Thursday, 21 May 2009
Meet the waakye seller appointed to the Council of State
Hajia Hajara Musa Ali is one of the new members of President John Mills’ Council of State. The Council is the highest advisory body to the president. Traditionally, eminent and well accomplished personalities are appointed by the president to join some elected representatives from the regions. However, Hajia’s story is a humble one. Unlike the other members of the Council, Hajia is a school drop-out and sold cooked rice and beans (popularly known as waakye) by the roadside. The dailyEXPRESS met up with Hajia to hear her story and how she managed to rise phenomenally in politics despite being a woman. [Despite being a drop out and selling Waakye for many years, Hajia speaks English and this interview was conducted in English]
Who is Hajia Musa Ali?
Hajia Musa Ali is a mother of six, married for forty years to Mr. Ali Mmoro. And Hajia started life as a Waakye seller- that is a local staple prepared with rice and beans.
For how long were you cooking or selling waakye?
Well, I inherited the waakye business from my mother, who was a waakye seller. She sold waakye to send us to school. When I completed my middle school in 1969, I decided to go into an early marriage even though my father was against it. You know… my father was a technician with the Ghana Post. At that time it was General Post Office in Accra. He wanted me to get more education, at least go higher. But love didn’t allow me. I fell in love early. So I married my husband at the end of the day, and I abandoned my schooling.
How old were you then?
By then, I was 19 years…(laughing)
The waakye selling, did you have a restaurant of your own?
Not at all, it was the roadside waakye selling my brother. Where do I have the money to build a restaurant? I was just a waakye seller by the roadside. In fact when I got married in 1972 I went to Nigeria with my husband. He got a contract there. So I started the waakye business there, because I felt idle at home as a housewife. I decided to start selling waakye as a hobby. Then when we came back to Ghana in 1983, I decided to continue with my business. So I started at the Accra sports stadium, then we later relocated to Ashaiman where I continued with my waakye selling.
You were selling waakye…what is the connection between waakye selling and politics?
Well, waakye selling and politics have so much in common because they all involve dealing with human beings. I deal with people and you know politics is about people. So that is the connection.
So what motivated you to leave the waakye business and get into politics?
I see myself as a born-politician. Even way back in middle school in 1969, whenever I sit in classroom, I would like to talk to people around me about politics and discuss issues in current affairs. So politics is in my blood. In fact, when I went to Nigeria, I started campaigning for Shehu Shagari even though I was an alien. You know I speak the Hausa language, so some of them thought I was from northern Nigeria. So I went out campaigning for him. Whenever people come to buy waakye, I tell them Shagari was the right man, so they should vote for him. So I was doing my waakye selling hand-in-hand with my politics.
When exactly did you get into real politics in Ghana?
That was in 1992, when the ban on politics was lifted in Ghana. I got into politics in Ashaiman in 1992. I started as the deputy constituency women’s organiser for the People’s National Convention (PNC), while still selling my waakye. Time management was very important in this. It helped me a lot. I had time for the waakye preparation and selling and I had time for political meetings.
I know that in Ghana, it is very difficult for women to succeed in politics, because they don’t have the money to support themselves. How were you able to fund your political activism as a woman?
I told you I was a waakye seller. So whatever I get from my waakye business, I just pump it into my political activities.
What about your family?
Well I also took care of my family. That is management. I know how to manage. You understand? I have time for my politics, I have money for my politics and I take care of my children. And one surprising thing is if you love something… if you have the flair for something, you do it and you don’t even fear that you are doing it. Just do it outright; whether you are tired or not, you just do it because you love doing it…and I love politics, so I do it and I don’t regret. At times my husband will complain asking “this woman, are you not tired? And I tell him no, I am not tired at all. I can travel today and if you ask me to do that again tomorrow, I will do it, because I love my job. I think that is what helped me and carried me on.
You said you are a born politician, did you ever meet Prof Mills before he became president?
I didn’t meet him personally but I met some members of his political party during the second round of the elections.
He has made you a member of his council of state. How do you feel about that?
In fact when I heard about it, I was surprised.
Why were you surprised?
I was so surprised because I never knew that whatever I was doing people were watching.
Did you believe it was you?
Well I believed it. When I heard the announcement, I believed it was I Hajia they were talking about.
