The Writers’ Project Ghana and the Goethe-Institut Ghana collaborated for a second time in October 2018 to produce Pa Gya – A Literary Festival. And thank God they did. This event drew on the rich history of oral storytelling that is embedded in Ghanaian and wider African cultures. It also celebrated the wealth of talent from across Africa and the Diaspora, and created a space for controversial topics to be aired, challenged and explored.
Language endangerment was one of those topics that became a thread running throughout the entire three-day event. Poet Dr Kofi Anyidoho led the discussion during the opening ceremony, highlighting that he had always written in English (See YouTube clip below).
It didn’t occur to him to write in Ewe until his sister asked him when he was going to ‘give back’ after his family had supported his ambition to write professionally. From then, he wrote in Ewe also.
But the desire to write in the mother tongue does not just hold cultural benefits, as some of us discovered during a workshop entitled ‘Abandon Your African Languages in Favour of World Languages’.
Apparently this was something Dr W.E.B du Bois advocated. And in today’s Ghana, we see that played out in the way youngsters at school are sometimes beaten for speaking the languages of their community. I guess it doesn’t help that we refer to Ghanaian languages as the ‘local language’ or the ‘vernacular’, while the languages of the colonisers would never be described in such a manner.
Related: [Language endangerment]
Interestingly, a fellow writer in the workshop – Nana Ekua Brew Hammond – made the point that although the languages of the West were imposed in the African continent, it has not been without our agency in shaping the languages to suit our needs. So out of English/French/Portuguese, we have developed Pidgins and Ghanaianisms that stamp our identity on the colonisers’ mother tongue.
So should we be speaking a world language and abandon our own? This was another conversation that came up. Chinweizu, who led the workshop, thinks not. It is possible to use the myriad of languages we posses for different purposes, he said. He pointed to Singapore to make this point, touching on the investments the country had made to protect languages some 25 years ago. Between Tamil, Malay, English and Chinese, the country faced a similar challenge in deciding which language to adopt as the lingua franca, and what potential tensions picking one language over another might have on the population.
Mono or polyglot?
In Singapore, they chose to use each language for a different purpose. English was used for trade, and as well as learning English, children were taught in the language of their communities. Because the children were taught in their own languages, they formed a deep attachment to them which stayed with them as they matured and meant this linguistic legacy could be passed on to their children.
Could Ghana learn from this? Absolutely, Chinweizu believes. “It’s about tailoring the need to your situation and adapting it to your country’s condition. We need to get the universities to think through policies that then can be taken to be lobbied at government level,” he said.
Shifts in economies will also have an impact on the importance of language and as one participant highlighted, economies in the global south are growing. With this growth comes more incentive for outsiders to Africa to be able to communicate with us.
These benefits to speaking the language of your ancestors provides other benefits, Dr Anyidoho outlined. Research has shown that students taught school subjects in their own language performed better, he said. He pointed to Nigeria as one case in point where science experiments are taught and explained in the home languages.
So what is stopping us from celebrating our rich linguistic heritage? In the four walls of the Pa Gya festival – not much. Poetry sessions unearthed just how linguistically flexible some of our poets were with many able to recite poems in Ewe, or perform the same poem in both English and Ewe or even a mixture of the two.
We had writers from neighbouring Togo that shared writing in French, English and Ewe, and one translator who could also speak and write in Spanish and Italian. Their workshop centred on the importance of translators as gatekeepers to communicating thought to those who spoke a different language. It also focussed on the need for culture to be embedded into translations to ensure that meaning is not lost.
Apathy over slavery
Other illuminating topics included an exploration of Ghana’s attitudes to slavery and an apparent apathy towards its discourse in Ghana. Author Ayesha Harruna Attah explained in the clip below how this apparent indifference to slavery could be addressed by ensuring the topic is discussed earlier on in children’s education.
My first Pa Gya experience was in 2017 where I co-facilitated a blogging workshop. This left me little opportunity to experience any of the workshops or other events being staged. So this year, I was determined to drink in every last drop of literary excellence that the event had to offer.
As well as staging another blogging workshop, which you can read more about here, I got to meet some old and new faces, and learn much more about the wealth of books from African writers on offer.
It was great to see Michael Donkor – author of House Girl, who was passing through on his way to the Ake Arts & Book Festival in Lagos, Nigeria. I also met members behind literary organisation Afrikult – also from the UK, who staged workshops during the event.
The event provided a window into African comics through Kevin Sampong (see below) from SquidMag Ink. It also explored the rise and fall in life cycles of literary magazines with a panel that included Billy Kohora, Nana Ama Kyeremanteng and Millie Mcternan.
It also focussed the art and benefits of travel writing with a panel of journalists including veteran Graphic editors Nanabanyin Dadson and Kofi Akpabli, and writers Pelu Asofeso and Marla Sink Druzgal.
The event brought together Africans from across the Continent and the Diaspora and was packed with so much to see, eat, drink, buy, read and hear.
Pa Gya means ‘to ignite (as is done when a flint is used to create fire), and depending on the pronunciation also means to lift up. The event managed to generate both in me. The event was ‘lit’ and now more than ever, do I feel inspired to keep on writing and exploring fresh ways to communicate!