14.11.2023 Feature Article

Teaching children without letting them know that they are being ‘taught’

Teaching children without letting them know that they are being taught
14.11.2023 LISTEN

There are some people in one’s family who always manage to carve a special niche for themselves in one’s heart.

When I was growing up, there was one woman in my extended family whom I loved as much as my natural mother. Formally, she was my “aunt”; or my mother’s cousin’.

But in Akan culture there is no word for an “aunt” who comes from the maternal side of one’s family. One’s mother’s female siblings, as well as her ‘cousins’ are all regarded as one’s “mothers”!

It is not only after the death of one’s natural mother that these other “mothers” assume their responsibilities towards oneself. Even when one’s natural mother is alive, they act as a backup to one’s “Team One” – one’s natural mother and father. If one is hungry and one goes to the home of any of the other “mothers” and there is food, one would not need an invitation to join. One would automatically be given a serving.

Somehow, we managed to feel “hungry” whenever we made these visits. Food was therefore the main commodity that kept our hearts warm for these members of our “extended families”.

However, we were kept in check and encouraged to be too greedy for food. If it was noticed that anyone had cultivated a habit of “raiding” the homes of relatives for food, he or she would be typecast as an ahwa (a creature even more contemptible than what is known as a “sponger” in English).

I was lucky, because there were three houses where I was guaranteed a share of any meal that was going, without running the risk of being labelled an ahwa. One of these was the house of my mother’s mother’s sister’s eldest daughter, Maame Afia Kyeraa.

The tragedy of her life was that she couldn’t bear any children of her own. But she contented herself with taking my mum’s many kids – of whom I was the eldest – as her own.

She was a well-travelled lady and so often served some of the delicacies that we kids hankered after – stews made with tins of sardines or pilchards, or better still, corned beef – and very nice soups she had learnt to prepare from “foreign” sources.

One day, when I was about four or five, I confided to her, as the “traveller” in the family, that I too wanted to travel.

“I want to go to – Aburokyire (England)”, I told her. Ei? She herself had only been as far as mining towns like Konongo, and maybe to Agogo or Tarkwa. But I was talking to her about England?

Bugt so loving was she that she didn’t reproach me. She gently pooh-poohed the idea, but I obsessively kept talking about being taken to England.

Well, one fine day, she dressed up nattily, called one or two of her sisters together, whispered something to them, and then said aloud: “Kwadwo says he wants me to take him to England. Come with me and let’s take him there”.

I was so excited! (As was everyone else!) Maame Kyeraa was taking us to England? Wec would become very rich there! Why? Because the money we spent was made there! I might even see “King George The Sixth”, whose head was on our coins and currency notes. And then, there were all those things we bought which were labelled “Made in England” – cloth, tinned foods, bicycles, lorries. Yieeee!!

Well, when the time arrived to go, we took the road that led from Asiakwa to Kyebi, towards Accra. We walked for about half a mile and then saw a farm full of maize loans, near the road. As soon as we passed the farm, Maame Kyeraa stopped and said, “We have arrived in England”.

“What?” I said, incredulous.

“Ah, you said you wanted to go to Aburokyire, didn’t you?”

“Yes!” I replied.

“Now what is that growing in the farm over there? Is it not aburoo (maize)?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Now, this place where we are, is it not aburokyire – a place that is towards the back of the corn-field?”

“Yes it is!”

“Well, then what are you on about? You wanted to come to aburokyire and we have brought you to aburokyire, haven’t we?”

Nobody actually laughed, but even as young as I was, I could sense that a fast one had been pulled on me. I wasn’t happy at all about such a tremendous anti-climax. Where, for instance, were all those white men who were said to live in Aburokyire?

Where was all the money?

The corned beef and the rest? However, we turned around and came home, with me pert and silent, but nobody minding me.

When I grew up and was able to analyse clearly what Maame Kyeraa had done, I was extremely impressed with her intelligence. She was a stark illiterate, but somehow she had managed to deconstruct in her mind the word “Aburokyire”, and parsed it into its etymological components, aburoo and akyire, and silenced me with the outcome. Would a person with literary education have been able to make use of words so intelligently to cure an obstreperous child of his fantasies?

We think of “illiterates” as people who cannot construct beautiful words in their heads, because we ourselves can only write such words. Now look at this passage: If you speak Twi, read it aloud and see!)


Nenam seseaa ase

Ma seseaa ase

Woso biribiribiribiri!

(The Leopard [the king] treads along

the thicket, causing the thicket to shake


I love the onomatopoeic word biribiribiri very much. Remember itv was created by a stark “illiterate”!

Another “illiterate” masterpiece is this:

Sasaboronsam mmiensa,

Yennamfonom mmiensa;

Yeyerenom mmiensa;

Yerenom nsa,

Na yeema wo nsa!

(Three Sasaboronsam ‘demons’ [are they];

Three friends are they;

And they’ve got three wives too;

They do take a drink

And they give you too –

A drink!).

See how Maame Kyeraa taught me to think about the structure of words, and the meaning(s) that those structures provide to those who want to learn to be wise?

There is so much we can’t learn from school, isn’t there?