Paper Money

Sierra Leone issues new note honoring a pioneering woman

Constance Cummings-John, a Sierra Leonean educator and politician in both pre- and post-colonial Sierra Leone, is depicted on the nation’s new 20-leone note.

Images courtesy of the Bank of Sierra Leone.

When Sierra Leone introduced a new paper currency series during the last week of June, the 1-, 5-, and 10-leone notes looked the same as before but with three fewer zeroes in the denomination. The 20-leone note was new, but no description of it was given at the time. One is now provided by the central bank, as another accomplished woman appears on a bank note.

She is Constance Cummings-John, a Sierra Leonean educator and politician in both pre- and post-colonial Sierra Leone. She campaigned for women’s rights in the country and the continent of Africa at large. She was the first woman in Africa to join a municipal council and in 1966, she was the first woman to serve as mayor of Freetown, and so the first woman in Africa to govern a modern capital city.

Her extensive biography includes teacher training in London and then the United States, which she left in 1936 after encountering racism. Back in Freetown, she became the principal of a girls’ school. She soon became affiliated with the West African Youth League, a movement for social, political and economic independence, and became its vice president. As a member of the Central Committee, along with four other women, she worked to ensure that women’s concerns were considered. During World War II she founded a mining company that became a source of funding for her projects. When her political views put her at odds with the ruling British, in 1946 she and her two children fled to the United States for a five-year exile.

In 1951, she returned to set up the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls. Sierra Leone attained independence in 1961, and she was appointed mayor of Freetown in 1966. While she was out of the country, a military coup occurred and she was accused of financial corruption and advised not to return. She moved to London where she was a member of the Labor Party, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and also a school governor. She died in London on Feb. 21, 2000, at the age of 82.

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