WHAT PRICE LITERACY?

Cameron Duodu – THE GHANAIAN TIMES

Tuesday, 07 February 2006 – Copyright THE GHANAIAN TIMES
I never cease to marvel at the poetry that can be found in the Akan language, especially in the proverbs and other pithy sayings that enrich it.
I am not talking about the sayings themselves and the enormous wisdom buried in them. As a writer, I am more interested in the craftsmanship that can be unearthed from them.
If you are interested in poetry, you will know that some of the tools used by those who write poetry are rhyme, assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and metaphor.
For a literate poet writing his verse, it is a fairly straight-forward task; he writes down one line and then goes on to write down another, and if he wants to use rhyme, for instance, he can see the word at the end of the first line, and try to find a word for the end of the second line that rhymes with it. Are you still with me?
What I mean is that typical verse in rhymed English would probably go like this:
Newspapers, oh political newspapers!
Who, pray, can follow all their capers?
Now look at this other verse:
Kurotwiamansa
Nam seseaa
Ase Ma seseaa
Ase woso biribiribiribiri.
(The leopard treads through the thicket
Making it shake biribiribiribiri. Praise-singerís verse extolling the capabilities of the Okyenhene, King of Akyem Abuakwa).
If you are observant, you will notice two things from the above, first, there is no way I could translate the onomatopoeic word, biribiribiribiri, into English. Try as I have, I couldnít even get close. Yet in Twi, it conveys its meaning perfectly: you can almost hear the thicket shaking biribiribiribiri as the heavily-built leopard threads its way through it. Itís the same idea as Otuu mmirika kirikirikirikiri koka kyeree no se yese ommera seesei aa! [He ran kirikirikirikiri to go and inform the chap that he was wanted immediately.] Again, you can practically hear the noise made by the guyís feet as he ran kirikirikirikiri to carry out his mission. Perfect onomatopoeia, I would have thought. Also, please note how the two onomatopoeic words sound so musical; all good poetry must sound like music. That’s why poetry uses so many tools — I haven’t touched on metre yet; it is metre that gives poetry the rhythm that gives it the musical quality that makes it sound so different from ordinary speech.
The second thing to notice about the first verse is that some of the lines rhyme. The second and third lines rhyme, while the first line also almost rhymes with the second and third. In fact, in technical terms, it can pass for as an ëimperfect rhymeí, which is acceptable in terms of what is known as ëpoetic licenceí.
Now I ask you: how did the poet know how to rhyme the passage when he could neither read nor write?
Even more remarkable is the use of alliteration and assonance in these lines:
Nam seseaa
Ase
Ma
Seseaa
Ase
Woso
Bibirbiribiribiri.
In case you may think that the way the poet employs these unusual tools of versification is an accident, let me quote to you, another verse that uses alliteration and assonance, in addition to rhyme, to make itself memorable:
Sasaboronsam mmiensa,
Yennamfonom mmiensa,
Yeyere nom mmiensa,
Yeenom nsa
Na yeama wo nsa.
[Three Sasaboronsam (demons)
They have three friends
And three wives too;
They drink wine
And they give you wine.] – (As told to me by my friend Enoch Alomanu, who heard it from a palm wine bar in Kumase and was so impressed by it that although he is a native Ewe speaker himself, he remembered it to relay it to me!).
If you are interested in these things, read the talking drum passages in R S Rattrayís works on Asante culture and the compilations of Asante Apae and other sayings made by Prof. J H Nketia. If you are well-versed in the art of versification, believe me you will be amazed at the sheer technical brilliance that you will discover in those verses, especially the way rhyme, alliteration and assonance in particular are employed to such great effect in them.
But there is a fourth element to good poetry which I have not yet touched upon: imagery and metaphor.
In one of the praise-sayings that the late Okyeame Akuffo of Akropong compiled and applied to Dr Kwame Nkrumah, he described Nkrumah as :Kwame a onnsuro hwasu;
Kwame a oworow kawa fi ne mmati so! (Kwame [who is so hard-working that] he doesnít fear the morning dew [on the weeds that crisscross the paths to his farm]; Kwame who takes off his ring from the shoulder-end of his arm!)
Do you see the images flashing in front of your eyes? Getting up early in the morning, walking barefoot into your farm at a time when no-one else has used the path…. And as for the second one, how can anyone even try to take a ring off from the shoulder-end of his arm? It means no matter how impossible the task might have seemed, Nkrumah would have tackled it. Of course Akuffo ‘liberated’ that verse from a King’s collection, but I for one am glad he ‘stole’ it for Nkrumah, because otherwise I would probably never have heard it!
The reason why I am tasking your grey matter like this today is that we have just lost one of the people who, being illiterate, yet possessed such a command of language that they could be considered wordsmiths of the first order. She was my aunt – my mother, in fact, for in Akan culture, your motherís sisters and all her female cousins – that is the daughters of her motherís sister(s) – are all known as your ëmothersí.
