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the blessing of the mother tongue

The year was 2017 and it was 12.45 pm in Accra. I felt the sweltering West African heat beat the back of my neck as I frantically waved my arm around in midair. Behind time for a lunch meeting my eyes darted around looking for transport. Several cars whizzed by until a local taxi that looked like it has seen better days crept up to the curb where I was standing.

A signature Ghanaian smile, eyes bright and wide-set against subtle lines of the African hustle stared at me. ‘Hello Cantonments’, How much?’ I said in my British accent locally referred to as’ Abrokyir3ni’ (pronounced as A-bro-trenee) . I swung open the back door and perched on the edge of the back seat to catch some shade. I shut the door so he could park up properly. The driver took this as an indication rather to press on with the journey. I piped up again ‘How much Please?’ seeing as he had already driven off. His phone began ringing. ‘Manya abrokyire ni bi wo ha ma menhw3 s3 me tumi akyim nensa kakra agye bia’. He told the person on the other end that I was from Europe and that he’d call back later as he was busy trying to see if he could ‘twist’ my arm. Implying there was some sort of deception about to take place. There was a long pause. I was perplexed.

I wanted to get out but it wasn’t safe all I could do was cling to the edge of my seat sit back and watch everything unfold. Uber wasn’t an option as the company was just getting started in Ghana and wasn’t widely used. Locating an uber driver would have been like finding a needle in a haystack unlike now there a dime a dozen. So local cabs were the way. 

Finally, a whisper came three times the standard. ‘How’ I asked.’ He then went on to lament about how fuel prices had gone up. I eased up a little having realized the context of his earlier phone conversation. 

This was not my first time in Ghana. Since infantry, I had visited and immersed therefore was clued up the environment and understood the hurdles of culture, local behaviors, beliefs, and mentalities. The driver had mistaken me for a tourist. Tourists that visit places like Ghana and are completely lost in their surroundings. I felt a sense of second-hand embarrassment on his behalf as he didn’t seem to understand I was aware. He was in for a shock I had a weapon and I wasn’t afraid to use it. 

Before I continue with my story, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Chantelle and I was born in the 90’s West London to two Ghanaian parents. Throughout my childhood the sound of two languages weaved throughout our family home English and Twi (pronounced Ch-w-ee). Twi is the language of the Akan Ashanti Tribe of Ghana.

My Mother’s tongue intrigued me. Mum would pull up my plastic stool – the same she’d spend hours braiding and styling my hair on. Reciting Twi she would encourage me to repeat them. Her doting mother’s eyes would widen with joy each time I did so successfully. This became routine as did eavesdropping on family conversations it was all for a good cause. 

At that time, I was unaware of the power, importance or the significance of what was taking place and that this skill would help me throughout my life. As the years went by my love for the Motherland grew as did my patriotism for the country. The older I grow the more I appreciate this skill. 

School projects on culture were an opportunity to intertwine messages of Ghana and Africa at large. I would enthusiastically interpret the colorful drawings and cut out depictions to my classmates. One particular Culture Day I proudly turned up in full Kente cloth regalia. A Cream, Green, purple, and Royal Blue skirt trailed behind me as students and teachers stared in awe. I was very much aware and proud to be an African way before Africa was considered cool. Back when many would claim to be Caribbean as this was considered more exotic, alluring, and preferable. Back when people would lower their Nokia’s to only a few notches as they listened to their favorite ‘Daddy Lumba’ or ‘Koffi Olomide’ tracks to avoid a barrage of questions from a Caucasian like ‘what’s that music’? Followed by deep laughter. Back when kids would beg their mums on the school run to speak in a low tone when conversing in their mother tongues. This was way before Azonto blew up and way before the Afrobeat’s Era. Back when Africa was suppressed. 

20 years later I was sitting in the back of this Taxi. I was ready to release my defence. 

I broke out in Twi.

’Eiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’ his thick Ghanaian accent bellowed. ‘Wote twi anaa?’ Translated as do you understand Twi? In a shocked tone.

My weapon was my mother tongue. 

This was not an individual problem but a collective issue. There was a notion and long-standing stereotype that ‘all’ kids born of the diaspora couldn’t speak their mother tongues. I cast my mind back to similar scenarios out shopping with my mum as a kid and bumping into sniggering aunties back in London at Brixton Market that would poke fun at how I’d put on weight as a child.  I’d watch their faces turn from shock to embarrassment after a slick reply in Twi from my pursed lips. My mother tongue was my power and I knew exactly why, how, when, and where to use it. 

Ghana is a country renowned for its beauty but just like any other place in the world it had its rough side. For that reason, it is of great use for one to understand to navigate, adapt, and survive. Home or abroad, I never felt out of place in my community. It has allowed me to break barriers making friends and engaging with people from other walks of life. Tasks such as buying fried plantain or fruit from the ladies on the roadside of atmospheric Accra wasn’t a hurdle. This had allowed me to understand my surroundings and the true intentions of people in it.  

I sat back into my seat and giggled at his exaggerated reaction. I was one of the blessed ones born in the diaspora but able to speak my mother tongue fluently. Moments later we arrived at the destination. I reached into my purse and handed the requested amount over. As I stepped out of the Taxi onto the warm streets of Accra and began shooting up the stairs eagerly wanting to press on with my meeting. I heard ‘WAIT’. I turned around scanning myself thinking perhaps I had left something in the car. The Taxi driver pushed some crumpled notes into my hand with a look of shyness written on his face. I was confused as I pushed the notes back towards him, he drove off in a puff of brown African earth smoke. What I gathered from this was that perhaps he felt an overwhelming sense of patriotism, much like I felt for my country, and that I was not a stranger as he had originally thought. We were one people hence the change of heart. As I turned away a group of beautiful Fulani children skipped towards me gesturing for food. I handed over the money and watched them hurry off gleefully as they thanked me.

Language is communication, language is identity, language is inclusivity, language is unity, language is history, language is patriotism, language is protection, language is safety, language is assertiveness, language is a connection, language is love. 

In true patriotic style I would want to hope, or at least wish, that each of us third diasporas who love Africa or feel a connection to the continent realize, understand and accept the responsibility we have to play in ensuring that our identity, language and the heritage of our ancestors does not die out, but ideally passed down to the next generation. I can rest assured knowing that by being a speaker of my mother tongue and my willingness to teach it on I am playing my part in this.

Even if you are not a speaker of your mother tongue who says it too late to learn? With enough zeal and passion, it is a possible goal. If this seems overwhelming or not necessarily for you. There are so many alternative ways to pass down and represent the culture that you might want to consider such as educating oneself on the history, cooking traditional dishes, wearing of cultural attire and hairstyles, travel, dance and arts among others. Will you take up the mantle?

May our ancestors look down smiling. May the blood, sweat, tears, years, journey history and stories of our parent’s not be erased. There is a Twi word ‘Sankofa’ (pronounced as Sign-ko-fa) of the Adinkra symbols family which translates as ‘Go back and get it’ which is a call to action that we must return to our culture and traditions. My mother tongue will always remain one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given. Hopefully someday I can pass this gift down to my children and who knows maybe just maybe they’ll pass it down to theirs too. 

chantelle yeboah is a Writer, Presenter and Concept Creator based in London. You can read her debut book ‘New Jungle Order’ here  or watch, like, share and subscribe to her Africa themed YouTube Channel  ‘The Chantelle Show’. You can connect with her on Instagram.

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