Why Some Ghanaian Kids Don’t Speak and Don’t WANT to Know How to Speak a Ghanaian Language

Subtitle: Ghanaians inducing identity crises of other Ghanaians, with reference to individual, real life examples

I have had the privilege of recently meeting a film director, Ghanaian by heritage, raised in America: Sean Addo. I also got to watch one of his films, “Deeper Than Black,” at a Pan-African Club meeting at my school. Sean is a cool guy and the movie itself, apart from being fantastically animated (no, it wasn’t an animation; it was acted. I’m talking about effects), the story that was told was rather thought-provoking.

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It was a very personal story, part narrative and part documentary, written by Sean, directed by him, narrated by him, and even featured him in the film as the main character. It was like a condensed autobiography of sorts. It talked about how it was like to be black in America. Apparently, African is not African-American is not Black. From what some characters in the film said, African-American is being traceably tied back to Africa, and Blacks are not Africans; they’re merely people who have a lot of melanin in their skin and have families that have been living in the USA for a long time, with no apparent ties to Africa. But that’s not the actual point of what I’m writing.

A large part of the conflict was the main character’s deficiency in the Ghanaian language – in his case, Twi. He couldn’t speak it, at least not fluently, and his girlfriend was making an attempt to teach him, and one thing she said to him really struck me. She was teaching him how to say “nkosia” (egg) or something of the sort, and he repeated it, laughing at himself. She said, “You know why you’re laughing? It’s because you know other people laugh at you, so when you laugh at yourself, it’s not as bad.” (I bet you want to watch this film now, don’t you?)

Apart from that, the latter part of the conversation was the two of them talking about how even knowing the language fluently wouldn’t be enough, because the people (Ghanaians) are still going to look at them strangely, like they don’t belong, because of, and I’m paraphrasing here, their “abrofos3m.” They concluded that nothing they did would ever be enough…

Which brings me to my particular topic of interest: why some Ghanaian kids don’t know and don’t WANT to know how to speak a Ghanaian language. (Hint: it’s not just because they’re lazy.)

I’m legally a citizen of the United States of America. I’m American – on paper. In everything else, I’d like to believe I’m as Ghanaian as possible. I was born in Osu. I was raised by an Ewe grandfather, an Akuapim grandmother, my father who is their son but speaks only Twi, my mother who speaks Asante Twi, Akuapim Twi and Fante. Mum grew up in Kumasi. Dad grew up I Accra and Italy. I’m growing up in Accra – where I have been my whole life. I went to a school where I was blasted and lashed and caned as much as any other person. I didn’t write the BECE, but from Class 1 to Class 6, I studied as if I was going to. Yes, it means I did Twi as a subject. No, I did not bomb, thank you very much. I struggle with Twi movies, I admit, but my conversational Twi understanding is pretty alright. I sometimes struggle to voice out exactly what I want to say, but I can speak so that I am understood. I don’t wear African print too often because I have my own fashion policy, which is to wear black, white or grey as far as I can possibly help it. My favourite food is fufu, ab3nkwan and fish. I don’t eat meat – perhaps that’s the most un-Ghanaian thing about me. Even my hair is natural.

If I met me, I’d think I was Ghanaian. But multiple times, I’ve witnessed the incredulousness on people’s faces when they come to the knowledge that I can speak/understand a Ghanaian language – Twi. (I used to learn Ewe from my grandfather and my grandma’s nurse, but she got dismissed and Grandpa went to the USA for a while, and I lost the ability.) In a variety of wording and phrasing, I’ve been told “me y3 me ho abrofos3m” (I hold myself like an English person.) Saa? So, why do I only get this from the Ghanaians?

In Ghana, they say I have a Western accent. I’ve gone to America so many times, and have been explicitly told that my accent is 110% Ghanaian. Whom should I believe now?

Ghanaians have a fault, and that fault is in their judgment. They place judgments on you as soon as they see your face/clothes or hear you speak. Why are we so culturally shocked when we hear a light-skinned part-Ghanaian speaking a language that they have inherited the right to speak by blood? Yet they look at the dark-skinned Ghanaians with insults implicated in their eyes when they discover that they cannot speak a Ghanaian language (fluently). There’s a paradox in this. Why? Because they laugh shamelessly when they witness people try.

