My grandmother, Mary Ayikai Williams, was a polyglot. She never saw a day in education, yet she possessed an understanding unlike any other. She taught my mum and her siblings practically everything — you name it. Whether it was homework — or if you’ve had my mother’s food before — culinary arts. My grandmother could speak English, Akan (and its various dialects), Ga, French, Hausa, Ewe, Dagomba, and Zarma. A mediator of sorts, she was the community’s mother — and she was affectionately referred to as Mma.
Life is so bittersweet. I can listen to my mother speak in deep reverence for her mother and share with me different stories about my ancestor’s navigation of life. But I can’t speak to the source directly. As I come back to this now, I think about the shortness of life. How it ebbs and flows. I’d like to dedicate this discourse to her. This stream of thought has been one I have been trying to thread together for a couple of months now, actually. I’ve indicated the breaks.
It is with that in mind, that I make the statement that we should all be polyglots. Not just with regards to spoken/written/sign human languages, but with other forms of expression. Let me share with you another brief story. During my final year of my bachelor’s, I was working in the grocery section at ASDA Abbey Park. One day, a gentleman from Eastern Europe (his actual country escapes me at the moment) came up to me and was looking for ginger. But he didn’t call it that.
Here we are, trying to find all different types of vegetables and we finally come upon it, after we went back and forth trying to figure it out through various means of expression. When we finally came upon it, we all laughed for a minute — acknowledging the difference, understanding the pursuit (of ginger), and using our wits to get to the end of it.
I recall that story to further emphasize my point. How do we receive better? How do we listen better? How can we improve the conduit of internal thought and process to external communication and expression?
Here I am writing this at 6 am, hoping it makes sense as it does in my head. But does it really matter if it doesn’t make sense? Does it matter more that I said it? Does it matter at all? Another question to pose to you, reader.
We often see when it comes to tragedy, that the perpetrators lost their humanity. Some questions: What is humanity? How would you define it? Is humanity something that can be lost? At what point is one’s humanity lost? What is, or rather what can be the catalyst(s) which causes the “loss of humanity” and if humanity is something that can be lost? Can it be regained? Can it be found?
I leave that answer to you.
Languages. I have eight sisters and one brother. One of my sisters, Jessica — lives in France. When we speak, I have to utilize Google translate. Can you imagine? To converse with my little sister? There is the clunkiness and drag of a translating platform like Translate. With my dire attempts to master saying “Qu’as-tu mangé aujourd’hui?” or “votre sujet préféré?”, she laughs. Giggles, in fact. However, she’s just turned 14. I doubt she’d admit that she still giggles.
But when we were speaking, she did. Our conversation went beyond words. There was an understanding. As it stands, I wouldn’t be able to describe it. But we definitely showed it.
On the topic of languages, another thing that often dazzles me is the idea of illiteracy. Hear me out. There is certainly a problem with illiteracy, but not in the way that folks would think. I speak English. Comes with the title of being called Edward. I think about my name all the time. Worlds apart. The question is often sprung upon me. “Are you going to change it?” “Will you change it?”
I tell people no. It accurately represents my being — where I am situated in history, time, and space. My reality. There’s nothing Adonteng about an Edward and there’s nothing Edward about an Adonteng but it’s there. The ludicrous state of it all. It signifies that conflict, that dance. Convergence should never be forced. Take that as you will. I swore I wouldn’t make this piece about the compartmentalization of the human world as we know it, and I intend on keeping true to that promise. We’ll leave it for another day. Reader, what is your name? Who gave it to you? Did you accept it? Do you like your name?
Yes — I speak English. But I ask myself, why am I regarded as literate? Because I call a chicken a chicken as opposed to akokɔ? Because I refer to Descartes and not to Amo? To Hume but not to Danquah? Outside of academic reference, because one may know what a mantle piece is. The others not knowing, so they’re placed in an educationally subnormal institution. I think about my parents, about my elders. The inhibitions, the distortion that they face. How an agency can be diminished, and infantilized — because English is not the first language? So that renders one what, unable? Backward? Improper?
It’s nonsense. I am illiterate in the tongue, text, and approaches of my people (specifically Akan). My society. I think about those that may come after me and the options available to me that I can provide them with, so they may not feel the way that I feel. As a future father, can I shield them from this erosion? There are so many of us who are in this predicament, across different corners of the world. This is why I urge us all to become polyglots. Wait, a lot of us already are. Instead, let me refine my statement. We should become better ones.
Reader, what I want to stress here is the possibility of the human present and future. More specifically, the human capacity to do, to receive, and to be.
In a world state which elaborates on connectivity while in the same breath amplifies various conditions of isolation, I implore you to think of how you can better understand those around you. The question stems to mind — who am I doing it for? My answer to that?
Yourself. Why am I doing it?
Reader — this is not a signpost to force yourself down a rabbit hole where you’ll spend your finite energy seeking to understand and take on board others’ weight.
This is saying that in traversing this realm — which we are all doing at the same time — we should acknowledge that. The navigation. This isn’t a fancy way of saying we have the same 24 hours.
I used languages as a good example. Linguists may find me irritating. But even then, there are different types of languages. Some people understand Kreyòl. Some people understand Tamaziɣt. Some people understand Urdū. Some understand isiNdebele. Some understand war. Some understand love. Some understand physics. Godesulloh and I keep applying Star Wars to everything.
Identify the ways in which you understand and how you communicate currently. How can you build on that?
Allow me to keep this brief. I wasn’t sure how to conclude this. I’m still not entirely sure. What I am certain about is this. We should all become better polyglots. The ways in which we communicate — let us feel free to be creative with how we do it.