The month of May is bittersweet in the history of the people of Ada, a community in the Dangme East District of the Greater Accra Region of Ghana. It is a month when people remember Margaret ‘Maggie’ Kuwornu and how her senseless killing helped stop the aggression of a private salt mining company.
On 17 May 1985, Margaret Kuwornu, a young pregnant woman, was gunned down during a police raid at Songor Lagoon, a brackish lagoon on West Africa’s Gold Coast. In this article we look at why such a violent act took place and what its impact has been.
Traditional use of Songor Lagoon
The history of the communities around the lagoon is a long one and the Tekpebiawe clan is said to be one of the first settlers in the area.
The weather and geology in and around Songor Lagoon are excellent for the salt industry and the people in Ada have traditionally made their living by ‘salt winning’, a local term for the collecting and processing of salt.
Conflict in the lagoon
Vacuum Salt Products Ltd obtained a lease to Songor Lagoon in 1971 from the Tepkerbiawe clan of Ada. Many outside the clan felt the system for decision making on community assets had failed because the lease transaction took place without the consent or understanding of all of the people of Ada. Many believed those who agreed to the transaction were not thinking of the generations to come.
In the years following their purchase of lease, Vacuum Salt Products claimed the local salt miners were stealing its salt and tried to prevented them from harvesting salt anywhere in the Songor area. The community members protested, making it clear the lagoon was their ancestral property and they had rights of access.
On the fateful day, 17 May 1985, local salt miners went to win salt around the lagoon as usual when armed police, enlisted by Vacuum Salt Products, stormed the area. The police subjected the miners to beatings and forced them drink dirty water. Many were taken away in trucks to be locked up for days in police cells in a nearby town.
Amongst the violence and chaos, a shot was fired. It is not known who the intended victim was, but the bullet found Maggie, hitting her in the chest. Her injuries were so severe she tragically died where she fell.
Tragedy brings change
The brutal violence at the lagoon led the government to enact PNDC Law 287. Under this law the government took over the Vacuum Salt Products factory and put Songor Lagoon in trust for the people, including the Ada community. Local people could return to salt winning without fear of another police raid.
Memorial and remembrance
A local cooperative led by its promoter, Aaron Lawerh Hushie, organizes an annual memorial service for Maggie on the day of her ‘crucifixion’. The service normally begins in the late morning at the Bornikorpe Main Park, where a statue of Maggie stands. As music is played at top volume, the youth dance to celebrate her life.
The people who gather for the occasion talk of how Maggie’s killing helped bring them freedom to practice their traditional livelihood. The memorial service provides a forum for survivors of that fateful day to share their experiences. The service usually attracts primary school children, teachers, pastors, traditional rulers, local salt miners as well as invited government officials.