On Wednesday, 22 August 2012 I had another good visit to Joseph’s village to study Dagbani. As we started, I wanted to get confirmation on a phrase that my day watchman was saying when I was trying to ask him to cut the grass. Ghanaians don’t have a problem with having the grass cut right around their houses, because they just let the wandering goats and sheep eat it all. Though I can’t confirm this yet, I don’t think Ghanaian parents would ever tell their kids, “Go cut the grass.”
And Ghanaian parents would not tell their kids to do this, because cutting the grass brings up other ideas. In rural areas outside of Tamale you can find three kinds of grass that are used for making two kinds of woven mats. The three kinds of grass are: ‘kaxli,’ ‘gbungbunη,’ and ‘naγpuγu’. Cutting grass, therefore, means cutting a specific kind of grass that would be used for a specific purpose.
Joseph explained that the ‘kaxli’ grass is the strongest and the best to use to weave a wall-length mat (used for covering and closing off an area for living or working) called ‘gballe.’ The other two grasses: ‘gbungbunη,’ and ‘naγpuγu’ are not as strong, but still used to make a woven mat called a ‘koro.’
Joseph’s friend, David, who was sitting and visiting when I came to study, told me the village where I can get these grasses. I can’t remember the name of the village, but if you’re interested, I’ll get directions so you can go yourself if you need any of the three kinds of grass to weave your own mat.
While I was visiting Joseph, my friend and colleague, Paul called. Paul said that his night watchman, William, had been told by Norbert, my night watchman, that Norbert had to take his child to the hospital because his child was sick. This meant that Norbert would either be late for work or would not come at all.
Coming home after my language study, I decided that I wanted a locally made rice dish called “jollof rice” for supper. So, I stopped at a fairly new fast food take-away stand not far from my home. I remember seeing this take-away stand this past Sunday when I was going to church with a friend.
At this take away stand, I tried using my very basic Dagbani to order ‘jollof rice’ and a piece of fried chicken. The two young girls, who were probably around 20, were very happy to teach me a few more Dagbani words. I had fun even if I can’t remember how to say “chicken” in Dagbani. Sure, I used some English, but the girls were patient and complimented me (as other Ghanaians have done after seeing that I have used some Dagbani), “Oh, you have tried.” This means, I am doing well for a beginner.
Jollof rice and fried chicken, with a small serving of baked beans and coleslaw. Drizzled on top is a little mayonnaise and a Ghanaian hot sauce called “shitto.”
On my way home, I was thinking how on earth I was to convey the message about Norbert to Sware, my day watchman, who knows even less English than I know Dagbani. We make quite a pair! And yes, sometimes it is frustrating when I am trying to tell Sware something, and have no clue as to how to say it in Dagbani, but we are slowly making things work.
So, my initial thought about conveying this message to Sware was to call or send a text message to Paul to have him ask William if he would call Sware and tell him the news directly in Dagbani. (This sort of round-about communication is how life works here, and another aspect I am still trying to get used to.) Then, I thought, I can do this even though this sort of communication is way out of my immediate skill level.
I can barely say things like, “I’m Christopher. I’m a pastor. I’m the dumb white guy. I want jollof rice.” Figuring out how to translate this message into Dagbani would take me a very long time, and even then I would end up telling Sware something like: “Norbert ran away with the circus” or even worse “Norbert and/or his child is dying.” I wanted to avoid both results.
With supper, I had a truly Ghanaian drink called “Malta Guiness,” which is a non-alcoholic carbonated malt drink that is really pretty good, along with filtered water.
So, I walked over to Sware and stood in front of him looking him in the eyes as one man talks confidently to another man. The first sounds out of my mouth did not invoke any confidence in me or Sware. That’s when the “hemming” and “hawing” began. It was now very obvious that this dumb white guy hadn’t a clue, but I was determined to press on, because I needed Sware to understand that Norbert might not come to work tonight, and Sware could go home at his regular time. (Usually when Norbert comes to work, Sware knows it’s time to go home, and vice verse).
After getting through the first half of the message using English and my limited Dagbani and including the important words “Norbert,” “child,” “sick,” “Tamale Teaching Hospital” I felt like I might have accomplished something, or possibly nothing. Either way, I was already in this mess and I was going to keep going, even if Sware still hadn’t a clue. At least Sware smiled and acknowledged me and was patiently trying to understand his dumb white employer, who couldn’t speak his mother tongue.
At this point in the message transmission, Sware had an idea. Using hand gestures that he had obviously been taught are “universal,” though which universe I’m not sure, he said something about ‘another person’ and ‘understanding,’ and quickly headed out the gate. I quickly realized he ran next door to the neighbors, and assumed he was hoping to find someone who he evidentially knew spoke English. I chuckled to myself about the situation while I waited.
I can imagine the brief conversation that occurred with Sware at the front door of the neighbor’s house. “Hi. How are you? Listen, my dumb white employer is rambling on about something and it seems important. He mentioned Norbert and I am now seriously concerned and wondering: Did he run away with the circus?”
Again, I’m just speculating about what conversation transpired. It might have been as simple, yet albeit as frantic as: “Help! Urgent need for speaker of English. My poor white employer is trying to speak Dagbani. Come quick before he hurts himself!”
Hearing footsteps, I stepped out my gate and saw a young man following Sware. The young man looked like the older man I met a couple of weeks ago. That older man must have been the father, and this was his son. I introduced myself and the young man introduced himself as Mohammad.
So, I told the young Mohammad that I was learning Dagbani but that I didn’t know much. Then, I gave him the message to translate into Dagbani for Sware. Within five minutes, the whole exciting event came to an end. I thanked Mohammad. He smiled and headed back into his gate. Sware and I headed back to my gate.
The message had been given, and I got to meet another one of the neighbors. I rarely see them, and was told by the landlady that the wife is a nurse. Since I don’t get to see these folks that often, I thanked God for this moment.
Within a half an hour, I figured Norbert would not be coming to work, and I told Sware to go home. We exchanged “departing greetings” even though I slipped up again on the one phrase that I’ve said a hundred times or so. Sware, understanding that I really am trying to learn Dagbani, smiled and at least acted as patient as many other Ghanaians do when they encounter this tall white guy. So went another day in Ghana.
The moral of the story: “Pray without ceasing.” Never let a lack of communication deter your mission. No matter how painfully slow the process is, plow on ahead. Praise God when you finish.
Rev. Chris LaBoube serves as a Scripture Media Advisor in Ghana. You can keep up with him directly at the LaBoube Listening Post.