EXCERPT: Undesirable Practices

The following excerpt comes from Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930-1972 by Jessica Cammaert (Nebraska, 2016).


From Chapter Five: Put Some Clothes On or Nkrumah will Get You!: Antinudity Campaigns in the Nkrumah Era, 1958-1966

During the first four decades of colonial rule, British administrators worked to implement an effective native administration in the Northern Territories. Central to this effort was preserving what they viewed as “tradition” in the face of growing capitalist incursion. The Gonja scheme was one notable example of officials trying to head off disintegration of community. Similar large-scale development schemes in the early postcolonial period were much like those preceding independence. In Ghana the 1950s welfarism of Kwame Nkrumah shifted in 1961 from a focus on social welfare and services to a “big push” toward state-led industrialization. In his study of disability programs in Nkrumah-era Ghana, Jeff Grischow relates how Nkrumah’s rehabilitation of disabled persons into productive workers drew on British ideas of social orthopedics, which stressed linkages between citizenship and work.1 Though the welfarist rhetoric of clothing and “undesirable practices” framed postindependence development schemes as community-oriented, the intention of antinudity efforts was to offset the negative social impacts of intended quick, industrial development and ever increasing urbanization; in other words, the objective was to “smooth the transition from “traditional community” to “modern community.”2

 Campaigns against nudity in northern Ghana were part of broader attempts by Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP) to expand state power in late 1950s. This began in 1958–59, when Nkrumah instituted the Preventative Detention Act, which outlawed political opponents, swiftly followed by the CPP’s co-optation of labor unions and producer associations as well as the banning of strikes. By 1959 unions were prohibited outright and the CPP took full control of the Farmer’s Council and women’s and youth organizations. This meant that all village-level organizations became mouthpieces of the CPP. Women’s organizations were consolidated into the Ghana Women’s League, which centralized women’s activities, bringing them more fully under the purview of the party and the state.

Regarding existing antinudity efforts, Nkrumah believed that unless something was done “at the official level” to coordinate the various efforts of the All-African Women’s League and White Fathers and other missions, “very little lasting results would be achieved.”3 This desire was in part inspired by the department of Social Welfare and Community Development’s 1958 social survey on nudity, undertaken by the Sociology Department of the University College of Ghana. The survey explored the persistence of what the postindependence state called “socially undesirable practices” in northern Ghana, of which nudity (particularly female nudity of the genitals, but also breasts) was of greatest concern. The districts of Lawra, Wa area, Navrongo, Bolgatanga, and Yendi were covered by the survey, and the following conclusions were drawn:

  1. There are no parts of Ghana in which it is considered proper for adult men and women to appear in public completely naked, that is, without any covering of the genitals.
  2. The practice of nudity is prevalent among the following major tribal groups of the Northern and Upper Regions of the country: Frafra, Dagarti, Nankanni, Kokomba, Builsa, Kassena and Lobi.
  3. In many of the areas where nudity is practised, the people indulge in the use of LIP PLUGS, FACE AND BODY SCARIFICATION, and in some cases FEMALE “CIRCUMCISION,” all of which practices are inconsistent with modern times and should be discouraged.
  4. The nudity problem in Ghana is primarily a female problem; and in all the areas studies, men wear enough clothing to satisfy the demands of decency.4


Until 1960, a prominent CPP women’s activist, Hannah Kudjoe, had led antinudity efforts and coordinated donations of used clothing from international and domestic donors for free distribution. As her efforts came more fully under the purview of the state, male party officials began to take issue with the methods she used to garner support and donations. For example, Kudjoe employed photos and films of nude persons in publicity as a tool for creating awareness and increasing donations. The CPP responded, “The Government regards the taking of photographs or films of nude or semi-nude people in this country for any purpose as being most undesirable, and I should be grateful if you would be good enough to assist in making this known to all who may be concerned in your Mission or Department.”5 Officials felt the publicity already provided to the press suggested “that the degree of nudity in this Region [the North] is greater than it is in fact.”6 The appearance of widespread nudity in Ghana suggested the newly independent country was not fit for self-governance. The Ministry of Social Welfare declared in 1960, “The prevalence of unclothed persons in the Northern and Upper Regions and elsewhere in the country has often elicited ridicule and scorn from foreigners visiting this country. The practice itself tends to stigmatise the areas, where it predominates, as backward; and, because it is practiced mostly by women, it is quite easily associated with subordination of women, primitiveness and immorality.”7

 Thus the official policy of “no publicity” stemmed from colonial associations between nakedness and primitive backwardness.8 As Philippa Levine has noted, images of nude Africans spurred Victorians’ obsession with primitive Africa. When Francis Galton went to southern Africa to measure African women’s bodies with the use of a sextant, any women unwilling to pose were accused of being “unappreciative of the beneficent marvels of modern science.”9 Sara Baartman, derogatively labeled “the Hottentot Venus,” was put on display throughout Europe, furthering imperial perceptions of African women as hypersexualized.10 As Janice Boddy has shown, these perceptions of nudity and primitiveness worked together to justify colonial conquest; for example, concerns about hygiene, specifically the practice of pharaonic circumcision, helped justify Victorians’ violent conquest of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.11 And in northeastern Ghana during what Jean Allman calls a “ritual disarming,” colonial officials replaced earth-priests’ animal skins with native smocks and dressed chiefs in robes and red fezzes, thus accomplishing what guns could not: incorporating the Talensi into the colonial state.12 In northwestern Ghana, the White Fathers made clothing a marker of Christian conversion.13


