Gargantuanism and Poor Reading Culture in Ghana

Sat, 17 Mar 2012 Source: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

Down Memory Lane Part 5 –

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi

12TH March 2012


On 9th March 2012, my classmate at Legon from 1975 to 1978, Kofi Amenyo, wrote a very nice article entitled, ‘What kind of English should Ghanaians speak? That article set me thinking and rekindled my flair for writing once again, having left off somewhere in January, after I had caused a deluge with many articles. I am happy to be back from my self-imposed break.

It is a pity and a national embarrassment that the mere mention of the word gargantuan, sent the whole of Ghana agog, with many tongues wagging, as if some unprintable or unmentionable taboo word had been uttered. I wondered then what was so special about such a bland and banal word. I asked myself reflectively, ‘Do Ghanaians read at all these days? What the heck is the hullaballoo, kerfuffle and media excitation about a commonplace word? I thought to myself that perhaps the circumstances surrounding the application of the word made it the more intriguing. I also wondered why many Ghanaians were caught flat-footed or taken aback or flabbergasted, stupefied or befuddled by an ordinary word. My conclusion was down to our reading culture, which has sunk to its doldrums or abysmal low point or nadir.


The word gargantuan is said to have been coined by the French monk, Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) in his 16th century satire, entitled ‘Gargantuan and Pantagruel’. The two were father and son and they were depicted as voracious giants with gargantuan appetites. He employed these caricatures and characterisation to depict the clergy at the time, who were much given to licentious orgies, frivolities, debauchery and jollifications, unbecoming of their calling and sacred vows. It was during the same period that the German scholar, Martin Luther, wrote his 95 theses and nailed it at the gate of Wittenberg University in Erfurt, while his students sang, ‘Te deum Laudamus’. That was the beginning of the Reformation and the great schism in the Catholic Church. Luther accused the bishops of the sale of indulgences, the question of the celibacy of the clergy, the question of the doctrine of transubstantiation, and above all, the anticlericalism of the masses was also against the attitude of the loyal-royal bishops who dabbled in political machinations. The concubinage of the clergy was an open sore and a sore point.

Later in the 18th century, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), an English novelist, wrote his Gulliver’s Travels novel/satire, in which Gulliver was depicted as a giant in the land of the midget/dwarfish Lilliputians. The book also talked about the fictional land of Blefusco. Gulliver was the main character (prima donna) of the novel. Other synonyms for gargantuan are colossal, behemoth, cyclopean, elephantine, titanic, enormous, monstrous, gigantic, massive, mammoth, immense, expansive, huge, whalelike, herculean, dinosaurian and humongous, among others.

Schooling in the 50s, 60s and 70s

In the early 60s, when I was at the then Winneba Methodist Middle Boys’ School, our teachers drilled us through spelling bee, dictation and many other language exercises, so much so that we became au fait and savvy with our tenses, spelling, pronunciation and sentence construction. We were made to imbibe lots of new key words, using the dictionary ad nausea and ad infinitum to find antonyms and synonyms of new key words. We even had to form sentences with those words. No effort was spared in bringing us up to scratch with our grammar; of course, with the cane persistently and unceasingly raining down on us in the classroom. I remember my primary school headmaster, Master D.D.K Mensah, an iconoclast and a bit deranged or rather infatuated educationist, with pedagogic and didactic zeal (he was a musician par excellence a and a dyed-in-the-wool scouts master). He would blow his scout whistle and all of us in the school of about 400 pupils had to scramble to a quadrangle (open space) in front of his office (with some fir and frangipani trees for shade) to listen to English educational broadcasts by GBC (1960/1961). At that tender age of about 10 years in 1960, we learnt a lot of English language structures by listening to the radio lessons. At home, I became a fan of GBC’s programme called Everyday English. What a wonderful and useful programme that was, as the men and women presenting it role-played and made the learning, practical and exhilarating. The teachers not only taught us about the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the English language, but also they taught phonetics, idioms, hyperboles, figures of speech, grammar and many other facets of the Queen’s English. Even though all the radio instructors and presenters were Ghanaian, their diction, elocution, enunciation, pronunciation and voice declensions were velvety and silky, as if they were quintessential British. They really knew their onions. Some of us with radios in our houses took pride in exploiting those wonderful opportunities. You could say that since my illiterate mason father was unduly strict with me, I was not let out of his eagle eye for a moment. Therefore, I became a radio addict. I also picked up a lot of French vocabulary from the GBC programme, Let us speak French (Parley vous Francaise). Even though I never got to learn French formally in school, I think I got to know a couple of French words which gets me by. Those were the glorious golden days of the 60s.

