. Sutherland remained involved in Afram’s editorial work until her death.

Cultural activism and pan-Africanism

Sutherland’s work attracted the attention of creatives from the global African world. Maya Angelou’s fifth volume of memoirs All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes testifies to the emotional support and entrée into Ghanaian society afforded her in the 1960s by Efua Sutherland who became a close friend.

Sutherland had met Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois when led the Ghana delegation to the 1958 Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Tashkent (now the capital of Uzbekistan). She was to personally intervene, at his death in Accra, Ghana in 1963, to support Mrs Shirley Du Bois.

In the 1980s Sutherland was instrumental in establishing the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture and mausoleum at the Du Bois’ Accra home.

In 1980 she wrote a paper entitled “Proposal for a Historical Drama Festival in Cape Coast”, underscoring the significance she attached to connections between Africa and its Diaspora.

This inspired the venture that came to fruition as the state-sponsored PANAFEST, the first Pan-African Historical Theater Festival, which was held in Cape Coast, Elmina, and Accra, Ghana, from 12 to 19 December 1992 under the theme “The Re-emergence of African Civilization”.

Advocacy for children

Sutherland presided over Ghana’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the first country to do so) and chaired the National Commission on Children from 1983 to 1990, a period that marked the most vigorous and comprehensive child advocacy on a national scale in the history of Ghana.

In this capacity, she steered a number of innovative programs, including a Child Education Fund to support underserved communities, the Mobile Technical Workshop extending science learning to poor or rural children, and the securing of land to seed model child-centered park and library complexes around the country. She laid the groundwork for the Mmofra Foundation, active since 1997 as a civic organization dedicated to enriching the cultural and intellectual lives of all children in Ghana. In 2012 the Playtime in Africa Initiative, inspired by her eponymous 1961 book, was launched to revitalize child-friendly public space advocacy.

Her final most significant work at the Institute of African Studies, Legon, was her Children’s Drama Development Project, which was aimed at developing materials, methods, and staff for programs of creative dramatics in and out of school. Sutherland was invited by UNICEF to join a worldwide network of scholars to consider a code of human rights for the protection of children.


Following the 1992 construction of the National Theatre of Ghana on the site occupied by the Drama Studio, a replica of the Studio was constructed on the campus of the University of Ghana as part of the facilities of the School of Performing Arts. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the University, the Studio was renamed the Efua Sutherland Drama Studio

A 12-acre space in central Accra reserved as a children’s park in central Accra through the advocacy of Efua Sutherland and it is named after her.

Efua Sutherlandstraat is one of a number of streets in an area of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, named after significant women writers and activists.

Active since 1997, Mmofra Foundation was established by Efua Sutherland in her final years and is dedicated to enriching the cultural and intellectual lives of all children in Ghana. For over 20 years, thousands of children have benefited from its literary, nature-sensitive, and creativity-oriented programs.

A green cultural space/park called Mmofra Place in the Dzorwulu area of Accra is open to children of all backgrounds, thanks to the estate of Efua T. Sutherland.

Efua Sutherland Hall is a student hall of residence at Ashesi University, Berekuso, Ghana.

The Legacy of Efua Sutherland: Pan African Cultural Activism, a volume in her honor was published in 2007, edited by Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy. Contributors are Anne Adams, Esi Sutherland-Addy, Ama Ata Aidoo, Maya Angelou, Kofi Anyidoho, Sandy Arkhurst, William Branch, Margaret Busby, John Collins, David Donkor, James Gibbs, Comfort Caulley-Hanson, Biodun Jeyifo, Robert July, Mabel Komasi, Florence Laast, John Lemly, Jurgen Martini, Michael McMullan, Penina Mlama, Femi Osofisan, Sandra Richards, Amowi Sutherland Phillips, Ola Rotimi, Margaret Watts, Henry Wellington, and Vivian Windley.

