It was a hot, humid day in a small town on the coast of Ghana. Along the main road, residents spilled out of their homes as drums, trumpets and other traditional instruments announced a special occasion: the installment of a new queen mother for the Esinkato traditional region. The massive crowd marched toward the site of the ceremony, where time-honored rituals would herald a new era in local politics.
Somewhere in the middle of the procession was an honored guest from Franklin & Marshall College.
Leigh McCurdy ’10, a government major and Africana studies minor, took part in the traditional ceremony during a 10-day research trip to Ghana over winter break. The journey was part of her independent study on the political system in Ghana, which she is completing under the supervision of Stephanie McNulty, assistant professor of government.
McCurdy is studying the role of chiefs, traditional leaders and queen mothers in Ghana’s electoral process. She studied abroad in the West African nation last spring, and became aware of nuances in the political system that she wanted to explore in greater depth.
“Their political system is Western, but the chief structure is different from our democracy,” McCurdy says. “Active chiefs are not supposed to play a direct role in the political process. Within their communities they are respected in a manner similar to religious leaders, and have influence over a lot of people.”
McCurdy conducted a series of eight formal interviews to collect data for her project. She spoke with professors at the University of Ghana, registrars from the Regional House of Chiefs and two paramount chiefs. The chiefs—revered figureheads in the region—brought their family members to the interviews.
“A lot of people had thought really deeply about these issues, and I was struck by the depth of their answers,” McCurdy says. “Some people seemed surprised that I knew about [the topic], and opened up once they realized I had studied it.”
McCurdy also conducted informal interviews, including numerous conversations at the installment ceremony she attended as the guest of a paramount chief. During the interviews, McCurdy says she often became the interviewee.
“People asked questions, because they’re curious about Western culture,” she says. “They ask about American politics, and about President Obama. Everyone there loves Obama.”
The research trip sparked more questions than it provided answers for McCurdy, who will not compile the results of her research until later this semester. She plans to attend the Midwest Political Science Association National Conference in Chicago at the end of April, by which time she expects to arrive at some conclusions.
“I feel really fortunate that I was able to go, and that F&M provided me with a substantial grant,” she says. “There is not much data on the intersection between their traditional political society and a more modern democracy.
“I’m attached to Ghana. It’s a really special place, and I miss it a lot.”