‘People said to me when the corruption of Charles Haughey broke, “you don’t seem that surprised.” And I said you forget that I spent six years living in Africa and I’ve already seen terrible corruption!’ In 2014 Ghana was ranked 61st, joint with Croatia, in the Corruption Perception Index, Ireland was ranked 17th, joint with the United States.
Joan Stokes was born in 1928 in Dublin. She grew up in Sandymount until the age of eight, her family then moved to the Grace Park Road Drumcondra. Whilst on the Northside she got her higher diploma in arts in secondary education from Scoil Caitríona, a Dominican College on Eccles street. Some notable past pupils include broadcaster Marian Finucan, particle physicist and professor of physics, Anne Kernan and politician Róisín Shortall. ‘There was nothing for girls in those days except to go into the civil service, nursing or teaching.’ Only the musically gifted were welcome in primary school teaching but as Ms Stokes shared that was not a path for her as, ‘I couldn’t sing for toffee.’
Her passion for education was born out of her love of the written word. She still reads a book a day, a habit that began when she was a child, ‘I used to sneak books up to bed with me,’ she playfully laughs. Shakespeare captivated her whilst she studied English in UCD and Hamlet triumphed as her favourite play. A story with two female characters that must exist in a society that is created by men and stifling to them, it could be argued that 1950’s Ireland and Ghana perpetuated that theme.
Upon graduation she took her first teaching role in Maryfield in Drumcondra, she taught Irish and English there for six years. During that time she heard about the missions in Africa and decided to go. In 1960 the Minister for Education, Patrick Hillary, allowed the time that teachers took abroad to teach to be counted as years of service upon their return.
Getting to Ghana in 1958 was arduous. Air travel used to be very expensive and slow, not forgetting the smoky interior courtesy of being allowed to smoke cigarettes. Ms Stokes had to fly from Dublin to London before making two more stops to get her to the capital Accra. There she was met by a truck, the only viable internal transport at the time, it would bring her further inland to the school that she would be teaching at.
In 1957 Ghana became the first African nation to declare independence from European colonization which at the time was under British rule. Kwame Nkrumah became the first Prime Minister of the New Republic, his politics was influenced by Marxism. Nkrumah himself went to a missionary Catholic school, his educational pursuits took him to Harlem and Pennsylvania were his belief in an Africa free from Europeans started to take a deeper formation. In the late 1940s he returned to Ghana and formed the Convention People’s Party, he invited women to participate in the political process, at a time when women’s suffrage was new in Africa. In 2000, BBC listeners in Africa voted him their “Man of the Millennium”.
Ms Stokes taught A Levels, she loved Ghana and found the people highly intelligent. ‘The girls really valued education in particular, it was their way out of virtual slavery. For a women life was so very tough, they were 4th class citizens. Even if they got education and a job nursing for example, their husband could and would take her wages. Most of the women we taught emigrated to England to work and would marry second generation Africans that treated women better.’
Despite Ms Stokes’ age she still betrays a childish sparkle. She recalls with a mischievous laugh about how she and a friend used to drive an ambulance at night when it was the summer holidays and school was out, ‘We used to help out at a hospital, they had an ambulance that we would drive at 30 miles per hour around the dirt roads for various call outs.’ Their secret thrills are still alive in her voice.
When she returned to Dublin in 1964 things had changed for her. She recalls a time when a friends house had a mice problem, ‘Mary asked me why I wasn’t bothered by mice, well when you had to shake snakes and scorpions out of your bed sheets everyday mice are the least of your worries!’ Then there was the cold, Ghana is geographically closer to the centre of the earth then any other country so it’s pretty hot compared to Ireland.
She went on to become the principal of Saint Raphaela’s in Kilmacud and with hindsight became aware of the power of education. She is too modest to take credit for her part in the global story of women’s rights but what she will share freely is that, ‘you should work at what you like regardless of the pay.’ For most women that philosophy is only possible due to the risk she took when she boarded a plane to Ghana for the first time at the age of twenty-eight with a simple goal which was to teach.