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Kwesi Yankah Writes: Mother Tongue and Ghana’s Presidents

In situations where Rawlings’ speech in English was accompanied by simultaneous translation into Twi, he had occasionally broken protocol and interrupted the translation with a mild protest, manka saa [I didn’t say that], to the translator’s embarrassment.

21st February, International Mother Tongue Day.

I spent the day at Ghana’s premier University of Ghana, honoring an invitation by the School of Languages to give a keynote address to mark the day. It was a well-attended lecture graced by the Provost, College of Humanities; Dean, School of Languages; UNESCO officials, faculty, students, the diplomatic corps and the general public. My chosen topic was ‘Mother Tongue and the Politics of Contemporary Governance.’

I present below excerpts from my presentation, concentrating on the strategic power of indigenous languages in politics. I examine the linguistic profiles of Ghana’s presidents, past and present. Hear my words that day:

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“In a situation where English proficiency is glorified for political purposes, would it not be surprising to hear that as much linguistic and political premium can be placed on local languages? It is significant to note the plight of potential presidential hopefuls whose ambitions have been grounded by their zero proficiency in any national language.

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In the early 2000s, when President Joseph Kabila was nominated to succeed his father in DR Congo, one significant lapse observed by the Congolese people was his inability to speak any Congolese language.

On the Ghanaian front there was a minister of state who was beingencouraged early 2000s to consider a future presidential bid, but who completely dismissed the idea mainly because he could not speak a Ghanaian language, his mother being of Dutch origins. The desired ideal was a politician’s multilingual
proficiency in both the language of Government business, as well as languages of solidarity with the grassroots.

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A quick glance at the linguistic profiles of Ghana’s past and present leaders is revealing.

“Dr K. A. Busia, Ghana’s Prime Minister from 1969 till 1972, who grew up in Wenchi spoke Twi. The Akan proverb Kafo didi, ‘the indebted person need not starve,’ uttered at a rally in 1970 with reference to Ghana’s debt burden, stands
in his name. President Hilla Limann (1979-81), a native of Gwollu in the Upper West region addressed rallies in Sisaal his mother tongue, Dagaare, and Hausa; he spoke a little Twi and very good French. His French proficiency was enhanced through his education at Sorbonne University, and the University of Paris in France. J. A. Kufuor (2001-9), born and bred in the Ashanti region, speaks Twi.

His wife, Madame Theresa Kufuor, surprised the people of Ho when at a campaign rally in 2000 she broke freely into Ewe, enabled by her basic school education at the Catholic Convent (OLA) in Keta, the Volta region. J. E. A. Mills (2009-12) spoke Fanti at local rallies, and left a legacy in the Fanti proverb, Dzi wo fie asem, ‘Mind your own business,’ while speaking to journalists in 2011.

John Mahama his successor speaks at rallies in Hausa, Gonja, Dagbani, and Twi. Born to West-Gonja parents in Damongo, Mahama’s secondary school education in Tamale facilitated his fluency in Dagbani. Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the current President speaks Twi, Ga and fluent French. His spoken Ga was naturally acquired from his upbringing and basic schooling in the heart of Accra.

Akufo-Addo’s fluency in French is clearly evident in his seamless interaction with officials from French speaking countries. This was enabled by years of working for a US law firm in Paris. Dr Mahmoud Bawumia, the current Vice
President of Ghana, speaks Mampruli his mother tongue, Nanum, Dagbani, Hausa, as well as Twi.


Of all Ghana’s presidents, there are two linguistically intriguing cases. Kwame Nkrumah and Jerry Rawlings. Dr Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana’s first President 1960-66), was born into Nzema land at Nkroful in western Ghana and spoke very
good Nzema, and Fanti. His daughter Samia born of an Egyptian mother, Fathia, speaks some Nzema, fluent Arabic and Italian. In 1963, there was an interesting incident at the OAU conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, narrated to me by K B Asante, a veteran diplomat who worked with Nkrumah and successive presidents.
In Asante’s words:

In 1963 at Addis Ababa when the OAU was being formed, we went to a
meeting with the President of Ivory Coast. In attendance was C. F. Pattison, who was the translator. At the meeting, Houphouët Boigny spoke French, Nkrumah spoke English, and the translator was at work. Then all of a sudden, Nkrumah said ‘Houphouët, bababa …’, and the meeting turned into Nzema and the two of them spoke for about one hour (confounding
certified translators).

What made this possible, of course, was that Nzema spoken in the Western region of Ghana is also spoken in neighbouring Ivory Coast; but the Ivorian President also spoke Agni which is mutually intelligible with Nzema, both belonging to the Niger Congo Kwa group of languages spoken in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana, and closely related to Nzema and Sefwi in Ghana.

The other intriguing example is Jerry Rawlings who dominated the leadership of Ghana for nearly two decades (1982-2000). President Rawlings, born of an Ewe mother and Scottish father spoke Ewe his mother tongue, but also Twi and Ga,
but none with native proficiency. His public speeches in indigenous languages were freely mixed with English, and vice versa.

The fascination, however, was Rawlings’ obsession with local languages in all forums with grassroots audiences.
He would liberally intersperse Ewe, Twi or Ga, with English where the need arose; and in situations where he was at a loss for accurate local expressions, would dramatically pause and openly seek help, thereby courting considerable public sympathy. His was a clear case where limited language proficiency which is normally a political handicap was turned to advantage, due to Rawlings’ unalloyed solidarity with the grassroots, against the reality of having part Scottish

In situations where Rawlings’ speech in English was accompanied by simultaneous translation into Twi, he had occasionally broken protocol and interrupted the translation with a mild protest, manka saa [I didn’t say that], to
the translator’s embarrassment. He would then take over and paraphrase in English his intended meaning. It was partly from this complex linguistic matrix, that Rawlings’ famous proverb parody was coined: Anomaa antu a ogyina ho, The bird that does not fly out, remains standing’ which is a peculiar variation of the original Akan saying, Anomaa antu a obua da, ‘The bird that does not fly out, sleeps hungry.’

The Rawlings variant has inherent redundancies and deviates from local logic, but is used all the same to celebrate Rawlings’ relentless efforts to adapt his speech ways to blend with local mores. He is well aware of abnormal situations where public officials denigrate local audiences by speaking to them in a foreign language they don’t understand.”

I concluded my 60-minute address with a 90-second video clip of a public forum in the Ahanta traditional area, where a female chief vehemently protests the imposition of English as the medium of interaction at public forums, which ends
up reducing indigenous opinion leaders to mere tokens. ‘Book knowledge is not the same as wisdom,’ she said. The outspoken chief refers to the situation as a conspiracy by the elite to deprive the majority of their rights to free speech.

The video clip was the best summary of sentiments expressed on the International Mother Tongue Day. A great day it was!

Writer’s email: [email protected]

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