Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Harvest of Our Dreams in Perspective: The Place for Literature in the Ghana School System

This past summer I had the opportunity to conduct research at a secondary school in the Ashanti region of Ghana.  It was here I first encountered A Harvest of Our Dreams, a collection of early poetry by the Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho.  One of the students, who I will call Ama, was reading a pristine library copy of the volume and came to me trying to make sense of the poem, “A Harvest of Our Dreams.”  Unfortunately I could not give her all of the assistance she sought because I too did not understand the cultural references to “Ootsa of the sea” or “Uncle Demanya” mentioned in the poem (Anyidoho 7).  With no glossary, no accessible Google for miles, and an education system swimming in colonial influence, what chance did Ama, or any student in Ghana, have to understand Anyidoho’s poem?  After careful consideration of Anyidoho and his messages I have discovered that the reasons why A Harvest of Our Dreams fails to be understood among the local community is because of an education system uninterested in preserving cultural identity and indifferent to literature.  By using textual evidence from A Harvest of Our Dreams, secondary sources, and my own person experience I will show how this particular brand of illiteracy is caused by the loss of traditional values in the adopted British school system, the estrangement from the local language, and the emphasis on the practicality of speaking English.

    The first failure of the current education system in Ghana is that it has maintained their British Educational System, restricting the cultural identity necessary to be fluent in the references Anyidoho makes in A Harvest of Our Dreams, and we can see this in the text.  The Panther, which represents colonialism, is described as a negative but powerful influence throughout the work.   The very first page of this volume of poems contains an interesting dedication for “the students of Ghana who risked their lives to clip the Panther’s claws” (Anyidoho 1).  We can better understand this dedication in “The Panther’s Final Dance” where he talks about the “children of the land” wielding “blunt machetes” that “clipped the Panther’s claws.”  Clipped is used here because they did eliminate the impact, and it was not a permanent fix.  We go on to read that the students of the revolution “forgot the Panther’s teeth” as well as “his feet.”  This is still a living entity, kept in “the forest” (48), but still preying in the school system, unable to “betray the spirit of the hunt” (50).  It is clear from these descriptions that colonialism has had a lasting impact on Ghana, even after “independence.”  Despite efforts to remove the residue, effects like the suppression of national identity still linger in the education system today.  Maintaining this heritage from colonialism is dangerous because it does not cater to the Ghanaian population and de-emphasizes traditional values and art forms native to the region that are necessary to understand Anyidoho’s poetry.  The secondary school library shelves are filled with Romantic English Poetry, European explorations of Africa, and outdated textbooks on American History.  Only one shelf was dedicated to African literature.  Local myths, folktales, and history passed down for generations are absent from their social studies class, and Twi, their local language, is outright forbidden.  By distancing Ghanaians from their cultural identity, we can detect this as one of the causes of illiteracy regarding Anyidoho’s poems.

    The school system’s influence in dissolving cultural identity can found not only in the opinion of Anyidoho, but also in many other outside sources.  It is common knowledge among Ghanaians that you go to school to receive a Western education, not to learn about your traditional beliefs and cultural inheritance.  As Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo puts it in No Sweetness Here, people do “not really go to school to learn about Africa” (Aiddo 2).  The subjects make up the core of an education aimed at modernization, but since the system is not organic it is not as effective when it comes to grasping these cultural references in Anyidoho’s poetry.  Frantz Fanon, notable for The Wretched of the Earth and his idea of a “nervous condition,” suggests that there is a type of identity crisis that a native is vulnerable to when torn between the traditional state and a colonial education (Senanu 22).  Surely it is not possible to divorce the colonial influence and resurrect a purely traditional Ghana, but there is something to be said about the negative consequences, such as abandoning traditional stories that are unique to Ghana and Anyidoho’s poetry.  This is an imperative part of the identity of Ghana, and the educational system at present is ignoring that importance.

Another outside example of how the British Educational System intact today is void of traditional heritage and how it is responsible for this brand of illiteracy is found by looking at some of those traditional forms that have been associated with Ghana and other African countries.  Ghana is known for “oral narrative and poetry, dance, drama, music, and visual art,” forms that are thought incomparable in a Western paradigm (Appiah 69).  Anyidoho himself is valued for utilizing the Ewe traditional funeral dirge in his poetry form (Senanu 209). Yet, what happens when the dirge is not taught in school, when traditional poetry goes forgotten, and the wonderful performance aspect of an oral tradition is absent from the educational system?  Traditional forms are left abandoned and Anyidoho’s cultural references in A Harvest of Our Dreams are missed.  This places his work in a limbo, a type of nervous condition.  They cannot be retrievable by local Ghanaians who are familiar with these traditions because it is written in English, but the English educated students, like Ama, are now robbed of their traditional inheritance.

