By Kofi Gyamfi Sarkodie, Contributor
I was born in a town called Agona. The only literate adults there at that time were the teachers who had been posted from the city to teach at schools in our town. Since Ghana has over 250 languages and dialects, learning the English language is crucial to breaking the language barriers within the country.
My first language is the Asante Twi; it is the most common language in Ghana since the Akan tribe (which my Dad belongs to) was the most dominant group during the era of ethnic wars. My second language is the Fante; this language is only spoken by the ethnic group my mom belongs to. I grew up speaking both Fante and Twi, but none of these languages were used in writing textbooks or educational materials. As a result, I grew up learning how to read and write in English, my third language, even before my first and second.
However, teachers posted to areas like mine were usually substandard and barely cared about the development of their students. I didn’t look up to any of my teachers; instead, I looked up to comic book heroes. Every afternoon, right after school, I would be glued to a television set, immersed in the world of my heroes. Later in the day, I picked up sheets of papers and made my own comic book stories – this was my first story-writing experience.
While we were still learning how to write the English alphabets from A-Z in school, I already knew how to spell, SMASH!, KA-BOOM!, POOF!, CRASH!, and many other words I picked up from comic books. In school, our teachers would teach for a few minutes and leave even before their period was up. At the age of 5, we really didn’t care since that only meant more free time for us. Like an active volcano ready to erupt, we would all sit in our chairs, anxiously waiting to play our hearts out. As soon as our teacher stepped out, heaven came down and glory filled our souls. We would jump out of our seats play games like “Bushia Bushia”- each person would a pick a character based on comic books, and each character would have certain buffs and flaws. A modern and Western form of this game is “Dungeons and Dragons.” However, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, we would portray our own characters and wear their names as tags and the entire classroom would be our arena.
At this moment all the girls but Mary Brago would have evacuated the class for their own safety. Mary was stronger than all the boys in my class; if the game was being played by only Mary Bragos, then the boys would have to evacuate too. It was exciting to see children who had not yet learned to write even three-lettered words construct sentences like, “By your powers combined, I am Captain Planet!” and “Where is my spinach?!” My favorite catch phrase was ‘It’s clobbering time!’ – I doubt even my teacher knew what that meant. While hopping from one deck to another and battling each other like a scene from the battle of Endor, little did we know about the development of our English literacy. As I grew up, I begun to look up to real life heroes, statesmen like Ghana’s own Kwame Nkrumah, J. B. Danquah amongst others. This is where I got my passion for leadership and I have always looked to great leaders and solid institutions for inspiration.
I moved to the city later with my family, but even there, my exposure to writing in English was little. Writing, in general, is not a very big part of the Ghanaian education system. As long as you memorized and passed your end of term exam, you didn’t have to worry about anything else. The only two papers I wrote in primary school was an essay about myself and a letter to a friend which was less than half a page long. For junior high school I transferred to a Roman Catholic school at Santasi. Here, I met a wonderful English teacher called Gina. Her class challenged me in a way no other class had. For the first time I was being assigned writing assignments at least once a week. Although these were letter-writing samples or minor essays that were barely two pages long, it was the most I’d ever had to do. I grew a lot under the supervision of Gina, and as my end of term exams got closer, I made extra efforts to improve my English skills.
At the age of 15, my efforts were rewarded with a great lesson. I was visiting my Aunt Maggie, who was an English language teacher at Abibiman Preparatory School, to get English tutorials before my end of term exams due in a few weeks. However, before I got to her office the shrieks and the drumming that came from a certain room caused me to peek inside, and for a few minutes, my eyes were held captive to the sight before me. In a corner of the room, a group of ruffled-haired boys were clustered around a table, drumming and singing at the tops of their voices. A string of about two dozen girls chased each other around, laughing and squealing. Close to the window, or more accurately, the space in the wall, two young boys stood with their eyes trained on some spot in the trees outside with catapults fastened to their nimble fingers. In the center of the room, some sat doodling on their desks with the pieces of chalk meant for their absent teacher. Others gathered over milk tins, pieces of ropes and plastic bottle covers, trying to assemble what looked like cars. The image that was playing out before my eyes was one of a talent playground. Only this playground had no swing-sets or slides or monkey-bars. It was during the time when the country was facing one of its longest national teacher strikes, and what I had seen was an unsupervised classroom.
In the next couple of days, I made a decision to be their teacher. When I saw the drummers, I pictured renowned musicians. When I saw the running girls, I pictured amazing Olympic athletes. When I saw the doodlers, I pictured Alighieri’s and Michaelangelo’s. I was going to be my own employer and my pay-slip would be the experience I would have gained by the time I had to go back to school. The next couple of weeks were going to be filled with preparing study notes, and devising interesting teaching techniques to keep my students interested in the lessons. I could imagine no greater joy than that I experienced from reaching out to the people I felt needed my help. I told my aunt about my it, and she readily offered me her teaching notes; however, I had to write her reports in the form of an essay to help keep track of the students’ progress and at the same time improve my English literacy. The moment was one that for me determined my growth into an adult, because I believe an adult is one who can help add value to raw potential, one who can make meaning out of meaningless situations, and bring hope out of hopeless conditions.