Opinions Wed, 24 Jun 2009

Making Gurene an Examinable subject at the BECE: facts and reflections

We have followed with keen interest the recent developments between the teachers of Gurene in the Farefari speaking communities in Bolga and the Upper East Regional Director of Education on the choice of a Ghanaian language for the Junior High School (JHS) Students to register for the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). We first register our sincere apology that we are writing from afar (UK and US). After reading the report about the regional director’s view on May 22, 2009 www.myjoyonline.com, about the teachers’ concerns on the issue and the subsequent reaction by the Head of Department of Gur-Gonja, at the University of Education, Winneba, we decided to write this article upon finding some inaccuracies and distortions of facts which have the potential of misinforming the Ghanaian public and all those who have a stake in this matter. One other crucial factor which also prompted us to respond is the fact that one of us is a lecturer in Gurene, at the University of Education Winneba, but currently studying in the UK. As an examiner and a keen follower of the issues with the authorities to include the Gurene as an examinable subject in the West African Examination Council (WAEC) we thought we could inform the public through the written media as part of our contribution for good course. We do this based on information we read about and as insiders of this long standing battle of Gurene language inclusion as an examinable subject at JHS & SHS without prejudice.

There is no gainsaying that the danger that lurks in language issues and the concomitant reactions from aggrieved parties has the potential of whipping up ethnic sentiments, unnecessary tension and unwarranted emotions if the general public are not well informed about the ensuing Gurene language problem and the facts pertaining to it in particular. Some people are reluctant to discuss the issue of language and particularly our Ghanaian languages, and some simply prefer to brush it aside. Undeniably, language remains one of the criteria used to ascertain requirements of any foreigner wishing to acquire a legal Ghanaian nationality or citizenship. For example, the constitutions of Ghana since 1969 have consistently stated that any applicant at the time of applying for nationality status should be able to speak and understand an indigenous Ghanaian language as a requirement for the naturalization process. For the relevant sections we refer readers to 1992 constitution (pg 8, art. 9 (2)), the 1979 constitution (pg.17 art. 17 (2)), and the 1969 constitution (pg. 10 art. 2). This suggests that Ghanaian languages at least remain the common symbols of our national identity. Indeed, many elsewhere will attest to the fact that whenever you are in the streets of London or New York or (anywhere in the world) and over hear a group of people speaking a Ghanaian Language, you will be attracted to the group with inquisitiveness. Psychologically, you feel elated to have identified yourself with a brother or a sister, no matter which part of Ghana they hail from. Such is the power of language, identifying and uniting people belonging to a common group. Linguistic peculiarities therefore are among the traits most frequently employed to single out a group and we cannot run away from this fact as a nation. Languages apart from been used as communicative instruments, also serve as group labels loaded with social baggage. Thus beyond interaction, language also denotes group affiliation.

Our aim in this write up is primarily to discuss some of these issues and particularly to inform the Ghanaian public (readers) about some facts pertaining to the state of development of the Gurene language, and its role as a unifying factor among the Farefari community and beyond. We do this without prejudice but with the sole aim of providing information for the educational authorities to ensure there is no discrimination at any level in our country regarding linguistics rights/issues in general and Gurene in particular. Gurene is one of the many languages spoken in the Northern Regions (Upper East, Upper West and Northern) and the major language spoken in the Upper East regional capital, Bolgatanga. The language is spoken in a large area within the Upper East Region. It is spoken in four districts out of the eight districts in the Upper East Region, namely Bolgatanga Municipality, Bongo District, Talensi-Nabdam District and Kasena-Nankani East in the Navrongo district. The name commonly known among many other speakers in Ghana is the anglicized form ‘Frafra’. The correct pronunciation by native speakers is Farifari. There are debates as to whether the language should be Farifari or Gurene. We do not intend to debate or discuss these issues of language name in this write up since that is not our focus for now. What is however certain is that Gurene is the name used in Upper East schools (from Kindergarten to University). The name Farifari in the past has been associated with some negative connotations sometimes by people of other ethnic groups who lack knowledge of the true name or the Gurene people in general. Also, some native speakers tend to shy away or disassociate themselves from the name ‘Farifari’. Farifari however, remains the most unifying language name for all the different varieties of speech forms (Gurene, Talen, Nabt, Nankani and Booni) that exist in these communities but Gurene is used in schools.

