guest post: not being able to speak in my mother tongue / troy james aidoo
When I was younger Twi or Fante wasn’t really a necessity. My mum came over from Ghana – via America – to get her life back on track. We grew up around mostly Nigerians and Jamaicans. There was no-one really to practice with and speak to and, of course, it was English (amongst Maths and Science) that teachers kept pressing mum and dad about being the most important things to pass. And it was, educationally. But socially and for my identity? No, and it’s something that’s really missing.
Growing up, I was free to be proud because I didn’t look like other Ghanaians, I looked Jamaican so because the gatekeepers were mostly Jamaicans, me being proud to be Ghanaian (or African) was never met with ridicule like it was with others from different African nations. So when hit with “where are you from?” my answer was met with a bit of confusion, a little bit of explaining, then “ahh cool”. The only thing I struggled to explain was my hair, as I knew nothing about genes and had nobody to explain its complexities to me. So, I was free to be Ghanaian without any limitations and for me, at the time, language wasn’t one of them. Now when I’m out meeting Ghanaians, the burden of proof is more tricky and barriers of entry are more stringent. The response to similar questions I had in my childhood, being met with a response I hadn’t been met with age mates but comes from Aunties and Uncles – judgement and disappointment.
My only proof of being Ghanaian is my Ghanaian name, Yaw Ansante Ekow, which never gets asked – or at least not until after my most dreaded question. The first question. It’s always asked after I’ve gained entry. “Can you speak Twi?” (A question I find as frustrating as I do confusing as there’s a range of languages through the region).
My answer is always “no” or “a little bit” or “a little, but I can understand some”, then explaining (in most cases brofolising) some of the terms (mostly commands) I’ve picked up from my mum’s anger. Then I get the all clear to reclaim my identity. In these responses, you always get a judgemental look or “you should know” or “why don’t you know?”. Well it’s simple I never learned and was put off learning.
As a child, I had nobody else to speak to so I had no interest. When we tried, we were laughed at so it completely put me off, because who wants to be mocked for trying? Mum wasn’t strict because she desperately wanted us to be successful in her new country, and not live the life she had done (although we feel she’s been truly incredible before, during and after us) and nobody told me how I would feel. Like a piece of me was missing. Is missing.
No matter how you look, your names and language are keys to your community because communication is. Here, Ghanaians who can speak the language and who look Ghanaian can go to Ghana and be stripped of their identity. My mum who looks Ghanaian, speaks Twi and Ga, gets ridiculed when she mixes them up when speaking to her parents. It’s an important part of the culture, and important for authentication. It’s important to just understand what’s happening. When you’re in a group of people and the atmosphere is popping and jokes are flying, you miss out. When someone says something that really can’t be translated into English, you miss out. When you’re feeling a song but don’t get the lyrics, you miss out. It’s more perplexing and frustrating when you walk past a group of Ghanaians and you know their speaking in one of the many tongues, but you have no clue what they’re saying. It’s not to eavesdrop. It’s just a constant reminder that you’re close to the culture, but it’s not a birth right, and without the language, I’ll always be on the outside looking in.
I spent a long time looking internally. Blaming my mum (my dad has faced the same problems) and feel like I can’t truly be black British without fully fleshing the black part of myself. I can’t be a complete me. So, I’m finding other ways to interact. Just biting the bullet and saying what I can despite my crippling anxiety about the response. Trying not to prove to others and jump through hoops to prove my identity. I know what I know and when I know more, I’ll share. Enjoying the learning process. Finding the right classes and people for me. And keep plucking to find this missing piece of myself. So when I learn I can pass it on and make sure, when the time comes, my children don’t feel the same way I did, because unlike their dad, they’ll be confident in all aspects of their culture.
troy james aidoo is a videographer and documentary filmmaker, visual content creator, and conscious marketer from South London. Filmmaking was introduced to him by a friend Ricardo Brown (may his soul forever rest in peace) and he hasn’t looked back. Troy has gone on to work with a variety of companies, freelancers, charities and non-profits such as the BBC, Rambert, where does it come from?, Kitty Ferriera and others. He is focus on projects that align with his values; working with people trying to make the world a better place.