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05.03.2009 Feature Article

'The Fetish of Impressive Language

The last time I had the pleasure of attempting a response to a well-written letter meant for Jomo, I abused my honour by needlessly borrowing my neighbour's wheelbarrow, to cart a large collection of dictionaries and other writing texts I had shopped from bookshops in Ottawa. I needed those books to guide me write good English to the man who writes those letters in the Daily Graphic every Friday. As I pulled in my driveway, I started rehearsing the composition of the letter, wondering where I could buy some witchcraft to transform my bad English into something fantastic. To do a very good job, I would need to employ sumptuous metaphor, wit and pun, to impress the Jomo creator. That would mean knowing where to use a pseudonym when an antonomasia would be appropriate. I would presume to have recollected the good old lessons on the parts of speech, making sure I know the difference between an adjectivising adjective and an adjectival phrase, especially when used in a complex sentence. Or, I could be myself and type away the usual crap, hoping that the man never gets to read it. The next minute, I was speaking my thoughts aloud, painting my mind's construction on my morose-looking face. Then, I started pacing about like an angry royal peacock, not knowing where to turn to open the door to my flat. Suddenly, the kind neighbour noticed my frustration and came to ask: “Did you buy all that in a day? What do you need all those books for?” “To guide me write a good letter to a big fellow in my country” I said. Where I come from, every morpheme you write is judged. We want to maintain the highest standards,” I added. Deep Knowledge on Language I didn't have the luxury of time to explain to him that Ghana is not a French-speaking country. He has always been under the impression that French is the lingua franca in most parts of Africa, because most of us speak English with an accent. All the same, I managed to write a few words to George Sydney Abugri, imploring the veteran to think seriously about who would write the Jomo letters when the ink in his old pen runs out. I suggested that he should go walking the streets of Okaishie, or Domeabra, to look for a bloke who looks like a proud descendant of PAV Ansah or the Coleman-Paitoos of blessed memory. If he does find one, he would grab him by the ear and drag him to his house in Accra, to teach him how to write private letters for public consumption. While under his tutelage, the lad would have the pleasure of eating from the same bowl as the Jomo bard, and drink Pito from a calabash. If the apprentice is not able to write better than me in a year, we would grab the waistline of his trousers and pull him to the Nkrumah Circle, where he would begin a long journey of hell to Bawku. There, he would be made to tend sheep and goats, just like George Abugri used to do, and learn how to communicate with nature. By the time he is back to Accra, George would be happy to go on a long vacation to Siberia or Tumu, knowing that a capable hand will write a good letter to Jomo every week. If the buffoon fails to make a good impression after all that, we would ship him along with farm produce to Saskatoon, to freeze to death in the cold. Language as a Tool of Communication The import of the letter was that I thought George's brand of the creative feature is a good thing that we need to keep. The sentence constructions are great. The metaphor adds to the unique literary romance that is only his trademark. And, frankly we need to be served such good English lessons very often, to help the maladies in our spoken and written English. It would be a lot better to groom another person who would continue the legacy than to have George posthumously regurgitate his old letters, as we often do with the articles of PAV Ansah. Of course, PAV's quality was rare, so we always want to read him, even if he writes no more. That is how immortal the man is, at least in the literary realm. We feel the need to publish his old articles, perhaps, because we do not presently have a good substitute: somebody is not saying something as succinctly as he did. Maybe we are saying it even better now, just that he said it in a way we just cannot replicate, the style being the man. We are the poorer, because we can only imagine what he would have been if he was still writing. He is even richer because we still read him. In response to the suggestion I offered, George did what he does best: He wrote another fine letter to Jomo, on a very important subject. It would not serve our purposes now to read that letter aloud; for the moment let's go back to the old debate of whether English has served us well as our official/national language. I didn't want to comment on the recent parliamentary vetting of information minister Zita Okaikwei until a gentleman called Yamoah Ponko, whose bid to take the reigns of the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, became news. Reports had it that Mr Ponko had failed to impress the panel, and had not made it to the final interview. Ponko, it was reported, had led a group of young men to disrupt the process when official business was in session. Yamoah Ponko is man who interests me so much, because his name reminds me of Mr Sarfo Nantwi, a very intelligent High School friend who never saw the need to fight anybody who made fun of his surname. He liked to flaunt the Nantwi part of his double-barrelled name. Ponko is another proud fellow who has always been in the news, often for good reasons. He was alleged to have done an Inusah, by crossing carpet to join the NDC. He speaks quite