So I had a conversation with an Uber driver…

Before I begin, I just want to say…e be like say “chatterbox” be some Uber driver prerequisite or something. Also, I suspect several people daily have noteworthy conversations with Uber drivers, enough that there should probably be a website/blog dedicated just to recording drivers’ experiences. Maybe one already exists. If you find one, tell me. It might be interesting enough to hold my attention.

A few weeks ago, I needed to get to the mall pretty quickly, too fast to afford to take my bicycle. So, as much as I hate to spend money, I decided to take an Uber. For the first time ever, I got a Black woman as my Uber driver.

You know how it is when Uber drivers pick you up on college campuses. Nearly the first question they’re going to ask you is what your major is – and soon enough, this woman brought the troublesome question up. Now, I don’t know if I am incriminating myself by blogging my answer to it, but I told her the truth: that I was contemplating between English major and Africana Studies major. Now see, the latter option got her excited, as an African-American woman, although at that point, she hadn’t yet caught completely on to the fact that I am African ankasa.

She started going on and on about how she used to be a teacher and how her goal had been to start a Swahili class for Black people. In her opinion, it was a sad thing that all these Black people had lost their native tongue through slavery and being uprooted to America, and then forced to learn English, and even that, circumstances had not allowed many of them to learn it well. She broke off for a while to lament about her cousin or uncle or something who spoke only broken English and what a pity that was. You see, she told me believed that once all the Black people learned their true native language (Swahili), they would be able to communicate, unite and break out of oppressive dominance structures.

I could tell that she was sincere and incredibly passionate about everything she was saying, including her goal to bring in Swahili speakers to teach a group of Black people including herself their rightful language. She was probably in her forties, you know. And here I was, a teenage college student, casually about to shatter this idealistic bubble she must have lived in for decades. I didn’t yet fully realize the extent of her knowledge either. So, without thinking much, I casually pointed out that because I was from West Africa, I did not speak Swahili.

Yo. This woman nearly stopped the car. Her “what?!” reaction was so profound. Only then did I realize that she legit believed that all Africans spoke Swahili. I wonder if she had ever met another straight-off-the-continent West African before in her life.

So, now that she had attempted to register that different languages were spoken between West Africa and East Africa, her next question was, understandably, what language West Africans spoke. Language. Singular. And I honestly felt sad about what I was about to reveal to her: that there was no single language; there were multiple. Not just in West Africa, but throughout the continent, including the countries that did speak Swahili.

Imagine the most stereotypically indoctrinated child discovering for the first time that his/her parents, not Santa Claus, puts presents under the tree on Christmas. That’s what her dismay reminded me of. I couldn’t even count the number of shocked variations of “Are you being serious right now?” that escaped her lips.

She asked me where I was from and I said Ghana. She asked me what language was spoken in Ghana. I told her I didn’t know the exact number of languages because there were several, and I only spoke one. (And then she wanted to confirm that Swahili truly wasn’t one of them.) She marveled over this for a few minutes and tried to wrap her mind around this knowledge, then wrap the knowledge around her dream of teaching African-Americans how to speak African languages. She wasted no time in trying to incorporate all of it. She began to re-strategize out loud, going, well, fine, then. I’ll just have to make sure my class teaches all the African languages. She still wasn’t fully getting it. I had to tell her that as small as Ghana itself was, even I didn’t know how possible it was to become fluent in all its languages and I doubted the possibility. To become fluently conversational in the major languages, yes, I could envision that. But all the dialects of Ghana alone? Massa, forget. To try to teach all the languages of Africa? How big was this classroom she envisioned, and how many decades at the least could each student spare?

I can’t remember the last time I had ever seen anybody so profoundly sad. She nearly gave up on the idea completely there and then, because she said she couldn’t see the point of having a class in the first place if she couldn’t teach every language. And how could Black people unite, then, even if people from the northern part of one country could barely communicate with people from the south? There was clearly no point. I told her not to give up on the idea just yet, that she could go ahead and try to set it up, and if she wanted to do more than Swahili, she would just have to pick and choose between which other African languages to include.

She asked me at some point why everyone else she knew didn’t seem to know there were even African languages besides Swahili. I said, well, I couldn’t fully answer that question, I could only hypothesize – and my hypotheses were that Swahili itself is probably one of the most widely-spoken African languages, and that it has either infusions of Arabic or roots in it, and of course, it is the primary (frequently only) African language of whose existence Americans generally teach their students of.

I wouldn’t say that this incident was as dramatically revealing for me as it was for her, but I definitely can say that I was struck by it. You’re always struck when something you always assumed to be an obvious piece of knowledge – common sense, even – turns out not to be a part of someone else’s knowledge framework. Goodness knows, I’ve probably given several people throughout my life similar shocks as a result of my ignorance, but oh well. It was an interesting conversation nonetheless.

“And we were jealous you had a homeland, a native tongue and your parents spoke it

and we were just the offspring of the broken.

Hopeless, so we all learnt Swahili as if we knew we were from that region

Silly, we know,

but what you ‘posed to do when all you know,

Your closest cultural customs are similar to your captors’?”

-Propaganda, “Three Cord Bond

-Akotowaa

LOL so this liberal arts distin actually works eh?

If you know Akotowaa, like know me proper, it is no surprise that my anti-formal-education stance has been a huge part of my life and informed my worldview for literally years. I have been tired of formal education and its restrictions for a long time. I have watched several videos, including Prince EA’s spoken word poem, Suli Breaks’ spoken word problem, and Ken Robinson’s TED talk. I have written on it several times, including in my novella, Puppets. I spent a lot of my first semester of high school frickin’ interviewing teachers like I was doing actual research on what made formal education (not) work. A lot of this has largely been fueled by my own wars between self (artist) and society (that wants me to be “practical”).  And so I would say that I came into my liberal arts college with an already fairly liberal-arts-educationist mindset. But not everyone is like me. As obvious a fact of life as this is, it can sometimes be quite shocking to have it flung in your face and brought into active consciousness.

