Claiming my accent

I have to start off this blog post by reminding readers that I am a Ghanaian who  has lived all of her life in Ghana and only came to America some five years ago. Being a Ghanaian makes the English language my native language since English is the only accepted language serving as the medium for teaching in Ghanaian schools. There are several languages in Ghana and I speak about five of them but English is the official language of expression in schools in Ghana and among school children. Growing up, it was punishable to be heard speaking vernacular, which is a term used to describe all other languages in Ghana with the exception of English, while still wearing your school uniform. Hence, from infancy, I learned to think and write only in English. While there is of course, a subject in our school curriculum that encourages a student to choose a single Ghanaian language to learn how to read and write in, and then another subject to speak and read French because Ghana is surrounded by French speaking countries, English has always been the mode of expression among the educated folks in Ghana.

Growing up, I always excelled in subjects such as Spelling and Dictation, English Comprehension and Essay writing. In fact, I don’t remember when I had ever come second in any of these subjects growing up, I always came up first. My parents knew this and it gave them a lot of pride when our neighbors visited and they showed them some of my essays and writings in the English language. I loved to read American books and followed the logic in these books easily, although some of the concepts  and settings were new to me. I thought it will be a walk in the park for me, when I finally arrived on American soil and will not suffer from the infamous culture shock.

Unfortunately for me, this was not the case! I found myself having to repeat almost everything I said to an American. I found myself being talked to slowly and very loudly whenever I was in a conversation with an American. It was confusing for me that I spoke perfect English but somehow, Americans kept asking each other what I had just said. I found it strange that although I had never spoken to an American prior to my coming to America, I tried to and actually understood whatever an American said to me but they on the other hand, could not or refused to understand me.

Hence, I found myself trying to pronounce certain words like Americans would. For some reason, Americans would not pronounce the letter ‘t’ in the middle of a sentence. Hence, words like water, matter, fighter, excited and the likes, were difficult for me to pronounce here in America. I had to intentionally, remind myself to either transform those ‘t’s into ‘d’s or remember to just silence them. This was a very difficult challenge for me! I found it extremely exasperating when I had to carefully scrutinize every sentence in a conversation in my head, before I uttered them. I found that I felt very obligated to speak like an American in order to be understood! But how can I change an accent that I have known for more than two decades of my life?

As I struggled with this in my first year of my arrival in America, I began to question whether an American will do this for me. I asked myself if it was worth it, to pretend for the rest of my stay here, to be an American? Was it worth trying to sound excited by everything because to me, Americans sound really excited when they speak! Is it not enough that my spellings had to change because my computer in America will keep underlining my words like ‘colour’ and ‘favour’ because it didn’t like my ‘u’?

Now more than ever, I have learned to accept the very intricate details that make me a Ghanaian, those little subtle pronunciations and mannerisms that make me Iris. I have learned to wear my Ghanaian accent with pride and not try to sound American. What America has taught me though is to be more confident when I am communicating. I have realized that my confidence makes it easier for Americans to accept my Ghanaian English and my accent. I have accepted the fact that I will never have an American accent but I don’t have a normal Ghanaian accent either. I now have a more confident Iris accent that I totally embrace!

My Africa and Homosexuality

I find the arguments against the passing of the homosexuality law in Africa, very shallow. Usually, most critics of homosexuality in Africa argue that it is not our culture and that the white man eroded our traditional religion with his Christianity and again, wants us to embrace what is not our culture. But as I argue time and time again, I feel like culture is really what we make it. Culture does not make a people. In every hair salon that I have visited in Ghana, Liberia and in Nigeria, I have seen at least, one gay man. Why would we therefore say that it is not our culture?

It is right in front of our very eyes. I have seen men who do not behave as manly or macho as the African culture will want that man to behave. I have seen men who find extreme joy in making women feel beautiful in their salons although within our cultural context, hairdressing and makeup, is actually a woman’s trade. I have seen men who enjoy the company of ladies and actually behave like girls when it comes to conversations involving crushes on cute boys. I have had friends who from infancy, even without knowing what it means to be gay or homosexual and actually know that they are supposed to like people of the opposite sex, find themselves talking like me and gushing over boys that I find cute too. These are people who have no exposure to the white man or do not even have televisions and therefore, have no way of being ‘lured’ by Westerners like we claim in Africa. My point is that there are so many events and behaviors that are not typically, the African culture, but somehow, we make excuses for those and accept them, but find it difficult to accept homosexuality.

