My Love and Hate Relationship with Portuguese

Placing this in context 

My professor looked me squarely in the face and said, you speak French, yet that isn’t enough, really,  I think it’s time for a new language and I believe Portuguese would be a good fit for you.

Among many emotions to choose from, I felt nothing. I agreed totally with him; I had French as a second language….. and I’d had this conversation with myself before and had stayed tentatively between admiration and envy of people who spoke a third or forth international language. Though I’d imagined and hoped I’d take on another language, somehow there was a disconnect between my wish to do so and what I actually did in real life. Even as I continued to engage in wishful thinking, I never for once considered Portuguese. Portuguese for what?! My considerations were Mandarin Chinese or Spanish but most likely Spanish. Portuguese seemed a bit too steep and irrelevant and mostly unattainable.

On the first day of class, I was completely lost! I was so lost it was so funny: luckily I made out my name in the target language and kept my ears open for more information. The class was entirely in the target language and the professor was talking so fast. So much for teacher talk! Teacher talk is a technique used by language instructors as a buffer against falling back on the native language all the time. The biggest attributes of teacher talk are a slow pace of speech and using very basic vocabulary or cognates. Introspectively I thought about my French language students and how frustrated they likely got when I rushed through a lesson expecting them to know what I was talking about.

6am.

6am. I’m doing homework while questioning myself over this lofty decision. I should be ready by 8am so I can get to work in one piece but the truth is, once I get to work, there’s no way I can do personal stuff. It’s either I finish this homework or go to class once again feeling low and upset over not having done homework. I hate the feeling of irresponsibility that comes with not doing what I need to get done. At the same time, the feeling of accomplishment and confidence that comes with completing tasks is the kind of sentiment I’d rather have all the time. ‘Do something your future self would thank you for’… this thought stayed in my mind so I completed the homework and went off. It’s been a sleepy week already but at least I can rattle off some Portuguese verbs;

Acordar – to wake up (my favorite because it sounds like ‘ak)daa’ in Akan which means child)

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My Homework sheet that I took a screenshot of and sent to my aunt; her response was, “Good luck with that”

Comidar – to eat

Chegar – to arrive

Ficar – to stay

Falar – to speak

Fazer – to do

Viajar – to travel

And I know how to conjugate these and a few more in both the present and past tense…isn’t God wonderful? 🙂

The Grammar 😐

Most regular portuguese verbs end with the letters AR . ER or IR this means that these verbs will have different and specific endings when they’re conjugated. Though different, a previous second language helps me envisage these differences and the need for some kind of technique for keeping these verbs and their different conjugations in mind. It gets overwhelming though, but then our brains are capable of so much more than we can imagine. Any person who grew up in Ghana would tell you about a time in their lives when they did some mad random guessing on a multiple choice answer test or exam of some kind; normally, the student in question would sing a made-up song while gingerly pointing at the various answers available. Once the song ended, the particular multiple choice answer the song ended on would be decided as the best answer. It was more like musical chairs, same analogy as sitting on the chair closest to you when the music stops. I used to do that a lot! Oh, my! A whole lot, because I was mostly clueless or too afraid to pick an answer and go with it; I relied on chance to take me through. Did it work? Well, sometimes it did. Other times I’d say the Hail Mary prayer while doing this and leave my choice at the one that my finger rested on once the prayer was done. Mary wouldn’t fail me though, would she?In all of this though, I learned to trust my memory. Afterall, I wasn’t as blank as I thought I was. I noticed that outside the random crazy guessing game, the one thing that happened was that whenever I concluded on an answer and came back to change it, the previous answer was the better one. This taught me to trust my memory ( and maybe instinct ) and choose unwaveringly.

The Post Colonial Perspective and Personal Musings

Doctor Negash would quote me, Franz Fanon;

The colonized intellectual, at the very moment he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism

Sitting through postcolonial theory classes have made me feel weird about my foreign language pursuits. Or maybe I’d probably have to read Fanon well to fully understand the way I really feel about this. However, does my speaking foreign languages have anything to do with my loyalty to my heritage as an African? How well do I speak my African languages? I think I am as fluent in  Fante as I am in French or English or as I will eventually be in Portuguese…but then, Fanon says again that ‘no innocent, shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism; not even after decolonization‘…and that reminds me of the glaring links between Fante and Portuguese and to a larger extent Akan! Voltar is a verb in Portuguese that means to come back…does it have any link with our Lake Volta and our Volta Region? Bread in Fante is ‘Paano’, bread in Portuguese is ‘Pao’, shoes in Portuguese are called ‘Sapatos’ shoes in Fante are called ‘Asopartsee’, the word bucket in Portuguese is ‘balde’. In Fante, the same word is ‘bokitse’ never mind that the letter ‘d’ when reproduced phonetically in Portuguese is ‘dji’ so there is a huge possibility that the word has been adulterated to sound like what it is today in Fante language…. ‘no innocent, shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism’…maybe the quotation haunts me….no innocent shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism... and I still have questions;…..how authentic will my work be? Will it ever be possible to write my story or live without a trace no matter how small of colonialism? Indeed, the traces are everywhere, not just physically, case in point the Cape Coast castle where I literally grew up but even in the most abstract sense….. and now they occupy my linguistic dreams.

It is such an enlightening experience learning Portuguese not only for linguistic and cultural gains but also as a key to personal rediscovery of history. There’s no way some vocabulary words in the target language will escape me when I grew up hearing my grandmother tell me those same words no matter how adulterated in Fante.

