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Raffia cane victims (part 2): even a cane-happy teacher can sometimes be disarmed by the inability of a "local-foreigner" to comprehend difficult words in a foreign language. And so it happened to Duodu's hard-nosed teacher--he could occasionally find a brain cell to use among the bones that knocked about in his thick skull.

I still don't understand, to this day, why our teacher could not appreciate that my friend Simon, would not be able to understand the stuff we were made to chew by heart and "pour" from the Presbyterian Hymn Book.


Simon was born outside our language zone and came to live at Asiakwa with his cocoa farmer father when he was already about five years old. So his Twi was patchy and he spoke it with a pronounced foreign accent. Yet the teacher called on him to recite passages from hymns as if he were a native speaker of Twi like us.

Now, I liked Simon. He was strong, but better than that, he occasionally brought food to school, hid it in a secret place and gave me some when we went on break. In exchange, I used to help him with his lessons privately.

Our friendship grew stronger when one day, our teacher ordered out all the "dull" children, placed them under the shade of a neem tree and put me in charge of them. He erected a temporary blackboard under the tree, gave me a piece of chalk, and asked me to get on with teaching them!

We were minding our own business thus when one guy from an upper class came by. After watching the scene for a while, he taunted the chaps loudly:

"Ho! You guys, are you stupid or what? You have paid school fees to be taught by a teacher and you are allowing this tiny tot to teach you? What fools you are!"

We all looked at each other. The guy was disturbing us but because he was a senior, no one could say anything to him. Except Simon, that is. He got up and told the guy: "Hey, if you don't want trouble, go away and allow us to continue with our lessons. Just go away."

The guy said: "Fool, what can you do?" Whereupon, Simon went up to him and delivered a very sharp punch straight to the guy's right cheek: poom!

The cheek swelled up immediately, giving our guy a face like someone who had been attacked by mumps on only one side of his face!

The guy began to cry loudly and our teacher came out to see what was going on. When we told him what had happened, he said to the weeping guy: "My friend, tell all your classmates that as for these my Class One pupils, if you play with them, you will see something, you hear? You see that little boy who was teaching them? He can beat some of you seniors at examinations! And you see the one who hit you? Well, he can marry your elder sister!"

"Hahahahaha", we all laughed. A rumour had been circulating that Simon had got pubic hair. But he was so secretive about where and when he took his bath that no one had actually ever seen him naked. And here was our teacher saying that Simon was capable of getting married!

The guy whom Simon had pummeled, afraid that his classmates would laugh at him, didn't return to his classroom but slunk back home to nurse his swollen cheek. As for me, my stock went up throughout the school. It became known that frail though I was, I was a protected guy and that if anyone tried to mess with me, I had my "minders" who would teach him a thing or two.

As my best "minder", I was very co cerned about Simon's progress in school. Because of his language difficulty, everything was twice as complicated for him as for the rest of us, and I spent a lot of time helping him. But there were times when he had to strike out on his own. Like when it came to his turn to recite this passage from the Presbyterian Hymn Book:
 Manyan yi meto dwom pa,
 Ama Nyame M'Agyenkwa.
 Ono na oye me yefo,
 Me gyefo
 Ne me hwefo ...

My heart was in my mouth for poor Simon. You see, it was a very tough passage to remember. Some of the words were so much alike that one might not remember which came first--gyefo, yefo and hwefo, and that sort of thing. Then, there was the proliferation, in the passage, of some of the most difficult combinations of letters in the Twi orthography--gy's, hw's, dw's and ny's. These could confuse even a native reader: many were those who had been unable to remember that gy stood for the sound j in English. Why did they not just give us j, as in English, but gy? Many new learners naturally pronounced the two letters separately, and got whipped for doing that.

As for hw, ny, and dw, they have no English equivalents so I can't tell you how they sounded. Why didn't the German/Swiss creators of our orthography invent single characters for them, not these clumsy and difficult combinations? If we native speakers found them difficult, just imagine the problem they posed for someone who was learning Twi as a second language. Yet our teachers assumed, in a very simplistic manner, that if one wasn't able to recite such passages when asked to, it could only mean that one had not tried to learn them. The idea that one did not understand it and could not therefore retain it in one's memory did not arise at all!


Another thing that made passages from the Twi Hymn Book difficult to remember was that some of the words were constructed to make them appear like poetry. The Swiss Germans and their collaborators rhymed the words: yefo, gyefo, hwefo in the passage.

But this only succeeded in rendering the language artificial. Now, it is true that Twi possesses fantastic poetic tools, including rhyme, alliteration assonance and metre. But the indigenous poets who made use of these tools, were rather exemplary wordsmiths who, because they could not write, depended entirely on their ear alone, and therefore crafted stunning sounds, many of which could be used in drumming. I mean, look at this ancient stanza:
 Sasabonsam mmiensa,
 Ye'nnamfonom mmiensa,
 Ye'yerenom mmiensa,
 Ye'nom nsa
 Na y'ama wo nsa!

(Three Sasabonsam [monsters]; they're three friends; they've got three wives; we take a drink; and give you a drink ...) Can you beat that?

Besides, even if one knew a passage, the way the teacher was going about whipping those who got it wrong was producing such anxiety amongst the rest of the kids that even people who knew the passage were constrained to stumble upon the words, out of sheer stress.

Anyway, as I say, Simon was called to recite the passage. And this is what he said:
 Manyan yi meto dompe,
 Ama Nyame magye nkwan ...

We did not wait for him to complete whatever he had to say but burst out laughing for at least a full 10 minutes. The teacher shouted at us, cracked his whip on his table, and uttered all sorts of threats. But he could not bring us to order.

For what had happened was that Simon, instead of saying:
 Now that I have woken up
 I shall sing a good song
 Unto the Lord my Saviour,
 For it is he who is my maker,
 My Guard
 And my carer

He had just said:
 Now that I have woken up,
 I shall buy a bone
 And give it to God
 To supply me with soup to go with it!

To us, the idea that such a prosaic thought--buying a bone and submitting it to God for soup--should emanate from the very ascetic and ultra-spiritual Presbyterian Hymn Book, was so funny it was unreal.

As we laughed hysterically, it must have dawned on our teacher that Simon's difficulty went beyond his pupils' alleged unwillingness to learn, into a far more fundamental plane--an inability to comprehend difficult words in a foreign language. For, to our surprise, the teacher didn't whip Simon at all. Yes, even he could occasionally find a brain cell to use among the bones that knocked about in his thick skull.
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Title Annotation:Under the Neem Tree
Author:Duodu, Cameron
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:May 1, 2005
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