What was the reaction of your family?
Well in fact, that day I attended a programme on Women’s Day and I was one of the facilitators at Amasaman. When I came home around 4 o’clock pm, I was praying when somebody called my husband and I heard him saying yes…yes...she is the one…she is the one. So when I finished I asked him what was happening…and he told me someone said he heard my name being mentioned as a member of the new council of state. So the person called him to confirm whether I was the one, because they were in some sort of doubt. Actually, I am not known in Ashaiman as Hajia, they call me Booyah. So when they heard Hajara Musa Ali, they wanted to confirm. He was so happy, the only thing I said was Oh God, thank you.
Did you throw any parties to celebrate?
No, not yet. I am yet to do that.
Why do you think you were appointed?
May be it was through my efforts; because during the second round of elections last year, I grabbed the opportunity to support the NDC and I went all out to campaign for them. So the NDC guys saw me on the field. In fact I didn’t take it as a joke at all. I put everything that I had into it. And may be at the end of the day he heard the news about me and decided to at least nominate me and give me the chance. Aside that, I am sure they made some background checks to know who Hajia is, what can she do; and if they put her in that position, can she perform? Then they realised that this is where I can do better and they decided to put me there.
Earlier, you said you stopped schooling after completing middle school. Did you continue your education later on?
I couldn’t get the chance. I told you that I went into an early marriage.
But you speak very good English, is that the result of your middle school certification?
You know our time the education system was perfect so if you are able to go into the middle school and have your certificate, you can go into any venture. In those days, after middle school, you have chance to go into a professional training school to become either a teacher, a nurse, etc because of the perfection of the system. But now, unless you have a bachelor’s degree, you cannot do anything. And I like reading a lot. My father laid the foundation for me and I had to build on it.
You have six children, you have a husband, how does your family feel when you are jumping left, right and centre in political activism?
It wasn’t easy for them, especially for my husband. But I had to convince him as a woman.
What did you do to convince him?
You have to work your way through. Build that trust between you the woman and your husband. If he trusts you, he will allow you to do whatever you want. If you are going into a meeting, and you tell him this is where I am going to; he will do his checks to confirm it. So that is what I did. I built the trust. It came to a time when I tell him that I am going for a campaign for two weeks he accepts it, because he believes in me. When he makes his checks, he is able to establish that what I said I was going to do is what I went to do, and I never diverted from that.
You were sacrificing your marital love for politics?
Yes don’t worry. You know in politics, I want to get there, where I will talk and people will listen, for us to move this nation forward. So I was not worried at all.
Traditionally, I guess you are from the northern part of Ghana where normally, women are not supposed to be that vocal in the traditional setting. How easy or difficult was it for you?
It was very difficult, especially in the Zongos. I contested the 2004 election to be elected as a member of parliament for the Ashaiman constituency. About half of the population in Ashaiman are Muslims, so some of them voted against me. What is a woman going there to do? They asked? Religion…the religious factor came in. So they didn’t vote for me. They even campaigned against me. They went to the extent of trying to convince my husband to stop me, but they couldn’t. They do it and I also do mine. He is my husband, so I know how to handle him. You can’t tell him something and he won’t listen to me as his wife. He comes to the house very furious and I will cool him down and tell him that my brother look I am doing something better for the family. It’s not for me alone. Tomorrow if I become somebody, he will benefit. If he is passing by, people will point fingers at him saying look at honourable Hajia’s husband. They will give him a better place to sit when he goes to a function. So I asked him to please support me with prayers if he can’t go there to campaign for me. I always tell him that with his prayers, God will answer us. But I couldn’t make it. Nevertheless, I didn’t give up. When the district assembly elections came, I decided to contest and he objected to it. He said how can I contest for a parliamentary election and come back so low to want to go into the district assembly. But I told him not to worry because I want to start from the grassroots for people to know that I am serious. In fact my area is made up of about 95% Muslims. So I contested against a Muslim guy. Again, they decided to give it to him because he is a man. They voted against me.
So you lost that one too?
I lost that one too, but I never gave up. I even intended to contest the 2008 elections again but the presidential candidate of my party Dr. Edward Mahama asked me to drop the idea because I am the national women’s organizer for our party and he wanted me to be a key member of his campaign team. So I dropped the idea and followed him out to campaign.
