by George Akanlig-Pare, Department of Linguistics, University of Ghana, Legon


When I sat down to this task, to speak for Buli, the language of the Bulsa(1) people in the Upper East Region of northern Ghana, I had no illusions whatsoever that it was going to be easy-going. I knew some of the things I was going to say, would sound 'scandalous' to many people, for reasons that I think are rather superficial to occupy us here. I am quite aware, however, that such sentiments are very common among minority groups everywhere in the world, especially when such groups are predominantly non-literate.

What I propose here is for us to adopt a stand to promote the effective use of Buli as the medium of instruction in primary schools in Buluk(2) and subsequently as a subject of study in the second and tertiary institutions. I shall try to give reasons why I think this will benefit us as a people more than the current practice does, and especially at the primary school level.

For the benefit of doubt, let me put the current system in perspective. It is stated clearly in the constitution of Ghana that for the first three years of primary education the mother-tongue of the child should be used as the medium of instruction. This means Buli in the case of the Bulsa.

üæêt in Ife by a group of linguists working in collaboration with the beneficiary communities. The project was designed to find out the most appropriate language for effective teaching in Nigerian primary schools.

To execute the program, textbooks and study aids were carefully produced in Yoruba. Teachers were selected and trained to handle them effectively and efficiently. At the end of the six years, an examination was conducted for the children who went through the normal stream where English was the medium of instruction as well as for those in the experimental Six Years School Project. The results showed a very high success percentage for the latter over the former. Paradoxically, the children in the project did better in the English test than their counterparts who had English as medium of from primary one. Thereafter, these pupils continued to do well in the secondary schools.

Despite this resounding success, the program was not adopted because the politicians failed to appreciate the impact this would have had on the socio-economic development of the nation. Nevertheless, this is the benefit our children stand to enjoy if we adopt the use of Buli as the medium of instruction in the first six years of their formal education. At the end of the sixth year, not only will they be sufficiently literate in Buli to be able to read and write in it, but they will also be better prepared for further education.

And why should we not adopt this program when even a casual evaluation of the current system reveals a very pathetic picture. Although not officially stated, it is obvious that a good number of the pupils who start school do not go beyond primary six. And at that stage, their ability to think and use the English language is near zero. Most of them do not even know how to spell their names, and when they do not need English to operate at all the near-zero English that they barely managed to acquire disappears together with the little they learnt in it. This is when they become the notorious "yerikarichiba". Yes, they relapse into stark illiteracy to add to the already large stock of illiterate Bulsa who never set foot in a classroom. The net effect of this is both suffocating stagnation and morbidity in all that relates to the development and progress of Bulsa society.

This is an embarrassing and sad situation because for a long time to come, primary six will continue to be the terminal point for the majority of children in Buluk, and considering that primary education will continue to be the only major source of formal education for them to fulfil whatever achievements they are capable of, as well as contribute their quota towards the development of Buluk, it is imperative that we provide them with the best primary education as possible. This, by all intents and purposes must be done in Buli. The reason for this resides in the huge impact the linguistic environment builds into the development of the child.

Empirical evidence shows that when this environment is changed very often in the formative years of a child, its cognitive development slows down. This is further explained by the fact that every thought is conceived in a language. There is never a thought that is conceived in a vacuum. So, if the cognitive process is linked to language development, it stands to reason that if there is a disruption in the language development process, there is bound, naturally, to be a disruption in the thought development process. This is simple one to one logic, but with multiple implications.

At that tender age, a child is easily confused if he has to change from one language today to another tomorrow. So in a monolingual society like Buluk, where the basic language is Buli, the education of the child will be enhanced if he starts it in Buli. And that for a good reason, because by the age of six when the child starts school, he would have started conceiving and expressing ideas and views solely in Buli. His ability to do numerical tasks such as addition, subtraction, etc. would under normal circumstances be considerably advanced already. He would also have been observing and describing the flora and fauna in his environment in Buli. In a typical rural society like Buluk, the child at that age knows that three to four days after planting a particular seed will germinate. Are these not the very concepts that are taught in Agriculture and Biology lessons? In fact, these cognitive and conceptual abilities that are given expression in Buli will be tapped and sharpened if the child starts off well in school.

Of course, the case of a child born into a multi-linguistic environment is not comparable to that of a child born into a linguistically homogenous one like Buluk. The former, having been exposed to switching from one example to another from birth, is able to cope better because that is the reality he has been born into. But even then, there are lapses when the language of instruction at school is frequently changed.

So, to enhance the cognitive development already started at home, it is advisable to teach the Bulsa child using Buli, at least for the six years of primary schooling. If this is done, it is my belief that those who do not continue to the Junior Secondary Schools, and who are in the majority, will go home literate in Buli. They could continue educating themselves non-formally if they so desire. With the availability of literature in Buli in the form of simple graded primers and story books, their competence in the reading culture can be sustained. Additional literature such as translations of health and agricultural extension manuals, government policies, and where possible rural newspapers carrying events happening in and around Buluk could go a long way to sustain their reading habits. This is prototypical of an evolving culture. For example, people will come out with their views through what they will contribute to the newspaper for others to learn, accept or reject. We need a situation like this to ensure the dynamism and sustenance of Bulsa culture. While an informed people stand the chance of making progress at all levels of their life, the ignorant stagnate. It is in the light of the many advantages a dynamic and forward-moving culture stands to have when, for example, the majority of Bulsa are literate, that I launch this crusade: a plea to all and sundry, to consider supporting in whatever way, to help propagate and promote the use of Buli in institutions of learning as both the medium of instruction and as a subject of study.