Could you possibly think of anything more discouraging? Your judgments have managed to shame someone enough to making them desire to learn a language, and in their attempts, they are shamed even further. My fellow countrymen, how do we solve the problem now?

I have friends who have also been in Ghana their whole lives, of course fluent in English perhaps because they went to international schools, or their parents just raised them talking that way, or other circumstances. I have one particular tall, dark friend who has lived in Ghana all his life, but has a rather not-Ghanaian accent. It’s almost British – until you do an extensive comparison and realise it’s not at all British; it’s just him. (Nevertheless, people have seen it fit to nickname him BBC.)

Here are two important things to note about this friend:

  1. He’s very dark. VERY. )y3 bibini ampa.
  2. He cannot easily buy bofrot.
In case you didn't know what bofrot was...
In case you didn’t know what bofrot was…

It may not be immediately apparent how these are related. Here’s a true story: Mr. Dark goes out to buy bofrot. As soon as he opens his mouth to ask for bofrot with his impeccable English in his not-Ghanaian accent, the bofrot seller gets very excited and completely ignores his request. Instead, she begins to exclaim in Twi and shouts for her colleague, who is probably at the back, frying more bofrot that, “Ei! Come and look at this bibini with skin darker than my own, talking like an obroni! Come and look! Come and look!”

The second woman comes out. Mr Dark requests again for his bofrot. The two women start freaking out together. All this has to be gone through before the guy can be given his damned bofrot?!

People used to ask me whether I could speak Twi. When I spoke it, because they had heard my abrofos3m English before, they would inevitably start laughing, whether what I said was funny or not, whether I felt like I’d made a mistake in pronunciation or not…they would just laugh, because the person from whom the sound was coming was me. And by the time I was ten or eleven, I’d gotten tired of it. Hence, when people asked me if I could speak, my response would be, “Yes, but I won’t do it now, and I won’t speak it to you because every time someone asks me if I can, they just want to use it as an excuse to laugh at me.” (I am not joking. I said this. Many times.) And nothing they said afterwards would be able to sway me from my steadfastness. And guess what? That’s how the older generation of Ghanaians loses touch with the younger generation. The old ones laugh, the young ones get defiant and give up.

Perhaps this shaming method worked in the past, but now, people are undeniably richer and more Westernised/globalised and kids are more rebellious. Thus, shaming can actually do more harm than good.

Here’s another problem that doesn’t seem that important but is actually a very large contributing factor: association. Some Ghanaian kids actually don’t speak Ghanaian languages because they don’t like the people who do. For example, one thinks, “These barbers and hairdressers are displaying nasty conduct by way of using their language to insult the people whose hair they are attending to, or “These nasty people speaking Twi make me feel nasty when they laugh at me for trying to speak it,” which leads to conclusions like, “If nasty people are speaking a language, I’ll be as nasty as them if I speak the language too, and if nasty people speak the language, then the language must be nasty too. Let me avoid all this nastiness.” And that’s another soul lost.

We still have a couple more problems to tackle.

I have realised that it’s actually easier for Ghanaians who are a bit ”abrofos3m” to learn Ghanaian languages OUT of Ghana. Why? Because sometimes, over there, your ethnicity singles you out as someone special, whether they (the people in one’s community) understand it or not. It’s like the way foreigners are eager to try to learn something native to another people. The difference is that, where they are, (taking out the factor of racism) they are encouraged to be as in tune with their own heritage as possible, whereas here, they are, for the most part, simply being shamed for not being in tune with their heritage. You feel me? And here, I’m using my own cousins as case studies, so this isn’t even hypothetical.

Here’s a quote from one of my friends: “Parents expect us to pick languages like they did, but if your friends speak a different local language, you can’t speak it with them. And when you are able to understand them when they tell you to do stuff in this language, it’s assumed you can speak as well. But because we never spoke with anybody else, and we established English as our means of talking to them from our infancy, we end up becoming passively bilingual.”

So, there we have another problem: being expected to be able to “pick up” all the languages like we’re geniuses and the languages themselves are just lying everywhere, waiting to be collected. I don’t think I need to elaborate further.

