One of the most perceptive things I have ever heard was said by an acquaintance with a very odd name. He was a man from the Kwahu mountains in Ghana, and although his name was Nyaako, everyone called him by a name he had adopted for himself: Okofo Domfo. These two words, in the Twi language, are the exact opposite of each other in meaning. Okofo means he who fights, while Domfo is an abbreviated form of Odomfo – he who gives bounty. The other day someone took me to task in New African for writing that our linguists are “illiterate”. He had assumed that I had used the word pejoratively. Nothing was farther from my mind. As stated in my reply to the letter-writer, I have always recognised that our old, “unlettered” orators, are very literate, in the sense that they are very well-versed in either coining words or putting words together in the peculiar poetic manner that you can’t find in ordinary speech.
So, for instance, if you look closely at the two words I have quoted above, you will find that they employ two distinctive tools of language which properly-schooled users/speakers of English will recognise – “paradox” and “rhyme”. How “illiterate” people can employ both paradox and rhyme in a figure of speech consisting of only two words, and make the words turn into a superb description of “a many-sided potentate, who holds sway over both life and bounty”, is beyond comprehension. Just two words to convey so much meaning? Yes! But the sages who craft such gems of speech are “not lettered”, and so, are officially classified as “illiterate”. In Ghana – and I daresay many other ex-colonial countries – such sages are debarred from standing for Parliament! Why? Because they can’t read and write English/French/Portuguese, of course. No wonder most of what emanates from many of our Parliaments is self-serving, bombastic concoctions of idiocy that do little or nothing to advance the interests of society in general.
Let’s go back again to the definition behind the name – you will recall it is: “He who can kill you but can also give you bounty.” Remember all that is from only two words! You see, the craftsmanship comes straight out of that same Akan oratorical tradition, whose wizard wordsmiths also gave us the following stanza:
Wo ho baabi ye odum (part of you is made of the “odum” tree – i.e. very hard)
Wo ho baabi ye fetefere (part of you is made of the fetefere tree – i.e. very soft)
Wo ho baabi ye brofre (part of you is made of the pawpaw tree – i.e. very squashy)
Wo tena so a na woto afo! (which, when you sit on it, wets your bottom!).
Again, this paints a picture of the many attributes needed to become a ruler. If you think that is remarkable, let me tell you this: all those words can be played accurately on Akan “talking drums”, so that those schooled in drum language can understand them. And because the words were crafted so that they can be played on the drums, every syllable contains a rhythm or metre that concords with those of the other syllables. Who taught metre to the “illiterates”? Ask me!
Well, Nyaako told me, as we sipped Club beer one hot afternoon at the Polo Club: “As for you, you are always on the side of the underdog!” His tone was almost accusatorial, but it took my breath away. He had recognised from my journalism that I was always on the side of the underdog. But (I could sense) he didn’t fully approve. I quickly dismissed the concern about whether he approved, or didn’t, from my mind. What mattered was that he had been reading me, as editor of the largest-selling daily newspaper in Ghana, the Daily Graphic, and before that, the largest-selling magazine, Drum, and had noted that I was “always on the side of the underdog.” People normally pay such little attention to the depth or otherwise behind the work of journalists that I realised the guy was quite subtle.
I confess that when I act as my own psychoanalyst, I can tease out precisely the origins of my concern for justice and fair-play, or, as my friend would put it, being “on the side of the underdog.” It started in school. You may recall from last month’s Neem Tree piece that I was promoted prematurely from Class One to Class Two, and that because the Class Two teacher wasn’t interested in helping me to catch up in the subjects he had already taught my classmates but of which I, as a novice in the class, knew nothing, I fared badly in the class and was sent back to Class One. I felt humiliated to be back at first, but the disgrace soon wore off, as I resumed my position at the top of the class.
My teacher, Mr Akwaban, might have been puzzled that although nothing suggested that I had become more dim-witted than before, I hadn’t been able to cope with Class Two. But if he realised that it was the fault of the syllabus or curriculum, he didn’t let me know. Fortunately, I retained my self-confidence. So, at the end of the year, I did very well in the final examination. Mr Akwaban persuaded the head teacher to agree to jump me again – this time to Class Three. The hated Class Two, where I had been so unhappy, was therefore omitted from my curriculum vitae altogether. So it was that I met again, in Class Three, the very Class Two kids, with whom I had apparently “not been able to compete”, before. New teacher. New syllabus. Level playing field.
Our new teacher was called Mr Mante. It was his first time in the school, so he had absolutely no preconceived ideas about any of us. He taught, tested us on what he had taught (not what somebody else had taught some of us but not others!) and if you reproduced what he had taught you well, you were ok. If not, God help you. For Mr Mante was an even more ardent practitioner of the art of canemanship than Mr Akwaban. I have come to believe that the excessive use of the cane in Ghanaian Presbyterian schools came from the Presbyterian Teacher Training College at Akropong, Akwapim. There is plenty of evidence. Mr Akwaban came from there. And he enjoyed whipping kids. Mr Mante came from there. And he enjoyed whipping kids even more than Mr Akwaban did. These are teachers whose practice of whipping I was personally witness to. But there were other teachers with a reputation for whipping, who had also come from Akropong. Teacher Aryee, a fair-coloured man who stuttered a bit and taught in Standard Five, was a whipper. So was the Standard Seven teacher, Mr Osei, a man whose loud, bass voice could be heard at the junior school when he spoke in the senior school.
We were so frightened of some of these teachers that we furtively crossed to the other side of the road whenever we encountered them. It could be dangerous for a boy to run into them, for if they were holding a bundle of books or anything like that, we were supposed to relieve them of it and carry it to their classroom for them. To our young minds, it wasn’t beyond the laws of probability for them, wicked as we imagined them to be, to turn on us, after we had carried their books into their classrooms, and give us a taste of their canes. For they caned you if you were late for school, no matter what had made you late. Your mother or father might have been dangerously ill and you had been sent to buy medicine to save their lives. It didn’t matter. If you were late, you got caned. Maybe the fire you were trying to light to broil a plantain to eat as your breakfast before going to school had failed to light and that’s why you were late. To you, that was a perfectly good excuse for coming to school late. But to them, it didn’t matter. You were late. So you got whipped. Or you might have run into an elderly person, on your way to school, and gone on an errand for him, as you were encouraged to do by the Biblical edicts that these same teachers read to you in school. You would get whipped nevertheless.
I honestly can’t make head or tail of it. There were nice teachers, who had also been trained at Akropong, who didn’t enjoy whipping kids. I remember two. Teacher Ansah, who stammered a lot, would shout at you when he could get the words out, but I don’t remember him whipping anyone. And Teacher Brikorang, a tall stooped figure, was a gentle figure who didn’t whip much, if at all. The kids made fun of him a lot, for he had been a teacher for such a long time, during which he had shushed kids so repeatedly that he said “Sssssss!” – the sound he used to silence pupils in class – even when no-one was talking. Rascals who were not in his class used to hide behind the window panes of his classroom to observe him saying “Sssssss!” every two minutes or so. They ran away before he could catch them. But I doubt whether he would have had the heart to cane them, even if he had.