While ensuring that the products of the primary schools are minimally literate in Buli, the teaching of Buli can be strengthened in the Junior Secondary Schools and then introduced into the Senior Secondary Schools and Teacher Training Colleges as a subject of study comparable to English Language and French.

When this is done, it will not only help our candidates improve on their aggregate scores both at the JSS and SSS final examinations, but it will also come as a big relief to those who go to the Teacher Training Colleges. If anyone doubts that it will be a welcome relief, they should enquire from those who have gone through the Teacher Training Colleges. Scores of them, several years after coming out of college, are still being underpaid just because they still have a Ghanaian language hurdle to clear. These are people who were required to read, comprehend and write examinations in Ghanaian languages that they hitherto did not know, and that within three years! And while they are miserably stuck at their lowly grades, receiving pitiful salaries, their colleagues whose mother tongues are taught at the universities work their way into these institutions to study for higher diplomas and degrees. Upon graduation their promotion to higher grades within the Education Service is guaranteed. What could be more demoralising than to have a promising professional career that would have enhanced your economic and social status stalled because you could not earn a pass in a Ghanaian language!

Talking about the use of Buli to educate people, let me put on record here that there have been, and still are several efforts, albeit uncoordinated, going on to help make hundreds of adult Bulsa literate. The Catholic Church has been in the forefront of this effort for a long time. The Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translations - G.I.L.L.B.T - also needs to be mentioned in this context.

The work of these institutions, though laudable, are limited in scope and depth. Their ultimate goal, as spelt out in their agenda, is to use literacy to spread the Gospel. Critical literacy is given a secondary status.

In 1990 a huge World Bank loan facility was injected into the Ghana Functional Literacy Program. Buli was chosen among fifteen other languages for this program for one obvious reason; that it has a proportionately large and linguistically homogenous illiterate adult population. This choice was based on the 1988 Ghana Living Standards Survey which detailed among others, the literacy status of each language group. Buli was ranked among the top 15 [most illiterate groups] in a country that has about 45 to 50 district languages! That certainly is not an interesting thing to talk about!

The impact of this program has remained largely peripheral. In fact, projecting from the 1988 survey, the adult population in Buluk alone today should be passing the 100,000 mark. Projecting from the literacy status quoted, for Buluk, over 75,000 of these, representing about ¾ of the adult population should be non-literate. Yet only approximately 6,000 people, according to the records, have benefited from the huge infusion of the World Bank loan facility. A gloomy picture indeed! Yet year in and out, our primary schools churn out more and more virtual illiterates as well. If things should continue the way they are, it is predictable without sounding prophetic that by the wonder year 2020, our misery would have worsened three-fold.

There is however a way of avoiding this doom. But I do not think this lies solely in the often bleached policies built on so-called sound and rigid economic principles, because they will not be understood by the majority of illiterate Bulsa who obviously do not speak or understand the language of these policies - English. These policies have come down to us in several different guises, ever since independence, yet instead of moving ahead, we are rather sliding backwards. I think we should go back to the basics. We need a code, a tool to decode these policies for the understanding of the very people who they impact upon.

Language, in this particular instance, is to me the most appropriate basic tool. Language is the vehicle, the tool that encodes the peculiarities of the environment in which the people that are to benefit from sound economic policies live in. It is also the vessel that carries the knowledge, wisdom and culture of a people. To quote the Kenyan writer N'gugi Wa Thiong'o:

«Every language has two aspects. One aspect is its role as an agent that enables us to communicate with one another .....The other is its role as a career of a history and the culture built into the process of that communication over time. Language is the collective memory bank of a people. The two aspects are inseparable; they form a dialectical unity»

It stands to reason therefore that if the people are literate in their language, they are better placed to harness their knowledge and resources judiciously for their development.

Development is not going to be transposed from Utopia to Buluk. We, Bulsa, ourselves will have to make this possible. The most practicable way we could do this will be, and is, to develop our language and culture, and make as many people as possible literate in Buli. Our language is the repository of all that gives us an identity as a people. A literate society has several advantages over a non-literate one. Considering that the majority of the future adults and work force of Buluk drop out of school by primary six, if they do not remain literate after dropping out, then we cannot talk about development projections because there will not be competent man-power to translate these projected policies into development. None but ourselves can chart the progress and development of Bulsa society.

Speaking for Buli, I propose a two-pronged program to run concurrently for a start. One educational plane and the other a bid to compile material on our history and all aspects of our culture.

On the educational level, a team of teachers and linguists working together will develop a set of textbooks, initially for primary 1-6. Teachers' handbooks should accompany these textbooks. Then supplementary readers in the form of simplified transcripts of folk-tales as well as fiction in easily readable language reflecting the historical and material culture of Buluk could be written. I also suggest that the same team should work on coining terms to translate concepts such as scientific ones in Buli.

On the material history and culture levels, we could undertake to compile in a volume articles written on these topics. Subjects to be covered could include matters relating to the legal, marriage, inheritance, religious and economic systems of Bulsa. Such a work could be written in English, but nevertheless, with an abridged Buli translation. Eventually, when these are available, we should push for Buli to be taught in second and third cycle institutions. This way, we will not only be promoting the language as a subject of study, but we will at the same time be providing more enterprising Bulsa the opportunity to study in institutions of higher learning.

This is a cursory proposal. We could set up a committee on Bulsa to discuss at various fora and come up with a more pragmatic scheme if need be, and of course, there is the need!

Wake up Bulsadem and take your destiny into your hands!

1a subsistence agricultural people (approximately 100,000 in population )

2The land and society of the Bulsa