“You have learned words in Twi,” Sarah said to me while the kids were out on break. “Which one do you like the best?”

“Of the words?” I asked. Even with someone I like and trust, and Sarah comes near the top of that list, I am always startled when a Ghanaian asks the sort of question I would ask.

“Yes. What is your favorite?”

At that moment I could call to mind only a few words of my approximately forty-word Twi vocabulary. I considered for a minute. “I guess the one I use the most is ‘me daase,'” I answered. Sarah nodded, satisfied, and a moment later Osei ducked his head in to ask if break was over. We said yes, and he ducked out again to scream the news to the rest of the children. Several of them came to check with us, to be certain that Osei was telling the truth, before coming back in.

I had not realized how frequently I say “thank you” until I learned the term in a new language. Although my default behaviour in Ghana is tremendously rude, I have remained a compulsive thanker. I thank tro-tro mates, taxi drivers, storekeepers; I use “me daase” to decline “you are invited”s, as is the custom, and use it equally to decline most other forms of sales offer when I’m feeling charitable.

It shocks half the people I encounter: “You say ‘me daase’!” It continues to shock Ghanaians that an obruni, even in five months of living here, might have learned a single word. It’s irrational for me to get angry at the Ghanaians for that shock; I should be condemning the multitudes of obrunis, particularly those doing business in Accra et environs, or those who run volunteer organizations to Help the Poor Africans, who don’t bother to learn a single word. (I’m not entirely safe from that category, myself–somebody doing a genuine homestay in these last five months might be speaking passably fluent Twi by now.) And most of the time, I do speak English, as the phrases and random words I know have pretty clear limitations. I even use English for things I do know the Twi for–“two eggs, please,” for example. (“Mienu cosiya, pa’cho,” since I know you were wondering, though I’m guessing if I actually looked at a Twi book the spelling would be totally different.) But as soon as I learned “me daase,” the switch was almost instantaneous. It is possible that in these last five months I have said the words more than I have said my own name.

“Why do you thank the taxi drivers?” Davis asked when I mentioned this. “Why do you thank them for doing their job?” There’s a point there, but there’s still a part of me, rather deeply buried these last few months, that values kindness, that thinks there can’t be any possible harm in thanking people compulsively–it’s not as if there is really extra work or strain involved for me. (The difference between kindness and self-sacrifice is one I need to think about quite seriously.) Thanking can do nothing negative in the world, as far as I can tell. I’ve put a great deal of negative energy into the world recently. Why not balance it out, even muttered to cab drivers as I alight at the Madina Estate taxi rank?

Advertisements