The people and particularly the youth association of Bolga, Nabdam, Bongo and Tongo (BONABOTO) recognizing the need to promote unity and development in their area have since the 1990s established the BONABOTO Educational Endowment Fund (BEAF). One of its main objectives is the development of the Gurene language mainly to maintain unity and to advance their minority status. Also more crucially, they aim to produce highly qualified teachers in the language who will be willing to stay in the North and promote education through teaching and learning. BONABOTO has consistently and vigorously pursued this agenda by contributing financially to support educational programmes in the area especially the Gurene language. They have over the years partnered with the Gurene Language Development Association (GULDA), and the three district assemblies to pursue this agenda. Through partnership efforts they have provided funding for the training of some teachers of the language at the Universities and Teacher Training Colleges. They have also supported and continue to support the production of material for the teaching and learning of the Gurene language. Recently (November 2007) at the launch of the Gurene-English Dictionary in Legon BONABOTO pledged an amount of Five Thousand Ghana Cedis (GHS 5,000) for the support of more materials production for the teaching of the language. It is probably the only largest singular support for language development by any Youth Association in Ghana that we are aware of. It is particularly gratifying to know that BONABOTO and the district assemblies sponsored staff of the Gurene Unit in the University of Education, Winneba and Professor Mary E. Kropp Dakubu (language expert and consultant) of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana to produce the Gurene writing or spelling rules (Orthography) in 2000. Further more, students and staff of the Gurene unit have also produced volumes of high quality literature on the language which is currently being used for teaching at various levels from Primary, Junior High School, Senior High School, and Training Colleges to University. It is pertinent to note that these groups have had tremendous support from BONABOTO and the district assemblies as well as benevolent individuals from the area for these projects. These efforts coupled with agitations by students and teachers of the Teacher Training Colleges (e.g. St John Boscos and Gbewaah Teacher Training Colleges) in the late 1990s prompted the Institute of Education, University of Cape Coast to introduce Gurene as one of the examinable Ghanaian Languages as far back in 2002. Since the introduction of the language at the teacher training college, students from the Gurene speaking areas and other closely related language groups (e.g. Kusaal, Nankani, Talen, Nabt, and Buli) have found the study of Gurene to their advantage. Until then students from these communities at the Teacher Training Colleges were asked to choose Dagbani or Dagaare for examination even though they did not speak either language, more so these languages are not mutually “intelligible” with theirs. They had serious challenges and the choice became a matter of necessity rather than interest. They were required to spend a very short time in studying or learning either of these languages and then write the examinations within two terms. The consequences were disastrous. For example most students failed the Ghanaian Language paper and were eventually withdrawn. Indeed one of the present authors offered Dagbani in the first year at Pusiga Training College in the 1990s but later had to write the exams in Kasem an entirely different language within one year. As of now, with the introduction of Gurene in the Training College Curriculum, an overwhelming number of students from Saint John Boscos Training College, Gbewaah (Pusiga) Training College, Tumu Training College, and many students from other Teacher Training Colleges across the country opt for Gurene every year.

It is worthy of mentioning that through the Norwegian Programme for Research, Development and Higher Education (NUFU) support for Ghanaian Languages Dictionary Projects in the Department of Linguistics, University of Ghana, the Gurene-English Dictionary and the English-Gurene Glossary were published in the year 2007 by Prof Mary E. Kropp Dakubu, Atintono S. Awinkene and Nsoh, Avea E. All three authors are lecturers who have done extensive research on the language. It is probably the second only Ghanaian Language today to have such a dictionary after Akan. This is a further boost to the stock of teaching and learning materials that already exist.

In terms of teachers, the Gurene Unit, at the University of Education, Winneba, has produced many teachers (over 200 since 1990) who are well motivated to teach and are teaching the language at the Primary, and Junior High School (JHS) in all four districts since the 1990s. The two Teacher Training Colleges (at Navrongo and Pusiga) have equally produced large numbers of Gurene teachers. The most frustrating hurdle faced by the teachers today is the delay in granting approval by the GES for WAEC to include it as one of the examinable subjects at the JHS and SHS levels. Many of their students also appear frustrated and less motivated to learn the language since they are not permitted to write the exams in the language after taking it as a course. It is apparently ironical that Gurene language with all the rich supply of materials and support mentioned earlier in this write up it is still left out of the WAEC subject list under the guise of no teaching and learning materials. Good people of Ghana (readers) your guess is as good as ours.

It is important to note that, one of the present authors and others who followed up on the issue at the Ghana Education Service, (GES-Accra) and WAEC to include Gurene as one of the examinable subjects are very much aware that official approval was granted by GES to WAEC in 2005 to include Gurene as one of the examinable subjects. There are documents to prove that the Professional Board of the Institute of Education, University of Cape Coast, as far back in 2002 did recommend to the GES to grant approval to WAEC to include Gurene as an examinable subject at the Basic and SSS levels. The then Director, Teacher Education Division who represents the GES at the Professional Board was expected to formalize the process by writing to WAEC on the decision taken. However, due to bureaucratic processes and apparent lack of interest shown by some officials in GES and WAEC the issue has been delayed. We are happy to learn from the Head of Gur-Gonja Department, UEW, that other follow ups made last year by the Gurene Language Development Association (GULDA) and lecturers of the Department of Gurene Unit, the issue is receiving attention by the GES. It is our fervent hope that GES will expedite action on this very important issue to avoid the psychological trauma that most students from these communities experience when asked to write Dagbani and subsequently exempted from writing any Ghanaian language when these efforts fail. The truth is that most teachers of Gurene can hardly speak Dagbani. It therefore becomes a challenge if not a myth for Gurene teachers to successfully teach students to pass in a language that they have no instructional and content knowledge on. Sadly, the danger that awaits students who do not take exams in the Ghanaian language becomes an unintended consequence to be paid later by a higher price. The computerized selection process adopted by GES for placement into SHS makes the inclusion of a Ghanaian language mandatory. If a candidate does not opt for a Ghanaian language then it becomes problematic for such a candidate to be allocated a school of his or her choice. Indeed most students from these areas have experienced this allocation problem since the introduction of the computerized system.

Also, the Educational Reforms implemented in September 2007 requires the use of a Ghanaian Language (with sufficient materials and teachers) as medium of instruction from the Kindergarten to Primary 3. We recall that between September 2007 and January 2008, some publishers contracted some writers (again one of the present authors did take part) to produce books in Gurene from Primary 4 to Primary 6 and JHS 1–JHS 3. These books are camera ready for publication but again approval by the authorities remains a problem, so publishers cannot publish these books.

We will like to conclude in this first write up by saying that, since the growth and development of our students’ linguistic abilities is closely related to the learning of their first language (native), Gurene per se should not be exclusively denied this effort to get the kids to learn to read in their native languages, because it will help curb the high illiteracy rate that sometimes contributes to underdevelopment.

Authors: Atintono A. Samuel (PhD Linguistics student), University of Manchester, UK (atintono@yahoo.com) & Eugene Asola (PhD.), University of Alabama, US (eugene642001@yahoo

Columnist: Atintono A. Samuel & Eugene Asola