Aspects of Journalism in Ghana

Black and white TV made its debut in the late 60s and it was an enchantment, as we went to watch it at the Magistrate Court building along the beach, on a street called Marine Drive. It was there on one occasion that we watched how my late cousin, Dr Alex Quaison Sackey, on arrival at the KIA, was quickly whisked and quizzed by the military, who had freshly overthrown Kwame Nkrumah, when he had gone on a peace mission to Hanoi, Vietnam. In those halcyon days, Ghanaians were proud to have good role models on both radio and TV. Talk of broadcasters like Robert Owusu, Kwame Amamoo, John Hammond(late), Richard Kotey (late) Ghartey Tagoe, Vincent Assiseh, Edward Faakye, Vida Koranteng Asante, among others. Later on, we had G.C.E. Sam (my senior at college), Mike Eghan (D.J.), Joe Lartey (veteran Sports commentator, Kobena Annan Forsun (my friend). These were sterling journalists who had passion for what they did and they researched their stories. They were real professionals. In the print media, we had Kofi Batsa of the Evening News (propaganda outfit for CPP), Kofi Badu of The Spark newspaper, Henry Ofori, who wrote a column called Carl Mutt, Gyewu Kyem, Ben Akumanyi (features writer), and others. Qualitative and scholarly articles appeared in the Legon Observer, Insight Magazine and the West African Magazine. There was an interesting column in one of them called Kontopiaat. Seasoned scholars who contributed articles to the Legon Observer were late Prof Adu Boahene, late Prof Paul Ansah, among others. Those broadcasters of yesteryear inspired something in you to want to read more and become like them. Then the Osagyefo himself was a super inspirer with his debonair speech style, which set him in a class of his own, with his booming stentorian baritone voice, rising and falling in cadences like the breakers at the seashore. He held everyone spellbound and riveted to the spot as he worked on people’s emotions. He knew how to pause to let his message sink in, when to ask a rhetoric question and when to chip in jokes for humour. His halting or stuttering staccato manner of speaking was inimitable and gave him a unique style. In a way, he resembled Charlie Chaplain when he played the role of the Great Dictator or if you have watched films of the Fuhrer (Hitler), he learnt some speech mannerisms from there. (Readers can watch the documentary video, End of Empire – The Gold Coast). In this video, I came to the realisation and conclusion that some of the most erudite and accomplished icons of the Queen’s language that Ghana has ever produced, include Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, Joe Appiah, William Ofori Atta (Paa Willie) and Kojo Botsio. I think the best two are Joe Appiah and William Ofori Atta. However, the charm of Gbedemah beats them all. Osagyefo on his part, was simply infectious with his matter-of-factly manner of engaging his audience. Nkrumah was said to be a workaholic and an avid reader. His British personal secretary and close associates attested to that fact. (cf. Kwame Nkrumah of the New Africa). From his own memoirs and biographies, we learnt that he slept few hours each day as he was constantly ferreting and rummaging through global news dispatches to keep tabs on the goings-on to isolate those that affected Ghana and Africa. He established Encyclopaedia Africana with Prof Ofosu Appiah as the director.

Nkrumah was so much obsessed and infatuated with the Cold War and its impact on the Liberation struggle in Africa, so much so that he spent prodigious amounts to establish many overt and covert outfits such as the Presidential Guard, Bureau of Ghana Languages, Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute, among others. His aim was to help disseminate information across Ghana and to sensitize and conscientise Ghanaians to be aware of their black consciousness, and the need to be proud of our heritage, echoing the ideas of his predecessor, James Kwegyir Aggrey of Africa (cf. the black and white keys of the organ combined for harmony).

