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21.04.2005 Feature Article

Let’s Take A Second Look At Setting Our Priorities

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In tune with our traditional political practice where more prominence is usually given to sod-cutting, inauguration and launching of projects than ensuring their success, the Fante version of the President's State of the Nation Address was recently launched at Cape Coast by the Deputy Minister of Information, Ms. Shirley Botchway. In this article an attempt will be made to discuss the relevance or otherwise of the launching of this document to our national development needs.

In recent times so much has been said about the need for Ghana to adopt a national language and I have no intention to comment on the pros and cons of this suggestion in this article. It is my humble opinion, however, making one of our several languages a national language would not mean anything if measures are not taken to ensure that every necessary effort has been made to ensure that a respectable proportion of those who speak the language can also read and write it. It is, after all, a fact that the distance between understanding a spoken language and being able to read and write it is usually wide. Naturally, it would be a wonderful idea if such important information as may be contained in State of the Nation addresses, the Budget, and even the Constitution could be presented to the people in their mother-tongue. But let's be sincere with ourselves on this issue. How many Ghanaians are out there who can read and write their mother tongue better than English? To put it more directly, is it likely that the President or the Honourable Finance Minister, Mr. Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu, both thorough-bred Asantes, would have preferred to present the State of the Nation address or Budget Statement respectively, in Twi, rather than English if they would be permitted to do so? As much as I am in no position to bet on this, I would be surprised if even they, who had their primary education in the days of “Kan Me Hwe” and “Twi Kasa Mra”, would prefer to do that.

To further illustrate my point, I have no doubt in my mind that in their private discussions with colleagues of their own ethnic group, almost all public office holders speak in their mother tongue. However, when it comes to private written correspondence, English is the preferred language. In other words, without any survey results to prove, I don't think there is any doubt that the vast majority of Ghanaians correspond among ourselves in writing in English rather than our various local languages. In short, our educational system has made it that for most Ghanaians English is much easier to read and write than their indigenous languages. I'm therefore wondering the type of Ghanaian we have in mind to be looking for Fante, Dagbani Ewe or Ga versions of the State of the Nation Address.

I hope no one gets me wrong by thinking that I don't find it necessary for important public information to reach the majority of our people. Far from that. My concern is that steps should first be taken to ensure that majority of Ghanaians can read and write their own languages before spending public funds to publish official documents in them. For one thing, the government will doubtlessly need substantial amounts of money to translate and publish the various important official documents into all the major local languages. There is therefore the need to ensure that the nation will enjoy real value for the money so spent on the exercise. It is not enough to publish official documents in local languages just for the sake of it.

First of all, it has been a while since the President gave his State of the Nation Address. I don't believe the Fante version of the address is now been launched because it is now that the authorities have realized the need for it. The time it took to have the document translated must certainly have had a part to play in this. And perhaps as I write now, it is still being translated into other languages to be launched later. Obviously, a State of the Nation Address, unlike the Constitution, is primarily not meant to be kept as a reference document. The President delivered his message expecting it to reach the people as and when he was delivering it or at least, within the earliest possible time. Therefore, any plans to have the document translated into other Ghanaian languages in future would be an unnecessary waste of public funds.

With FM stations broadcasting in all corners of the country now what the Information Ministry could conveniently do is to use the airwaves to explain the President's address in detail in the major languages spoken in the localities of the radio stations. Even if this would cost more money it would surely be a more effective way of getting the message across to the people than putting it in print for them. After all, more people in Ghana have access to FM receivers than book-shops and you are more likely to see an elderly Ghanaian listening to the radio than reading an official document. Interestingly, even in the 1960s when thanks to “Mass Education”, many of our older folks who had missed classroom education were taught to read and write in their own languages, the government relied on mobile cinema vans to explain its policies to the rural folk. Of course, there were no FM stations in the country then.

And by the way, it is not clear whether or not the Fante or any other versions of the President's address are for sale or free distribution to the public. If the intention was to print them for sale then it is expected that some research must have gone into determining approximately how many people would be interested in buying them and it would be worth knowing how many copies have been printed so far. On the other hand, if they are for free distribution then I would like to know if the original English version is also available for free.

To conclude, I wish to make it clear that the purpose of this article is not to rubbish the government's desire to let important information reach the masses. Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that for far too long we have preferred using ad-hoc measures to solve long-term problems. So little effort has so far been made at developing our local languages that only a fraction of those who speak them fluently can actually read and understand them. This situation is as true for the older population just as it is for the younger ones. So there cannot be many people out there who can read and understand official political speeches only in their own languages and not English. I am aware that only a handful of our modern day JSS graduates can read and understand the President's State of the Nation Address in its original English.

At the same time, I'm also aware that their ability to read Twi, Ga, Ewe, Dagbani etc. is even less. The translation of official documents into local languages would become meaningful only after the indications are clear that many of our people have acquired the proficiency in reading them. For a start, the Ministry of Education could make a good start by ensuring that all computers being installed in the various schools could be adapted for use in the writing of some of our local languages. In the mean time, all such documents can conveniently be explained to the populace in the various Ghanaian languages on radio. And for this exercise, I'm convinced that the several well-educated ladies and gentlemen who can be heard on the various FM stations with excellent knowledge of local languages would be found very useful. Without mentioning names I wish to seize this opportunity to congratulate them for a wonderful job well done. Kwame Twumasi-Fofie Bern, Switzerland Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Kwame Twumasi-Fofie
Kwame Twumasi-Fofie, © 2005

The author has 46 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwameTwumasiFofie

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