 Aside from linkages to primitiveness and conquest, nakedness spoke to anxieties about the status of women and children prevalent throughout the colonial period. As I have argued, male officials went to great lengths to manage the undesirable practices of female circumcision and pawning in order to distance themselves from thorny questions about women’s status and slavery. Rather than abolish these practices through legislation, officials sought to manage them in the hope that they would naturally die out as African societies evolved and developed over time. But with the coming of independence these old concerns took on new meaning, and the state focused less on gradual, natural death and more on swiftly abolishing practices perceived to be backward and thus undesirable. Though labeled “antinudity,” the campaign’s activities covered all practices the state considered socially undesirable, including nudity, female circumcision, and scarification (tribal marks).

Nudity and scarification were considered particularly undesirable in the postindependence state as they indicated not only primitiveness but also an outwardly visible tribal identity that could be placed above one’s civic, national identity.14 Capt. Cecil H. Armitage had conducted a study on tribal markings in the Northern Territories in the 1920s that focused on the Gurensi, Talensi, and Fra Fra tribal groups. Examining marks on the cheeks and nose, around the eyes, and on the forehead and torso, he concluded that they denoted ethnicity, where one was from, or former slave status.15 The belief that scarification still indicated tribal identity was curious, however, as this connection was dismissed by Rattray in 1930; he discussed tribal marks in both volumes of Tribes and concluded that they had “aesthetic rather than a clan or tribal significance.” Because slave raiders in the nineteenth century branded their captives with distinct marks, “whatever may once have been the value of tribal marks as a means of distinguishing tribes or clans, tattooing, with certain exceptions is now a somewhat uncertain criterion by which to judge such matters.”16 One exception was the Nankanse people, whose scarification and tattooing were so distinct that Rattray believed they were markers of tribal identity.

Speaking of tribal marks in her speeches, Kudjoe explained that ancestors used tribal marks when there were wars among tribes in order to distinguish tribal belonging. She emphasized that this was because back then “they did not know that they belonged to one nation and as such, were one people”: “Now that we have had our Independence and are under one Leader, one Government and one Party, there are no more tribal wars and we do not expect them. In order not to be tribalistic and thus bring about quarrels among ourselves, we should discontinue with the practice of tribal marks on our faces and bodies.”17

 Placing tribal identity above the nation was a hindrance to nation-building. Kudjoe spoke to this nationalist sentiment when she described Ghana as being “one” nation where all voted for independence to “become one people”: “In this case the barrier which the Imperialists created to divide the then Gold Coast in order to have the access of cheating us has now been broken and burnt into ashes by our illustrious Leader Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Founder of the Nation.” This was not just nationalist rhetoric. It was indicative of Nkrumah’s brand of socialism—his plan of educating the people of northern Ghana to live “equally as their counterparts in the South” and transforming the country into “a socialist state with plenty for all irrespective of class, tribe or creed.”18



  1. Grischow, “Kwame Nkrumah, Disability, and Rehabilitation in Ghana,” 179.
  2. Grischow, Shaping Tradition, 204.
  3. Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister’s Office, to Krobo Edusei, Esq., M. P., Minister of Transport and Communications, 5 October 1959, Anti-Nudity Campaign, Upper Region, 9/2/6, NAGT.
  4. Principal Secretary, Ministry of Social Welfare, Accra, to Secretary to the Regional Commissioner, Upper Region, Bolgatanga, 3 September 1960, “Memorandum on Nudity in the Northern and Upper Regions,” Anti-Nudity Campaign, Upper Region, 9/2/6, NAGT.
  5. Regional Office, Tamale, 26 May 1959, Nudity Campaign, 5/2/8, NAGT.
  6. E. S. Packham, Secretary to the Regional Commissioner, Regional Office, Tamale, to the Secretary to the Prime Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Accra, 8 August 1959, Anti-Nudity Campaign, Upper Region, 9/2/6, NAGT,
  7. Principal Secretary, “Memorandum on Nudity in the Northern and Upper Regions.”
    8. Social Advancement Unit of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Progress Report for the Period October 1964 to March 1965, Anti-Nudity Campaign, 5/2/8, NAGT.
  8. Levine, “States of Undress,” 197.
  9. Youé, “Sara Baartman.” See also Holmes, The Hottentot Venus.
  10. Boddy, “Purity and Conquest in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.”
  11. Allman, “ ‘Let Your Fashion Be in Line with Our Ghanaian Costume,’ ” 147.
  12. Hawkins, Writing and Colonialism in Northern Ghana, 83.
  13. Exceptions were made in the antinudity legislation to exempt those performing tribal marks for medicinal reasons, but for the most part marks signifying ethnicity, autochthony, or a slave heritage were to be prohibited.
  14. Captain C.H. Armitage, Tribal Markings and Marks of adornment of the Natives of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast Colony. London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, 1924.
  15. Rattray, Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland, 329.
  16. Hannah Kudjoe, “Report of my recent tour to the Northern and Upper Regions on Anti-Nudity Operations from 16th–27th June, 1964,” Nudity Campaign, 6/2/6, NAGT.
  17. Kudjoe, “Report of my recent tour.”


Enjoyed what you read? Find Undesirable Practices on NetGalley!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s