42. The Blinkards by Kobina Sekyi
Author: Kobina Sekyi
Genre: Play/Short Story
Year of Publication: 1974 (this edition, 1997)
Country: Gold Coast (Now Ghana)
Setting: This book contains two stories: The Blinkards - a play and The Anglo-Fanti - a short story. Though the stories are from two different genres, one theme threads through them: the effect of absolute cultural osmosis or better still the consequences of swallowing an alien culture without much scrutiny, as happened in occupied countries popularly referred to by the occupiers as colonies (colonies of what? Ants? Bees?) Both stories took place in Cape Coast and the setting is very significant to the story. Apart from the author being a Fanti from Cape Coast, Cape Coast was the first point of introduction to colonial rule. As a seaport city, it was the first town that was brought under colonial rule; hence there are numerous Castles and Forts scattered in the city and its surrounding towns like Elimina and Anomabo. However, the inhabitants of this great city, which was the first capital of Ghana before it was moved to Accra in 1877, became anglicised to such an extent that even now a Fanti cannot speak a sentence without less than four English words. They anglicised their local names such that you can hear Koomson, Blankson, Menson etc. Some have all foreign names without a local name. Yes, it is that serious. And it is this that Kobina Sekyi, who was also known as William Essuman-Gwira Sekyi, was speaking against. Here, it would serve a good purpose if one realises that the play was first performed somewhere around 1915 whereas The Anglo Fanti short story was first published in the West Africa magazine in 1918.
To understand why Kobina Sekyi, himself a member of the elite who were eagerly morphing into caricatures of hybrids, turned around to criticize the status quo, which in the beginning of the nineteenth century marked the borderline between civilisation and bushmen, one needs to read about his biography.
Biography of Kobina Sekyi: Kobina Sekyi, the grandson of Chief Kofi Sekyi, was born in 1892 at Cape Coast (locally known as Oguaa). As a highly educated member of his society, he was brought up to believe that European culture was superior to African culture. He attended Mfantsipim Boys' School (the oldest senior secondary school in Ghana) and went on to study English Literature at the University of London. However, a fellow student (Nigerian) persuaded him to give up English Literature in favour of Philosophy.
Sekyi returned to England in 1915 to study law. On the voyage out his boat, the SS Falaba, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and some lives were lost. Sekyi managed to get to a lifeboat, at which point a European shouted at him that he should get out of the boat, as a black man had no right to be alive when whites were drowning. It was this incident that had a profound effect on him, confirming his rejection of European pretensions to superiority. In 1918, Sekyi qualified as a barrister, and was awarded an MA in philosophy.
The Blinkards is a satirical play written in English and interspersed with Fanti (all the Fantis have been translated on the left hand side of the page or the even-numbered pages). It tells of the consequences of blindly mimicking the European culture.
Mrs. Borɔfosεm (someone who exhibits too much European tendencies in his/her actions) eats only European foods, though we know that at several points in time she yearns for locally prepared food such as roasted plantain. She goes everywhere in frock, boots with an umbrella and a lorgnette. Though she speaks bad English, she does so with a forced English accent. As a wife to Mr. Borɔfosεm, she forces him to behave as an Europeanised man: smoking cigar, eschewing local foods and dresses.
Mr. Tsiba (a cocoa farmer) brought his daughter to Mrs. Borɔfosεm to train so that she would become just like her. Mrs. Borɔfosεm accepted her task with eagerness, instilling in Miss Tsiba 'proper' English mannerisms. Later, Miss Tsiba met a young man who, to attract her attention, went to work with Mr. Onyimdze - a lawyer who avoided anything European except those that are germane to the execution of his profession such as the wearing of black gowns and white curled wigs.
