By Nicole Baute
“I’m talking to you and you don’t give me an answer!”
In Accra, this is a big mistake.
The woman must have been in her 60s or 70s. She was standing in the middle of a red Apapa road in a blue print dress and a scowl. We’d passed her on the way to our early-morning tro-tro stop, bleary-eyed and distracted. She’d said hello, apparently, but we hadn’t noticed.
We snapped to attention. “Hello! Good morning! How are you?”
“Fine, good morning!” Suddenly all smiles and waves. That was all she wanted.
Here in Ghana, everything is speech and sound: communication is a noisy mix of talk radio, high-life music, love ballads, public speaking, debate, parables and many friendly greetings on the street. Newspapers abound—in fact, the number of newspapers available for sale is astounding—but radio dominates the news market. You don’t see too many people reading, but everybody loves to talk.
And mobile phones? They’re actually used for making calls, not just texting.
On my first day at the African University College of Communication (AUCC), where I’m working as an education officer for Journalists for Human Rights, I was asked to give a speech at an event launching a week of JHR activities organized by the students. I enjoy public speaking but I hadn’t had time to prepare—and had no idea how skilled the orators sitting with me at the high table would be.
Before the event I chatted with Mr. Kofi Dzokoto, one of the instructors, who commented with some puzzlement on the proliferation of print media over radio in the west. I told him why I became a writer: because I grew up on a farm, where books kept me company. He nodded, and said this was something he’d noticed about Westerners: “Everybody is an island.”
Not here. We are all together, and talking.
My fellow speakers knew how to project their voices over the room. They knew how to keep the students engaged – by using parables (baboons with long tails should not jump over the bonfire) and humour. I had a thing or two to learn.
The president of JHR’s AUCC chapter, Mustapha Muhammed Jamiu, a student from Nigeria, told me he started public speaking at seven years old, when he was instructed to memorize and recite poems at home and at school. In primary and junior schools he held communications positions, liaising between the students and the administration, and announcing upcoming programs. Throughout his young adulthood, he participated in and helped organize speech writing and public speaking workshops. “I’m a potential leader,” he told me. “I’m interested in politics seriously.” Effective oral communication skills are crucial.
As part of the JHR Week festivities, the students hosted a debate on homosexuality. The debaters on the gay rights side had a tough job ahead of them, as homosexuality is widely considered unacceptable in Ghana. But when Joy Anthony Preston and Zakiyu Iddris Tandunayir stepped to the podium, speaking with stellar intonation and great passion, they earned respect and applause from their peers. Everyone here recognizes a solid argument, even if they disagree with it.
Dramatic performance is another popular way to communicate. Last month, in a village west of Accra called Ngleshie-Amanfrom, the Human Rights Advocacy Centre hosted a public forum to educate the community on women’s rights and gender violence. The event began with huge speakers blaring popular music, louder than any music I’ve ever heard outside of a concert or nightclub. The music drew a crowd of at least two hundred people, including women in colourful traditional dresses and school children of all sizes.
The group used role playing to tell stories: the story of a young woman sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, the story of a woman abused by her husband. There were costumes, props and much waving of hands. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand much of it, as it was in Ga, but I understood this: the audience became animated, cheering, booing and, most importantly, asking questions – a good sign that the message was getting across.
One month into my time here, I’m learning that the written word isn’t always the best way to communicate. And to walk with my head up, because in Ghana somebody always wants say hello.