Thursday, March 22, 2007

Finding the words

March 21

I learned long ago that to even begin to understand a culture you must
first attempt to learn the language. The two are inextricably linked.
Thank you, quannimiit, to my Inuit colleagues for insisting on speaking in
Inuktitut and for conducting story meetings in that powerful, commanding
language. The experience has served me well.

I can go hours in a vacuum of Twi (pronounced ‘chfwee,’ which in itself is not easy), the language of the Ashantis who populate Kumasi and much of Ghana. Take this moment, for instance. As I write this I’m straining to hear the radio presenter. He’s speaking English. Drowning him out are about a dozen colleagues, all speaking Twi, loudly. ‘Me bah,’ I want to say. ‘I will beat you.’ Sometimes I yell out random words in Twi just to see if people are listening…. 'Entontomb!' (mosquito) or ‘Brukutu!’ (powerful drink that I think causes big erections.) Yup, they’re listening.

This is Prisclla. Note the missing ‘i’ in her name. Aside from my colleagues at the
radio station she is my most astute and patient Twi language teacher. The
key to our lessons is simple: Prisclla doesn’t speak English. The reason:
her mother is dead (“My mother is dead” is the one phrase she knows, and she says repeatedly when I sit with her in her hairdressing tent, regardless of whatever we’re talking about.) Prisclla left school after Grade 3 to take care of her siblings.

It’s the words that can’t be found that also speak volumes. ‘AIDS,’ for
example, has not been translated into Twi, whereas ‘computer’ has. The word for
computer runs on for about a sentence and means a ‘modern device that thinks
for you’ (akin to the Inuit word for ‘computer.’) The word for car translates
to mean ‘thing that moves but covers your head while moving.’ And then my
favourite, a bicycle. A ‘daddy pon-coh’ (another word I use randomly to check
colleague’s dexterity and to be part of the cacophony of noise in the
office.) By the way, ‘daddy pon-coh’ translates to mean “metal horse.”
Wheee! Giddy up. T.

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