    My personal encounter with the Panther and the British Education System in the secondary school was during my first poetry lesson.  I began the class having a student read an Ijala, or a hunter’s chant, one of the most popular traditional forms in Africa (Senanu 19).  The activity was painful for both reader and listeners.  Giving up on that poem, I asked if anyone could share any Ghanaian traditional poems.  They knew of none.  Not only did their educational system de-emphasize the value of literature in general, but it also robbed them of the unique value of performance in oral tradition.  It did not take long before I realized that the clash between these traditional forms and this adopted British System resulted in this illiteracy by producing an education where students were unfamiliar not only with Shakespeare, but with Achebe as well.  It is not hard to see the momentum moving towards a Western paradigm and away from “Uncle Demanya” and the other local stories Anyidoho references (Anyidoho 7).

    Recognizing that the British Educational System has contributed to this loss of traditional identity helps us identify the estrangement from the local language as the second failure of Ghanaian education contributing to this crisis, and we can see that through the text of A Harvest of Our Dreams.  The image of this harvest Anyidoho invokes throughout the volume of poetry is hopeful that traditional heritage and the Ghanaian language will not be abandoned.  In “Seedtime” there is a repeating stanza that says, “We will not die the death of dreams/ We will not die the cruel death of dreams” (Anyidoho 5).  This repetition drives home a sense of desperation, an exclamation as much as a plead, knowing full well that these unharvested dreams of the past do not have a promising future.  Yet, Anyidoho recognizes that there is something still to be said for them, and he does this throughout this volume by referring to the “hunger of our graves,” a “harvest ungathered in our time” (7), and “a ghost on guard at Memory’s door” (6).  Here Anyidoho is expressing bereavement for something that has been lost, dreams that existed once but not yet been fulfilled, and by bringing up this image he is suggesting that there is a need for a change.  Yet, it is not a triumphant, nationalistic, or even an optimistic approach to the subject.  It is an honest hope, an acknowledgement that there is something absent, but not ignoring the difficulty of the situation either.  No doubt the lack of tools that would allow Ghanaians to access Anyidoho’s poems and these expressed hopes are related to abandoning tradition and the local language at school.

    Other sources can help expose how language loss has serious implications in all aspects of life, including the void we are finding in the realm of literature and in cultural identity within Ghanaian schools.  Keith Basso, an ethnographer interested in the effects of English language imposed upon Apache schools, quotes Anna Peaches who said that “if we lose our language, we lose our breath, then we will die and blow away like leaves” (Basso xiv). Through this quote we can understand that language is a vital part of our cultural identity.  It is a lens through which we see the world and “emerges as a powerful vehicle of thought and as a crucial instrument” for communicating.  Language is “an indispensable means of knowing the world and for performing deeds within it” (xii).  By replacing Twi for English in the school, Ghana is losing more than just a language.  It is a unique epistemology, and the way their ancestors have viewed their world for generations.  You cannot remove the language without admitting that these traditional dreams Anyidoho references will go unharvested because Twi is a central part of their cultural identity.  Writing in the language of the colonial power has been said “to write within death itself” (Ahmad 276).  It is no wonder that language has been such a hot debate among postcolonial writers, most notably Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe from Nigerian (Jussawalla 27).  A child does not go to school to read and write Twi in Ghana.  Although some of those classes are available, it is not the focus of the education.  The lofty task of adopting this new language causes subjects, like literature and Twi, to be overlooked.  This causes cultural identity to be lost because the traditional self is bound up in the local language.

    During my stay in Ghana it was evident to me that the estrangement from the local language is a significant contributor to the loss of traditional identity and the tools necessary to understand Anyidoho.  I was surprised to find that in all of my interviews only five percent of the students said that they preferred to write and express themselves in the local language.  I once asked the librarian if they had any books available in Twi.  He gave me a confused look and pulled out a book on agriculture in Ghana.  He got me a book on trees.  That incident was evidence to me that the concept of having a book written in the local language was completely foreign.  To read and write is to be a student of English, and to have that education at present is to be stripped of the cultural fluency necessary to understand Anyidoho.  It is system determined to give you an English education to survive in a Western world.

    Now that we have looked at how the British Education System and imposed English language contributes to a loss of cultural identity in current Ghanaian education we can now identify the third failure in the school system, which is an overemphasis on speaking English that undermining the importance of literature.  We can see this by again looking at the text of A Harvest of Our Dreams.  In the first poem, “Mythmaker,” Anyidoho is blunt about the nature of Ghanaian education.  He laments, “these children are away/ in schoolrooms where the world in a book/ distils daydreams into visions/ burns memorials of the past.”  Here he makes a distinction that there is a gap between life according to a textbook and what real life looks like for the average Ghanaian.  Very few people get the privilege of a complete education.  He goes on in the poem to say that this Western education is “plucking poison kisses from laurels” (Anyidoho 2).  The laurel, associated with victory, is posed as an oxymoron, which presents this Western education as a double-edged sword.  The children receive an education but at price of their traditions, their language, and tools necessary to appreciate their own literature.  By the end of the poem Anyidoho talks about the children coming home “Some Day” (3), knowing full well by the repetition of this phrase that they will lose something, and coming home (if they ever come home), will never be the same. The reason why Ama and her classmates are not equipped to understand this volume of poetry is because the education in Ghana is aimed at speaking the language for practical uses like becoming a successful business owner or an accountant in a place away from home in a foreign context.  It is about chasing after those laurels and finding job success in an increasingly Western world.  But there are casualties along the way, like cultural identity and the tools to value of like A Harvest of Our Dreams.

