By - RICHARD OHENE BEKOE
In the minds of many people the world over, black people are still stereotyped in many (mostly) negative ways. On the one side, they are deemed to have great athletic and sexual prowess, and perhaps therefore capable of hard manual labour; on the other side, they are seen as uneducated and, in some circles, even incapable of becoming educated. This is clearly the case with people in the part of the world where we (a group of black men and women from Ghana and Nigeria) find ourselves as teachers of English as a foreign language. Let us remind ourselves that this is the 21st century, when apparently all of us have access to information about the world at the touch of a button. Yet, 'racism' (a pseudo-scientific construct invented by 'white' Europeans partly to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade) is alive and well. So, we face a choice: whether to run away from our situation, or, like Hamlet, to take up arms and by opposing end the obvious injustice. My African colleagues, emboldened by the courage of this latter conviction have decided to stay and to fight our corner.
Let me intrigue you with some of the preconceptions we’ve been bombarded with since our arrival in Ecuador as teachers of English. The most common question you are asked by any Ecuadorian is “Where are you from?” – they don´t even care to ask for your name first, to see if perhaps it may ring a bell ( "Ah Richard. That sounds like Ricardo in Spanish"). The majority of the people in Loja, where many of us live and work, know how to ask this question in English when they meet a foreigner. The deep shatter cuts through your stomach at the barrage of questions that follow when you say you are from Africa. The more popular ones include, “Are there wars in Africa?”, “Are children hungry in Africa?”, “Do you play with lions and elephants in the street?” The nature (naivety) of some of the questions you hear can take away your appetite for food for an entire day.
These opinions and notions held about us inform us that the world is so misinformed about the continent of Africa; so much so that some people in South America, to this day, still think Africa is one big country with ´himalayas´ of problems. I guess that´s how the world news agencies have made sales (aka money), as have some philanthropists who have gained social status and eminence, viz. through propagating misinformation, false information and downright lies! However, most of us can confidently say that from where we have come, we have never seen war or famine, or the kind of hunger stories that pervade the news. The world news channels still show 'medieval pictures' of Africa to their passive unquestioning audiences, but these do not represent all the 55 African countries. People have risen from this so-called 'dark continent' to achieve great things and set world records.
Take Kofi Annan, for example, from Ghana who rose to become the Seventh Secretary General of the United Nations. He said, “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family”. Taking this cue taken from Kofi Annan´s words, we have decided to stand and face all the different forms of prejudice, discrimination and feelings of isolation we have had to endure, so that we can use our opportunity here as English teachers to correct some of the negative notions (held by even educated people here) through education, and by setting an example to others; to let the world know that black people are more than capable of performing excellently when given the opportunity. For example, we want to let the world know that we don´t play in the jungle anymore – the use of the internet and the new technologies are even more advanced in some African countries than some parts of the world that are considered to be more 'developed'.
We have travelled to places in South America and found conditions that are even less developed than those shown about Africa by western news agencies, but who will tell these stories? Who will buy these stories? We need to inform the next generation that poverty, hunger and violence are phenomena that take place not just in Africa but can (and do) occur anywhere on the globe. If, for example, governments, parents et al refuse to be responsible, poverty will be the result, children may go hungry resulting in violence. We need to inform the world that if leaders refuse to consider the needs of the people, entire nations will suffer and this has nothing to do with the colour of their skin. Whatever the alleged causes, present day Venezuela is an example of this, and the plight of the people fleeing to neighbouring countries has nothing to do with their skin colour or their ethnicity. They are the victims of a failed (whether from within or without or a combination of the two) system.
Back to our story. What may have started with the persistence and hard work of one Ghanaian, Kofi Annan, today sees us (about fourteen West Africans from Ghana and Nigeria) teaching English as a Second Language in a private language school called Fine-Tuned English Language Institute, the biggest language institute in the Province of Loja, Ecuador.
So far, I have mentioned only us as the victims of naive prejudice, but let me digress a bit and introduce you to a key figure in our story. Dr. Saula Aguilar is an Ecuadorian businessperson and co-director of the institute that has hired all of us teachers. She is a woman who believes in giving equal opportunities to all people irrespective of their ethnic origins or colour. Not everyone in the institute was happy to employ black people as teachers but Saula stood firm when her colleagues opposed our recruitment and she gave us the opportunity to work as teachers of English. However, our battle was not quite over since we had to overcome another set of prejudices to do with whether we were 'native speakers of English'. Both Ghana and Nigeria have English as a national language and this is also the language of school and university education. In most parts, the 'native speakers' of English are paid more than non-natives and also enjoy a higher status - even if they are less qualified than their non-native counterparts. Some questioned our status as native speakers and eye-brows were raised by (even) some of our colleagues. Indeed, we had to undergo written tests to prove ourselves. We saw this as an affront to our ability (to speak English) as well as to our professionalism and qualifications but agreed to go ahead with the tests to prove our competence!
As we were given the opportunity to teach as ´Native-speakers´ of English in the institute, who expressed that Africans have other different languages they speak, for that reason could not be regarded as Native-speakers (this I personally believe was because the wage of the Native-speaker is higher than the non-native-speaker). Eventually, this opinion tweaked such that we were put to the test to ascertain our native-speaking levels. Although most of us saw that as an affront to our race, we passed the test and proved our competence on the job. “I´ve come to believe that the 'nativeness' of a language speakers does not dwell in colour, since there are white people considered as native speakers who cannot teach the language to an ESL student; something that our African teachers do so well”, argued Dr. Saula Aguilar at a conference when she was asked why she had decided to hire so many African teachers.