I find it really sickening that Africans should be afraid to love who they love and stand the risk of being judged or worse, loosing their lives and most typically,  family support. I find it embarrassing that in this day and age, people are still shunned because of their sexual preferences and have to hide their true identity in order to be accepted by the community that they have known all their lives.

This week, I came across a post that started with a sentence to the effect that despite the fact that many African girls waste time in prayer camps, praying for marriage, some two fine boys thought it wise to marry each other. I was disappointed but not shocked when I scrolled down to read the many comments in support of that very ridiculous post. I feel that when it comes to sexual preferences, many Africans are hypocrites. Homosexuality is really all around us, we are just failing to see it and forcing people to kowtow to a culture that they do not particularly enjoy.

In class, I was so embarrassed to state that homosexuality is still frowned upon in my society and that homosexuals risk their lives by coming forward and behaving in the subtle of ways that suggest that they prefer people that they share the same gender with. In my opinion, homosexuality is being fought against largely in Africa because we believe it is not our culture, which is where my problem with protesters of the homosexuality law, lies. How do we tell a person who has been exposed to the ‘typical African culture’ all of his or her life, and does not know any other culture, but still prefers people of the same gender as him or herself, that he or she cannot be happy because what he or she likes, is not a part of the culture?

What I claim to be my culture makes me very proud and extremely happy. I find it sad that that same culture, that belongs to another member of my community, will be the source of sorrow in that person’s life. What we call our African culture should make room for every body; every African should find joy and pride in their culture. And this starts from allowing our culture to be flexible enough to embrace everyone’s preferences.

Thoughts on mental health

Only this week, I shared with my class my thoughts on how mental health is viewed in my country. I told the class that to me, mental illness is not seen as an illness as perceived here in America. Mental illness usually has a religious connotation to it, with mental health victims being rushed to religious homes to be prayed for, rather than sent to the hospitals. There are only two mental health facilities in the whole of Ghana and even these two are visited more by pastors, Imams and other religious leaders, rather than by doctors. The idea of psychologists and counselors to this day, still remains a mystery and only something we see in Western movies.

In the unfortunate event that a family member is mentally unstable, the first step usually is to question what evil either the person or his or her immediate family, has done to warrant the condition. It is typical to find family members rush to religious houses seeking for answers for why this is occurring. In the unlikely event that the victim’s condition deteriorates, the last cause of action is for the family to abandon him or her in religious homes where the person is subjected to all manner of prayers and very bitter concoctions till they sadly, pass away.

Another aspect of mental health such as depression, is overlooked completely in Ghana and even, across the continent. Depression is not even talked about and the first time I heard about depression was actually in the United States. If a person is depressed or now that I know what depression is, is exhibiting signs and symptoms of depression, the person is only encouraged to get over him or herself.

In Ghana and Africa as a whole, depression is only a sign of weakness or more commonly, an exaggeration of one’s emotions. Emotions really are not encouraged in Ghana or in the continent. You can either be happy and then dance and make noise, or be sad, only for a short time, in the case of a family member’s death, and in this case, cry or wail loudly. There is really no time and space for emotions in between this very wide spectrum. Even when one is mourning, one can only mourn for a very short period of time after which, you are being overly dramatic if you cry again. We have a culture where emotions are just not encouraged.

This post is actually triggered by the death of a young man in Ghana only this week. This young man in question wrote a Facebook post saying goodbye to family members and his friends and expressing why he didn’t find life worth living any more. His Facebook friends passed very smirk remarks and comments advising him to literally get over himself and ‘be a man’, whatever that expression means. Unfortunately, this guy proceeded to commit suicide a few days after his post. I keep asking myself if he would still be alive had he had the support of his friends and family. I wonder whether he would still be alive had the concept of counselling not been so foreign to us, as a nation. I imagine a time in Ghana and Africa where mental health will be taken as seriously as it is here in America. I feel like such a time is very far off in the future, unfortunately.