    Having looked at the loss of cultural identity in the school system and the separation from the local language, we can now look at outside resources to identify the speaking emphasis of the education system in Ghana.  The curriculum does not prioritize literature whether it is written by an English or an African author.  The government of Ghana finances student’s education up to the Jr. High level.  For two years of this education, a thirty-minute literature class is supposed to be offered twice a week.  In my experience this class was the most skipped over by the teachers and least emphasized in their English lessons.  Last year they also changed the Jr. High textbook, gutting out some of the figurative language and literature lessons, making the syllabus more like the secondary schools focused on English language skills.  In the secondary school there is supposed to be a silent reading period at the beginning of each day, yet it is only required for boarders, and attendance is not enforced.  After the first year of secondary school there are no more literature classes offered, and only some of the concepts are weaved into the general art student’s curriculum. I was informed later in my research that literature is not seriously approached until the University level, where only about two million from a population of almost twenty four million could ever hope to reach.  Other researchers looking at the literacy culture in Ghana and other African nations have also concluded that reading and writing “thus appear as Western skills, appropriated by Africans for instrumental rather than expressive purposes” (Austen 2).  English is viewed as a practical skill, used to improve your position in life and not for personal fulfillment or expression, and this emphasis helps us see why literature is not a priority in the educational system in Ghana.

   My personal experience gave me the opportunity to observe this emphasis on speaking English firsthand.  Class after class focused on comprehension, sentence structure, and learning life skills like opening up a bank account.  It did not take long to learn that the Ghanaian education system teaches the English language to better the lives of students to help them find jobs and function in an English dominated world, not to convince them to appreciate literature like Anyidoho.  In conducting interviews I found that nearly seventy percent of the students said that they read in order to improve their vocabulary or become fluent in English.  Every day on my way to teach I would walk past painted signs on school buildings that read, “Speak English, Both the Community and the Nation Expect That.”  It says to “speak” English, not appreciate English, not come to understand the meaning of life and appreciate English through literature, but to use it.  Learn it to get a better job and to better your circumstances.  A book will not feed your family, only an idea, and when it comes to getting by from day to day and providing food for your children, something has to give.

    Given the text, secondary sources, and my own personal experience with the secondary school in Ghana I cannot help but conclude that the reason why A Harvest of Our Dreams is not understood by students and the community is because the educational system today is uninterested in maintaining cultural identity and over emphasizes English speaking at the expense of literature, both vital tools necessary to access Anyidoho’s poems.  The three factors that dictate these failures are retaining the British School System (a colonial inheritance), abandoning the local language, and emphasizing the importance of spoken English above the value of literature.  These three failures leave Anyidoho’s messages undiscovered in a medium that seems to be in the same limbo—that same nervous condition that the nation itself seems to be suffering from.  In one of the later poems in the collection, “Ghosts,” Anyidoho laments, “My voice my voice they seek after my voice! / Do not put me to sleep my people” (Anyidoho 69).  This final exclamation, this plea to not be stifled out by this increasingly Western momentum, feels desperate and dejected.  It appears to be self-conscious of the fate of his work and the direction the educational system is going.  Unfortunately I think that ghost is still on guard at Memory’s door because those traditional dreams, and Anyidoho’s words, have yet to be harvested.

Works Cited

Austen, Ralph A.  “Social History and Everyday Literacy.”  The Journal of African History 49 (2008): 143-144.  Web. 1 Oct. 2010.

Ahmad, Aijaz.  “The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality.” Contemporary Postcolonial Theory.  Ed. Padmini Mongia.  London:  Hodder Headline Group, 1996. 276-293. Print.

Aidoo, Ama Ata.  No Sweetness Here and Other Stories.  New York:  The Feminist Press, 1995.   Print.

Anyidoho, Kofi.  A Harvest of Our Dreams.  London:  Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1984.  Print.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony.  “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Contemporary Postcolonial Theory.  Ed. Padmini Mongia.  London: Hodder Headline Group, 1996. 55-71. Print.

Basso, Keith H. Introduction.  Western Apache Language and Culture.  By Basso.  Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1992.  xi-xv.  Print.

Jussawalla, Feroza, and Reed Way Dasenbrock.  Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.  Print.

Senanu, K.E., and T. Vincent.  A Selection of African Poetry.  Essex:  Longman Group Limited, 1988.  Print.

(Information regarding personal experiences found in field notes and available upon request)

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