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Thinking in English : Lessons from TEDGlobal

Posted by paa.kwesi on Fri, 10/26/2007 - 22:21

This is a few months late but here it is...

TEDGlobal this year took place in Arusha, Tanzania. Yours truly was there to see for himself and armed with a lot of skepticism: who were these folks who were claiming they were bringing together the continent's finest minds to share their experiences to encourage everyone present? I am inherently skeptical whenever I hear talk of "helping" the continent. Generations of brilliant minds have lived and died and failed so spectacularly (as our aggregate history demonstrates) on the continent that I am minded not to expect much from a new crop of typically historically ignorant idealists who think they can outdo their ancestors without even knowing why their ancestors failed.

So I landed in Arusha, after having missed almost a day of sessions due to a bungled flight reservation from Dar, expecting to find this crowd but that's where the surprises started...

First Florence Seriki of Omatek ( from Nigeria. She makes computers with her own brand on them and is expanding to Ghana. She got her start by doing computer training for executives to reselling computers... and now she's planning on making the circuit boards herself. Lesson: start with what you have!

Then Alieu Conteh of Vodacom, Congo. When I was being indoctrinated that all had broken loose in Congo, he was building a mobile network right there! He tells stories of negotiating with rebel leaders to protect his communication towers among other escapades and I say to myself these are the guys I'll put on the curriculum as the continent's real heroes.

These two simple examples--and that of Mr Kamkwamba (see among others--brought home the message that
1. the true measure of success is always being able to overcome LOCAL conditions to achieve what you want,

2. to be effective means being smart enough to apply whatever knowledge you have acquired by changing as many variables as need to be changed to make your knowledge work for you, and

3. the willing will always make a way.

So when people like me whine about how "things don't work, etc, etc" we're are actually being losers because when we're conquered by LOCAL conditions we make silly noises about how it's not like it is elsewhere (i.e. we wish to impose non-local conditions first before we think we can succeed).

There were plenty of examples--Segeni Nge'the from Kenya's He left the US right after graduating from college and set up shop in Nairobi. He talks with the confidence of one who has seen plenty of good business. And he has, traveling by road over East Africa to deliver flowers and more for Kenyans in the Diaspora looking to send some love back home. When he says he's looking to expand into Uganda, you know he's not just dreaming--he knows where he's going and is going to get there.

I cannot mention them all, but they gave me good cheer and inspired me in ways that Einstein never can.


GhanaThink Managing Executive


more TEDtalks
In this deeply personal talk, novelist and poet Chris Abani searches for the heart of Africa through poetry and narrative -- including his own story of artistic and political awakening, which began with an inventive teacher who taught him the forbidden history of his own people. How, he asks, can we reconcile stories of terror, war and corruption with one's enduring sense of pure wonder?
This grab-you-by-the-throat speech by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey unleashes an almost breathtaking torrent of controlled anger toward corrupt leaders and the complacency that allows them to thrive. These "Hippos" (lazy, slow, ornery) have ruined postcolonial Africa, he says. Why, then, does he remain optimistic? Because of the young, agile "Cheetah Generation," a "new breed of Africans" taking their futures into their own hands.

the destiny of a nation at any given time depends on the opinions and contributions of its young men and women.

The question on my mind is:

The question on my mind is: how can we get such luminary voices as Patrick Awuah, George Ayittey etc to resonate across Africa (if for nothing at all to probe deep thought and stimulate progressive discussion)? The people who need such ideas the most are unfortunately not the tiny elite among whom it circulates. Even when they do speak in local media all that such trend-setters get is some 15 sec soundbite that cannot do justice to any issue. Just another of Africa's problems I guess. Oh well,....


If we can convince them to

If we can convince them to speak Swahili or Twi and appear on local radio stations I'm sure their ideas will circulate as widely as needed. The dilemma of self-identified African thinkers is that they are always speaking the wrong language :)

Consider a thought experiment: imagine you lived in the US and wanted your ideas about the US to spread but decided that you will speak only French--the everyday language of a small minority of Americans.

