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


Another Language Rant (Which I Should Have Released in September 2015)

[As the title suggests, I wrote this ages ago. September 2015. And it’s not a very nice post. But I’m in the process of general release and so here we go. I’m not a very nice person, so why pretend on my blog? Another Language Rant, here we go!]

It’s quite depressing how frequently I lose faith in those who apparently share my heritage. But if I disown every national identity on this planet and choose to be a citizen of Neptune, y’all gon’ call me unpatriotic. And yet, at this point, I’m not seeing the essence of patriotism in the first place. Also, I can bet I’m not the only one who has been rejected time and time again by the people who are meant to be my kin – in which case, I am unable to see any logic in them getting pissed off. After all, if you reject your children, why on earth should you get mad if they disown you?

Recently, I went on two “Geography trips” to East Legon, Labone and Sakumono to conduct a questionnaire for an IA (Google it. I’m not about to explain the whole IB programme) about the status of women and fertility. So, of course, our subjects were limited to women. Now, important point to note: if there are any people who are particularly unpleasant to engage with, in Ghana, it’s the women. Try to argue, I won’t mind you.

Now, I’ve spoken about the whole Ghanaian languages thing pissing me off on multiple occasions. But I realize that sometimes, even this is a part of a greater problem: an attitudinal problem. The thing is, in general, too many people are not nice. in fact, they are unnecessarily nasty.

People, for example, who are perfectly capable of understanding English, interrupt even our introduction of ourselves to rudely (emphasis on RUDELY) tell us to stop with our abrofos3m and speak Twi – with a “mtchew” and a roll of the eyes. Are you understanding the picture here? You’re either a street vendor or an outdoor hair dresser, being approached by a pair or trio of students who politely greet you and begin to introduce themselves, and before even 3 sentences are complete, you rudely brush their request aside with a culturally rude gesture, and demand they speak Twi – without, I may add, paying a little consideration to the nationalities or ethnicity or the kind of education the students have received or where they have lived their whole life – or the fact that we are all at that moment situated in the geographical Ga capital of the country.

But that’s alright. Even so, we may continue, right? Sure, assume that everyone with black sin is Ghanaian. Then assume every Ghanaian must speak the language that you speak. Of course they can’t be expected to know that That Place is a Pan-African school, with about 17 countries of Africa being represented. Invalid assumptions are perfectly acceptable, or? Okay. Moving on…

So, during the questioning, as we try our best to translate the questions that are naturally pretty difficult to translate, they launch straight into a series of commands and insults about the Twi that we are trying to speak. When they aren’t telling us that our Twi is nasty or something along those lines, they are telling us to go away to learn the language, whether or not it is our language. If there’s anything I can recall from my life so far, even the process of learning is hard, because the very people who may know the language well enough to teach it are the same ones who are going to laugh at and mock you for not knowing it, which is pretty ineffective teaching, if I may say.

Imagine walking into a classroom to learn something you don’t know by a teacher whose job it is to impart knowledge. Then the teacher walks in for the first time and upon realizing that they do not know everything they came to learn before they were taught it, gets boiling mad. He then starts berating all the people he was meant to teach for being “stupid” and not bearing the knowledge they came to acquire.

Now, dear reader, if you speak Twi, kindly translate this question in less than 5 seconds for me: “Do you believe that your religion/faith has, in any way, affected the number of children you would like to have?” And that wasn’t even close to the most complicated question.