This particular friend is Adangbe, and will lash me (only metaphorically) if I insinuate that Ga and Adangbe are the same thing. Anyway, when he was going to school, he started out by learning Ga. Then, suddenly, there wasn’t a Ga teacher anymore, so he was forced to study Twi as his Ghanaian language…and that didn’t go down so well. For various reasons, he actively began to hate Twi – from being forced to learn the language under a flimsy excuse to arrogant taxi drivers, to people laughing at attempts, to a feeling of irresponsibility. Irresponsibility because as an Adangbe, he felt he had more responsibility to his own language, which he already wasn’t that proficient in, and when he hadn’t even mastered that, was being driven to the point of having to take extra classes to learn how to pass exams in a language he didn’t even WANT to know how to speak in the first place.

“Because you can’t choose a child’s first language for them, you can only create the environment. And even when they naturally pick up English, encourage them to learn their own local language by creating avenues for them in the classroom, by actively teaching them and not just expecting them to pick up everything from your conversations with your spouse/relatives/friends…Because if you don’t facilitate people learning their respective local languages, the one with the most people will always dominate,” he said.

So, here’s another problem: the forcing. It’s never bad to make Ghanaians learn their languages But is anyone familiar with the phenomenon of an interest or like suddenly turning into a burden because one HAS to do it? When it becomes compulsory?

I will make my final point with another quote from him: “Well I think parents try their best most of the time, but when we go to school, we all speak English because that’s what we all understand. And it starts when we’re young. So when we start speaking as toddlers and we start speaking English, our parents aren’t going to tell us to stop, they are going to encourage us because who doesn’t want their child to be speaking?”

I’m sure there are a multitude of other reasons, besides laziness. I’m never exhaustive when I write stuff like this. But I’m interested in recognizing problems that need to be solve, so if there are any factors anyone knows that I’ve left out, I’ll be happy to hear them, and any proposed solutions that I and my friends have not thought about, well, feel free to express. Also, feel free to counter; we may be wrong.

-Akotowaa

Ghanaians and Reading, Kids and Literacy

Sigh. I don’t like speaking about such deep things when it comes to my country, because I’m very naïve and the issues I form opinions about are usually ‘beyond me’ and my ability to grasp or understand. (Leave me alone, I’m only sixteen.) But this one dier, I have to post about it, get it out of my system. Shoot me down if you want. **plays Titanium in the background.**

On Sunday, I paid a visit to the Silverbird bookshop. Brother, you don’t need to tell me that if an actual bookshop is what I’m looking for, that is not the place to go. I know this. (oh dear Lord, why do we not have a Barnes and Noble here?) But I happened to be passing by, and books attract me, so of course I went in.

People.

I said you don’t understand my reaction to the variety – or should I say lack there of – of books. People! It’s like my heart died…with disgust. In my head, I was just like “But you people paa…” Because lined on the shelves – and I mean shelf after shelf after shelf – was an absurdly large collection of romance novels. There was one shelf, that went even a full shelf – it was the one for display right by the window – that was lined with some Ghanaian books. There was also a Nigerian economy book. ( have no idea what that was doing there.) But chale – the few Ghanaian books over there had no variety at all. If it ain’t Ghanaian history, it’s tourism, else it’s a Christian novel that reveals its ending in the blurb. What dis?

So, I picked up a book to pay for, because I was curious, and the cover was nice, and I went to pay. As I waited, I decided to question the lady at the desk. I asked her, “How do you select the books you sell? Do you base it on world trends or on the preference of the people?”

You know what she told me? She said that over the years, they’d been able to determine which books buyers bought more often, and they got many more of them.

So I gestured to the shelves on my left and asked, “So do all these romance books get finished? People actually buy them?”

“Yes!” she responded. “People buy all of them.” And she also proceeded to explain that on many an occasion, the children bought what they found their parents looking at. Now, I understand that in the 70s and 80s, there was a large Mills and Boon craze. Resultantly, people in my mother’s age group may look at them with nostalgia occasionally.

BUT WHEN A GHANAIAN BOOKSHOP IS 95% ROMANCE AND ONLY HAS A DISGRACEFUL VARIETY OF GHANAIAN NOVELS…I will have a problem. I mean, there was some quality, like a Roald Dahl collection, The Hunger Games, Horrible Science…but the ratios easily showed which genre really had the favour of the readers.