And you're very right, unless the best of these ideas to resonate across the continent, ... oh well... guess where we're not going:)

Case in point: Ngugi w'a Thiongo's ideas he propagated in Gikuyu are better known inside Kenya than elsewhere. His English ideas are better known outside Kenya.

African writers have been struggling with this for the longest time and though the answer is plainly obvious, the lure of English (fame in the English world and its associated trappings) has proven too great a temptation for many of them to overcome. I am not criticizing them--just stating a fact--for it is not the case that at this moment I can spread my best ideas about the continent in the languages of the continent.

Literal transition still

Literal transition still required. You mention speaking swahili, or twi and then finish with "african writers". The problem I see is that we have not (except for the ethiopians?) yet seen the natural transition from an oral predominant form of communication to literal form.

I'm not convinced that the present day use of the (european) latin script is appropriate; is this being factor worth considering?

It's facinating how every

It's facinating how every topic on the forum devolves into a language argument, a cultural relativism argument or a mixture of the two.I suspect it's partly because we have the same people arguing from the same ideologically entrenched positions on all forum topics;which calls for more outside participation on the forum or a greater willingness to soften positions,reconsider them in light of different facts etc.

Anyway, while I believe in local solutions and Ghanaian cultural systems (even granted the dynamism of culture bla bla) I refuse to believe that the language issue is at the root of all our problems or even slightly as significant as Ngugi Wa thiongo'o (and his faithful comarade,Paa Kwesi) will have us believe [I say this having read Ngugi and listened to his lecture on the dis-membering of Africa].

Many of the pragmatic arguments that comarade "r" and people like myself routinely bring up against the language question cannot be satisfactorily answered in light of our present situation (most African countries are struggling with AIDS,malnutrition,endemic poverty,disease etc and that is the reality they are left to contend with).Only elite Africans like ourselves and Ngugi can afford the luxury of debating abstract questions like language (even granted that it has salience) from our chilled based in the west.We cannot undo our colonial past and its attendant consequences, neither can we afford to adopt errant policies (errant in not conforming to global trends or accepted progressive practice) in the name of such intangibles as national pride or cultural assertion.Not to talk about the gamut of philosophical questions one is bound to encounter along the way.

On this note,Paa Kwesi, I think your analogy of using French in the US is particular weak (even though it makes your basic common sense point that you cannot speak to someone in a language they cannot understand) because you are failing to consider the cultural similarity (in terms of world view,intellectual traditions, systems of thought etc) between France and the US that can make transliteration/translation possible without losing the ideas or context themselves.So even if majority of Americans cannot speak French, a simple translation can do the job of almost perfectly rendering whatever was said in French into an English context. Whereas in our Ghanaian case,we lack the cultural and intellectual context that such languages capture; language is only the tip of the iceberg. It is that intellectual tradition and system of thought that I believe we need to enrich and modify to survive in the knowlege economy. I don't care what language knowlege is in--I am sure it will be great if they could express their ideas in local Ghanaian languages--all I hope is that even if they spoke in Twi or Ga they would be understood.


i think you're right in that

i think you're right in that most african countries have more pressing problems to solve like HIV/AIDS and language isn't one of them. just a question though: if you're running an educational campaign to combat HIV/AIDS and you're bent using a language your target audience may not be familiar with or may not have a solid grasp of in order to internalize the message you're trying to send them, how successful do you think your campaign is going to be? who'll pay the heavy price with their life, in the case of HIV? maybe, everything revolves around language after all.

I think you just reduced my

I think you just reduced my argument to a straw man just so you can trash it. Like i pointed out with Paa Kwesi's example of using French in the US, French would not be understood by majority of English speaking Americans and hence will not be the best medium (though it can still be almost perfectly translated to the same English context). Using your own AIDS example,I would clearly support educational campaigns in local languages simply because that is what my audience will understand. What bothers me however,and the point I was making, is that we cannot tranliterate "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)" into Twi easily or translate "HIV is a retrovirus that primarily infects vital organs of the human immune system such as macrophages and dendritic cells" in a maner that will be widely understood by a Twi speaking audience. To successfully do this, we must have a solid system of scientific concepts in those languages so that the English forms can find corollaries or exact objects in the local languages e.g. what are the Twi words for "macrophages", "dendrite", "syndrome", "dendritic" (note the nuanced difference between dendrite and dendritic). It is this aspect of capturing cultural,conceptual and intellectual context that is the real issue not merely using Twi or Ga because that is what Twi or Ga speakers will obviously understand.


