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Dr Christiana Oware Knudsen was born in Ghana nearly a century ago. She’s spent her long life studying, researching and writing about African history and ancient practices. She has a particular interest in the interaction between European and African cultures. Christiana moved to Leeds in 2018. We met her to find out more about her extraordinary life and some of the things she’s studied over the years.
I have a very strange history. I was born in Ghana. My father was a headmaster in a school in Accra. His father was a chief and when he died my father came back to where he grew up. He met my mother and had children. My mother was his second wife. She was a potter. There were 5 of us children. In those days girls didn’t go to school much. But my father was educated, he was a teacher, so he sent us to school. In my class I was the only girl amongst boys. Some of them threatened to beat me and so on. They would have nothing to do with me.
“Get out of here!” That sort of thing. My father used to come to the school to threaten the boys! After school I went to college in Kibi – the capital of the area. I wanted to come to Europe to study law, but my family said no, I had to become a teacher. So I went to study in Kibi. I qualified as a schoolteacher and came back to where I grew up, to teach. In my class I had about 45 children!
I had a lot of trouble to begin with. It was the same in the UK for the people brought on Windrush
When I was a teacher, I met my husband-to-be: a Danish medical doctor. It was an accident. One of the
nurses that I knew was working in the same hospital as this man. She said to me one day that we were going to talk to the new doctor. Black people didn’t really mingle with white people, so this was a big thing. My friend’s boyfriend – the chief nurse - was going to meet the doctor and he wanted her to go with him. But she didn’t want to sit there alone while the two men were talking about medicine. So she asked me to go along so she had someone to talk to. I said, “No, I don’t want to!” But she forced me! So we went to see this doctor. He didn’t even talk to me. But afterwards the doctor said to the nurse, “That lady who came with you. I’d like to see her again.” My girlfriend gave me the message. In our culture – because of the slave trade – my people wouldn’t allow me to see a white man. So I had to go and talk to my mother first. She talked to the family: in my culture,
it’s not just your mother and father, it’s your entire family. Everybody contributes to help. The family said, “No, no, she shouldn’t go. This man will take her away and she’ll become a slave.” But my mother said, “Don’t mind them! Go ahead.” So I went to see this doctor. We talked and had coffee. He said he was looking for a girlfriend and that I should come and have something to eat with him. My mother gave me permission.
After 3 years of teaching my husband said to me, “You shouldn’t work. We are going to live together. My
mother stopped work when she married my father.” My husband was half-English. His mother’s family
were from Abingdon, near Oxford. They were top people. High class people. Very rich. And my family
were high class too – not exactly millionaires though! But my mother said, “You have a good education, you
should work.” She never went to school. So I continued to work. I did stop for some time when we had children. We had 3 children, then moved to Denmark. I became interested in the slave trade when I came to Denmark. I was looking for a job, to try and learn the language. I went to a butcher shop, to a flower shop – all sorts of places. Nobody would give me a job. Nobody would have me – even for an ordinary cleaning job. It was a very racist place. When they were trading slaves, they never brought a single slave to Denmark. They sent them all to the plantations. I had a lot of trouble to begin with. It was the same in the UK for the people brought on Windrush. So I went to university. I wanted to study something about my culture.
Christiana studied for a degree in Aarhus, Denmark and a PhD at Derby University in the UK.
During the slave trade in Ghana, one of the Scandinavian forts was called Christiansborg. My grandmother,
when she was 15, was a babysitter there, for some of the slave traders there. My mother’s family were from that area. It was an area that was full of gold. They used to bring it to the slave traders. They came there, to begin with, to buy gold. Eventually they changed. They didn’t want the gold – they wanted human beings.
Chrisitana has written several books, including a history of the Christiansborg Fort mentioned above. One of her books was about the special markings some Ghanaian people have in their bodies. In the old days, people would make these markings by cutting into the skin, but these days ink is often used.
If you meet them, wherever you are – even if you are in New York or China - you can see where they come from. Who they are, whether they come from a witch doctor’s family, or they are weavers, or they are witch doctors themselves. You can always tell from the markings. We all have a tribe. My family are the Akan people – about 45% of Ghanaian population. But we are not to be touched by a knife. Unless someone is seriously ill, otherwise it is not allowed. Some of the people in other tribes, they put a mark on their penis.
In modern times they write a woman’s name. Sometimes a big snake. The traditional markings were all made with knives and they all mean something. In the ancient times they used to file their teeth and put poison in them. Sometimes they’d bite you – like a snake – to kill you. When I was doing my research, all of them were dead, I couldn’t get to them personally.