As the play goes on we find that the two (the young man Okadu and Miss Tsiba) finally met at a garden party thrown by Mrs. Borɔfosεm. They immediately got engaged (without the presence of any family member) following the example of a couple they had read in an English novel. Mrs Borɔfosεm told Mr Tsiba that his daughter was about to marry and that he, Mr. Tsiba, had to buy the clothes for the impending wedding. He got furious but calmed down when he was told that it was the ways of the Europeans for the bridegroom's father to purchase the clothes for the bride and bridegroom. When Na Sompa (Mr. Tsiba's wife) heard the news she got furious and insulted Okadu. It was in the middle of one of such vituperations that she got a heart-attack and died. Nana Katawerwa, hearing that her daughter (Na Sompa) was dead and her granddaughter was marrying without following tradition stormed the chapel and disrupted the whole program.
Nana Katawerwa refused to let Miss Tsiba into her 'husband's' house. Later Miss Tsiba was to marry another man according to traditional customs. This infuriated Okadu and he called for the arrest of the grandmother and granddaughter. The case went to court and Nana Katawerwa and her daughter won under the exposition of the Native Law.
The story is deep and borders on several aspects of our lives. It is a pity that the situation still pertains today. People cannot speak their local language properly and yet will do everything to show that they can speak English including faking the voice. It is easier to see people in three-piece suits walking under the scorching sun. Still the borderline between enlightenment and colloquialism is measured by how much one has adopted Christian and European values. But there is hope: gradually people are changing, people are finding their roots... it is a slow process now but it will work out. It is the language that is becoming a problem. There is a former presidential candidate who changed his name from Joseph Houston-Yorke (yes he is a Fanti) to his local name.
The Anglo-Fanti Short Story
Like The Blinkards, this story concerns blind assimilation of European culture. It's about a boy who was brought up to become an aficionado of European mannerisms, while shunning African culture. Following this path and by his hard work he got a scholarship to London where he studied Law. Whilst there he realised that London was not all that they say it is. There are classes and divisions and the people they imitated are on the lower scale of their social ladder. He also recognised, that no matter what he did he was described as a savage especially when people began asking whether he wore clothes or not (and they still do, ask Naipaul!).
"It does not take him long to find out that he is regarded as a savage, even by the starving unemployable who asks him for alms. Amusing questions are often put to him as to whether he wore clothes before he came to England; whether it was safe for white men to go to his country since the climate was unsuitable to civilised people; whether wild animals wandered at large in the streets of his native town." (page 230)
However, there were many Africans who also came to a similar disillusionment when they saw England; yet, these group began to accept these disconcerting matters as incidental to civilisation.
"... but if his friends, even those who had been similarly disillusioned, have begun to accept certain disconcerting matters as incidental to civilisaiton, and instead of arguing from the unpleasantness of such incidents to the inherent unwholesomeness of that to which they are incidental, they conclude somewhat perversely that whoever cannot explain cannot explain away such unpleasantness is not civilised. " (page 231)
Time came for Kwesi Onyidzin (Kwesi without a name) - known as Edward Cudjoe - to come to Gold Coast and to Cape Coast. His family were all expecting him to behave like an European. So when he set down to work and began wearing native dresses and eat native foods they became disappointed in him. Some even considered him mad. Others made it their duty to show him "the way". After he was virtually thrust into marriage, it became his wife's pursuit to force her husband to behave like an European. Later, she resorted to cooking European foods and throwing garden parties. Working harder and ever harder to avoid these incidents, Kwesi Onyidzin broke down.
The issue of cultural invasion is one that has taken the world by storm especially in these days of globalisation. Should there be a universal earth culture? and who would determine what should be in such a culture? or each country should keep its culture? Are other cultures at a threat from European culture? These are questions we need to ask. Culture is something you are born into. It grows with you. Yet there people who were born outside of it or alien to it like VS Naipaul, who after spending a day or two in ones country will describe it as backward.
This story is purely narrative with no dialogue. If you love a narrative novel I will recommend this to you. If you are a staunch believer of communalism rather than individualism, I will recommend it to you. If you believe in selective cultural absorption, incising certain unproductive parts of culture and replacing it with tested ones not just dumping the whole into the society, I will recommend this to you.
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