Friday, December 17, 2010

Gambian English

(A Post using words of not more than three syllables)

Recently there was a very lively discussion on a friend's wall. The said friend posted that he hated African journalists and assorted writing types who used big words in an attempt to sound smart. Someone saw this status update and posted a very bitter reply saying, in effect, that he was disgusted with this friend of mine for saying this and, not stopping there, also calling him a bunch of very personal names and attacking his facebook presence, the kind of music he listened to, etc.

I am not going to post the link to that discussion here - you can find it if you look for it. The person in question got what was coming to him (though sadly instead of learning a lesson he resorted to self-pity and playing the part of the victim), and he is too easy a target: arrogant, sure of himself, one of those people who believe they are martyrs (a word he himself chose to describe himself) and working for a great cause, when in fact they are just jerks. But I think it is important to talk about the larger issue at hand here.

English is not our language. It never was, it never will be. Anyone who fools themselves into believing that it is, is - well, a fool. However it is the closest thing we have to a world language, and so we must use it in order to be a part of the world: to do business with and talk to people from other countries, to read, to write. But to be honest I would be much prouder to be a master of Wolof, or Sosseh, or Bambara, than to be a person who speaks perfect English. But learning only these languages and not English - though a noble cause - is not practical in the world we live in, and won't take you very far.

The Gambian student faces two obstacles. First he must learn the English language. And then, using it, he learns what is contained in his school books. Learning the English language itself is hard, and is made even harder by the quality of teaching in our schools. And so many people stumble at the first obstacle, and because they do, because it is so hard, they assume that anyone who got past it must be very smart. Or, in other words: "Nim clever yeh - su laakeh English rek nga contaan".

In one of my classes in high school the teacher told us how there were people in England who could not read, and were uneducated. Nonsense, the boys said, laughing and jeering at him, everyone in England can speak English, how can they not read. This is a common error: because we must first learn English before we can learn almost anything else, we come to confuse the language with actual knowledge.

And this leads to some pervasive and harmful problems. First we assume, almost on an unconscious level, that a toubab will always be better at a task than his fellow Gambian. I cannot count the number of times, working in the IT field, when we lost a contract because the client preferred to fly in toubabs from England, put them up in an expensive hotel, and pay them way more than we charged, not because they were better at the task, but simply because of the aura we attach to the toubab and his ways. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying Gambians should be given a free pass just because they are Gambian. What I'm saying is that the toubab should not be given a free pass either, simply by virtue of the language he speaks, and the color of his skin.

And second, we build class systems: people who can speak English (even better if they can fake an accent) at a higher level, people who cannot beneath them. And the funny thing is we are willing to excuse imperfect English when it is spoken by French people, or Russians, or any of the other tribes of Europe. But our fellow countryman, no matter how smart he/she is, we will subject to all kinds of ridicule because he gets his verb tenses wrong, or cannot pronounce "sh" and says "fiss" instead of "fish", or "chee" instead of "key". We have come to idolize the medium, and ignore the message. We worship the form, and take no notice of the content.

"Toubab jinay lenye" we say in Wolof. To me this is the worst legacy the toubab left us: not the enslavement of our bodies - which we fought off with great fanfare and little result - but the enslavement of our minds, the magical veil they put over our eyes so we cannot see them clearly but only with a mystique attached to them, that makes them seem capable of anything, and we ourselves capable of nothing. Perhaps this could be excused, in the generation before us: our grandmother and grandfathers who did not travel, and did not understand the toubab's machines and his ways. But what excuse is there for us, who are taught in school the same math, and physics, and chemistry, who go on the Internet and see what the toubab sees, who go to college abroad and see the toubab in all his lazy/clever/stupid/informed/well-dressed/smelly/HUMAN glory.

Our initial enslavement was a thing of sweat and blood. It took many actions by many brave men and women to rid us of it. It is widely believed that the reason the struggles for liberty began was that Africans fought alongside toubabs in the world wars. For the first time the Africans saw there was nothing mystical about the toubab: he bled and cried for his mother and fell down dead when caught in the path of a bullet just like them. So when they got back home and the toubab still attempted to continue the master-slave system they decided, enough of this, they are not gods after all, capable of anything. They are mere people, like us. How ironic then that, only a few decades later, we now judge each other, not on our merits, but rather on how good we are at speaking the language of the toubab, and have gone right back to placing the toubab on a pedestal, down below which we look up at him.

In high school during one exam I slacked off and did not study. The questions were about Shakespeare plays - I had not read the books, and knew none of the answers. So I faked it: using as many big words as I could I wrote long essay answers that had no meaning, but that sounded like they had been written by a very smart person. I did not think I could get away with it - when the results came out I was top of the class with a perfect score, while almost the whole class failed woefully. The principal suspected something - she asked the teacher for my paper, re-marked it and I got a much lower score, closer to what my classmates had.

What we have now in the Gambia is many Amran Gayes, who attempt to fool us in the same way, using words we do not understand, their arguments lacking substance. And what we lack is principals who will call bullshit (to use a polite term) - we praise the Amran Gayes and look up to them, much to our detriment and the detriment of our country.

So next time you hear a Gambian speak, even if their English is terrible, judge them based on what they are saying. And next time you read a Gambian writer and don't understand anything he writes, don't just assume that you are dumb and he/she is clever. Read it again - you'd be surprised how much of a lot of this kind of writing is just a big ball of hot air.

And if all else fails: use dictionary dot com. ;)


  1. i love this post! It made me realize a lot! keep it up you are truly talented :)


  3. Nice on.