Whither Ghanaian English? Chimamanda Adichie or Ngugi wa Thiong'o?

Feature Article Whither Ghanaian English? Chimamanda Adichie or Ngugi wa Thiong'o?

The BBC expects you to talk hard when they invite you on their flagship HARD talk programme. The questions are difficult and the moderation is tough. And mostly guests do not disappoint. The show recently hosted celebrated Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, where he told host Gavin Esler: 'English is not an African language-full stop.'

The English language, according to the writer, is a means of spiritual subjugation which has become necessary because Africans are eager to belong to a metaphysical empire-the empire of the mind. He blames the low influence of African languages on the hierarchy and power play between languages, where some languages rate themselves higher than others. Can you imagine French literature in Zulu, Thiong'o asks his host? He has stopped writing in English; he now writes in his native Gikuyu.

Ironically, Ngugi (tipped to win the Nobel Prize in English literature) took the decision to stop using English when he was in prison. He had been incarcerated for his strong and harsh views by the Daniel Arap Moi government, not by the British colonialists who imposed their English on Kenyans. In his efforts to decolonize the mind, he argues that other Africans who are writing in English are 'contributing to the expansion and deepening of English language, not Yoruba, Gikuyu, Kiswahili and so on.'

He calls it a fallacy that a writer gets more readership only when he writes in English. He asks again: 'Can you think of English literature which must only be written in Chinese? He finds it crazy that African writers need to write in English before they would be considered for any awards. This is part of the metaphysical empire he talks about.

This is not an unfamiliar argument. It antedates recent efforts to project African languages as good tools for global scholarship. However, these efforts have often been championed by writers whose very prominence as intellectuals had been at the unction of the English language. Weep Not Child, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's first novel, is popular among Ghanaians because it was a required text for African literature in secondary schools.

We wouldn't have known about the book and the masterful caricature of the Mau Mau Uprising, if he had written it in Gikuyu. How many Ghanaian authors have their works translated into Akan or Dagate? Yet we loved Weep Not Child-not only because of the phenomenal use of the English language, but because of the traditional flavor it presents. We read Shakespeare for a different literary experience.

While many language users may find Ngugi's position on the English language too difficult to accept, we see a lot of reason in Chimamanda Adichie's modern and pragmatic attitude to the power of the English language. The young Nigerian author writes: 'English is my language; I have taken ownership of English.' That is a bold statement from an Igbo native born in Enugu, Nigeria in West Africa. She grew up in the same house formerly used by Chinua Achebe in Nsukka, Nigeria.

Yet she owns English, not Igbo or any other Nigerian language. I think it is a brave proclamation by a woman who writes confidently that culture does not make people; people make culture. She has made English her culture. For some of us, however, Chimamanda has thrown a big challenge and dared us to compose the next sentence in the English language.

How well do black Africans, as specified by Chimamanda, own or even use the English language? Not too long ago, economist and former newspaper editor, Dr. Nii Moi Thompson, catalogued what he termed 'Top 35 bloopers and foibles in Ghanaian journalism.' He wrote: 'Even by the already fallen standards of contemporary Ghanaian journalism, what we are witnessing these days in print, on air and in cyberspace is frightening.'

It was quite frightening when a satisfied reader commented on myjoyonline: 'Thanks Dr for this great advise.' Immediately, another jumped in: 'For those saying 'great advise', the word is advice. 'Advise' is the verb.' A careful reader cautioned: 'I am even scared to write a lot, since I might end up exposing some flaws.' It was good where he ended it. The next commentator was a palpable proof.

That was not the first time Dr. Thompson had done this. He has been a source of education to many journalists and 'every English speaking individual,' as another consumer of the article delightfully put it. I would be quick to own up as a direct beneficiary of Dr. Thompson's very useful lessons on English usage. For the umpteenth time, he reminded us that the word 'scribe' is not a synonym for the General Secretary of a political party. While I found many of the bloopers inexcusable, like confusing 'bravado' with 'bravery', I tried to forgive myself for always saying 'zet' for the last letter of the English Alphabet. It is actually 'zed' and 'ek cetera' had better been 'et cetera'.

Last year, I took a course on Advanced Editing at the University of Ottawa, where I was made to repent of my many writing sins. We were exposed to what award-winning writer Elmore Leonard calls Hootedoodles. The term had first been used in John Steinbeck's 'Sweet Thursday' before Leonard, crime fiction's greatest practitioner, borrowed and popularized it.

Hootedoodles are a bit like Moi Thompson's bloopers and foibles. They refer to items that are wordy, unnecessary, space-taking and generally get in the way of good writing. There is such a thing as words getting in the way of what we want to say. That is what hootedoodles do to our communication.

We do not aspire to be language deities to be able to use English proficiently, but we have a professional obligation (even as dancers) to leave out the bloopers that readers and listeners want to skip. Leonard identifies these as detailed description of characters, places and things. He also forbids the use of 'suddenly' and 'all hell broke loose.' Most of us are already in hell for writing terrible English. We should not let hell break loose. By the way, did 'Dumsor' finally make it to the Oxford Dictionary?

By Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
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