“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
Bob Marley, Redemption Song.
She kept speaking to the little girl in English. I didn’t understand why. She is my mother’s friend and the girl is her grand-daughter. I would ask the girl, “Wo ho ti sɛn?”, and she would just stare at me, I thought it was Twi she couldn’t comprehend when I asked her the question in Ewe, they are Ewes, I was met with the same blank stare, finally I asked her, “How are you?”, and she responded, “I am fine.” Minerva, that’s the little girl’s name, reminds me of another young girl I know; Ella, shortened form of Emmanuelle, and she is older than Minerva. For her, she understands Twi alright and can speak it but prefers to speak English. Whenever I ask Ella a question in Twi, she would respond in English until I insist she speaks Twi. There is this other young girl who buys things from me at my mum’s shop. When she sees me there she starts smiling; she would speak English by default, so the smile is more of a switch, and she starts speaking Twi. The day I told her to stop speaking English with me she asked me if I didn’t speak English at school. My response was, yes I did, but I wasn’t at school, therefore we should speak Twi. One of my church leaders also interacts with his children in English; there hasn’t been a single time he has addressed them in the local dialect. When I ask his son how he is doing, he doesn’t respond, I usually ask in the native tongue; I had thought he was out of ear shot, I ask him in passing, I am always in a hurry. One time, I was really close to him when I asked him, “Bibiara bͻkͻͻ?” This boy looked right into my eyes and did not respond. I remember the scene well; he was fiddling with a piano, trying to make some harmony from the discordant sounds which showed his fingers were alien to the keys. I asked him a second time, still no response. His elder sister was there and I told her her brother doesn’t respond when I speak to him. She asked him why he did that, and he was silent. In my church, there are a lot of whites. You should see this boy when he sees white people; he will be all around like a lost puppy who has found its mother. I can understand; he sees these white people in movies, he would kill to get close to one. But I choose not to understand.
Last week Wednesday, I was at a meeting, and I decided to speak Twi throughout. It was difficult for me. I had to translate words from English to Twi in my mind. At a point, I had to really pause and think but I wouldn’t give up. People in the meeting told me to speak the Queen’s language to make things easy for myself. It was an eye opener, wrestling with my own language. You might think I am holding on to a whim. Truth is, my language is important to me. Few things make me happier than someone who speaks Twi flawlessly, not only Twi, any African language; it’s always beautiful when words jump off the tongue effortlessly. That’s why I love Agya Koo Nimo’s music. It’s rich with sense and strength. When you listen to him you become baptized with ancient knowledge that still stands. His is magic. How his fingers work on the guitar is appreciated by those who have heard him play. Yet, it’s the sacred wisdom and language, unadulterated, that impresses me; his words are spiced with proverbs, wise sayings and folklore; that’s what is dying. We are sacrificing our languages on the altar of convenience. These days, I hardly hear people speak local dialects without punctuating them with English. On the other hand, when we speak English we like to keep it clean, uninfected by local jargons, you bet someone will remind you of an error while speaking the language which should be without blemish. A few days ago, I was listening to some Fela Kuti songs, and I watched one of his interviews he gave in in relation to his track, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense. The musician talked about his childhood and how everything foreign was seen as good- language, education, dressing, food. It reminded me of my own childhood, there was a time at school, when you would be caned when you speak vernacular. It conditioned our minds, at least mine, to see our language as inferior, which extends to culture. A man or woman who feels his or her culture second class to another is a living dead; there is no redemption for such a person. If such a person continues on this path, he or she would be lost. I had a shift in perspective when I started reading the works of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I learned he writes first in Gikuyu before he translates them into English. In the past, he had written in English. His writing is something else; words fail me. I read his books in English. If they weren’t in English I would probably not have had the privilege of reading them. Still, I his ideas are worth considering, writing in the mother tongue. The writer makes compelling arguments in his book Something Torn and New. It would be hard work to do what he does. Yet, I think there is a necessity in preserving our dying languages. Other writers disagree with Ngũgĩ’s way of thinking. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who I adore, goes far as to say, ‘English is my language; I have taken ownership of English.’ In an interview of Chinua Achebe with the Paris Review I read, his argument was based on audience, English gives a writer greater reach. In the latter part of last year, I attended an event organized by Accra Dot Alt where Ayi Kwei Armah and Ayesha Haruna Attah discussed their effort in creating a universal language, or at least a blue print, for Africa. Why is such a language important? Pride. That’s my answer. We as Africans can do more if we are proud of our rich history and who we are. This I must add, I am not one of the people who think we had been living on Sugar Candy Mountain and colonization came to destroy everything; I am not that naïve. We had some serious problems as a people and still do. My point is, in as much as English opens us to a wider audience, we should see it for what it is- a tool for communication, nothing more. English is not the only medium through which we can make sense. Let’s explore other ways and speak in tongues of our fathers.
WRITER- KWAKU GYAMFI- threesiztyGh writer/contributor.