So… On to this book I bought. As I said, I was attracted to the cover design, which I recently found out was done by a Ghanaian illustrator I already know of, Elkanah. The first few pages had only short passages ion them, and all they said was that the story would be that of Osei Tutu I. I was deeply intrigues, because I love mythology, and since almost all Ghanaian history is even myth-based, Iw as eager to read it.

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This eagerness was killed as soon as I was done with the first paragraph. So I stopped, and I read the author’s profile once more. Ah? This man, Kwabena Ankomah-Kwakye is an educated individual? With a strong passion for essay writing? Graduated from KNUST IN 2006? And STILL cannot write a single paragraph of a story with a consistent tense? It’s like he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to tell the story in past tense or present tense, and he couldn’t decide whether to tell the forthcoming events in simple future or conditional. It really isn’t that hard to learn the difference between ‘will’ and ‘would.’

But I decided to let it slide for that first paragraph and plough on, in the hopes that it would get better.

Awurade. The spelling mistakes in the book dier, even Class 6 students would have been disappointed. How can you say ‘the alter of the gods’? There were so many worse ones, and even aside from that, there was the issue of punctuation. Oh, God, the punctuation! Commas missing everywhere they were supposed to be, being placed everywhere they weren’t needed! Paragraphs that looked like 2 short stories mashed into one long paragraph. Quotation marks hanging in random places, absent in others! And last I checked ‘young man’ is not one word.

But you now, sometimes, you must forgive the authors. They are stressed, they are under pressure and they are struggling to get their ideas onto the paper. So they might make a rather large number of mistakes. That’s where the editor comes in n’est-ce pas? This is where we commence a different section of the rant.

The Juvenile Community was not my idea. For that one, see Kiiki Quarm. But before I was involved in it, I was never really a content editor. I’d always been a creator, too lazy to proofread my own work. But being a co-editor with Owiredua at TJC, I can honestly tell you that editing isn’t always the most fun job. It’s time-consuming, can get really frustrating, and some spelling mistakes can make you want to give up on life (even when the mistakes are yours). I know that at times, things can slip out unnoticed, thus go uncorrected. I also know that though editing may be trying at times, IT’S NOT THAT HARD TO DO!

The editor of this book, The Deliverer, must have been one of the laziest editors ever, if he/she even existed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story passed through no editor. This published book looks like it’s in the stages of a freaking first draft. That’s not the worst part. Apparently, the book was published first in 2011. The ‘revised’ version I bought was published in 2012. Revised? Which part of the book is revised? They changed the fanciness of the chapter titles or what?

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“This revised edition…”
The fancy chapter thingie.
The fancy chapter thingie.

The idea behind the book was fantastic. Definitely, let kids learn about history outside of a textbook. Osei Tutu’s story fascinates me. But there was little about this book that made reading it much different from reading it for History class in form 2 from ‘A History of Ghana’ or in class 6 from a Social Studies textbook. (And these books had fewer grammatical errors too.)

I know I’ve gone back and forth, but let me summarise the essence of this post: Publishers like these, and Ghanaians like us claim that we aim to foster literacy among Ghanaians, especially the young ones. And then we discourage people who want to be artistically-inclined, actors, authors, whatever, in favour of ‘practical’ things like medicine, law or engineering. Where does it leave us? With illiterate doctors and politicians, children being encouraged to read Ghana’s own mistake-filled literature that may have the detrimental effect of showing them that it’s alright to write like that, and the rest of the population filling their heads with hot sex and one-month fictional flings that add no value to their lives.

You know what? Y’all can go and fix the Cedi. Shoot all the politicians if you have to. Meanwhile, I’ll be there in the background, working on literacy in any way I can. After all, you need smart people to maintain a nation in a global village. How does the world see us when our First Lady goes to the world’s Superpower and can’t properly deliver a speech? (And we laugh at it like it’s funny.) I’m willing to dedicate my life to Ghanaian literacy. If, by my retirement age, my work comes to nil and has had no effect on the country, you might as well just come and find me, and tell me to shoot myself. (It’s very deep.)

 -Akotowaa =)

Ghanaians, Pizza and Coffee

I like pizza. I am also some kind of vegetarian. I don’t actually know if there’s a definite class for it yet, but I don’t eat meat. I do, however, eat eggs and all seafood, and diary products. It’s not pescatarian, it’s not strictly lacto-vegetarian, it’s not ovo-vegetarian. Whatever. I’m going to stick to calling myself a ‘flexitarian’ because it’s more encapsulating.

