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Opinion | Aug 30, 2018

`What Is 'Nightingale' In Twi?

The Author
The Author

Why do some experiences stick into our minds like glue and never want to leave?

One such experience of mine is this: we were coming from our farm one day, and having reached the river Akoosi – whose water was almost as cold as refrigerated water and which gave you as clear a reflection of your face as a mirror, and which is now quite dead, thanks to the activities of galamseyers – we set down our head-loads, made water-cups out of a very smooth-skinned leaf used for that purpose(aworah?)and began to drink our fill.

After the heavenly drink, we lingered around the river-bank, enjoying our relief from load-carrying. We dreaded having to put our loads on our heads again for the rest of the trip home.

As we relaxed on the river-bank, I noticed a family which had had the same idea as my own. In normal circumstances, one would not enter into conversation with people one had met casually like that. But a boy of my own age was with this family, and I knew him vaguely enough to go over and ask him whether he would challenge me to a running race on the banks of the river.

But when I got near him and was about to speak, he put his hand to his lips and bade me stay silent. I then saw that his uncle, who was much older than us, had concealed himself near a tree and was making noises with his lips. I swear the noises were so bird-like that although I had heard them earlier, I had assumed they were being made by birds, until my would-be playmate drew my attention to what the guy was doing.

The guy did an imitation of the songs of different birds (aserewa, (sunbird)aserewasikansuo and aserewasika; and the bigger sunbird versions: tien-tien; tien-tien sika; aserewa-polis.)

These birds were named after their indescribable plumage – the aserewa itself was brownish-beige in colour with tiny fringes of green, whereas the rest of the genus were so colourful that they were named after gold and the various stages in which gold passes before it solidifies – liquid gold, shining gold, rainbow gold and so on.

Now, when these birds flew and the sun's rays shone through their feathers, there was such a panoply of colours that it wasn't fair to select gold alone and describe them with it. But how do you say gold-mixed-with-purple-and-five-different hues-of-blue-and-green-and-bits -of-phosphorescent-yellow/scarlet – in just two words?

The simple truth was that the beauty of these birds was, literally, incapable of adequate description. They could only be named in short-hand; the dominant colours were picked upon and the others submerged. Yet the submerged ones were equally rich beyond belief.

As my friend's uncle mimicked the songs of the birds, some flew lower and – closer – to trees near the one behind which he was hiding. I mean – he was so accurate in his mimicry they thought it was one of them who was making those sounds! But they were cautious all the same – birds have a survival instinct built into them – as can be gleaned by watching how they never sit quite still but are always ready to scupper off at half a second's notice.

I confess I was hypocritically glad that the bird-mimic wasn't holding a catapult with which to kill some of the birds that took him for one of their own. ? Yes – because I possessed a catapult myself! Okay, I admit I was a very poor shot, but my elder brother was a sinister catapult shooter and I was often the one who looked for pebbles for him to use in shooting at birds. So I was as guilty as him.

In fact, I was the one who retrieved birds from the thickets into which they fell after he'd shot them. I remember with great regret, picking up birds that had not yet died and were gasping for breath, or were still warm-bodied, though they were no longer alive and would soon perish into rigor mortis. I didn't regret, though, when we got home and grilled them for lunch or supper. Yet I loved looking at, and listening to birds!

I have often wondered why my friend's uncle, unlike my elder brother, didn't carrya catapult. I hope I am right in supposing that because he knew how to sing like them, he had a special empathy for them. Anyway, his attitude and demeanour fascinated me beyond words; especially when he began to imitate the song of one particularly marvellous songster of a bird, the ɔpɔreɛ.

This bird sang in whole stanzas, not in short phrases or even sentences like other birds. I was fascinated to hear a human being so accurately imitating the sound I'd heard from many a thicket – with the bird so wily in its hiding strategy that if one tried to follow its voice, it quietly moved a few feet away, but farther and farther from one. It could tempt one into the deep bush, and then fly away for good. It was both clever and musical – a beguiling combination.

I have never been able to find out what the “Latin” name of the ɔpɔreɛ and its sister, the kɔtɔpɔreɛ is: (why do they always name these creatures in Latin, a dead language?) But I suspect the bird is what is known in the English language as the Nightingale. Or a very close relation.

The reason is that some nightingales spend the European winter months in sub-Saharan Africa, with one ringed nightingale having been found in Guinea-Bissau a few years ago. It had flown there from Norfolk, in England!

Apart from that piece of evidence, I note that the nightingale's song is sprinkled with imitations of other birds' songs, and I get the distinct impression that among the birds the nightingale imitates well is the ateebia, whose extremely melancholy song I know very well because one of my classmates, Kwaku Hene, used to declaim to us, what he claimed the bird was saying when it sang:

onipa ko a ɔfaa a me mma yi,

ɔnnyɛ baa na ɔyɛ barima;

sɛ ɔyɛ ɔbaa deɛ aa,

anka onim sɛnea awoɔ teɛ,

kwaakyeremu ei,

mensono mu oh!

kwaakyeremu ei,

miisu me mma oh!”

(“Whoever took my chicks,

Could not have been a woman

But a man;

For were it to be a woman,

She would have known

What it's like to bear a child;

Oh poor me, Kwaakyeremu

I lament from deep inside my innards!

Oh Kwaakyeremu,

I mourn for my offspring!”)

How did my classmate, Kwaku Hene, get these words which sound absolutely authentic? I bet he learnt it from a grown-up member of his family, who also got it from someone older than him. And I remember the words verbatim after all these years! That's how wisdom, morality and empathy used to be passed on to us from generation to generation, and we learnt how to respect the eco-systems that surrounded us, while we grew up.

However, in our missionary-supervised schools, the eco-system was largely neglected or else denounced as being conducive to idolatry, and we treated it with contempt. So, today, our country is populated with “educated” bigots to whom the environment means absolutely nothing and fat bank balances, air-conditioned cars and opulent homes take precedence over everything else. Imagine a seven or eight-year-old child of today being able to recite a bird's song in his own language and making it sound so good and meaningful that one of his classmates would remember it years later – after hearing it only once or twice!

By the way, if you have an Internet connection, tune to:

and listen to a nightingale singing. It will be a balm to your mind, no matter how tense or bruised it happens to be!

Cameron Duodu
Cameron Duodu, © 2018

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.

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