Will you still continue contesting subsequent elections to become a member of parliament?
Why not? If the chance offers itself, I will do it.
Now you are a member of the council of state. Do you know what role you are supposed to be playing in this body?
Yes, it’s an advisory role.
What kind of advice are you going to give to President Mills?
I am not alone. We are a team of 25, and we are all there to counsel the president. We don’t do it individually. When there is an issue on which to advice the president, we meet as a team in our respective committees to deliberate on the issue and take a decision that will move the nation forward and advice the president on that.
What if you come out as a team, you advise the president on an issue and the president decides to take another position on the issue and he goes ahead with that. How will you personally feel about that decision?
Well, we have done our best. We have told him what to do. If he agrees, that is fine, but if he goes against it and does what he wants to do, then that is not our problem. Because, we did what we have been tasked to do, but he didn’t listen to us. We cannot force him to do what we want him to do. He is an elderly person, he is the president of the nation, and he may know what the nation needs better than some of us.
In your political journey, have there been any person or persons, or organisations who have supported you in anyway that you are grateful for today?
Yes that is right. When I was selling waakye by the roadside, I started as a local unit committee member. So it was an organisation called IBIS, which came in to support some us. They took us to workshops to train us to build our capacity to be able to function well as women in political activism. From there, other NGOs came in through workshops and I am now here.
Do you think you owe them some form of gratitude for their support?
Very much… very much, especially IBIS, Abantu, WILDAF and others. I am very grateful and I thank them so much. I would like to say that they should not stop here. They should carry on and one day, they will get another woman like me to carry the flag up.
After four years, the president will have to put himself up for re-election. In case he does not win and the council of state is dissolved, what will you do next?
I will continue with my political activity, if only I have the strength.
Are you aiming to become probably a Vice Presidential candidate for your party PNC some day?
Well if I am able to upgrade my status. You know, Ghanaians will not agree to vote for a form-four leaver.
That is not the qualification to become a Vice President though?
But you know Ghanaians, they will say ei!…waakye seller being our Vice President, we will not vote for that party. So I think this opportunity that God has given me, I would like to utilise it to my own benefit. For instance I would like to go back to school even though I have grey hair. I will listen to a guy of your age to teach me because I want to learn. I will use the opportunity to upgrade myself educationally, to do whatever I can, so that if the chance comes and I am elected to be the Vice President, there will be no problem for me. That is what I intend doing.
So you are very hopeful that the future still holds a lot for you in politics?
That’s right…that’s right. I am aiming very high.
Did you ever regret being a muslim woman, had to grow up in a muslim community where because of the stereotype against women, they never allowed you to reach what you really wanted to become?
I never regret it. Why should I regret? That’s my religion. I rather do well to change that stereotype, for people to know that after all a muslim woman can do it... and she has done it to the best of her ability. So that my other muslim women will get the chance in the future. I won’t misbehave, because if I misbehave and do the wrong thing, if I send a negative signal to that community, then I am trying to block the chance of other women from the muslim community; and which I vowed not to do. I will never do anything negatively that will block their chance. I will open up, I will be a muslim woman, follow the muslim dictates…everything, so that tomorrow if another muslim woman will come in, she will get the chance very easily.
Do you have any advice for younger women who are perhaps confused, desperate, don’t know what to do, etc. Do you have any advice for such people?
Yes I have. Falling by the way side is not the end of your life. I fell by the way side for how many times? I never gave up. I fall, I wake up, I shake myself up, and move again. I fall and I wake up and today this is where I have gotten myself to. So I am calling on them, they shouldn’t give up. It is not a matter of qualification, but a matter of experience. They shouldn’t give up at all. If your parents are able to give you the basic education and may be financially they could no longer send you through higher education, you have to carry on yourself. Never give up. Women should never give up because we are different, we are unique. We don’t get things easy. No man can give you your freedom on a silver platter, unless you work for it. They should be up and doing. Whatever comes their way, they should grab it. It doesn’t matter… even if you are a salted fish (koobi) seller, you are somebody, you can do something with your koobi selling. If you carry that business very well, one day you will be an exporter of koobi to the United States. So they shouldn’t give up at all.