Past Reading Culture

In the 60s and 70s, Ghanaians enjoyed reading newspapers and novels. However, from the 80s onwards, the changing political and economic landscape meant that education was given a low priority both by governments and individuals. Gigantic losses in the 80s and 90s were incurred, as droves of educators emigrated to seek greener pastures. The penchant for reading and writing waned. Many daring authors, who published their books, got stuck up with them as people paid scant attention to reading. Everybody was busy finding ways and means to eke a living. Those 80s and 90s were lost decades for Ghana, education-wise. Even right now, not many Ghanaians read novels. Why? There is a whole raft and plethora of factors to contend with in the explanation of this retrograde phenomenon in our national psyche. First, Ghanaians have become so much money-minded that life has descended into a crass abyss of dog eat dog. Everybody is hell-bent on either gaining access to the corridors of power or using every means possible to amass wealth. Our social priorities have been set with education and self development below the pile. Everybody wants shortcuts to wealth and opulence. There are no dilettantes or amateur readers, who are for reading for fun. Cocaine dealers, portfolio-carrying contractors and bribe–seeking civil servants and politicians, have debased education in our country by their gargantuan malfeasance, diverting critical resources into their personal accounts. Ghana has sunk to the point whereby it is not what you know that matters but rather who you are and who you know. People use fair or foul means to acquire tertiary education and then they use their social networks to gain them fast-track upward social mobility. Scholarship in education, in some instances, has been thrown to the dogs. Second, the proliferation of media houses has not helped matters. Some new-fangled media upstarts engage in gargantuan lies on air and in prant, peddling insults and obscene professional misbehavior, which to say the least, is infra dig. Who will read newspapers or magazines written by these scum of media practitioners? Hence, the waning reading culture in Ghana. Third, many Ghanaians lack knowledge of time management. We fail to utilize the chinks or breaks we get at work or at home to read something new. We fail to raise the bar or set high self development goals. This is so because after having completed our tertiary education, we think we are in a comfort zone, career-wise or marriage-wise.

We forget that the world is changing fast everyday and we need to read about those changes in order to adapt. Who in the world has got the luxury of leisure time? Nobody has. Yet our friends in the advanced world make it a habit to read and write books, despite their tight work schedules. They look out for new books to read to obtain new ideas. This is why they say knowledge is power, knowledge is wealth. The Chinese have discovered this and they are pursuing education like mad. In Ghana, if you are an author and you want wide readership or recognition like Rowling of Harry Potter series fame, then you have to emigrate to the advanced countries to get published and promoted. Our publishing industry has grown and is growing, but then, we lack the promotional aspect of the business model. Besides, we do not patronize or support our own authors because of our negative pull-him-down (Phd) syndrome. If you are in Ghana and you publish without sponsorship, you may end up in a quagmire of debt and you may go bankrupt.

When I was young in my early teens, my illiterate, bricklayer father used to bandy some words around like ‘afidavid’, ‘popogana’, ‘sologram’, ‘denture’. I knew they could be English words, but I could not figure them out until later. These words turned out to be affidavit, propaganda, solignum and indenture. This shows us that we must always be prepared to learn by researching. That is what we lack in Ghana. Many people do not even have hardcopy dictionaries. If they have on their cell phones or computers, they hardly check the etymology of words or correct spelling, pronunciation or usage. It is important for us to read to increase our repertoire of words and our understanding. I used to test myself every time I came across a Readers’ Digest column with the heading, ‘increase your word power.’ I like doing some crosswords too.

Right now in Ghana, new words are being coined and they are gradually creeping into the currency of our spoken English. People may now refer to a situation of missing a golden opportunity as, ‘Don’t Asamoah Gyan me.’ Or where one is engaged in a big scam, as, ‘please I’m not involved in this Woyomised, gargantuan scam.’ If someone is proving to be a hindrance to another person, he might be called a Suarez. In Nigeria, after getting your appointment letter, the Permanent Secretary (PS) tells you, ‘Hold on to this letter until your appointment is permanented.’ If your boss is a woman and you keep haranguing her, pleading, she will retort, ‘Don’t madam me’. If you are first on the queue and someone comes later to upstage you, you remind him, ‘ I first you.’ Hmm! English language in tears. I have heard someone say, ‘Ghana is too heat.’, instead of Ghana is too hot. The English language is a living language and elastic. It is true that we cannot mimick or ape the way the British speak, but commonsense demands that we should be able to speak in a standardized manner in order to be understood in this globalised world. Even in the UK, spoken English varies from Wales to Scotland, to the Midlands and in London, we have Cockney. I am told the seafaring parts such as Grimsby, Hull, Aberdeen and Billingsgate have speakers of English who speak it gruffly and hoarsely as our fisherfolk at Chorkor or Prampram or Labadi or Ashiama. I think what Ghanaians need to know is that the best way to communicate is to speak a bit slowly, distinctly and to be as naturally yourself as possible. We should be eager to learn and improve every day by listening to good speakers. Even these days, I hear a variety of English on BBC and it is not as it used to be. There was a time our exports to BBC made us proud. Here, I am thinking of people like Ben Dotse Malor, Ofeibea Quist Acton, Kwabena Mensah and Hilton Fyle (Sierra Leonean). Of course, we still have good speakers such as Akwasi Sarpong and Komla Dumor. In writing or speaking English, try to be simple and straight forward. Don’t put it on or fake it. Do not sound Victorian or Johnsonese or like Kwame Okoampa Ahoofe.