If you want to become a vegetarian for fun in Ghana, chale, it won’t work. But if you’re like me and you genuinely can’t stomach the meat – as in, the thing you have chewed refuses to go down your throat – then your life, like mine, will be problematic.

My brother likes pizza too. The problem is, he likes meat. But…must man always order two pizzas every time Ivana and Delali want to eat some? It shouldn’t be so, right?

Everywhere else I’ve been, it has never been a problem. When you order a pizza, you just tell them to make half-pepperoni, half-margarita, and bam, you’re sorted, so eat up!

In Ghana, it’s always a different story. Once I open my mouth to suggest a half-pepperoni to any of these pizza people, they look at me like I just ordered a Martian from Venus. Time and time again, I am met with a response such as, “No, we can’t do that,” or “I’m sorry, it’s not possible.”

Not possible? NOT POSSIBLE?! Sure, man, it’s not possible to sprinkle pepperoni on only half of a pizza instead of all of it (and still have me pay the same price)! Yes, it is possible. You’re just a doofus, ya doofus! …But of course, I never say that. But chale picking the pepperoni off the pizza gets tiring.

Aside from the pizza ranting, I have one more story to share .It’s about a family member, but not my Grandpa this time. This story is about Chalz Quesy Ofori, my uncle, who regularly goes by the nickname Q. (Don’t ask me why he changed the spellings of his names. How should I know? How does on understand an Ofori? Oh stop your accusatory stares; I know what I said.)

I don’t remember where exactly this story took place, whether in Ghana, USA or Singapore, but I do remember the content, and I think about it whenever I think about my pizza struggle. Here’s how it goes:

One day, Uncle Q walked into a café. A waitress greeted him with a table and a menu. Q didn’t have to glance at the menu to know what he wanted. He didn’t touch it.

“I’ll have a cup of hot milk, please,” said Q.

**Insert earlier comment about Martian from Venus**

“Hot milk?” questioned the waitress.

Isn’t that what I said? thought Q. “Yes. Hot milk.” He spoke slowly this time, to make sure he didn’t stumble over his words, in case he had before.

The waitress was still confused. “I can’t get you hot milk,” she said.

Q raised his eyebrows. “You can’t? Why ever not?”

“It’s not on the menu.”

It was Q’s turn to be baffled. It wasn’t on the menu, and so what? Was it so impossible to heat milk and put it in a cup? He said as much to the waitress, who, again, responded with the same, stubborn “It’s not on the menu” excuse.

Q sighed. He was going to have to do this the hard way. But if she insisted on letting him make her feel stupid…

“Fine,” Q said. “In that case, may I have a cappuccino?”

[Background info: A cappuccino is a drink of espresso, hot milk, and steamed milk foam.]

The waitress was finally at ease. “Yes, sir, we can do that.”

“Wonderful. May I, however, have the cappuccino without the foam?”

“Of course.” After all, many customers frequently requested that they hold back on the foam.

“Oh, one last thing,” said Q. “I’d also like the cappuccino without the coffee. Can you do that?”

She frowned. “Yes, I suppose we could do that.”

“Great. I’ll have a cappuccino with no foam and no coffee.”

The waitress went and came back with a cup of hot milk. The moral of the story? Ofori always wins.

This is the part where I say: I love my family and you can’t be like us.

-I. Akotowaa (and, proudly) Ofori 

Ghanaians Actually Make Me LOL

What the title said. And this time, it’s not just about sanitary pads, although some of the things being said on the radio are pretty funny… but I digress. I’m not here to talk about M-Pad.

There are two instances over the past week that have caused me to laugh out loud as much out of humour as incredulity.

Episode I: The Airport

I came back from South Africa on Wednesday, and I’d travelled alone, so when I got to Kotoka airport, of course, it was I who had to drag my two suitcases out to the car park, where my mother awaited. So that’s the background information.

Now, are you familiar with the ramp? The one that leads out of the airport building. I was going down that ramp with my two suitcases in tow, when this middle-aged guy showed up. He was wearing one of those orange-and-yellow vests that people in this country don to look ‘official’. You should know that I wasn’t having the easiest time with my luggage, so I was, no doubt, grateful when he offered to assist me with it. I graciously accepted.