confidently and appears to know his stuff. He had deservingly been pencilled as a possible KMA boss. And he has quite a following. So, I was surprised to learn that the man with the soothing baritone voice had failed to secure the nomination of the interview panel, because he didn't make a good impression. Commentaries Listening to his interview with Joy FM's Kojo Oppong Nkrumah on the Super Morning Show the other day, I gathered that Mr Ponko oozed so much confidence that it was intriguing how such a 'quality' would not impress an interview panel. Maybe on that occasion, Mr Ponko had a bad day, and did not put up a good show. Otherwise, he didn't come across as a bad material for leadership. At least, he is not the worst example we have ever had; he typifies the quality we have been used to for so long. The Morning show host asked him to mention some of the questions he was asked at the interview, but the man would not come forth with any concrete examples. “The questions were elementary”, he said. The selection process for the KMA leadership appears to be fraught with some problems. There was mention of one Akwasi Fosu, an NDC oldie, whose sudden inclusion in the process appears not to have sat well with some observers. These things are not unusual in our system. So, we would treat them with our usual attitude: talk about them, appear to be doing something about them, rest on them when people forget about them and later try to forget them ourselves. But for once, let's face the issues and ask some very important questions: Are we not making a 'fetish' of this colonial legacy called English? Does anybody ever impress us with well-spoken Twi or Ewe? After Zita's session with parliament, I listened to various radio discussions on her suitability for the information portfolio. I also read a few reports in the newspapers, and realised that folks put a high premium on spoken English than the other qualities of leadership. Among other important things, usually what puts us down during interviews is the vehicle of communication: language, in our case, the English language. Great sentences will win where raw substance would fail. So when I read a recent report by Kofi Adams, ex-President Rawllings' special aide, about Mr Rawlings advising African leaders not to intimidate people with the English language, I thought the ex-president had summed up everything I am saying in this three-page letter. Good English appears to be replacing substance: It is well said only if it is in English. The irony is that often we do not say it well enough when it is English. In the end, we lose a natural right to what could have been a national language, because very few of us can write Twi. We are almost uncomfortable with the truism that we would never be able to render a thought in a foreign language with the same 'effortless ease' we exude when speaking in a native dialect. Perhaps, that is why some conservatives in Japan are discouraging the 'invasion' of the English language into that country, as utilitarian as the language is. Events To prove this, I posted a message in Twi on my Facebook. Nearly half of my contacts, most of them Ghanaians, wrote to ask me why I chose to write the message in Twi. I was surprised to learn that a few of them did not understand what I had written. So, when the non-Ghanaian friends among my contacts wrote to ask the meaning of what I had written, I wondered whether the explanation I offered them should not have gone to my Ghanaian English scholars who could not read their own language. Even as I lament this sad situation, I am reminded of my own chronic inability to write an article of this length in Fante. Well, maybe I could, but it would take as long as it would take Dan Lartey to be president, to compose it. That makes me a slave to two languages: my mother tongue and the English language. I am confronted with these issues whenever I present samples of my articles to the western press. Before they look at my portfolio, they ask me whether the articles are written in English. That is also when I am reminded that I have not seen a Twi or Fante dictionary for a long time. Yet, I see the nationals of the Czech Republic, South Korea, Spain and China carrying good translation dictionaries. So, while a Chinese national new to England would take three years to learn the primary functions of English verbs and adverbs, and proceed to write a novel in English to win a prize, West-Africans in England are yet to win such prestigious book prizes. That is what happens when you superimpose a foreign tongue on your alveolar ridge: You end up speaking in tongues without the presence of the Holy Spirit. Would we have had complaints of language proficiency and competence if Zita and Yamoah Ponko's interviews had been conducted in Ga and Twi respectively? Well, we may have had more problems because we tend to code-switch rather alarmingly when we are given the option to speak in our local dialects. We feel a compulsive need to flaunt our English, to show that we know a thing or two in that important international language. Maybe it is a good thing that we are making a god of the English language. It is a tool for trade. The Chinese may not need it for production but they need it for business. We cannot say the same thing in our situation; we need it for survival. Yet we do not have a society for the promotion of good English. The Americans do. The English do. Ours is pure fetish.

Benjamin Tawiah, Ottawa, Ontario Email: [email protected], [email protected]
The Chronicle
The Chronicle, © 2009

This author has authored 68 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: TheChronicle

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