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19.03.2013 Feature Article

Living With Dumsorlogy

Living With Dumsorlogy
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Even the look of the word in Ghanaian newspapers is 'mongrelic' — dumso.

On paper, it looks like one thing: namely, something that grows on the 'odum' tree, but which, on being written down, has had the “o” in “odum” excised off.

Furthermore, the apostrophe that should indicate the excision of the “o”, has, itself, also been omitted. So, now, the word is neither one thing nor the other. It is a mongrel of a word; in short, (if one may create an unusual word — and why not? How does a language grow?) it is — I maintain — mongrelic.

Yes, you may not find that word in the grammar books, but so what? In countries like Nigeria, to be told that you speak — or write — “grammar”, is now considered an insult!

But insults apart, how many people care to use an apostrophe correctly these days? How many even know what it is? People gleefully write things like: “When I got there and asked for the buses time's of departure, it's owner told me: 'Its not going on the road's today.”

Oh well, na grammar no be boring or what, Charlie? OK get this, Charlie: in my view,“dumso”, as rendered in our (expletive deleted – Ed) newspapers, to give the meaning “quench” [it -- viz.: the power supply] and “light” [it -- viz.: bring the power back on] should be pronounced “dumSO”(“o” as in “So, you wouldn't call me back, eh?”) Whereas what those who write it are actually trying to convey to their readers is “dumsor” (“o” as in “hot!”)

What the dumso brigade are doing is just like seeing a dog with a head that looks like that of an Alsatian, but with a body that clearly looks like that of a kookooase rat-catcher – i.e. one that can easily muscle its way into a rat-hole, in a cocoa farm, and bring out a bush rat. A mongrel.

I should confess that I have strong feelings on the subject of mongrels. I have nothing against them, mind, but once, a clear fraudster used a mongrel to embarrass me before my kids. I shall take anything, but to make me lose face before my adoring kids -- no way! So I shall never forget what this guy did to me.

You see, my house had been burgled, and traumatic as I was, I couldn't help blurting out to my drinking companions that 'against all my instincts', I'd like to have a dog.

Why 'against' my instincts? Hmm -- I'd once owned a puppy, you see, on which I had lavished corned beef, sardines and something called “Bob Martin's”. (Those were the days when 'everything' one needed was either in in Kingsway Stores in Accra, or UTC, nearby. And inflation being largely unknown then, one had the wherewithal to buy it all.

Well, Just as the dog had become beautiful and had begun to lie on its back, as soon as I appeared, and wag-swish its tail and move its legs as if it was running while lying on its back, sending spectators into stitches of laughter, a car ran over it.

I was away from home when it happened, and I swear I wept. For I knew what 'man's best friend meant': whether I was drunk or sober, that dog would greet me as if I was the best thing creation gave to the world.

I promised myself that I would never go through that experience again.

And then I was burgled. They took away my wife's sewing machine, with all the amazing accessories she'd specified and which I'd had to travel all the way to Shepherd's Bush, in London, from my abode in North London, to get for her. When I saw how deeply affected she was by the theft, my defences dissolved and I decided I must get a dog.

But I wanted one that would bark ferociously enough to alert us to the presence of, or indeed frighten away, burglars. Now, the only way to get such a dog is to ask around. For dogs are deceptive -- one may look ferocious but fail to bark, whereas another may look tame and yet go for your legs without warning. So I told my drinking companions.

Bad idea. Those were the days of kalabule [cut-throat profiteering] at its worst. Everyone wanted to  twa (“cut”, that is cheat or put one up on) someone else. A very old friend of mine, as dignified as you like, took money from me to buy a bag of “Tom Brown” [roasted corn that had been milled into powder and which was brown in colour, I think it was! Please don't blame me: until the kalabule era, I didn't know of the existence of "Tom Brown", all right?] for me to share amongst my kids, whose secondary schools were starved of food. I never saw the money ever again. Nor did an ounce of “Tom Brown” materialise.

But I couldn't do anything to the guy, because he lied to me that it was his wife who was trying to buy the Tom Brown for me, and I wasn't going to make trouble between him and his wife, was I? Incidentally, around the same time, my wife also lost a considerable sum of money to a very old friend of hers who said she could get us two bags of rice! (It irked her a lot that this particular woman had defrauded her, for she used to sit up all night and sew clothes for the bitch, who always wanted alterations made -- at the last min bute -- in clothes that my wife had already sewn to her specifications, for weddings and other social occasions, where time was of the essence. Hmm -- the friends we make in this world can be something else, huh?!)