This multiple-mother situation is very fortunate for the Akans, for what it means is that if oneís natural mother passes away, the void in oneís life is automatically filled; well, at least, in the formal sense of the word. No-one can replace oneís natural mother, of course, but it is comforting to know that one immediately gets a replacement mother when oneís natural mother goes. You see, one is simply not allowed to feel that one is an ëorphaní, because, of course, an orphan can develop self-pity, which doesnít make for a well-adjusted personality. And the society would much rather have well-adjusted personalities. Therefore, most women regard it as a sacred duty to be given the responsibility of bringing up the children of a dead relative. In fact, if one does not measure up to the task, one would be commonly calumnised as an onipa bone (a bad person). Such charactisations are very effective in our very small communities, where everybody more or less knows everybody else’s business, and so people take trouble not to court such opprobrium unto themselves.
If the new mother makes the mistake of messing up the task of looking after the orphan(s), no-one will actually call her and abuse her, except family elders. But the rest of the society will take the woman to task by raining veiled and indirect abuse (akutia) on her until she finally gets the message and mends her ways.
It is not only after the death of your natural mother that these other mothers assume their responsibility towards you. They act as a backup to Team One – your mother and father – that is raising you. If you are hungry and you go to the home of any of the other mothers and there is food, you would be given some to eat.
Why were we always hungry as kids? I have come to the conclusion that we were often so hungry because our food takes so long to prepare. For instance, the morning meal, ampesie (boiled plantain, yam or cocoyam eaten with a stew) takes about an hour to prepare, and the main meal of the day, fufuo and soup, could take anything up to two hours to cook. Part of the process (pounding the fufuo) is pretty laborious and many kids try to avoid it by inventing all sorts of excuses to stay away from home whilst the pounding is taking place! It doesn’t always work, for mothers are up to these tricks, and many a boy who thinks he is ‘too-clever’ will often come home to find a cold, half-pounded ball of fufuo waiting for him. Sometimes, he wouldn’t find anyone available to ‘drive’ [turn the fufuo in the mortar] for him, and he would have to do walantu-walansa or ‘self-driving’ (this is known as awor-ka!)
So, then, although there would be food in our own house, we were almost always ready to partake in meals that didnít originate from our motherís pot. However, we had to make sure that the family members we did this to were very close, as going around other peopleís homes to deplete the size of their meals was frowned upon. Anyone who made a habit of that was typecast as an ahwa (a term that describes a creature who is even more beneath contempt than what is known as a ëspongerí in English). At its very worst, a reputation as an ahwa would induce people to hide their food when oneís voice was heard, or if a nasty telltale in the house one was about to ëpass byí saw one and ran to sound the alarm –: Oreba oh! — that one was coming.
I was lucky, because I had three houses, apart from my own, where I was guaranteed a share of any meal that was going, without running the risk of being stigmatised as an ahwa. One of these was run by my motherís motherís sisterís eldest daughter, Maame Afia Kyeraa, a beautiful woman, almost as softly spoken as my own mother, and kindness itself. The tragedy of her life was that she couldnít bear any children of her own, and she took my mumís many kids – of whom I was the eldest – as her own children. Of course, I took full advantage of the situation.
Sadly, her barrenness made her try out several husbands, some of them outside our town. Because of this, she was regarded as pretty ësophisticatedí for our society. One of the husbands she married was a goldsmith, with whom she travelled to some far-away, dangerous place known to us only as ëMinesí. She liked me very much and I could, as a child, discuss things with her which I couldnít talk to my own mother about.
One day, when I was about four or five, I confided to her that I wanted to go to Aburokyire (England). She pooh-poohed the idea but I kept nagging at her with it. So, one day, she dressed me up nattily, called one or two of her sisters together and told them, “Kwadwo says he wants to go to England. Letís take him there.”
I was so excited! We took the road that led from Asiakwa to Kyebi. We walked for about half a mile and then saw a maize farm near the road. As soon as we passed the farm, Maame Kyeraa said, “We have arrived in England”.
“What?” I asked incredulous.
“Ah, you said you wanted to go to Aburokyire, didnít you?”
“Yes!” I replied.
“Now what is that growing in the farm over there? Is it not aburoo (maize)?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Now, this place where we are, is it not aburokyire – to the back of, or behind the corn field?”
“Yes.”
“Well, then what are you on about? You wanted to come to aburokyire and we have brought you to aburokyire. So! Now, letís go back home.” And we trooped back home!
Now, Maame Kyeraa was a stark illiterate, yet somehow, she had managed, in her mind, to deconstruct the word Aburokyire into its two etymological components, aburroo and akyire, and floored me with the witty outcome.
Would a person with literary education have been quite as intellectually resourceful? I wonder.
® Cameron Duodu is a freelance journalist based in London.

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