By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK
The ascension of Mr John Dramani Mahama onto the Ghanaian Presidency following the sudden death of the substantive President, the late Prof John Evans Attah Mills has resurrected another ugly side of Ghanaians, especially, on media websites. Since the former Vice-President assumed office as President of the Republic on 24 July 2012, we have witnessed the resurgent of the word, “pepeni” in reference to the President, His Excellency Mr John Dramani Mahama. This name calling has reminded me of an incident my late grandmother discussed with my younger sister and me as kids decades ago. What she shared with us has perhaps, consciously or unconsciously fashioned my world view on respect for others since then. It is this childhood experience vis-à-vis the use of the word “pepeni” to refer to the President and his northern origin that form the body of this article.
I read from Stephen Attah Owusu’s article on the origin of the word Jamaica, which according to article was from the Akan word “ gyae menka”, which I suspect was corrupted by people of non-Akan origin and therefore metamorphosed into Jamaica (see “Visa Contractors and US Diversity Lottery Fraudsters ....”, Ghanaweb, August 27, 2012). His brief description on the origin of Jamaica resonated with me the incident with my grandmother in the 1960s.
A niece of her late husband returned home from Kumasi after several years to join the annual Easter celebrations with her family as commonly done in Ghana. Unknown to her family, the objective of her rare visit was to inform her parents that she had met a man she loved and who also loved her, so the parents should expect an emissary from the man’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. She had even come with the tall and handsome photo of the husband to be to show her family. To her utter shock her parents were very disappointed in her choice of a future husband and son in law. They were disgusted that their only educated female child had come home after many years away with the unexpected to the extent that the father said, he regretted wasting his money to give her to college education. I overheard the father asking repeatedly, ‘Pepeni?, Pepeni?, Pepeni? and saw the woman in tears. Observing from the kitchen with my younger sister we were too young at that time to understand what was going on (I was just about seven years old).
When we went to bed that night, my younger sister who was two years younger had the audacity to ask grandma why the auntie from the city wept. I was horrified she brought up that subject because our grandmother had warned us not to listen to adult conversations or discuss them even if we eavesdrop on adult conversations. I knew she had landed us into trouble and I would get a good scolding. To my relief, grand sat on her bed and asked us to listen to her very carefully.
She told us that the woman was in love with someone who wants to marry her but the man was from the north. In other words, he was “Pepeni” so her parents had refused to give their blessing to the marriage and ordered her to end the relationship with immediate effect. Grand explained that the word “pepeni” was from the Akan word “pepeepe” (I hope I have got the Akan spelling right) meaning ‘exact”, “honest”, “truthful” because when northers migrated to the south, they were so honest and truthful that, their no was no and yes was yes. One could leave them alone at home with gold and diamond unattended and on your return nothing would have gone astray. They were also very punctual and always on time. As a result the southners or Akans referred to the northners as ‘pepeepefuo’. That is, honest and truthful people. That was how they gained popularity in the security industry as watchmen in Ghana. With time the word was corrupted to become pepefuo or pepeni (singular), subsequently and sadly the word pepeni gained derogatory meaning.
Grand further explained to us that, northners often moved in groups of at least, two. For example, if you gave one a job, the next day he came with another northner and introduced him as a brother who also needed work. As a result they were referred to “ntafuo”, meaning the twins and that was also corrupted into ‘nntafuo’ (‘tani’ for singular). Again nntafuo also became derogatory. At this stage, I was so engrossed in my grand’s revelations that my fears and worries of being told off had disappeared completely. It sounded like grand was telling us folklore or one of her Kwaku Ananse stories but this appeared to be real story and real people to me.
Grand made us aware that, she could not understand why the woman’s parents turned down a man from hardworking, honest and truthful people just because he was from the north. She counselled us never to look down on any human being no matter what his or her circumstances were. Later, I became aware that my grandmother was the only person who supported the woman’s choice but since she was a woman, her view did not carry any weight in the 60s rural and matriarchal Ghana. The woman returned to Kumasi and her family never heard from her again but reliable sources were that she never married.