Some English words may soon go out of currency because of technological developments. Already, I do not often come across the following words these days. These are: cheque, wireless, radio, fax, telex, verandah, chop bar, lorry, mammy truck, latrine, lavatory, distemper, typewriter, wharf, tarpaulin, envelope, tape recorder, khaki, fetish, apothecary (pharmacy/drugstore/chemist), dispenser, writing pad.

Some English books which I found interesting and instructive while schooling in the late 50s, 60s and 70s are:

Your Reading List

1. Dictionary – Michael West

2. Oxford Dictionary – A.S. Hornby

3. Living English Structure – Stannard Allen

4. Practical English Usage – Ogundipe & Tregido

5. Common Mistakes in English – Fitikidis

6. Practical English Secondary Course (1-5) – Ogundipe

7. English – Fowler & Fowler

8. English Precis for the Certificate – Charles Lamb

9. English Grammar and Comprehension – Eckersley and Eckersley

10. First Aid in English – McCiver

11. Students’ Companion

12. Fundamental English (1-4) – Ballantyne

13. Creative Writing – Arnold Warner

14. Blue Book and Red Book (1-4) – Readers Digest

15. Oxford Readers (Sam Danso the Lorry Driver, Abdul, See me Lakayana with my spear, Loki and Luka, Shokolokobankooshie (1950s), Ngomba (early 1960s) Nchanga and Enoma (1973).


1. Ayi Kwei Armah - Fragments /The Beautyful ones are not yet born

2. Francis Selormey - The Narrow Path

3. Amu Djoleto - Money Galore

4. Abruquah - The Catechist

5. Kobina Sekyi - The Blinkards

6. Ama Ata Aidoo - Sister Kiljoy/The Dilemma of a Ghost/Changes

7. Cameron Duodu - The Garb Boys

8. Atukwei Okai - Logoligi Logarithms

9. Efua Sutherland - Edufa

10. Kofi Awoonor - This Earth my Brother

11. Kwesi Brew

12. Asare Konadu

13. Jawa Apronti

14. Kwabena Asiedu

Some Origins of English

In 55 B.C., Julius Caeser invaded and conquered Gaul (France) and Britain, making him exclaim, ‘Veni Verdi Verci’ (I came, I saw, I conquered). Hence, many Latin words crept into the English language as many place names in Britain bear some Latin names, such as the Hadrian’s Wall built in northern England to keep off invaders from Scotland. In the 6th century A.D., St Augustine from Rome was sent to evangelise and Christianise Britain. He was the first Archibishop of Canterbury (different from St Augustine of Hippo from Carthage, Numidia who lived in the 4th century A.D.) Earlier on, some Greeks had made their impact on the English language as Greek in the ancient world was considered the language of the bible and scholars. Hence, we find the English language replete with words derived from Greek and Latin. Also in 1066 A.D., William the Conqueror of Normandy in France invaded and conquered Britain. French became the official language of the English courts. Before then, there were the sporadic hordes of marauders, the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Anglo-Saxons and other people from Scandinavia and the continent who invaded the shores of Britain. A welter of barbarian languages infiltrated into English as the Roman Empire disintegrated. Imperialism took Britain to India (British East India Company), North America (under the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, with support from explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Jim Hawkins, among others), and many parts of Africa, principally West, East, South, Central and Southern Africa (through the influence of explorers, missionaries, adventurers such as David Livingstone, Mungo Park, Speke, Murchinson, Cecil Rhodes, Moffat, Lord Lugard, Lord Kitchener, Cameron, Gordon, Sir Charles McCarthy, Maclean, among others). Hence many Zulu, Sanskrit, Bantu and Amerindian words gained currency in the English language. Words like algebra and admiral came from Arabic. Ghanaian words which have added to the corpus of English language include kente cloth, kwashiorkor, galamsey, sakawa and others. Zulu words which have infiltrated into English include vuvuzela, sangoma, bwana, muti, nsaka, ubuntu, nganga, impi, mfecane, assegai. Afrikaans words which have become common fare in English include sjambok (whip), kraal (enclosure of huts with cattle), trek (long march on foot), braai (grilled meat), apartheid (separate racial development). Italians have enriched the English language with words connected to food and music such as opera, oratorio, and pizza. The Dutch in Netherlands contributed words connected with cartography and science. The Germans through the World Wars and Hitler, left us historical terminologies such as ubermensche (superman), Herrenvolk (master race or superior race), Luftwaffe (air force), Lebensraum, Fuhrer (overlord or Kaiser), Meinkampf (my struggle), blitzkrieg (total obliteration), Anschluss (territorial expansion), autobahn (highway). During the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, the Crusades by European knights also led to intercourse with the people of the Holy Land, which also enriched the English language. Thus, English is an amalgam, hotch potch, welter and melting pot of many languages. Thus, the question goes, (posed by Kofi Amenyo on 9/3/12) “What kind of English should Ghanaians speak?”.. Room, are you there, I want to enahoro you and pond you (speaking in tongues, reminiscent of heydays at Legon in the 70s. I hope this treatise has made it clear that it all depends where you are, who you are, what you do, how you perceive yourself and how the world perceives you. I have come across many horrible boo boos and howlers on Ghanaweb which makes me feel like puking, vomiting or retching. Many writers, contributors, commentators have written in very bad language with unpardonable spelling mistakes and gargantuan grammatical errors, which are horrific. However, we have freedom of expression, worship, conscience and the whole gamut of human rights. Who am I, son of a poor bricklayer, to comment on the horrors of writing on Ghanaweb?

