The Orange Order in Africa

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2006), News, Volume 14

Banner of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ghana on a march in the late 1990s.

Banner of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ghana on a march in the late 1990s.

It is quite well known that the Orange Order is found outside the British Isles in areas with diaspora and colonial/ Commonwealth connections, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Its presence on the African continent is less commonly appreciated. Orangeism had a long history in South Africa, developing in the early nineteenth century and peaking at some 26 lodges before disappearing in the 1960s. However, Orangeism in West Africa, with origins in the early twentieth century, is still alive.
The earliest Orange lodges in West Africa were established in Lagos, Nigeria, prior to the First World War, possibly by missionaries or, more likely, by Orangemen within the British military stationed there. The lodges were soon Africanised but these also died out in the 1960s. Some accounts suggest that this occurred in a period of clampdown on ‘secret societies’ by the military government or that the lodges evolved into institutions that were not recognisably ‘Orange’. In West Africa today Orange lodges, African in membership, are currently found in Togo and in Ghana.
It may seem surprising that Orangeism is represented in Togo. A German colony prior to the First World War, two-thirds of its land area (including Lomé, the capital and home of Togolese Orangeism) was afterwards administered as a League of Nations mandate by France. French Togoland went on to gain its independence as Togo in 1960 and has maintained close ties with Paris and other nations in the francophone world ever since.
Although there were no strong direct colonial connections with Britain, German Togoland was briefly occupied by the British during the First World War and for two years afterwards, during which the first lodge was founded. This interlude may have provided fertile space for the Togolese Order’s early development. What is more, a detailed investigation of the social milieu in which Orangeism arose in Togo reveals further connections with the British Isles. The founder of Orangeism in Togo, John A. Atayi, first learned about Orangeism from British newspapers and wrote to the Grand Lodge in England to enquire about how to set up a lodge. Atayi was a member of a well-educated, Christian, English-speaking and Anglophile class involved in overseas trade, including with British companies, and proactive about making international connections and participating in many aspects of bourgeois British culture, from debating and literary societies to fraternities. This class tended to send their children to school in the Gold Coast (the colonial name for the southern part of Ghana) and even within the British Isles. The only surviving lodge minute book that I have come across from the period (from Atakpamé) is written entirely in English. Atayi developed the first Togo lodge after receiving his initiation in Lagos, having been directed there by the Grand Lodge of England.

Togbi Subo II (front), Superintendent of Juniors of the Grand Lodge of Ghana and Ewe chief, with juniors from two of Ghana’s juvenile Orange lodges after a 2004 district meeting at Keta.

Togbi Subo II (front), Superintendent of Juniors of the Grand Lodge of Ghana and Ewe chief, with juniors from two of Ghana’s juvenile Orange lodges after a 2004 district meeting at Keta.