As I grew up and left our grandmother and sister to live with my uncle in Accra, went to secondary school, etc, I came to understand and appreciate my late grandmother’s early views on equality. In fact, she was far ahead of her time, bearing in mind that she never went to school. As I mature and became involved with equality and human rights work, I now fully understand why she took those positions at the time. My grand had a disability and though I never witness anyone looked down on her, I believed that deep down in her heart she might have felt different in society. She never allowed her disability to be a barrier in her life. In fact, she was very industrious, a successful farmer and often gave food to the needy and people came to borrow money and other resources from her. She was one of the only two female members of her husband’s household to have had her own cocoa farm.
I do not know whether I did believe or doubted my grand’s lessons on etymology as a kid but strangely I never shared them with anyone. Perhaps, I was afraid that the family secret may be rumoured around and finally get back to my grand who could have fished me out as the source or probably it was because I never heard any adult tell similar story about the origins of the words pepeni and ntafuo in Ghana, Interestingly, I recently heard the same story recounted by Opanin Asiama on his Epone radio programme and I immediately recollected that fateful day and night. I knew my late grandmother did not make up the stories.
So if pepeni meant honest and truthful person, why is the term used to denigrate people from the north? Why are some Ghanaians worried that the President is ‘pepeni’? I remember the same pepeni was used against Dr Hilla Limann when he was the Presidential candidate of the People’s National Party in the 1979 elections, particularly during the second round against Mr Victor Owusu, the candidate of the Popular Front Party. I heard Limann’s opponents tell the electorates not vote for pepeni as President.
Again, if the word ‘ntafuo’ was originally used to describe the fact that northern migrants moved in groups of at least two, why is it now derogatory? Is that not reality of the life for all immigrants? As foreign students in Europe, we moved in groups, especially for fear of racist attacks. In Eastern Europe, it was very common for Africans (West, East, North and Southern African students) to live and move together. Again, there were groups of Anglophone and Francophone students living and moving together. Further still, even among the West Africans, Ghanaian and Nigerian students were closer together than any other groups despite the rivalry between them, especially in the area of football.
This type of community solidarity, be it ethnic, religious, national regional or international is very typical among all Diasporas across the globe. Whether in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Australia or Africa, immigrants from the same origin or common backgrounds live and work together to support each other and that was exactly what northern migrants in southern Ghana did decades ago. So why these support system and coping mechanism that have worked very well to the benefit of generations of immigrants, considered bad in Ghana for only people from the north? Are we all, especially those of us in the Diaspora not ‘nntafuo’? Are there Akans from southern Ghana who have migrated to northern Ghana and if so, do they move together or live together? If yes, are they also not nntafuo?
I know that there are very few honest and truthful politicians anywhere in the world because what they say and promise when candidates are very different from what they do once elected into office. It is common knowledge that most African politicians, including Ghanaians are corrupt and dishonest. However, if my late grandmother’s origins of the words ‘pepeni’ and ‘ntafuo’ are true, then I see no reason why we should not have pepni or tani as a President.
Having said the above, has the word pepeni any relevance in today’s Ghana, let alone in politics? Are there any remaining honest, truthful and punctual northners in Ghana in the true and original meaning of the word ‘pepeni’ as was in my late grandmother’s days? I doubt it. Most Ghanaians, including northners, the original honest, truthful and punctual people have been contaminated and corrupted by us all. Most of us, if not all, are corrupt, dishonest, greedy and selfish, ready to loot the national coffers for the benefit of our families and cronies. The word ‘pepeni has lost its real meaning and no longer relevant in today’s Ghana.
Northners do not deserve to be called pepefuo any longer. They have been assimilated into the Ghanaian fabric of corruption and dishonesty with no sense of time and can no longer either collectively or individually be referred to as pepefuo or ‘pepeni’. The President, His Excellency John Mahama is a northner but he cannot be described as pepeni because I do not believe that he is honest and truthful enough to be bestowed that title or honour. Above all he is Ghanaian first and northner second. There is no longer any pepeni still standing in Ghana but only Ghanaians. Pepeni is not derogatory or an insult, instead, an honour, privilege and pride to be conferred on honest, truthful and dignified person or people. For those of us who are ignorant about the origin and true meaning of the word ‘pepeni’, please stop misusing it on people from the north unless you are absolutely confident that s/he deserves its true meaning. People from the north are no longer honest and truthful than any other Ghanaian from the south, east or west. Is there any true pepeni still standing in Ghana? When you find two, please let me know. Either we are all pepefuo and ntafuo or there is none in Ghana.
Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK