The role of western fiction in Ghana: exploring language (Part 2)

Ahead of reading this analysis, please read part 1 of this series of blog posts which offers an introduction to the topic and theories. The main image is taken from the Stanford University News website.

Through these posts, I exploring the issue of exporting/importing western fiction to Ghana or indeed other countries with a previous colonial relationship, with a view to informing EduSpots ongoing strategy in this area.

This post focuses upon language. Further posts on epistemology and identity will follow. Postcolonial theory and the capabilities approach are used as tools within the process of interrogation of key ideas and issues.

Postcolonialist analysis 

Firstly, a postcolonial approach might suggest that providing books in English set in the western context entraps learners into taking on key aspects of western culture through the language itself. Language is a ‘form of life’ (Wittgenstein, 1953), echoed by Fanon’s statement that men possess ‘the world expressed and implied by that language’ (Fanon, 1967); therefore, whilst it may at face-value appear harmless for a child in Akumadan to read a book such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, the children subconsciously take on a way of life which is not their own, immersed with cream teas and western notions of ‘adventure’. Adichie highlights how ‘impressionable and vulnerable’ children through absorbing stories – her own craving for ginger beer and concerns about the weather as a result of reading predominantly western books in Nigeria, were a clear clash with her own environment and cultural expectations (Adichie, 2009); indeed, pupils may find themselves craving western materialistic possessions that they may never be able to own. 

Even if the books are printed in English in order to improve pupils’ understanding of the national language, it is certainly possible for African authors writing in English to communicate much of the ‘African experience’ through their writing (Thiong’o, 1983: 8). Many African authors suggest that the best way to fully communicate African ideas is to translate literally from the mother-tongue into the European language, suggesting that if the wording is kept as close as possible to the original expression, then the reader would best be able to ‘glean the social norms, attitudes and values of a people’ (Thiong’o, 1983: 8). Achebe points to the need for a ‘new English’, which is represents the African environment and voice (Achebe, 1975). African novels and folk stories have unique features such as representing character traits of humans through animals, as Alai highlights throughout his novel The Rhino in the Paddock (Alai, 2016). The methods through which Africans use to represent the characters that exist in their society are evidently vital to an understanding of that country’s social dynamics, and therefore it seems destructive to the child’s social education to not make such fiction in the library available to them. 

In addition, the postcolonialist might argue that the imposition of English in itself is a continuing symbol of western dominance. Although many have suggested that there are advantages of minority languages being lost or demoted for the purpose of national development, many argue that there is a great cost of losing a local language (Howe, 1992), due to its role as a ‘carrier of culture’ (Thiong’o, 1983:13). Achebe felt that he had no choice but to write in English rather than a mother-tongue, despite him suggesting that it ‘produces a guilty feeling’ (Achebe, 1975). Fanon goes as far as to suggest that resisting colonial narratives and purging their influence upon the mind as a mentally cathartic practice (Fanon, 1963). Whilst in Ghana the national language did not profit a specific ethnic group, the decision to hold onto the use of English did reproduce inequality. Alexandre (1972) argues that it is possible to see a partition of class along linguistic lines in Africa (May 2012).  Although it is important to note that local dialects are still taught in schools, and especially prioritized in the Primary years of education in Ghana, English it a vital ‘gatekeeper to positions of prestige’ within society (Alexandre, 1972), with many finding that they cannot access jobs in certain professions or own a business without being a skilled speaker of English.  

Capabilities Approach 

It might first be argued that the provision of Western reading material in English leads to the advancement of basic literacy in Ghana and that this would seem to enhance the capabilities enjoyed by individuals. Ghanaians would seemingly choose western books over no books at all. The postcolonial narrative vitally ignores the current desires of those in previously colonized countries to benefit from resources offered to them to improve their English, especially considering that all examinations at JHS, SHS and university level in Ghana are taken in English.

It is clear that libraries containing western fiction can help close the gap between rich and poor in literacy development (Frimpong, 2015), especially given that UNICEF reports that only 1% of Ghanaian children have more than 10 books in their home, and that 31% of Ghanaian adults are illiterate, with far higher figures in rural areas (UNICEF, 2017). Having access to books is in itself instrumental in developing ‘senses, imagination, and thought’ (Nussbaum). However, if pupils are not being presented which a choice of reading-based consumption, this appears to go against Nussbaum’s notion of ‘control over one’s environment’.  

Indeed, on a practical level, those supporting the capabilities approach may argue that pupils’ capabilities may be limited by a detrimental impact of the books, due to issues concerning accurate usage of words. Meaning is established through nuanced use of language within ‘language games’ (Wittgenstein, 1953), and for this reason it vital that fiction is provided for children in which the usage of words is ‘acted out’ through situations relevant to their environment and communicates.  

More importantly, there is evidence to suggest that books that focus on the western context and neglect African characters are less appealing to the reader than African fiction, and thus whilst the ‘capability’ to read might be open to pupils, this might not translate into a ‘functioning’ of reading. Mackintosh speaks of his experiences of returning to a school library he had supported in Malawi, and finding ‘piles of dust-covered books’. He came to a realization through talking to Gambian friends that the books were culturally inappropriate for the pupils, all featuring explicitly European characters (Mackintosh, 2007).

Research has indicated that libraries in Sub-Saharan Africa containing books that are relevant to context is the key motivator to the likely continued use of the library, with 45 percent of non-users identifying the provision of relevant reading material as a factor that would catalyse their use of the libraries, and 58% of users citing lack of sufficient range of books as the main reason for dissatisfaction (see Figure 1 and Figure 2 below, Elbert, Fuegi, and Lipeikaite, 2012). Whilst these figures do not necessarily point to a dissastification with western fiction, the statistics do show that choice is important to potential library uses. The preferences of individuals do seem better satisfied by the inclusion of African fiction as a choice. One boy in Dent’s study also highlights the improvement in behavior and performance in class as a result of improved understanding of English from reading books written in both Luganda and English from a local library in Uganda (Dent, 2013)

Figure 1: What motivates non-users to start using the library? (Elbert, Fuegi and Lipeikaite, 2012:155)
Figure 2: Reasons for Users’ Dissatisfaction (Elbert, Fuegi and Lipeikaite, 2012:155)

Coming next: Part 3: Exploring Epistemology


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