Tag: Yaa Gyasi


Pɛpɛɛni, ntaafuo, eblutor and the prejudices we have of each other

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting discussion on Ghanaweb following Charles Agbenu’s article in which he castigated all Ghanaians who regard themselves as not being northerners for looking down on people of “northern extraction” in Ghana. Agbenu’s article was a politically motivated one but the issues it raised concern us all as Ghanaians and the way we think of each other.

One of the points of contention in Agbenu’s article had to do with the true meaning, or otherwise, of the Twi terms PƐPƐƐNI and NTAAFUO. This follows another ghanaweb columnist, Kofi Ata’s argument that the two terms did not, originally, have any negative connotations. Kofi Ata had written an article in which he said his mother had told him that PƐPƐƐNI came about as a result of Akans who perceived Northerners who had come south in search of employment as people who were truthful and did things “pɛpɛɛpɛ” (exactly or fairly). He added that they were referred to as NTAAFUO because they always moved in pairs like twins”.

regions of Ghana

regions of Ghana

Many commentators saw this explanation as very illuminating. This led to a rejoinder to Agbenu’s article that appeared the day after. Kofi Ata’s explanation of how the two terms came about was, indeed, interesting. But it had a few problems. In the first place, there was no way of establishing the fact that what Kofi Ata’s mother told him (Kofi Ata) constituted the unvarnished truth and was, indeed, how the terms came about. Other commentators said their mothers and grandmothers told them different stories. Some said pɛpɛni came about because these migrants were perceived as miserly (“pɛpɛɛnfuo”) and they were called ntaafuo because they bought similar items in the market as you would buy similar dresses for twins. What this shows is that it is only a properly conducted research work that can establish the correct etymology of the terms. The only thing we can be sure of is what their current usages denote in Ghanaian society.

Another fact is that no matter how the terms originated, they came about as nicknames for a group of people who never called themselves by those names. These people, having lived long in their new areas, came to know the names by which their hosts called them. They either did not like these names or did not care. Then there is this thing about nicknames. Even though they can be given to denote positive traits, they are most often given to denote negative traits.

Agbenu Charles also equated the terms “pɛpɛɛni” and “ntaafuo” with what he termed as their

Ewe dancers

Ewe dancers

equivalents in the other major Ghanaian languages. He said the Ewes call Northerners “dzogbedzitor” and the Gas say “senu”. The Ewe commentators went up in arms against Agbenu arguing that the Ewe term was not equivalent to the Akan terms. They said the Ewe term only denotes people who come from the grasslands or Sahara or a dry place and no abusive connotations are involved.

The Akans have a word for Northerners that can be said to be neutral: ESREMFUO (ESREMNI singular). The literal meaning is the same as the Ewe equivalent: people from the grasslands. Nobody who uses the term “esremfuo” can be accused of trying to look down on people from the North unless the person intentionally gives it a twist that makes it so.

The Ga term for Northerners, “Sanu” is said to be the shortened form of the Hausa greeting: “Sanu kede?” (How are you?) It is not, exactly, neutral.

13616_2014_12_MOESM1_ESMThe thing to be noted here is that any term used to denote some other people as different from us can, very easily, degenerate to a notion of “different and inferior”.  This is often so when it is the dominant and more powerful group that is marking the difference. That is why people have fought segregation (separate development) everywhere. And that also explains why the whites who come to live among us in Ghana do not quite like it when we call them “obroni”, “blofo” or “yevu” until they come to realise that we do not mean anything offensive by those terms. Even so, the supposed original meanings of the terms may not exactly be complimentary to the white man. The Twi term “obroni” begun as two words “(a)bro ni” (wicked man) and the Ewe term “a-yevu” means a cunning dog “the one who feigns niceness and bites you”, as Yaa Gyasi puts it in her much praised debut novel (HOMEGOING). I have not been able to find out how the Ga “blofo” came about. But, as with pɛpɛɛni and ntaafuo, the true origins of all these terms may have been lost.

There are other terms we all use to refer to each other whether for good or for bad. In Kumasi, there is Anwona. This is a corruption of the correct pronunciation of Anlo which is beyond most Twi speakers. The “nw” is a nasal sound as in the Twi “anwanwado” (amazing love). It has no negative connotations…

The Ewes call all Twi speakers “eblutorwo”. I have not been able to find out how this term came about. It seems the Ewes themselves don’t quite know how they came to call all Akans “eblutorwo”. If you ask any Ewe if the term is derogatory, they are quick to say it is not. But, again, from the contention of denoting otherness explained above, any term a people use to denote another people can easily degenerate to the regard of those other people as inferior. But, surely, Ewes do not regard Akans as inferior! Or, do they?