 

 

 

How My Story Intersects with Africa

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I grew up with my grandmother who is such an entertaining old lady. She would not back down to an intimidating Christian song just because she did not know the lyrics. The solution was quite simple; either invent her own words or substitute words with sounds that she made . The problem though was that these sounds sounded more like the repetitive tooting of a klaxon and soon became my special indication that it was morning and time for school. Living with my grandmother was both intimate and educative. My identity as a Fante and a Ghanaian was molded and instilled in me right from infancy. I was taught the name of the moon and how to call God using a variation of Fante words such as Nana Nyame, Nyankopon, Ewuradze and Oky3so Nyame. I heard my grandmother pray loudly in the middle of the night and God’s Fante names were unavoidable and unmistakably present in our home. I learned them, it was impossible not to.

There were also those Sunday afternoons that met me sitting in the kitchen for hours on end making Palm nut soup with my grandmother. Making palm soup was annoying and one I do not miss in the least. It involved pounding the nut, removing the mixture of smashed fruit and kernel and chaff, squeezing them while separating the kernel all in water, passing everything through a colander, repeating, and doing all these cumbersome things until you obtained a thick orange liquid which we were going to spend another two or so hours boiling and observing…..and that was not it! No, no! After this ordeal, I still had all the dishes to deal with! Mind you, that was also no easy task since palm oil has abnormal adhesive qualities and will stick to every container! This meant that I needed to scrub the pot doggedly like my very life depended on it.  Guess what, my grandmother’s eyes can spot oil stains as minuscule as a grain of dirt. Squeaky clean quickly became an understatement. #Mylife. I doubt my grandmother could relate to my pain. She did not obviously because we came back to this soul draining work almost every other week.  Her simple and obstinate reason for sticking with this overrated delicacy was simple; that it was the best food for feeding the entire family over a long period of time. WHAT entire family? AND WHAT long period? Who wanted to spend an entire life time eating Palm nut soup?! I looked left and right, it was only her and me, there was no real huge family, it was just us, but unfortunately, she was right. The soup did feed us and for a long time! The thing about Palm soup is that the longer it ages, the better it gets; more like fine wine. So basically, a huge cauldron of soup could last us a whole week; lunch and dinner inclusive for seven days, sometimes more. Palm soup was not the only type of soup that lived up to its utilitarian claims; indeed, the palm tree itself is a three in one resource that can produce not only food but alcohol, brooms for cleaning the home, baskets and many more decorative and visually pleasing accents for the home. My childhood was loaded with cultural information that was either intentionally or unintentionally shared. In addition to knowing the home remedy for almost every kind of condition, I was seamlessly socialized to be the woman I am today. We grew spices and medicinal grass and plants we used ourselves. Knowing which one exactly to use to cure a slight malaise, which to eat for strength and which to use to achieve flavor in a steaming pot of stew. I grew up with a wealth of cultural information at my feet. I became the woman that did not imitate in an empty attempt to be Ghanaian, but the woman who knew the reason behind every reproduced cultural act. My children are going to inevitably learn from me too.

When it was time for me to go off to college, my grandmother convinced me to go to the University of Cape Coast. She wanted to see more of me and couldn’t stand the thought of my going away from her. I’d lived with her from birth till high school and now I was ready to move on. We parted with a promise of seeing each other whenever we could. I studied French at the University of Ghana and one of the most profound statements I came into contact with while learning this language is the fact that one cannot fully appreciate another ‘s language if they are oblivious of their very own. This thought stuck with me and after living in parts of Africa, Europe and now America, this thought has grown to become even more relevant in my life. In a society that is a melting pot of many different cultures, I realize more than ever that the oral traditions and folklore and pretty much all the cultural information my grandmother introduced me to help me understand that I am a product of a unique culture that forms the core of my being. I remain unfazed if someone utters some kind of vulgarity to me in English. A thousand Fuck you’s will meet an indifferent stare yet insult me in Fante and I will definitely be ready to fight back. My ex-boyfriend who was born in the United States speaks to me in Fante. Fante is the language of banter, familiarity, and intimate discussion. Casual conversations that begin in English make me fully aware of the possibility of a bad day that he’s had or that he’s in a state I prefer not to relate with. To this day, I pray in Fante to my God; Nana Nyame who I believe hears and understands me. I’d like to think that Nyame and Jesus are one and the same, and that Africans are not necessarily pagan but have an understanding and knowledge of God for themselves even though they may not necessarily express it the way the world deems fit.

My knowledge of my culture helps me appreciate and respect the unique differences and similarities that groups of people across the world have. I have over twenty international contacts in my phone and the only way I have been able to keep them that close is because I appreciate my culture and know better to respect theirs too. My grandmother’s telling and re-telling of stories to me forms who I am, a lover of the literary arts. For this reason, I grew up yearning for more stories and soon, my grandmother’s oral accounts led me to seek more in written accounts. I grew up reading Ama Ata Aidoo, Efua Sutherland and a lot of Ghanaian poetry by notable poets such as Kofi Awoonor. I also read some Nigerian literature and had a childhood surrounded by a line of books called the African Pacesetters series.

One of the ideas that drive me to contribute to the body of literature is; I believe that we all have stories to share. I recently read Yaa Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing and I was happy to find that this book which is written by a Ghanaian who lives in America reinforces most aspects of my culture and childhood. The book made me realize that I hadn’t eaten with my fingers in a very long time and for weeks I have been doing just that!

To conclude, I’d say that I believe we all have stories and I am driven to tell Ghanaian and African stories and let the world know more about my culture, pride, and world. No matter where I live, the strong sense of identity and self that was ingrained into me right from childhood is the point of departure and foundation I will use as an African in the world’s cultural basket to tell my own unique story.