As Though Exiled From Myself

(Photo by Nana Kofi Acquah. He says of photo “Women buy freshly caught fish on the shores of Kokrobite”)

It hit me suddenly, several months ago, that I was tired of speaking English. Then last week, in a telephone conversation with a colleague, I unconsciously switched from English to Fanti. This kind and patient friend endured my switch for at least two minutes and then reminded me that she doesn’t speak nor understand Fanti, she speaks Ga! I apologized, she laughed it off, and we both agreed that I could learn Ga. I was horrified, for I reject forcefully the notion of forcing Fanti on other Ghanaians who don’t speak my language.

Nonetheless, the practice of peppering my English with Fanti words continues unabated and the Fanti words are increasing in numbers and frequency. I feel at home in Fanti but operate largely in English. The irony. I’m also anxious about the state of language in Ghana. How we speak our Ghanaian languages, how majority of formally-educated parents discourage our children from speaking Ghanaian languages, how poorly we teach English (the official language) in most of our public schools, etc.

Today is World Poetry Day, declared by the United Nations in 1999. The UN has days for everything. Yesterday was International Day of Happiness. Coincidentally, I woke up cheerful yesterday. Who knew? maybe the UN is on to something. Anyway, we can’t have enough days, weeks, months and years dedicated to the reading and writing of poems.

I’m celebrating the day with poems about language; forgetting it, losing it, loving it, worshiping it. As I said, I’m anxious and I have issues. You’ve been warned. I’ll post poems by Ama Ata Aidoo, WS Merwin and Czelsaw Milosz among others. I hope you enjoy at least one of the poems.

Other celebrations: UNESCO Director-General has posted a World Poetry Day message and I will be attending a poetry reading at the Goethe-Institut in Accra.

Kicking off with a poem by Ama Ata Aidoo:


– for Anna Rutherford

This afternoon,

I bolted from
the fishmarket:

my eyes smarting with
at how too willingly and sheepishly
my memory had slipped up
after the loss of my taste buds.

– Just like an insecure politician creaming up
to his boss.

Familiarly in an unfamiliar land,
so strong and so sweetly strong,
the smells of the fish of
my childhood hit hard and soft,
wickedly musky.

All else fall into focus
except the names of the fish.

While from distant places in my head
The Atlantic booms and roars or
calmly creeps swishing foam on the hot sand.

But I could not remember their Fantse names.

They were labeled clearly enough
– in English –
brought no echoes…

One terrifying truth
unveiled in one short afternoon:

exile brings losses like
forgetting to remember
ordinary things.

when next we meet,
I shall first bring you
your truthspeaker’s stone:

the names and tastes of fish are also
simple keys to unlock
secret sacred doors.

And I wail to foreign far away winds:

Daughter of My Mother and My Father’s Orphan,
what is to become of me?

And Those like me?

– by Ama Ata Aidoo

with permission from the author



  1. ah, Kinna – what a struggle to be in.

    I’m lucky in that my native language (English) is also (one of the two) official language(s) of my country (Canada). But not so lucky in that I speak only that one language.

    I feel for your concern for the native languages of your home. The only native languages that Canada had is those of the indigenous peoples, and those are rarely spoken outside the reserves, and are being lost, I fear.

    Perhaps small consolation, but the Canadian Aboriginals, and you, have an advantage over me in being multilingual. Maybe you could teach me a few words of Fanti?


Comments are closed.