Another of Christiana’s books was about Female Genital Mutilation (or Female Circumcision). This ritual is widely practised in Africa and Christiana found that women who don’t go through with it are often not supported by their families. The practice is supposed to be illegal, but Christiana knew that it was still taking place.
If you are a woman and your husband dies, or you are divorced, the family will take care of you. Brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts: it’s very strong. If you go through with the ceremony of Female Circumcision,
no woman will be destitute. If not, no. They were supposed to stop but they didn’t, they did it in secrecy. I spent about one year researching it. Sometimes I had to disguise myself as a native of the tribe. Then found someone who can speak my language. Not many people spoke English. There was a time that somebody found out that I could not speak their language and therefore I was a stranger. If you come and observe them doing it you have to be circumcised yourself. If not, they will force you to have it. I had to run away!
The whole culture is coming to an end because of foreign and Western culture. Therefore a lot of people are having problems. In the UK the government helps when you are in need – in Africa it is the family. So if you don’t follow the family rules, you won’t get help. I recommended that the government need to help all those girls who haven’t gone through the process. Because without help they will have real problems.
In Africa we are a little bit confused. We have to follow the European culture and at the same time we have our African culture. It is very difficult. Many educated Africans have left. Families live in the same villages and towns. But the educated ones go to cities and they travel. It is very difficult for the older people left in the villages to organise themselves. The government doesn’t help much.
Christiana met her husband Dr. Peder Christian Kjaerulff Knudsen in Ghana in 1955 and they moved to Denmark.
In 2000, I did my PhD around people with special energies. I spent 5 years in the UK studying witch doctors and people like that. When I was growing up in Ghana, when I was young, I met a school headmaster, an old, old man – he was a witch doctor too but he kept quiet about it. He told me, “You don’t belong to Africa. You are black but you don’t belong here.” He said, “Somebody is coming from Europe to take you away. I want to talk to your mother about it.” My mother said, “He sounds like a madman, but I’ll go and talk to him. He told her that my children would be born in hospitals – which was rare in Ghana. My mother thanked him and he went away. And we all forgot about it. But I did go away. And with my third child we both nearly died. They had to send me to hospital a hundred miles away. It happened that both of us lived. He predicted this, but we couldn’t understand it at all. These were the type of people I was living with. The Europeans and the academics, they don’t understand. Some people in the West have these skills but they have to keep quiet. I did research here in the UK for 5 years, meeting these people. It is a gift from God that some people have. They are dying away because they can’t make a living, but they are still around.
The Leeds Library recently hosted an event to hear about Christiana’s work.
Image by Simon Miles
I have 3 children: one is a film director, with many credits. My daughter is a medical surgeon living in Denmark. My other son is a university professor. He is a lecturer in London – he’s my baby. He’s 61! I had lived in Denmark for many years. My husband died.
Two of my children were living here in the UK and I have grandchildren – and great-grandchildren - here too. I had eye trouble and someone suggested to me that there are very good eye specialists in Great Britain. That’s why I came to live here in January 2018.
Doing my research, I meet a lot of older people who are depressed. In my case I don’t worry at all, because I’m still working, so busy writing and researching all the time. When I think to myself that I’m 89, I don’t believe it. I love it. In my culture, when you become madame, can we help you?” The older you are, the prouder you are of yourself. Here, they push all of us into detention camps – old people’s homes! Where I am from you are not even allowed in the kitchen – no work! You sit and keep an eye on the children playing.
I was born in 1932. I have been arrested in many places. I used to colour my hair but now I’ve stopped so that people can see I am old. They think I am not the age I say I am. I was arrested in Spain and sent to court. They thought I was a prostitute! Because my hair was not white! I had to pay for a lawyer and an interpreter. I was arrested twice in Heathrow airport. And in Norway and in Canada. There was a problem with my passport. “You say you were born in the 1930s – but you don’t look it.” They put me in a detention camp. And they deported me. 10 times I’ve been arrested! My grandmother was 105 and she was still alive – complaining about the food. Some of my cousins, they were 98 or 99 when they died. It’s a family matter of genetics. Also, being African, we don’t have many wrinkles because the skin is protectedfrom the sun – so it’s thick. Our thick black skin protects us from the sun.
I’m going to keep on writing books. I have finished 3 manuscripts. One is a satire about coronavirus. One is a book of ancient fairy tales. Some of them are old ones. Original stories from ancient times.
To find out more about Christiana’s work and her books go to http://christianaknudsen.com
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