On the 1st July 2022, the Government of Sierra Leone introduced the New Leones currency after redenominating the old Leone currency by removing three zeros. What was LE 1,000 is now LE 1; LE 2,000 is now LE 2; LE 5,000 is now LE 5; and 10,000 is now LE 10. But what has caught the eye of the public was the introduction of the NLE 20 (20 Leones which is worth LE 20,000 in the old money, the highest value of the NLE). The Twenty Leones currency has a unique design with a colourful background and most intriguing is the face of a beautiful, charming, lovable and attractive Sierra Leonean woman named Constance Cummings-John Aka “Mama Sharp,” a new nickname given to her by Sierra Leoneans. A lot of questions have been raised about Madam Constance Cummings John. Who is Constance Cummings-John?
Constance Cummings-John was a Sierra Leonean educationist and politician in both pre and post-colonial Sierra Leone who campaigned for women’s rights in Sierra Leone and the continent of Africa at large. She was born in 1918 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, into the elite Krio Horton family. She was the first woman in Africa to join a municipal council and in 1966, she was elected mayor of Freetown, becoming the first woman to serve as mayor of Freetown and the first woman in Africa to govern a modern capital city.
The Cummings-John family included scholars, businesspeople, and professionals. She attended the top local missionary schools, was a member of prestigious organisations and societies, and travelled to see family relatives stationed in other West African colonies.
Even though she was active in the two main black groups in London—the West African Students’ Union and the League of Colored People—when she was transferred to London in 1935 for teacher training, she earned her degree in a year. She continued her education in the 1930s in the United States, supported by a colonial office loan, to study vocational education. Her work path began with the socially acceptable teaching profession, like many other activist women of her era, but took a political turn when she became involved in nationalist battles.
In 1936, Cummings-John returned to London after encountering racism in the United States and joined the International African Service Bureau (IASB), which was established by the Sierra Leonean anti-colonialist I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson. A year after getting married to the considerably older and newly trained lawyer Ethan Cummings-John, she moved back to Freetown. The colonial government offered Cummings-John a position as an inspector of schools, but she opted to accept the position of principal of the African Methodist Episcopal Girls’ Industrial School, which flourished quickly under her leadership and fundraising skills.
In 1938, Constance Cummings-John set up the League of Coloured People (LCP) Freetown Sierra Leone branch in abid to stretch the ideology to the people of Sierra Leone. But her efforts were frustrated by the membership’s indifference to involving non-Krio (protectorate) people in politics. Due to this internal fracas in the LCP camp in Freetown, she sent a message to LCP headquarters in England and asked them to affiliate with the newly formed West African Youth League (WAYL). The establishment of the West African Youth League was a response to the ‘divide and rule policies promulgated by the colonial government which separated the coastal colony and Krio population from the rest of the country, which was ruled by the British and known as the Protectorate. During the British colonial rule in Sierra Leone, the colonial government restricted colonial education to the existing Krio elite in the capital Freetown and the indigenes of the land living in the uplands. British colonisers also delegated the majority of administration to traditional chiefs and native rulers, ensuring that their colonies could be run “on a shoestring.” The British also admitted Africans to the central colonial authority, but advancement was limited.
WAYL as a movement for change was founded by popular radical activist Issac Theophilus Acuna Wallace-Johnson with the goal of achieving social, political, and economic independence’ for all West African colonies. Constance Cummings-John had great admiration for WAYL and its vision so she joined WAYL right away and quickly rose to the position of vice president. She was a member of the WAYL Central Committee, along with four other women, and worked to ensure that women’s concerns were not neglected. WAYL grew in popularity as it worked to establish trade unions’ own branches in the Protectorate. Muslims, who had hitherto been barred from all political and social activity, were welcomed, and members from the Protectorate worked on its many committees.
Constance Cummings-John kicked off her political career with WAYL and was one of four WAYL candidates to win a seat in the 1938 Freetown municipal elections when she received the most votes. At the age of 20, she became the youngest and only female politician to win an election in the African colonies, and she went on to serve as a municipal councillor for 20 years (1938-1942 and 1952-1966). As a councillor, her main priorities were education, library facilities, market, and civic sanitation.