Anyway. times were so hard that I once used up a great deal of my precious rationed petrol to drive all the way from North Labone to McCarthy Hill and sat outside the house of a lady classmate of mine for hours -- because I'd been given a hint that her husband was a beer distributor. This girl who, at school, I had wrongly? believed fancied me, didn't even invite me inside! What? Yeah, I sat outside amongst a fairly large crowd most of whom wanted beer not for mere drinking (like me) but out of which to make profit. That [once] beautiful girl taught me a lesson: curb thine appetite, especially at kalabule times (saith the Lord) or thou shall be disgraced till thy face fall to the ground!

As soon as this lesson fully entered my head, I drove off without any more ado. I don't know what she thought when she realised I'd left. And at the time, I didn't care. I think that was the time I began to realise that Accra tap water of the time, chilled properly in a Chivas Regal (whisky) bottle, tasted pretty good. You can see where this is leading, can't you? Yes, that was also the time when one graduated to stuff that was harder on one's liver than beer.

Now, one of my boozer friends to whom I mentioned my need for a ferocious dog had once lived in Japan and he used the exotic aura of that great country to pretend to us that he knew better than any of us on many a subject. When he began a sentence with: “In Japan….” we all shut our traps, for none of us had ever been so much as two thousand miles east or west of Okinawa, to say nothing of Kyoto.

So, when this guy said with his usual, laid-back omniscience: “I'll get you an Alsatian breed!” I thought he knew what he was talking about. I'd be getting something like the “ligers” one saw on TV, from someone who was an expert and probably exotic dog breeder, I assumed.

However, to be absolutely certain, I summoned the courage to expose my ignorance and ask him directly what an 'Alsatian breed' was.

If looks could kill! He withered me from top to bottom with a contemptuous stare and explained -- as if I was an untutored dunderhead -- “An Alsatian breed is a dog which has been bred from an Alsatian mother or father and another type of dog. You know that Alsatians sometimes wilt in this our hot climate, right? So if you mate it with a local dog, the offspring become stronger, health-wise, due to the infusion of new, local genes into their bloodstream, right? But it also retains the ferocity of its pure Alsatian/wolf ancestry.”

Gee -- I smiled and thought to myself, “I couldn't have asked for a better dog.” I paid upfront and he arranged for me to go and collect the “breed” (as we'd begun to call it.) It was to be picked up at a house in the airport residential area in Accra. That sounded sounded reassuring. Airport residential area? Class, man.

But something warned me that his unwillingness to accompany me to that 'des res' collection point (he excused himself by saying he had a prior appointment!) was not a very good sign.

My kids were naturally excited when I told them, after picking them up from school, that we were going to collect a new dog. An “Alsatian breed”. From the Airport Residential Area! 

But when we got there, the lady who received us at the house brought me a tiny little dog!

I said, “There must be a mistake!"
The kids added in unison, “But Dad, you said it was an “Alsatian breed”!

The woman didn't bat an euyeloid but quickly answered them, “It will grow big. They are all like this at first!”

I said in my head, “It would grow big if there was anything about it that spelt Alsatian!”

But I've always been one for suffering in silence, especially if speaking out would bring discomfiture to a 'lady'. (I didn't quite want to admit that "Kalabule" had so toughened our so-called 'ladies' that they could do things in the seclusion of their homes that went far beyond even Makola Market craftiness.

So we took the puppy and drove off. My teeth were clenched tightly all the way home.

That dog never grew big, of course. We were all shattered to have to conclude that the dog would never be bigger than a fairly large cat. The kids had their revenge by naming it, “Silly Old dot-dot-dot” (with each dot representing an expletive deleted!)

The best ofm it was that whenever the guy who had procured the dog for me showed up at our house, they yelled without thinking: “Dad, Silly Old's dad is here!”

Predictably, he soon stopped visiting me. It couldn't have been very pleasant to find out that you and your 'offspring' of a dog had become a family joke somewhere.

Meanwhile, I foolishly continued to mention to other friends that I was looking for “a ferocious dog”. But I was determined this time not to go for a 'breed' of any type.

