As the trotro slows to a stop, I hand the mate a cedi and wave to the driver, calling out “medaase!” as I step out of the van. “Ehhh medaase!” the driver calls out happily, a wide grin breaking across his face. As the trotro zooms away, I smile proudly at how enthusiastically he responded to me saying “thank you” in Twi.
During my time in Ghana, I have found over and over again that language can be a simple but powerful tool for creating common ground and bridging cultural gaps. I love the way a “maaha” (good afternoon) summons a smile from the security guard at the Freeman Center, or how a “wo ho te sε?” (how are you?) provides an immediate connection with a vendor. I only know a few common phrases in Twi, the language spoken by Ghana’s Ashanti people, but when I try them out I am always met with a very positive response.
In his memoir Born a Crime (which I read last week and would definitely recommend!), Trevor Noah illustrates the power of language in various stories of his childhood. Growing up in apartheid South Africa as a boy with a black mother and white father, Noah was often confronted with difficult social situations because he was considered neither black nor white by societal standards. He learned from his mother that language was one of the best ways to bridge racial gaps and navigate tense social situations. He began picking up multiple languages so that if somebody questioned his whiteness, he could speak to them in English or Afrikaans, and if someone questioned his blackness, he could speak to them in Xhosa or Zulu or Tswana. In one anecdote, he was walking down the street when he overheard some Zulu men behind him talking about mugging him. As soon as he turned around and joked to them in Zulu that they ought to just mug someone else together, they laughed it off, apologized for thinking he was white, and walked away. He writes on page 56, “Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”
The dynamics I am dealing with as a white American in Ghana are drastically different than Trevor Noah’s experience as a biracial boy in apartheid South Africa. But the common theme is that language can be a powerful icebreaker and social facilitator. I know very few Twi phrases, but when I successfully use the ones I know, I can establish an immediate connection with anyone I meet. In Trevor Noah’s case, language established a sameness of identity and experience that allowed him to move among various cultural settings. As a foreign visitor, I believe that speaking to people in their own language shows respect, consideration, and a genuine interest in getting to know them and their culture.
I have also noticed the importance of language and the impacts of language diversity within Ghana. Due to its colonial past, English is Ghana’s official language. However, the country has more than 70 ethnic groups, and according to the Ghanaian Embassy, more than 250 languages and dialects are spoken in Ghana. At KATH, patients come from all over the country, and some of them only speak local languages. One day, a patient arrived in the ER unresponsive, and his son did not speak English or Twi. After a somewhat tedious conversation with the son in his particular dialect, a doctor finally discovered that the patient had been experiencing altered consciousness for the past six months and hadn’t eaten in two days. Without knowledge of this other dialect, the doctor would have been unable to obtain critical medical information. Additionally, I would guess that the ability to find common ground through language facilitated a trusting relationship between the doctor and her patient’s son, who came from a rural area where many people are skeptical of biomedicine.
These past 7 weeks in Ghana have ignited a desire to travel more in the future. As I go forward with these experiences, I will always be sure to try to pick up at least a few words and phrases of whatever language is spoken in the places I visit. This is just one of the many lessons I am taking away with me as I prepare to leave Ghana in a few days. Medaase to everyone who has made this experience so amazing.
“When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.’” – Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, pg. 236