  1. Validity of the chosen language. When we begin by speaking the official language of Ghana, whether or not it was a result of cultural imperialism, what qualifies you to choose Twi, in discourse with people whose backgrounds you don’t know? And when a person attempting some pretty sufficient Twi fully confesses that he is, in fact, Ewe, how do you insist that whatever the case, he better go and learn TWI – a command given in the style of a threat? Additionally, as we are in Accra and NOT in the Ashanti region, what makes you think that you, as an ethnic migrant, have a right to exist in that space without knowing how to speak Ga? It may be a part of your country, but even so, it is not your region – just like it’s not my Ewe friend’s region. Please leave him alone.
  2. The unexplained initial rudeness would seem almost like a defence mechanism. Do you, dear roadside hairdresser, feel threatened by the language that we speak so much that you would reject it before you hear what we want to say? Would you rather then switch to a language you would so happily love to believe we are uncomfortable in, to inflate the ego that was deflated the second it felt intimidated by teenagers that have already achieved higher levels of education than you hoped to in your lifetime? Is jealousy the root of your nasty behaviour? I assure you we did not show up to intimidate you with wanna bl3. We’re just tryna graduate, I swear.
  3. Even if, by any chance, you are genuinely saddened by the depreciation of our local languages, does it, first of all, make sense to disregard other people’s languages as well? Case in point: the group of women who ignored the fact that my friend was from a place where his local language was Ewe. Aside from that, if your desire for the language to be learnt is so bad, is insulting the attempt the way to encourage it? Feel free to refer to the teacher scenario I illustrated previously. I refuse to understand how it does not enter the heads of these Ghanaians (and I use this word in the most derogatory way possible, because I don’t feel like writing actual insults right now, as they will be merciless if I do) that their baseless mocks and taunts draw people away rather than closer. Go ahead and sit there wondering why some of your best minds choose to flee to other places, without paying mind to how YOU ejected them.
  4. Most of the time, it’s even the lower class who are far more reasonlessly nasty than the higher class. When you see people using their language against others, be it gossiping about them while they get their hair done, or directly taunting others when they try to ask them a question, they’re usually not in offices behind desks or in Land Rovers or checking out money at the ATMs. They’re on the streets, sitting under umbrellas selling credit or vegetables, or in kiosks made of the women-who-do-sit-in-Land-Rovers’ car shipment containers (HA!). But I apologize for being ignorant. Obviously your spite for my inadequacy is going to push me to become a better woman, like you. Thanks for being a paragon of excellence for me. I’ll drop out of school, move to a village, and then come back to Accra with full knowledge of my language, which I shall then use to be bitter and insult fellow Ghanaians who know it less. Just like you and your inspirational self. ❤
  5. When you witness someone trying their best at something (you can help them with), your response should not be to tear down all that they have already built; it should be to offer a helping hand up the ladder. At least they have enough courage to step onto some rungs; help them with their elevation! But you, you choose to shove them to the ground. Very nice.
  6. No matter how uneducated you are, it is not an excuse for nastiness. So I, personally cannot understand why even lower class women should get like this. Sigh. I’m even unable to describe the levels of rudeness. But the point is, politeness/niceness is not something that should be taught in the classroom. It should be part of you, as a human. It should be something that is culturally passed down. I am genuinely wondering if culturally, we indeed encourage Crab (Pull-Him-Down) Syndrome instead of encouragement; if we teach disdain instead of recognition of effort.
  7. Yes, occasionally, they tend to blame my school for teaching me English – ignoring the fact that English is an international language and Twi is not. And that isn’t just because it’s African. Swahili is also an international language. Twi is not. It’s not like Twi doesn’t have a chance to spread too. Slave trade, Jamaica, Western immigration, intermarriage, everything. But whose fault could that be but the people who own the language? We are (through ways I outlined in a very popular previous post) not making the language attractive on its own. Even if we did learn it, who would we speak it with? The people who don’t know how to be nice? We can’t even make our local languages local, how much more do we make them international? M’abr3.

Perhaps I’m done with the list. Perhaps. I shall end with a comparative testimony.

Back in about 2010 or 2011, when I started learning Mandarin, I was always looking for people to practice my novice Chinese on. Even though my teachers were 100% Chinese, I wanted to have conversations outside the context of a paid-for learning environment. So, what I did was, I began to stalk (in a very friendly way) Chinese people. It wasn’t hard; they were and are basically everywhere. Accra Mall was one of my most fruitful spots. Other choice options were on the streets at hotels, at airports…you get it.

My point is, each time I struck up a conversation with a Chinese person, they would be so willing and eager to carry it out, and with such enthusiasm! I have never once been berated by a Chinese person for any mispronunciations or whatever. Whenever I made a mistake, they would smile and happily correct me. When they saw me struggling, they would kindly offer suggestive words. My interactive skills improved so much. One time, I went to a Chinese restaurant and legit held an hour-long conversation in Mandarin. I CAN’T DO THAT WITH ANY OTHER LANGUAGE. (What if it’s all part of their plan to take over the world though?)

If I, however, had to throw a guess, I would speculate that if Ghanaians witnessed any obroni try to talk to them in Twi, they would promptly either excitedly call their friends to come quickly to watch this entertaining episode of white-man struggle and start mocking his efforts the second he was out of hearing range. Perhaps it’s a mean speculation, but, based on previous experiences, this is only what my mind is able to come up with. All I know is, if Ghanaians had ever had the same reactions to me (or any of my Ghanaian classmates as deficient or worse than me), we probably wouldn’t be as deficient.

There is, of course, probably also a fault in the technique that Ghanaians teach with. I learnt both Twi and French from Ghanaians (and sometimes Togolese) in classrooms for SO MANY YEARS and I still suck at both – especially French, which I’ve been learning for like 10 years now (!!!!). (I can speak Twi. But I can only really fluently say the kind of things that I only need to say in the context of my house, because I only speak it with my mother.) And by the second year of my non-exam-oriented lessons in Mandarin, I was holding Chinese as my second best language. Something is so obviously wrong with something.

*end rant*


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.


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.