What, then, might have been the attraction of Orangeism to early Togolese members, aside from its association with British society and culture? Apart from the religious elements of Orangeism, which are likely to have proved attractive to Togolese members of Protestant mission churches, economic and political advantages may have been foreseen in membership. As well as providing a local network for mutual support, international fraternal links may have been seen as a route to improving or cementing overseas trading relationships. There is certainly a well-documented attempt by the Togolese brethren to draw on these links to achieve political aspirations. In the inter-war period, when the League of Nations considered the fate of Togo, Togolese Orangemen appealed to the Grand Lodge in England to exert pressure on the secretary of state for the colonies. They wanted him to persuade the League to make Togo a British mandate.
When most of Togo became a French mandate, the organisation seemed to go into decline. There are reports that Orange property was moved the relatively short distance to Keta (under British jurisdiction) for safekeeping. In the post-colonial period, however, Orangeism was revived in conjunction with the reawakening of Ghanaian Orangeism. At its height, Togo boasted some twelve lodges in various towns. Some conducted business in English, others in French, and some, particularly the very active women’s lodges, in Ewe, an important local language. Translation into Ewe undoubtedly meant an element of local ‘appropriation’ as Orange ritual became interpreted through local idiom and cosmology.
Togo Orange members gained their own Grand Lodge in 1985 (a separate West African Grand Lodge had existed since 1976), which not only sent representatives to the Imperial Grand Council of the World but also provided the first African Imperial President of this over-arching Orange body in the person of Emmanuel A. Essien in 1994. The recent decline in the Order in Togo is mainly due to continued economic instability and political repression in the country.
As a former British colony, which gained its independence in 1957, the existence of Orangeism in Ghana is less surprising. But here too Orangeism developed on an African initiative. R. Sharlley, a Cape Coast Post Office worker, came across Orange literature as Atayi had done and also made enquiries to the Grand Lodge in England, which put him in touch with the Order in Togo. Sharlley went on to found the first Ghanaian lodge in 1918 in his native Keta, a once-flourishing port with strong African family connections with neighbouring Lomé. Again, early members seem to have been drawn from the literate Christian class of Africans, many of whom would have worked in connection with the great trading houses in the town and had family connections along the coast with Lomé. In the first Keta lodge, ‘Pride of Keta’, which has maintained good records, there is recorded only one non-African member since its foundation.
Orangeism in Ghana also seems to have gone through periods of growth and decline. The original enthusiasm and rapid development of lodges seem to have been in abeyance by the 1930s as members involved in the original impetus probably declined in vigour. The Depression may also have had an impact. Renewal came in the post-World War II period, however, in the charismatic person of Revd F. K. Fiawoo of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. A writer, playwright and educationalist, Fiawoo is said to have ‘dramatised’ Orange ritual, making it more accessible to Ghanaians in terms of their understanding of it through more local idioms (further evidence of ‘local’ appropriation). Whilst Ghanaian Orangeism is very recognisably ‘Orange’ in terms of dress, activities, organisation and philosophy, it is Fiawoo’s contribution to the accessibility of ritual, as well as his charismatic leadership, that is regarded as explaining its dramatic rise in popularity amongst Ghanaians after independence.
Orangeism in Ghana then went from strength to strength. A much larger country than Togo, lodges were later formed in Accra, the capital, and Tema, a significant city, and began to include more members who were non-Ewe speakers (in particular, people who would claim a Ga ethnic origin). Women’s lodges and junior lodges were also formed, and at its peak in the late 1970s there were over 1000 members.
There have been periods of contraction since then. Ghana’s economy, fairly buoyant at independence, declined owing to periods of political mismanagement and external factors such as the 1970s oil shocks and the fall in world prices of significant Ghanaian export commodities, particularly cocoa. Structural adjustment, largely imposed by international financial institutions in the 1980s, was supposed to address this but in turn had negative effects for most ordinary Ghanaians, struggling to make ends meet. A general decline in many forms of associational life, including Orangeism, is attributed to economic woes.
Economic difficulties also brought about political problems. A series of civilian and military governments pre-dated the 1979 and 1981 coups led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. His post-1981 regime sought to suppress ‘lodges’ (of all types), and whilst this lessened after some years it had an impact on the Orange Order in Ghana. The country has since experienced the development of a well-rooted democracy, however. In 2000 and 2004, free and fair national elections were held, and the former opposition New Patriotic Party took and remains in power. Political problems are no longer regarded as problematic by the Orange leadership, who are positive about the organisation’s future in this context.
A factor inhibiting recruitment that is often mentioned is the rise of new charismatic churches, said to be popular because of their ‘health and wealth’ orientation. In conditions where people find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet and to understand why this should be so, spiritual explanations and spiritual solutions are offered. Seemingly undeserved poverty, lack of success and, conversely, power and wealth are often attributed to demonic activity. Many Ghanaians are changing allegiance from old mission churches to these institutions that tend to preach against members’ involvement in lodges of any type, which the churches regard as organisations harnessing occult powers for personal advancement. This message is supported by the flourishing ‘Nollywood’ video film industry, which has featured melodramas involving occult activity in wealthy men’s lodge settings, such as the recent feature Billionaire’s Club.

Rachel Naylor lectures in sociology at Magee College, University of Ulster.

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