After winning a municipal seat, Constance Summings-John began to receive political threats and pressure to sway from Wallace-Johnson’s ideologies. The British Colonial Officers exerted significant pressure on Cummings-John to condemn Wallace-Johnson, who was viewed as a dangerous communist agitator. She refused but was defeated in the 1942 elections, by which time Wallace-Johnson was in ‘preventive custody,’ and the WAYL was dying. Cummings-John narrowly avoided incarceration. Her outspokenness and reluctance to yield to the colonial government’s demands made Sierra Leone a dangerous location for her. As a result, she travelled to the United States with her two kids in 1946, circumventing the British travel embargo.
Constance Cummings-John Political Career
After five years in the United States, Constance Cummings-John returned to Sierra Leone in 1951 to set up the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls, which she funded through her quarrying business and US fundraising. The idea that the school was to be free was anathema to the British colonial authorities who threw numerous roadblocks in her path. It was eventually agreed that she would charge pupils a small annual fee. The school, which had a vocational and commercial orientation, had 611 students by 1953, and the government agreed to cover the salaries of the secondary department personnel in 1954.
When Sierra Leone began the process of gaining independence from Britain, the 1951 constitution granted the power to the Protectorates, but Krio leaders formed their own party. However, with the aim of national unity, some younger Krio intellectuals, notably Cummings-John, joined the Protectorate lawmakers’ Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). ‘One Country, One People,’ was the SLPP’s slogan. Politically, reforms in 1951 combined the colony and protectorate, and the legislative council, while retaining appointed white members, now had a majority of elected Africans, despite a woefully limited franchise. Later that year, in modified legislative council elections, the SLPP won an overwhelming majority. Most Krios were furious about this.
Constance Cummings-John was appointed to a seat in the Freetown City Council by the Governor of Sierra Leone. Cummings-John also served on the SLPP’s executive and maintained her campaign for the inclusion of Protectorate peoples and women in its policies. General elections were held for a new elected House of Representatives in 1957 but were still restricted to men. Cummings-John decided to stand for election as an SLPP candidate; she again gained the most votes and became one of two women in the new Sierra Leone government led by the SLPP. Her move to stand for election as an SLPP candidate raised mixed reactions and concerns within the Krio community and therefore she was condemned and called a traitor by her Krio compatriots.
She was further accused of malpractice in the 1957 election and was taken to court where she was given a biased prison sentence but was later dismissed after she appealed to the court. As a woman who had a notable reputation, Constance Cummings-John later resigned her seat rather than face further humiliation as she was deeply shaken by the accusations levelled at her. She didn’t give up on her goals and vision for women’s rights in Sierra Leone, she again stood for elections in the Freetown Municipal Council in 1958 and topped the polls with the majority of the votes. After winning the elections, as opposed to denominational, she continued her struggles for women’s rights, education for all; her struggles for the market women against new, high tolls for market stalls; her struggles against the decree forcing women to buy staples of rice and palm oil from the large British firms rather than directly from producers, and her struggles for a farmers’ bank.
As a woman who lived in the era of British colonial rule where discrimination and oppression were the order of the day, Constance Cumming-John struggle was evident as she suffered a lot of backlashes. She struggle to untie the knot of colonialism and gain acceptance in the British colony of Sierra Leone, where women were not expected to engage in political activities. In 1961, Sierra Leone gained its independence from Britain and shortly after the country held its post-independence elections in which Cummings-John was defeated by a rival SLPP candidate. She abandoned national politics, and four years later, in 1966 she was elected mayor of Freetown, becoming the first African woman to govern a modern capital city on the continent.
Constance Cummings-John used her position to attempt to unite the people of Freetown and to elevate the position of women in Sierra Leone. She initiated a sanitation campaign; street traders were regulated; attempts were made to channel the energies of the growing number of street children; a municipal secondary school was set up. But, however, Cummings-John did not have much time to achieve all of this due to political upheavals which resulted in a commission of enquiry into Freetown’s finances and, thereafter, the SLPP lost the 1966 general election to the main opposition party All People’s Congress (APC)
Cummings-John is noted to have said that her major fault in her political career was ‘naivety in ascribing her own loyalty, generosity and civil courage to her male associates – to the politicians whose rapacity [had], during the past 40 years, brought her beloved country to ruin.’ Nonetheless, she will always be remembered in the history books as someone who strove for independence for her people and for equality, as well as for the work she did with women and in education. Her school for girls still stands.
Cummings-John spent the rest of her life in London, despite unsuccessful attempts to return to Sierra Leone in 1974 and 1996. She wrote her memoirs in 1995. She died on February 21, 2000, at the age of 82, in London.