Some parents of the children we teach still have an ideal of a native speaker of English as someone with an American accent and a European complexion and some of them were not so comfortable with us in front of their kids. At the beginning it was hard to win the trust of all the people, but with Dr. Saula's support (and, of course, our own professionalism), we have been able to overcome the prejudices of who opposed our appointment in the first place - including colleagues and parents. Now, we are delighted (and proud) to say that all these experiences including the negative ones have given us many opportunities to educate our students about the people from West Africa, their cultures, arts, and entertainment.
We have also had the opportunity to learn about the varied and beautiful cultures of Ecuador. For instance, a typical Ghanaian knows that when your relationship with someone is not so profound, you don´t greet them with a kiss. This is not part of our culture (even if it is, it´s only within the immediate family). Here, in Ecuador, we go through the city kissing friends and colleagues on their cheeks. For us this is a wonderful experience and it is beautiful to share such practices. We have also learnt that it´s polite to say “thank you” to your fellow diners at the dining table when you finish eating; something we believe teaches us about how to appreciate each other in whatever form. My colleague, Seth Colins Adjei, puts his experience in a way that I couldn´t agree more. He says, “This situation (facing initial opposition) was a blessing in disguise, in that, it made us more aware about the people around us. It made us more determined to do our best; not just to please others but rather to make an impact on the lives of the people we meet and work with”. He adds that, “Greatness is simply defined as the ability to believe in ourselves by ignoring all the odds and storms that come our way”. Wise words, and we all share his sentiments.
All of the above, and the pain with which I started this story, came about because some people have prejudice against the colour of our skin. With light-skinned people who speak English, nobody would allude to where they come from, nor question their native-speaker status. However, in spite of the progress mentioned above, this is something we, African English language teachers, still have to deal with every day. We still have to justify our status and to remind people that we speak English because it is our language through which we had our education from kindergarten to school to university; the signs on our roads are in English; the TV shows and the news are transmitted in English; national and regional events are organized in English; we write all exams in English. So, my question is, that after one has gone through all these experiences to become an adult, is it not enough to call yourself a native speaker?
There is a further, interesting, twist to this debate about some of our fellow black people who can be considered native speakers just because they have acquired a different passport. The same controversy about 'native-speakerism´ is often raised against South Africans but this country is considered a native-speaking country just because there are a few white people living there who originally come from Britain. How do we deal with such anomalies? For example, when two black people, one from Ghana and one from South Africa, are being considered for a job, and the latter is considered a native-speaker and the former is asked to prove her/his proficiency in English, when both have come from the same continent but with different indigenous languages. The term native-speaker continues to be problematic and is responsible for prejudice and racism in all parts of the world. The original English people have settled in many parts of the world. The language of England has lost the original pronunciation. It is spoken in different parts of the world with different accents. Even in the UK, there are many varieties of English. There are many Englishes! So my next question is: since the original English has so many different accents (both in Britain and all over the world), what makes my clear Ghanaian accent non-native? Is it because I´m an African and black? Isn't my English just another variety of English?
There have been, and will be, endless debates about native-speakerism, even though according to Rakesh Bhanot “the concept of a standard English (standard American) with its own (received) pronunciation was abandoned, in some quarters, a long time ago”. He goes on to argue, however, that “ 'native-speakerism´(Holliday) is alive and well, partly because of the naïve assumptions on the part of parents, providers, policy makers and learners from all over the world, that in the phrase ´native-speaker teacher´, the words ´native-speaker´ carry more pedagogic status than ´teacher´; more status even than ´qualified non-native teacher´….”. EL Gazette, March/April 2019. This has to change if we want a world where people are given equal opportunities based on their competence and not the colour of their skin.
The journey I have described above has been rough! Sometimes, one feels the urge to go back to a place where you are with your own kind and where your language and skin colour is not a barrier. There are still times when you are walking in the street and people cross to the other side when they see you. But there are also times when you meet people who are really enthusiastic when they see that you are from Africa and want to learn from you, and to get to know about your culture. These moments are rewarding and make the journey (of teaching in Ecuador) worthwhile.
Teaching English is not a one-way traffic. This experience has also been one of discovery for most of us. We have discovered that prejudice is something that is taught to our kids from childhood and that it can be unlearnt and challenged. Most of us can remember that at the beginning the students we were teaching didn´t have our trust, so things were a little challenging, but once they/we had built trust and they had become more confident with us, most of them really showed us the respect that we deserve as teachers; simply as 'teachers of English', not as 'black teachers'!
Richard Ohene Bekoe, commonly known in the Ghanaian media circus as Richie Whriter is a professionally trained screenwriter and film director who is responsible for writing many Ghanaian films and TV shows, one of which is the popular award winning TV drama series, “Heels and Sneakers” – produced by the famous actress and producer, Yvonne Nelson, a show that won him nomination in the 2017 Ghana Movie Awards as Best Writer alongside astute filmmakers like Shirley Frimpong Manso.
Richard took to writing since he was a teenager, something that was inspired by a great teacher who saw his writing potential and empowered him to write an essay each day bordering on various subjects. This act of empowerment is what motivated and inspired him to also become a teacher, to teach others and help them realize their potentials. He believes that in whatever language one chooses as a means of communication, one of the best ways to be a master of that language is by teaching it to others, and especially to those learning it as a second language. And as someone who has risen to the status of providing content for national television, Richard always insists on the speaking of good English and is himself an instrument of this change.
Hailing from both the Ashanti and Eastern regions of Ghana, Richard was born to the late Edwin Kwasi Bekoe Ansah (politician and nationalist who fought hard for the party that runs the government of Ghana currently) and the late Agnes Wiafewaa (civil servant). He is the only boy among four sisters and has two beautiful daughters, Valerie and Soraya. Richard aspires to make transformational films that will educate society about good living, responsibility and interracial cohesion.