But the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against that collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life. It even plants serious doubts about the moral rightness of struggle.
Possibilities of triumph or victory are seen as remote, ridiculous dreams. The intended results are despair, despondency and a collective death-wish. Amidst this wasteland which it has created, imperialism presents itself as the cure and demands that the dependent sing hymns of praise with the constant refrain: ‘Theft is holy.’ Indeed, this refrain sums up the new creed of the neo-colonial bourgeoisie in many ‘independent’ African states.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind
SPEAK ENGLISH. The wooden board or white paper sign bearing these two words is a staple in classrooms across Ghana. A ritual of enforcement and a mark of public humiliation, the verbal resisters carry the emblem around their necks like chains, taunted by teachers and students alike for daring to speak naturally, in one’s own tongue. It reminds you of the three female high school students at St. John’s Grammar School who in March were denied from taking their final exams by the headmaster who called their hair “bushy and unkempt” citing growth beyond “unapproved levels.” Interestingly, these rules don’t apply to white students in Ghana who are not allowed to cut their hair because “it will make them ugly.”
With Ghana’s bleaching creams, LAFAs, and judges who wear stiff, starched white wigs, it’s clear to see that the rivers of cultural annihilation run deep. One of the frontiers for shifting this reality is through language. In post-colonial Ghana, as with many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the English language has replaced indigenous languages in many aspects of social life. A majority of educational, business and governmental transactions continue to persist in English.
The struggle with language is something that the Ghanaian diaspora – in this case, the U.K. – is all too familiar with. This time we catch up with PAMELA SAKYI, a producer who discusses her latest documentary project, British Ghanaians: Lost in Translation?, which explores migration and cultural transmission, dislocation and identity, and the desire to speak one’s own language.
ADA: What’s your film background?
PS: I’ve been blessed to work in the media/film and television industry for over 10 years now. My roles have included Production Assistant, Events Coordinator and Video Editor to name a few. I’ve been video editing professionally for 8 years and I’ve worked on a lot of content for Television and different organisations in the UK, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, BBC LDN, Jazz FM, WaterAid and OH TV. In the last 3 years I have been concentrating on Producing and Directing.
ADA: Tell us how British Ghanaians: Lost In Translation? came about.
PS: Lost In Translation? is an exploration of the root causes of why many British Ghanaians (2nd and 3rd generations) cannot speak any Ghanaian languages fluently. It was inspired by my own lack of fluency in Twi – my parent’s language. I am on a journey of learning now, but it is so much harder when you are older. Children are capable of soaking up and retaining several languages and scientists have even proven that this helps their cognitive growth and development. Unfortunately, my parents did not prioritise my learning of their language as a child. Many times growing up I felt left out of conversations with other Ghanaian family members who spoke their languages fluently. When speaking to other British Ghanaians, I’ve realised that many have shared the same issues that come with not being able to speak the same language as your parents. Ortis [the lead character in the doc] also shared a similar background, which is why he was so great to work with on this project. I wanted to highlight this problem of language endangerment within the British Ghanaian community. If we don’t know our languages how can we pass them on to our children? How can we preserve our Ghanaian heritage, when language is so intrinsically linked to it? The languages cannot survive in the future, if we don’t act now. I wrote this documentary to inspire a change of mind towards learning and speaking Ghanaian languages in Britain. I wanted the older generation to see the need to teach us, and the younger generations to see the need to learn.
ADA: What do you think are the reasons for the lack of language transmission between Ghanaian immigrant parents and offspring?
PS: It’s a very complex and sensitive issue and it’s very difficult to pin down. It’s safe to say that there are several contributing factors. Many first generation Ghanaians who came over to the UK for work in post-WW II Britain, faced a difficult time settling in to a new environment. They believed that it would be easier for their children to grow up speaking English, so that they could fit in and adapt better to their British environment.
Many believed that to speak 2 different languages in the home would confuse children and hinder their learning development. Therefore they prioritised English. Furthermore, Ghanaians who embraced British culture and the English language, ended up not necessarily needing to speak a Ghanaian language to progress in life (with education, employment, relationships etc.) and so there was a lack of use of the language on both sides.
ADA: Are we saying that many immigrant parents force their children to assimilate in a manner that strips them of their Ghanaian identity?
PS: If parents prioritise one culture over another, by default, this is the culture that will be mostly embraced by their children. If children are encouraged to believe that being British will earn you favour and success in life and that being Ghanaian can present you with many problems, then they will tend to lean towards British behaviour.
It’s a combination of a few things. Firstly, the mindset from older generations that believe multilingualism will confuse their children. Secondly, I think there is often a lack of real motivation from 2nd and 3rd generations of British Ghanaians, towards actively learning a Ghanaian language. Lastly, I think there has been negligence on both sides of the generations; older and younger generations have neglected to acknowledge the depth of the problem or take sufficient action to rectify it.
I’ve seen many cases where immigrant parents have celebrated their children for exemplifying “British ways” but then they become disappointed when they don’t act “Ghanaian” enough. Such conflicting expectations can only add to the challenges one faces whilst being of a dual identity. Whilst many Ghanaian immigrant parents associate being British with being successful and inspirational, there is a need to also emphasise that being Ghanaian is also something to be proud of.
ADA: This seems connected, of course, to the colony and how imperialism still has a mighty hold. How does this shape Ghanaian communities in Britain?
PS: Colonialism contributed to a mindset, which favours British cultural practices as the dominant culture and way of life, especially with regards to prioritising English language over indigenous ones. I believe that many older generations of Ghanaian immigrants tried to adapt to British culture when they first arrived to Britain in the post-WWII era onwards. They passed on a culture of “adapting” to their children, to the extent where their Ghanaian heritage has now been diluted. I believe in embracing something new, rather than a system of substituting, which seems to take place in the Ghanaian community in Britain.
It’s worth noting that Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah made English the official language in Ghana to help Ghanaians connect with other countries around the world and be successful. I think this also heavily influenced the favouring of the English language in the Ghanaian communities in Britain. However, I think it was his aim to empower Ghanaians in the diaspora, whilst they still worked hard to retain their cultural heritage as Ghanaians.
ADA: Your documentary has started a conversation about something Ghanaians rarely talk about, the critical relationship between language, identity and belonging. What’s been the response?
PS: The first step towards change is to acknowledge there is a problem or an area of deep concern, and to talk about it. So I am very glad that buzzes have been created and people in the British Ghanaian community and beyond are talking about the documentary and the subjects, which it explores. The documentary is about inspiring 2nd and 3rd generations of Ghanaians to learn Ghanaian languages. I want to see them connect with Ghanaian language schools and other teaching resources out there. Parents can be encouraged to prioritise the English language in the household. I have heard some great feedback from Ghanaians in America and France and even feedback from other cultures who are having similar problems with language endangerment, so I’d like to see Ghanaians and other cultures continue to connect to the documentary on a global scale.