Writer, poet, lecturer, and diplomat Abena P. A. Busia devoted a chapter to Efua Sutherland (“To the Roadmaker: Fragments of a Meditation”) in her volume of poems Traces of a Life: A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems (Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2008).

Sutherland was honored with a Google doodle on 27 June 2018, which would have been her 94th birthday.

Works briefly annotated

Sutherland experimented creatively with storytelling and other dramatic forms from indigenous Ghanaian traditions. Her plays were often based on traditional stories but also borrowed from Western literature, transforming African folktale conventions into modern dramatic theatre techniques.

Many of her poems and other writings were broadcast on The Singing Net, a popular radio program started by Henry Swanzy, and were subsequently published in his 1958 anthology Voices of Ghana. The 1960 first issue of Okyeame magazine contains her short story Samantaase, a retelling of a folktale.

Her best-known plays are Edufa (1967) (based on Alcestis by Euripides), Foriwa (1967), and The Marriage of Anansewa (1975).

In Edufa the eponymous character seeks to escape death by manipulating his wife, Ampoma, to the death that has been predicted for him by oracles. In the play, Sutherland uses traditional Ghanaian beliefs in divination and the interaction of traditional and European ceremonies in order to portray Edufa as a rich and successful modern person who is held in high esteem by his people.

The play uses traditional ritual and symbolism, but the story is told in the context of Edufa’s capitalistic abandonment of his moral commitment to his wife, while his wife and the other women favor the morality of the past.

In Foriwa the eponymous character, who is the daughter of the queen mother of Kyerefaso, and Labaran, a graduate from northern Ghana who lives a simple life, bring enlightenment to Kyerefaso, a town that has become backward and ignorant because the town’s elders refuse to learn new ways.

Foriwa‘s main theme is the alliance of old traditions and new ways. The play has a national theme to promote a new national spirit in Ghana that would encourage openness to new ideas and inter-ethnic cooperation.

The Marriage of Anansewa: A Storytelling Drama (1975) is considered Sutherland’s most valuable contribution to Ghanaian drama and theater. In the play, she transmutes traditional Akan Ananse Spider tales (Anansesem) into a new dramatic structure, which she calls Anansegoro. Nyamekye (a version of Alice in Wonderland), one of her later plays, shows how she was influenced by the folk opera tradition

Sutherland was also an author of works for children. These works included two animated rhythm plays, Vulture! Vulture! and Tahinta (1968), and two pictorial essays, with photographs by Willis Bell (1924–2000): Playtime in Africa (1960) and The Roadmakers (1961). Many of her short stories can be described as rhythmic prose poems. Voice in the Forest, a book of the folklore and fairytales of Ghana, was published in 1983.

Playtime in Africa has been described as “a groundbreaking book on Ghana’s play culture”, which Sutherland considered important in developing young minds and bodies. Not only was it published three years after Ghana’s independence it was the first documentation of children’s play culture in Ghana.

The book presented the nuances of children’s lives to forefront of society and it also ushered in an indigenous movement in writing for children, along with publishing and development through drama for children.

A Voice in the Forest is a text that powerfully portrays the political, economic, and social complexity of colonialism and cultural relativism in Ghana in regards to children. The text is a retelling of an Akan folktale and deals with traditional cultural values through the role of the trickster figure. It tells the story of a man named Bempong who unknowingly discovers a Samanta, a wood nymph, and brings her back to his village.

Initially Bempong believes the Samanta is a lost girl, wandering alone through the forest. For the first half of the story the Samanta refuses to speak. It is not until Bempong cuts off her hair, in an effort to tame her outgrown hair, that Bempong realizes this girl is a Samanta, a wood nymph—”a creature of strange magical powers”.

Finding her voice in a moment of anger, the Samanta curses the village, leaving them with no food until she has her hair back. The hero of the book is Afrum, Bempong’s son, who is regarded as the village fool. Sutherland’s choice to celebrate the fool is a part of a longer lineage of uses of the trickster figure in African literature.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here