Two feet. That’s about almost half the length of my body. That is also how far this vest-wearing, middle-aged man carried my suitcases before he asked me, “Do you have anything for your father?”

See, now, as far as I knew, my father was lying on his bed in a little house in Labone, and whether or not I’d gotten him a gift from my travels was surely my affair, and not his?

“My father?” I asked, confused.

“Me,” he clarified, and in hindsight, I should not have been surprised in the least, since with Ghanaians, everyone you meet is your relative, regardless of whether you are related or not. “Do you have something (read: som-tin) small for me?”

Finally, I got his meaning. He wanted money. Oh, how I wished Grandpa Charles was here to give him a good telling-off (I’m referring to a story in a previous post, What Happened to Grandpa Last Saturday). But Grandpa, unfortunately, wasn’t here, so I replied, “I don’t have anything on me.” This was not entirely true, but I wasn’t about to take off my heavy backpack and begin to rummage around for my wallet. It was too deep in the middle of other things, and I’d have had to practically empty my whole bag. Simply put, ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat.

The vest-wearing man did not have the sense or the decency to disguise his money-seeking motives even a little bit. He said, forlorn, “Then I’m sorry, this is my last one…”

Last one what? I wanted to ask. But before I could get the words out of my moth, he had abandoned the suitcases and gone in search of wealthier luggage-draggers. Now, I suppose ‘last one’ mean t last tile, as in a single tile on the floor, because that’s how quickly he was gone.

Say it with me now: shameless.

AS you can see, it was my amazement that made me LOL this time. When I got outside, some random guy was hovering around my mum’s car as she created space for Aunty Gifty and I to put the luggage in the boot. Given my encounter a couple of minutes earlier, you must understand that I was not at all in the mood to accept the help of another gold-digger.

“It’s okay; we can do it,” I said to him, referring to the transferring of the luggage into the boot. They weren’t heavy enough to warrant a struggle, anyway.

This hard-headed idiot continued to hover around with the pretence of directing my mother as she tried to park. Ain’t foolin’ nobody. As soon as my mother turned off the engine, he was back, about to offer his unnecessary assistance.

Louder, and more angrily, I said, “I said we can do it ourselves!”

He was startled by my straightforward brashness. But I had bore. The guy backed away quicker than mom could open the car door. That’s right. Vana like a puma! Penniless (or shall I say pesewaless), he departed. Good riddance.

When I told my mum the story, she laughed at me all the way back home.

 

Episode II: On the road

On Saturday, I’d just gone to Dzorwulu and was on my way to East Legon to get something for my brother.

There we were, innocently cruising, myself and my mother’s driver, Mr. Wisdom (you don’t even have to bother asking if he’s Ewe), and all of a sudden, some rogue black car shot past us and promptly stopped. I began to wonder, which maniacal idiot has Ghana allowed to wield a licence this time?

Then the driver of the car stepped out. My imagined maniacal idiot was a policeman. I will not, however, take my previous conclusion back, because his next actions did nothing to change my opinion.

Mr Policeman started waving his arms about frantically like deranged person. He was just a bit short of jumping up and down; he was so excited. Then he began to rain insults on Mr Wisdom, while yelling, “Is for you? The road is for you? The whole road is for you? Aboa,” and other nonsensical, improperly-structured sentences and profanities.

Mr Wisdom was super cool. I’m sorry, sir,” he said, and saluted.

The question is, if this policeman had somewhere to be, that was undoubtedly more important than where we the normal civilians had to be, he could have at least given an INDICATION that he wanted to overtake us, perhaps blowing the horn, instead of almost killing us by collision.

Mr Wisdom did not, in fact, think the whole road belonged to him, but Mr Policeman obviously did – judging by how he had no qualms on stalling traffic for no reason. You may wonder, like me, that if he truly had somewhere to be, shouldn’t he be focusing on getting there, instead of stopping to yell at innocent drivers? Questions of the century…Anyway, when his mouth was satisfied that enough spit had flown out of it, he returned to his vehicle. As he drove away, Mr Wisdom and I had a good laugh over it.

This is our peace-keeping force, people. Quite peaceful, they are, huh? #GodBlessOurHomelandGhana.

-‘Vana