“Eblutorwor” seems to be the counterpart of “ayigbefuo” which many Akans will tell you is not

derogatory. Ga legend has it that when they were migrating to the present day Ghana, the chief

Homowo festival of the Ga people

Homowo festival of the Ga people

who had the royal stool in his keeping lost his way and gradually settled in what is now Anecho in present day Togo. When the Gas realised this, they sent emissaries to the “lost tribe” to retrieve the stool. But the chief of the “lost tribe”, known as Ayi, refused to hand over the stool. The emissaries came back to report this as “Ayi gbe” (“gbe” being the Ewe word for “refuse”). They said Ayi said “megbe” (I refuse). The combination of “Ayi” and “megbe” came to be used to refer to Ewes as “ayigbe”. Since the chief refused to hand over something that did not, technically, belong to him, he was said to have stolen it. This gave rise to “ayigbe dzulor” – a negative epithet that clouds all Ewes in the imagination of some non-Ewes. Whether this story is true or not, today, Akans join Gas to call Ewes “ayigbe”. Indeed, and one is more likely to hear “ayigbeni” or “ayigbefuo” than “ayigbenyo”. Perhaps it may be that the Akans, finding it almost impossible to correctly pronounce the word “Ewe”, took to the relatively easier to pronounce “ayigbe” even though the sound produced by “gb”, common in many West African languages, does not naturally occur in Twi.

Today, it is more politically correct to refer to the people of the Volta Region as “Voltarians” in an

Northerners of Ghana

Northerners of Ghana

effort to prevent the mistake of regarding all citizens of the region as Ewes when only about half the population are Ewes. The term also clouds the myriad differences among the Ewes just like pɛpɛɛni and ntaafuo disregard all the differences among the peoples of the three northern regions of Ghana. The use of the term “Anlo-Ewe” to refer to the coastal Ewes does seem to be of recent origin and employed mainly by non-Ewes. The Anlos call themselves “ANLOS” (nothing more) and their fellow Ewes also call them ANLOS (nothing more). Even so, there are still many Akans who think Ewes are a homogeneous group all of who eat “akple and fetri-detsi”. But many Ewes are aware of the broader differences among the Akans – Asante and Fante in particular but also and Kwahu and Akuapem.

An instance of the majority laying claim to what is normal can be found for the term that Akans have for minority (?) languages they do not understand. The people who speak them are said to “potor” and the languages known as “potorkasa”. Some people say the term is not derogatory and refers to all non-Twi languages including even English. Others say there is a derogatory tinge to it as it originally referred to Northerners who had come to Ashantiland and who spoke poor Twi– “wonmo potor kasa no”.

There is an Ewe equivalent, especially among the mid-Volta Ewes. The speakers of the minority languages there (Likpe, Buem, Akpafu, etc) are called “fiafialawo”. These people do not speak: they “fia”. The Ewe term is somewhat derogatory and is not used for major languages like Twi, Ga or English. There is a historical example in the ancient world. The Roman and Hellenic civilisations regarded non-Greek languages as unintelligible. They sounded “baaa baaa” to “civilized” ears. This is how “non-civilized” tribes became known as –  barbarians!

Ashanti Chief at Akwasidae Kese celebrations

Ashanti Chief at Akwasidae Kese celebrations

There are other prejudices the various ethnic groups hold of each other. Akans think Ewes like juju, they have low self-confidence, and they are envious of Akans. Ewes think Akans (especially Asantes) like money too much and like to boast of it. But the Asantes think it is the Kwahus who worship money and will do anything for it. Ewes frown on the display of wealth and will prefer the rich to keep a low profile. Akans say Ewes hide their wealth because they are afraid of being “jujued” by their fellows. The two prejudices fit each other and give rise to some cyclical reasoning. If Ewes dislike the way Akans boast of, and flaunt, their wealth, it stands to reason that they (Ewes) should keep a low profile with their wealth. And if the Akan prejudice about Ewes is that the latter like juju, then the only reason why the Ewe person will not flaunt his wealth is the fear of being done in. Of course, times have changed. Everyone likes material wealth and wants to boast of it when attained. Who lights a lamp and puts it under a bed?

Prejudices, psychologists tell us, are ready made schemas we employ to meet what we do not know. They are normal to the human race and found in all societies. Since they are often formed prior to any supporting evidence, they can lead us astray. It is when we base our behaviour on them that things can go wrong. And using them for political advantage can be detrimental to the effort of building a strong nation that benefits all of us.
By Stephen Atta Owusu
Author: Dark Faces at Crossroads.

*I want to express my deepest sense of gratitude to my Ewe friend who provided immense information on the Ewes during the writing of this piece.*

‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi, Born in Ghana and Raised in the U.S.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi, whose debut novel sold for at least $1 million last year, was 20 when she stepped into the haunted dungeon of Cape Coast Castle for the first time. It was 2009. She had just completed her sophomore year at Stanford University and was spending the summer in Ghana, the country she left as a toddler.

Her tour guide explained that at the height of the slave trade, British officers—and the black women they married from the Gold Coast—had lived in comfort in the upper chambers of the whitewashed castle. Meanwhile, in the reeking dungeons below, men, women and children waited for the slave ships that would take them across the ocean.

Ms. Gyasi, who is black, snapped a photo of a wooden door that led from the dungeon to the beach. Above it was a sign that said: “Door of No Return.” Suddenly, she felt angry. She had never heard her family talk about the castle, or what it represented.

“It’s conveniently left out that there was this complicity on our side, too,” said Ms. Gyasi, who is now 26 and lives in Berkeley, Calif.

Her debut novel, “Homegoing,” begins with two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana. One marries a British officer and lives with him high in Cape Coast Castle. The other passes through the dungeon below. Sweeping across more than 250 years of history, the book follows the descendants of both sisters—one family in Ghana, the other in America—devoting one chapter to a member of each generation.

The book is due June 7 from Alfred A. Knopf. The publisher is printing 50,000 copies before the release date, a large number for a literary debut novel.

“ ‘Homegoing’ will break your heart over and over…and leave you optimistic and in awe,” Nichole Solga McCown, a bookseller for Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., wrote in a review for the American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next List.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of last year’s runaway best-seller and National Book Award-winner on race in the U.S., “Between the World and Me,” tweeted: “Finished Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Homegoing’ yesterday. Thought it was a monster when I started. Felt it was a monster when I was done.”

Ms. Gyasi was born in Mampong, a small town 160 miles north of Cape Coast. She moved to the U.S. at age 2 when her father was working on a Ph.D in French language at Ohio State University. The family moved to Illinois and Tennessee before settling in Huntsville, Ala., the summer she turned 10.

She was a precocious reader, devouring Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë and racing through the young-adult medical dramas of Lurlene McDaniel.

Most of her friends and classmates were white, and, though she didn’t realize it at the time, so were most of the authors she read, both in school and at home. (The Francophone-African texts her father studied didn’t yet interest her.)

“Growing up, one of the things I found most difficult was trying to figure out where I fit in, particularly because while my family is black, obviously we aren’t African-American,” she said. “And because I grew up in predominantly white spaces, I think it could be difficult to figure out how to navigate America’s racial tension.”

When she was a senior in high school, she read her first book by a black woman: “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison.

“It felt as much as a religious calling as you could probably ever get in the secular field,” she said.

She had imagined becoming a writer. Now she was convinced that she could do it. She made an early attempt at writing the book after that 2009 trip to Ghana, but she didn’t begin working on it in earnest until she enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She wrote without an outline—just a family tree drawn on letter-sized paper, taped to the wall of her apartment.

She had never felt like she quite belonged in either Ghana or the U.S. “A lot of this book stems from…trying to figure out what things connect those two places and how I fit into all of that,” she said.

“Homegoing” is flecked with magic, evoking folk tales passed down from parent to child. One side of the family lives through slavery, Alabama’s convict-leasing system, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the heroin epidemic to the present day. On the other side of the Atlantic, the novel explores uncomfortable truths about the participation of Ms. Gyasi’s Fante and Asante ancestors in the slave trade.

The book has structural and thematic similarities to Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 book, “Roots,” and its landmark TV series adaptation starring LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, a man sold into slavery in 18th-century Gambia. A remake of the “Roots” miniseries adaptation, which traces the family’s history well into the 20th century, is set to air on the History, Lifetime and A&E channels starting Monday.

“It’s ‘Roots’ for the 21st century,” said Ivan Held, president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which bid $1 million for “Homegoing” but lost out to Knopf. Ms. Gyasi, knowing that her novel would explore similar territory, said she decided not to read Mr. Haley’s book.

One of her characters is Marjorie, a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in the U.S. After she is born, Marjorie’s parents mail her dried umbilical cord to her grandmother Akua in Ghana, so the elderly woman can place it in the ocean. Should Marjorie’s spirit start to wander, Akua wants her to know which place is home. At a spot not far from Cape Coast, Ms. Gyasi’s grandmother had done the same for her.

Artcle via Wall Street Journal