oh so that's what you meant.

oh so that's what you meant. i think the reason you'll never find words to describe any of those concepts/words you listed is because no one has ever tried to. language evolves out of necessity and no one language in the world have all the words to describe every thing/ideas from every corner of the world but the people/society from which those ideas originated from always have ways to explain their invention. if the words cannot be found, they derive new ones, totally from scratch or from existing words. english borrows heavily from other languages like latin, arabic, french and so on and this speaks to my point. it's been estimated that at least 60% of all english words were either borrowed or were derived from borrowed words. do a quick etymology lookup on the words you listed and you'll see that probably none of them are native english words. so what's wrong with ghanaian languages being able to borrow words/ideas from other languages/culture to enrich their own? every culture out there does it and so why not us? does it have to be a take it all or leave it sort of thing? you might say the average ghanaian isn't going to understand what "macrophages" is if used in twi/ga context. i can assure you, if you stop an average joe in new york city and ask them what 'macrophages' is, they might not know it either, so what's the problem? technical words are just that, you must explain what they mean regardless of context. in that regard, there's no reason why any of those words you listed cannot be borrowed and used in any of our local languages. you just have to explain what they mean or provide a way for people to lookup the definition.

mandock, I share your

mandock, I share your concern with how every topic seems to veer towards communication and localization. You're right that I have an enduring interest in these two ideas--but let me give you a short motivation why I am.

While schooling abroad, I realized that the greatest impediment to my understanding in class was always a communication problem (esp in non-technical classes where the main point is made in flexible cultural language rather than in relatively inflexible symbolic language like math or logic). Knowing that I wasn't stupid helped me to realize that it was something else other than my IQ that was preventing comprehension. After a few more years when I'd grown more culturally acclimatised my comprehension of cultural ideas (and their inherent assumptions) improved dramatically and I was able to console others with a similar background who were facing the same problems in their first semester and doubting their intelligence. I also ended up spending a bit of time studying various theories and read some interesting books in the process and also by accident--Fanon, Ngugi, Sartre, Freire. And then I did French->English translation in a class (mind you French and English are not as culturally/ideologically alike as you think--they are not 100% mutually translatable). Prior to the translation class it was mostly theory, but until I actually tried to do translation that I realized what a huge deal it is if you don't know/understand the cultural assumptions (localization) behind a language (communication).

Without going into much more detail, that experience explained a whole lot to me.

Of course along the way before this experience, I went along with the typical thinking that "oh, if only these ppl could understand proper English...", "our languages are useless", "these illiterates are stupid", "there is an absolute kind of knowledge such as maths, science, logic that all intelligent people must be able to appreciate", "Snoop Dogg's music is international because it is the best", "Ghanaian products are poorer quality because they reflect the quality of the Ghanaian", etc. Since my conversion, I keep refuting these ideas everywhere I run into them because I believe they're misleading and I use the ideas that helped me see why they are misleading--communication and localization.

My fascination with communication and localization are the result of my foreign education, not in spite of it. The people who taught me demonstrated to me that they were concerned with effective communication--language skills, roads, telephony, Internet, newspapers, etc--in order to spread the most beneficial ideas; and localization--self-reliance, local solutions to local problems, openness to and adaptation of foreign ideas(words, knowledge, experiences) to fit their own circumstances--in order to achieve security and delight in their own societies.

I think I am open to new ideas beyond these two if you can sufficiently convince me that there are better answers in a new line of thinking. Our parents, and grandparents have argued similar things such as you do in the past--and consequently all their efforts have been in line with what I called "the typical thinking" above. I think we shd not repeat their actions because obviously we're not happy with their results. Let's try something different--then if we fail we can at least be considered brave enough to have stepped out of the status quo.

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