Friday, November 9, 2012
“…two nations divided by a common language”
This quote is likely to have issued from the lips of George Bernard Shaw and, of course, refers to Great Britain and the United States of America. Having watched, or had inflicted upon me, the election carousel for the American Presidency over the last few months, I become more aware how language causes cognitive and emotional dissonance. In other words I am at a loss to fully comprehend or believe what is actually being said and felt by US citizens. This goes all the way from manual worker to the President himself, whose rhetoric can be so overblown and flowery it has me trying to uncurl a tightly locked bum. Of course I wanted Obama to win but at what cost? The amount spent on the election (money that would have wiped out Sandy inflicted debts) the continual reference to the United States as the greatest nation on earth, the projection of the US as ‘one family’, the over simplification of issues, the relative lack of reference to the disastrous Bush years and the negative campaigning seemed less like a democracy in action and more like a mammoth, self-inflicted character assassination. When I worked in Uzbekistan after the break down of the Russian confederation, the whole impetus of American businesses there was so capitalist, market hungry and self-aggrandising that I could not work with them. Not that the UK, in its own unique way, is any less paradoxical when it comes to self-presentation. Or France. Or Ghana. Each imagines it is democratic but has a different way of demonstrating it and conjuring it up in language and behaviour that is hard for outsiders to penetrate fully..
Having worked and lived in Accra for nearly five years, partially supporting my wife’s business www.sixteen47.com which involves around forty staff on three times the national average wage for their lines of work and with free literacy and IT programmes, medical support and western working hours, the difficulties of expressing exactly what I want from colleagues are manifold. They are equatorial people without many UK/US business reference points such as seasons of the year, postal addresses, disposable income, legal process, reporting, appraisal and so on. It has taken over a decade to create a critical mass of staff who understand the disciplines of working as one team, planning and being strategic within a global marketplace. This is often because these concepts are utterly different from the world of their upbringing in an oral culture that is opportunistic, dependent on largesse and reactive to harsh daily circumstance and the often corrupt practices of the powers that be. Even though they speak English as well as tribal languages, everything still has to be painstakingly defined by stripping down concepts to their absolute essence. The consequences can be gratifying for everyone. Now, every worker can go to a cyber cafe and download his/her paycheck, every one has a bank account, illness through poor diet has decreased measurably and the ethos of the work place is vibrant and lauded by regular inspections from Ministry agencies. These days there are no senior managers. Everyone is in a team and has a supervisor with strict parameters of responsibility. Individuals who were illiterate a few years ago are handling orders, stocking the website, taking fashion photographs, discussing problems with UK colleagues and supporting their sometimes irascible customers.
The point I am making is that cultures are often deeply antithetical even when a language is shared. The effort to establish shared meaning requires intensive intellectual labour and dedication to the notion that it is lack of opportunity and experience that prevents a village man or woman here from aspiring to middle class wealth and achieving a career and a future for his or her family. Ghana suffers from poor to non existent universal education and health programmes. Its middle classes are not overly disposed to raise universal standards.
On top of that there is this problem of language. As a Star Trekker might say, “It is the English language but not as we know it Captain.”