For my academic year, there had been 3 Ghanaians from Ghana that got into my college, of which I had been one. The other two were guys; we were all from different schools and didn’t know each other prior to acceptance. One of these guys took the initiative to ardently use all his resources, especially Facebook, to firstly discover who we were, and then organize a single meet-up during the summer so that college in the US would not be the first time we were meeting each other.

I often go off the first vibes I get from people, so I know who not to waste my time with if we can’t click. The boy who orchestrated the meet-up was fine; I knew we could be cool with each other kraa. And I was right because we pretty much have been from then on. The other one, though, I had a problem with. I had barely known him for more than 20 minutes before he began to tire me.

It is difficult for me to pinpoint tangible reasons to account for what I’m usually satisfied enough to pass off as “vibes”, but I suppose for the sake of lexical communication, I have to try. His education had influenced his mental frame to make it the exact opposite of my own conscious mental frame at the time. Note that education is both formal (he had gone to government schools, and I to private/international) and informal (he had been raised in some sort of conventional Ghanaian societal mindset, whereas I had been raised in an environment that at least had enough cracks in conventional culture for me to break out and stand on the outside).

He was the kind of person who would ascribe to the satirical (because it’s too painfully real to be considered purely humorous) joke that an [African] individual has 4 career options: Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer or Disgrace to Family. He was the type of person who would react with (un)conscious disdain or perhaps mere bafflement that I was considering majoring in something like English. (And true as heck, he did; I could see it in his expression when I mentioned it) He was the type of person to hold Ivy Leagues in the highest esteem like getting into one was a sure sign of undebatable brilliance. (I, on the other hand, am so ridiculously tired of even the idea of Ivy Leagues.) As a matter of fact, he had even been accepted into one, and I don’t think he mentioned that fewer than twice. He was the kind of person I simply would not have patience for even if I tried, and so the best way to maintain a healthy relationship between us was to limit our direct communication as much as possible – which I think I managed to do all of last semester, so yay. [I would describe other factors that led me to strengthen my resolve to limit interaction, but that would be both mean and revealing of much more than is necessary for the sake of this post.]

A few weeks ago, however, at the beginning of this second semester of our first year in college, I had a conversation with him which I kind of never expected to have with him – or anyone, for that matter, since I have so little faith in the effectiveness of school. The conversation struck up when I joined him for breakfast in a nearly-empty dining hall. (Why did I sit with someone I had been actively avoiding? I was in a good enough mood to decide that I could control my ugly superciliousness, I guess), and the conversation continued until we broke off near the dorms to our respective destinations.

He was telling me how, this semester, he was taking an Introduction to Psychology class, and was further interested in taking a sociology class, because it seemed like the material within these courses was relevant and fascinating. For such a STEM-oriented mind, these were huge things to admit, both to oneself and to another person. I didn’t realize in the moment how impacted he must have been during our past 5 months in America to say these things. To me, it was just like Well yeah, the study of minds and cultures is relevant to whomever it’s relevant to – why are you so excited? In fact, I’d already taken an Intro Psych class the previous semester, so already, I couldn’t see what the big deal was.

But this boy, who had lived for 21 years on this earth already, had come into college believing (and he confessed this himself, to me, that morning) that people who studied stuff like the humanities were just wasting their time and education; STEM was where the only important stuff was at. [I just want to clarify something, because I think some people believe that I’m anti-STEM. I am not anti-STEM; that would be idiotic. It is impossible for me not to see the necessity of people in society pursuing science, technology etc. in a 21st-century world. What I am truly against is people who have no affinity for STEM, including myself, being forced or persuaded to pursue academic/professional careers in those areas.] And so this boy was only now reaching an educationally liberal point of view that I’d been at for ages already. Why?

Because he took a class here whose content he probably might not have had access to, had he gone to a college that wasn’t our liberal arts college. What is special about the one we attend is a mandatory seminar class for all first-year students. There are about 30 options to choose from before you actually arrive at the school, and each class has a unique and academically unconventional subject focus. You stick with one for a whole semester and then you’re done. The class this boy chose was entitled “Education and its Discontents”, which sounds vaguely fascinating. I’d actually considered ranking that higher on my preference scale before I decided that I was far too tired of the topic to bother engaging with it especially coming freshly out of high school and needing a break from arguing the same points I’ve been arguing against my opposition for years – and there was sure to be some members of my opposition in the class. Case in point: my STEMmish countryman over here.

Now I obviously can’t go into great detail about what exactly the class covered, seeing how I didn’t take it myself, but from what I gathered, some TED talks were watched, perhaps even that famous Ken Robinson one. The matters of why people became so dissatisfied with the educational system were discussed. Formal education’s credibility and effectiveness were questioned. The history and evolution of the concept of school were explored, including the scholastic visions of ancient philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. And, I am assuming, the value of a holistic education, such as that which liberal arts promises, was emphasized.

But I’m not here to talk about the content of a class I didn’t take. I am just here to express how truly, genuinely astounded I am that a college class could have had such real, fantastic influence on the kind of person it needed to have influence on. Do you know, I never expected school to be this effective at all. There’s a fascinating irony in school having been critically studied in school too, LOL. And even though the class probably didn’t indoctrinate/anti-indoctrinate the entirety of the content I’d have liked it to, it’s still impossible to ignore the fact that it has tangible potential to push people in (what I believe is) the right direction. So…there’s hope?

This doesn’t make me stop hating school though. I’m too stubborn for that. 🙂

-Akotowaa