At Legon from 1975 to 1978, my role models were K.B. Dickson (Geography), George Benneh (Geography), Adu Gyamfi (Statistics), Tetteh Addo (Geography, Jones Ofori Atta (Economics), Kofi Drah (Law), Kwesi Dickson (Religions), Nabila (Geography), Twumasi (Sociology), Kofi Asare Opoku (African Studies), Benning (Geography). Some of the best articulators of the English language that I ever came across were found in the Methodist Church at Winneba. Here, I have in mind both resident superintendents/bishops and guest preachers such as Reverends Dr Agbeti, Dr Thompson, Dr Stevens, Yedu Bannerman, B.A. Dadson, Essamuah, T.W Koomson, and Kwesi Dickson.

Next time you check me on Ghanaweb, do not forget to ask me about other veteran broadcasters and journalists such as Chris Usher, Ben Eghan Junior, Adjoa Yeeboah Afari, Dr Kofi Frimpong (‘what do you know?’ fame) radio quiz master, Ben Ephson.


I read a lot of novels in my youth and researched about one of the giants and denizens of the English language, Dr Ben Johnson. He was a lexicologist and was said to have been one of the pioneers for compiling the English dictionary of modern times.Personally, I use Webster Dictionary, alongside two volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Collins, Advanced Learners as well as online dictionaries. Dr Ben Johnson was famously notorious for his bombastic, stilted and high falutin sentences. For example, he defined the word network as ‘anything decussated and recussated at the interstices’. Instead of saying birds of the same feathers flock together, it is on record that he said, ‘Ornithological species of identical plummage congregrate in closer proximity and propinquity’. Since aeroplanes were not invented during his time, I will venture here in what words he would have described them.

‘An ingenious and humungous anthropological contraption, improvised and endowed with levitation potential to approximate the ornithological species in their diumal avocation, suspended as aerial leviathan, perambulating and circumlocuting the firmament, in the noble pursuit of mass transit.’ Hmm! Instead of saying a large fire consumed the church building, Johnson would have said, ‘ A tremendous conflagration consumed the ecclesiastical edifice, obliterating and annihilating it beyond cognizance.’ Instead of saying that it is better to receive early a blow which is meant for you, instead of dilly dallying about it, Johnson would have said, ‘A blow, inevitably yours, earlier encountered, extricates you from further torrential hostilities,’. Instead of saying a large number of people gathered at the precincts of the church to pray, Johnson would have said, ‘A multitudinous multifarious concourse of humanity, congregated at the occidental terminus of the ecclesiastical edifice to enunciate the munificence of the omnipotent, who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnificent.; Chao!

Some beautiful tunes of the 70s

1. Madamfo pa beko egya me na maye no sen ni- Kofi Ani Johnson

2. Mboborowa a a a mboborowa…..se molasses ni wiase a a mboborowa

3. Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, you on my mind-Johnny Nash

4. Kung Fu Fighting- Carl Douglas

5. Growing old, growing old, anguish, I never, growing old

6. Ekoo tse burofo

7. When will I see you again- Three Degrees

8 My friend Fernando-Abba\

9. Dancing Queen –Abba

10. Everything I own-Ken Boothe

11. Mary’s boy child-Bonney M

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi

12TH March 2012

Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta