Magazine article New African

Mind Your Own Business: How Rote Learning Can Make People Say Things without Realising Their Implications Explains Why Political Discourse in Ghana Is So Full of Invective

Magazine article New African

Mind Your Own Business: How Rote Learning Can Make People Say Things without Realising Their Implications Explains Why Political Discourse in Ghana Is So Full of Invective

Article excerpt

  "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen   And waste its sweetness on the desert air. ... " 


Ever since I first heard these marvellous lines from Gray's Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard, recited faultlessly by Kwasi, a friend of mine, when we were reciting passages from memory, they have remained rooted in my mind. I never saw the entire poem at that time, and I don't know where Kwasi got it from.

But he had "connections": one of his uncles had a battery-powered wireless set from which we once heard a live broadcast from London of the fight which resulted in Roy Ankrah becoming the "British Empire Featherweight Champion" in 1951. At Kyebi, that was very unusual and we were very chuffed that we had managed to hear of Roy's victory at first hand.

It was Kwasi's lips which also introduced me to the beautiful poem by Sir Henry Newbolt, entitled "The Vitai Lampada".

I don't think Kwasi understood the title, nor indeed, (I suspect) even the subject matter (since we didn't play any cricket at our school). Yet he delivered the lines beautifully in his very nice voice.

But what could Kwasi have made of the opening lines:

  "There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night   Ten to make and the match to win"? 

Never having seen a cricket pitch, how was Kwasi, or indeed any of us, to know what a "Close" was? "Ten" what?

And how did one "make" this "ten"? (The only game we played at our school was football, and no-one could be expected to score "ten" goals-not even against the weakest rival. So how did one "win" by "making ten"?) Yet it was an acceptable-even encouraged-practice for us to cram into our heads, poems like The Vital Lampada, which sounded beautiful but whose content meant absolutely nothing to us. "Play up! Play up! And play the game" we could understand. But the rest?

In fact, "rote recitations" of that kind once brought the wrath of our teachers upon the head of a guy who was very proud of his acquisition of a poem which no-one else in our entire school had ever heard before. The teachers, in generous mood, had invited anyone who had a "recitation" to come forward and declaim it. And, predictably, most of those offered were from the Bible or the hymn book. I remember an uncle of mine, who was in a senior class, delighting us with his eloquent rendition of Psalm 103: "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and delivered him from all his troubles."


But this other guy-I remember he had very large eyes--put up his hand and was called to the front. With his big eyes shining with excitement, he began with a very loud voice:

"Mind your own business. And don't be silly!"

The whole school yelled. This sounded like a direct order to us! "Don't be silly!" was one of commonest forms of abuse which even pupils whose English was not up to scratch, could use.

He went on and recited a couple more stanzas in the same vein, ending each of them with a resounding: "And don't be silly!"

In no time at all, one of our more discipline-addicted teachers had halted him.

"My friend," he asked, "are you implying that we teachers here are all silly fools who should mind their own business?"

There was an uproar: "No Sir!" the guy protested: "Please sir, it is only a recitation!"

"Well, it is a stupid recitation and you shouldn't have recited it to us," the teacher shouted sternly.

The chap was thoroughly embarrassed. It did seem a bit humourless of the teacher, but who was to challenge him? The other teachers held their peace. So the poor chap went back and stood in line with his classmates. The girls were all giggling and covering their faces with their palms. I am sure he wished the ground would open and swallow him.

Of course, from that day on, the chap's real name was obliterated from everyone's memory and his new name became, "Mind your own business! …

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