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PSA: The Pidgin version of this piece can be viewed via this link: almazohene.substack.com/p/sep-2021-guest-post-1
[Image description: Text ‘How Will Anyone Know You’re Ghanaian’ on a navy blue background with a lilac paintbrush stroke highlighted segment]
An Essay of Sorts by Fui Can-Tamakloe
Today is a hot Sunday afternoon in Osu. I’m sitting in front of a man whose job it is to collect my personal information for an identity card; the Ghana Card. He’s wearing a nose mask so I can’t see his face. But I know from the curtness in his voice that he’s bone tired. So am I, from standing in a queue all day.
Name? He asks.
Fui Can-Tamakloe, I respond.
Are you employed?
I shrug a no. I am a writer in Accra; it’s always easier to just say you’re unemployed.
Are you married?
I respond in the negative. He looks up at me, flashing his wedding band. It’s easy to imagine the coy smile most likely playing on his hidden lips.
Why, what are you waiting for?
This question isn’t new to me. I tell him I haven’t found the one yet, my usual response. Satisfied, he resumes.
What languages can you speak?
I know where this is going. It always goes there. It’s right there in the choice of the plural. Languages. Not language, languages. I answer his question. He looks up for the second time. Smug surprise.
Only English? he asks, not attempting to mask the incredulity in his voice.
Yes, I respond.
No Twi, Ewe, or even Ga?
I don’t bother explaining that my knowledge of Twi is minimal, my Ewe is almost non-existent, and my Ga is passable only when I write it. The last time I asked a Ga man something in his language he laughed and told me not to bother speaking Ga. Tell me, have you heard of someone learning by not trying?
Where do you come from? Comes the follow-up. The man has entered detective mode, and there is little I can do to stop this Accra-based, government-hired Hercule Poirot.
Whuti, next to Anloga, I answer. Whuti is a small town in the Volta Region. It lies along the disappearing coasts of Ghana. Along that coast, the sea is so hungry that it eats the land. My family cemetery lies on a beach that is slowly disappearing, with some graves now closer to the sea than when they were first dug. In a few years, they will be underneath the water.
So you’re Ewe?
I am. Anlo-Ewe, to be precise. It’s funny how “I am” sounds confident, but when said backwards indicates uncertainty. Am I?
And you cannot even speak Ewe? Sherlock Holmes continues, a man on a mission of exclusion.
So how will anyone know you’re Ghanaian?
In that moment I think of many things. I think of my grandmother, an old teacher, carrying imperialism into her home so her grandchildren could survive. She put English in our mouths and forced us to chew till we knew it intimately. Good English meant (and continues to mean) upward mobility, and so the rule in the house was simple: English first, and then a lifetime to learn the rest.
I think of colonialism and how it has robbed me of my mother tongues. Of Ghanaian schools, decades later, with No Speaking Vernacular still painted on the walls. I think of youthful days spent laughing at other people speaking English with the flavouring of a mother tongue. How silly I feel about that now. I think of five periods a week of English lessons in school, against two periods of Ghanaian Language. I think of all the Ghanaian children punished for speaking their own languages.
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When I started writing in Ghanaian Pidgin, I did it as a challenge. I wanted to see what a story in Pidgin would look like, sound like, feel like. Then I discovered that there were some sentiments that were easily expressed in pidgin that English just couldn’t carry.
I have continued writing in Pidgin mainly for access, but also because I can do things with Pidgin that English has no range for. But I’ve always wondered what that writing in Ewe would feel like. Familiar? Strange? There’s an emptiness, a loneliness, in knowing that you’ll never be Ghanaian enough to some people, simply because you cannot speak any of the many languages in the country.
For me, Pidgin is rebellion. It was easy, especially in cosmopolitan Accra, to take our languages out of our mouths in school. But no authority was ever successful with Pidgin. It was a reclamation of power, of identity; the beating into submission of English. Now, anytime I write in Pidgin, I feel that way; powerful. I feel like I have a part of myself that I will never give up.
Poetry has always been the one way to say what’s heaviest on my heart. In 2019, I wrote a poem about language and identity, inspired by a conversation with a friend over a few beers.
We Call It Beautiful
We talked about everything.
From funny tweets to politics, music and love.
One time we spoke about gendered pronouns and how they don’t exist in Pidgin.
Not just Pidgin, you said. Fante, Twi, Ga and Ewe too!
And I suddenly came to the realisation that gendered pronouns don’t exist in our languages because when They only see genders,
We see people.
And if what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o said is true, and language really is the carrier of our culture, then misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are not our heritage.
Then we spoke about languages, words, and all the other things we lost in the violence of colonisation.
How I’ll never know the joy of writing poetry in Ewe because I never learned to speak it. How people say Ga is a harsh language because of how it sounds.
But everything bad that ever happened to us; Everything untrue about who we are;
Was only ever written in English, and we still call it beautiful.
I think the only right way to know whether or not I am Ghanaian, is to just ask.
[Image description: Text ‘PRODUCED BY’ on navy blue background with a lilac paintbrush stroke]
Fui Can-Tamakloe is a Ghanaian poet and prose writer based in Accra, Ghana. He enjoys exploring relationships between Ghanaians and their sociopolitical environment. Fui writes in English and Ghanaian Pidgin. His works have appeared on numerous online platforms. Fui loves conversations about writing, drinking beer on the beach, and questioning the government on social media.