Note from the editor: Yaa Serwaa Somuah shares with us a part of her story about coming to Canada and how she learned to embrace her native language and culture amidst the Canadian one. It has been lightly edited for clarity, but the words are her own.
Language is a medium of communication in humankind. Different languages are carriers of different knowledge, stories, songs, and ways of seeing the world. Anthropologists, such as Wade (2009), have predicted that fully 50% of the 7000 languages spoken around the world today will disappear within our lifetime.
In Ghana, where I grew up, I earned my education and worked as a teacher. There was a tendency to humiliate any child who spoke their native language in school. The humiliation was that any student who was unable to express himself in the English language wears snail shells around their neck all day long. This stigmatization and humiliation urged most parents to speak the English language at home in order to save their children’s pains within the school grounds.
Until I left the shores of Ghana, I had nothing to defend. Being away from my own people has been challenging and worthwhile, in which every day I have to tell people who I am, where I come from, the food I eat, the clothes I wear, and the language I speak. This was never part of the reason why I travelled, but this turn of events offered me an opportunity to be an ambassador of my country and my people.
My grandmother used to say that, “If you going to church and meet a white person on your way, you must go back home because you have met your god.” So, you can imagine my excitement now that I was to live among the white people. The idea was more exciting because unlike my grandmother, who had worshipped the white man without knowing even one English word, here I am speaking the language of her gods. On my arrival in Canada, I was sure that I would be easily accepted and be absorbed as one of them in no time. One of the things I tried to do, in addition to all that I speak, was striving to speak with an accent as the white Canadians.
After a few months of living in Canada speaking like them and eating their food, I became aware of the patterns and trends of the Canadian mode of inquiry. Among other questions, everyone who sees me will ask me these specific questions: Where are you from? Where is Ghana? How long have you been here? Is this your first time of seeing snow? And the most interesting question was: How and where did you learn to speak English so well? Initially, I took it as a compliment and was quick to answer: “We speak English in Ghana.” The interrogation did not end there. They asked: What is your original language in Ghana? Gradually, as these questions kept coming from different people and places, I began to question myself too. “Who am I and what language do I speak as my mother tongue? Why are these people probing me? Can’t they see that I speak just like them? Why can’t they just accept that I am one of them?” In my native language we say, “If you forget the umbrella of your chief, you shall surely get lost on the durbar grounds (se wo were fi wo kurom hene kyinii a wo yera wo bagua ase).”
In this awakening moment, I realized that I have been deceived, brainwashed, dehumanized, and misinformed in Ghana for speaking my native language. This, in part, made me lose my identity as an individual who has a culture, language included. Furthermore, in my ignorance, I also perpetuated the same abuse and misconception into the lives of all the children I taught for seven years. To take this even further, I was still perpetuating the ignorance of the extinction of my language by communicating with my biological children in a foreign language (English) in my home.
As part of all the opportunities in Canada where each and every one can be themselves, it is the land and the people that have groomed me to embrace my culture and who I am with no pretense.
I have no fear of speaking my language in public or in my home. For the first time, I am proud to tell people my native name, knowing very well that people in Canada appreciate the culture of being different and multicultural.