I got one all right — a 'pure' breed. I should have been warned when I was told that it was originally from Burkina Faso. Man, was it wild? It could jump our 6-foot wall and go next door to catch fowls and turkeys from our neighbour's yard. and jump back with them in its mouth, no sweat! But it never did bark once! (Hunters don't bark to alert their prey, do they?) 

Once, during a water shortage, the kids were going to fetch water from a pipe-stand at a nearby secondary school when they saw this dog following them — with a chicken cackling loudly and kicking its legs about -- in its mouth! What would the other water-fetchers say of them if they saw this? The kids did an immediate u-turn and came back home, forgetting all about the water that was needed at home. I've often wondered since then -- did the 'friends' who palmed this dog off me know it was a certified fowl-thief, before giving it to me as a favour?

Predictably, this dog died a mysterious death. I was sure it had been poisoned, but I didn't, of course, know 'who done it', though I had a pretty good idea who it must have been -- the long-sufffering chicken/turkey breeder next door. 

Anyway, dumso/dumsor  brings back that type of memory: bitter yet funny; self-deprecating and yet not quite descending to the levels of self-pity.

Now, in the early 1980s, we only ran out of electricity when the water-level of the Volta Lake at Akosombo fell too low to be able to turn the turbines of the huge generators at the dam. Today, the Volta Lake appears to be no longer the culprit. The fault, we're told, lies with the thermal plant. The engineers have no qualms about telling us that they laid the pipes that carry gas to the thermal plant in such a way that the pipes could be accidentally damaged by ships!

Whatever the causes, our dumsorlogy system of engineering of the present day offers wonderful excuses to too many people: ”Oh, just as I was about to send the email, the power went off. I then drove all the way to the office, to send it from there. But when I got there, I discovered that the power at the office too had been cut.” Really? Maybe! 

”Hey, why didn't you call me yesterday, as you promised?” “Oh, the power went out as I was charging the battery of my mobile.” Can't he/she find a less tired excuse? Yet it may well be true!

Or: “The phone company couldn't allow us to make any calls yesterday.”

“But when I called you, the message I got on the phone was this: ”The number you are calling is either switched off or out of range”. ”Ho, don't mind them. It's a phone company lie. A friend of mine caught them at this lie the other day when he used another company's number to call his own mobile. It was right there in his hand but he was told it was “switched off or out of range”. The phone companies get away with this constant lie because, of course, no-one seriously monitors their operations on our behalf!”

When I first joined the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (then “System”) in 1957, you heard a mandatory apology delivered over the airwaves, if there was so much as a three-second “break in transmission”! You just weren't allowed to hide any error, whatever the cause. And so, you tried not to make errors. When there was a “break in transmission”, you saw engineers and technicians running all over the place. GBS off the air? Great Calamity oh!

”G” – the job title of the Kumasi (later Komfo Anokye) hospital – became a by-word for completing projects ahead of schedule. The workers there were apparently so treasured and as a result, were paid such high wages. that Kumasi women preferred them to anyone else! When they went into a pub, put their tin hats on the table and said, “We're from 'G' the bar tender automatically brought six beers at once – even if there were only two workers present (so it was said.)

And also note this — a friend of mine who saw the Atomic Energy Research Station at Kwabenya when it was being built, once said to me, “I was filled with enormous pride when I saw Ghanaians like me and you carrying out steel-welding there! I thought: "we can be trained to do ANYTHING!"”

Indeed, Even at the place which has now become the butt of a million uncomplimentary jokes – the VRA or “Dumsor Outfit” — a Canadian, Frank Dobson, handed over, after being chief executive officer for 3 years, to a Ghanaian engineer, Dr E L Quartey, who, operated the outfit successfully for 14 years.

Things have changed, of course, bringing newer and far more complex challenges. But machines are also being built in a better way, with the digital revolution. All that is lacking is people at the very top who can think of Ghana first and their personal place in life second. The mentality of ”I don't want to lose my bungalow, my cars and my office; so I shall see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing.” will only run us aground.

So, please, let us ditch it now!

Cameron Duodu
Cameron Duodu, © 2013

Martin Cameron Duodu is a United Kingdom-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a career as a journalist and editorialist.Column: CameronDuodu

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