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My chicken story

David C. Butty

David C. Butty

By David C. Butty

The mighty Mississippi River is one of America’s greatest rivers — so I was taught by my geography teacher way back in Africa, when I was in grade school. How can I ever forget the Mississippi? Although I had at that time never set foot on American soil, I one day got my fill of the Mississippi in my spelling class.

When I was in grade school in Liberia, West Africa, my teacher would conduct a spelling drill each Friday shortly before we were dismissed for the weekend. The students would line up and the teacher would pick words out of any book available to test our spelling knowledge. The one who spelled every word correctly remained at the head of the line while the worst speller remained at the rear. The goal for every student was to be the duce, or simply put, be the one at the head of the class who every student will try to knock out. Sometimes it was possible for the teacher to instruct the duce who had correctly spelled every word to give the worst speller two or three lashes in the palms of their hand, using a whip.

On one particular Friday afternoon, we were all lined up expecting to show how good we were in spelling. I was very sharp on this particular afternoon; I had spelled every word the teacher presented to me. I advanced to the second position in the class line-up and my heart raced — I would make it to the head of the class and have something to brag about for the weekend. Then the bombshell fell. The teacher read aloud what I thought was the weirdest word in all education because it was my first time hearing it. I was asked to spell Mississippi. I was dumbfounded. I had the “Miss…and I knew there would be double “Ps” in the word, but I drew blank. Mississippi, Paul Robeson’s “‘Ol Man River,” had drowned me. The kid at the head of the class correctly spelled Mississippi, capitalizing on my misspelling which gave him a clue. He gave me three hard lashes in the palms of my hand. I swore to myself I would never misspell Mississippi again. Since that day, I have not forgotten the hardship of trying to acquire Western education.

I came to the United States to study at the University of Minnesota. I had heard much about America because Liberia, my homeland, was once considered “Little United States in Africa,” due to Liberia’s political ties to the United States. English was introduced to Liberia when the freed slaves from the United States settled there almost 200 years ago, though the  Americo-Liberians didn’t introduce English to Liberia . The British, history shows, established roots in Liberia before the coming of the free-slaves; hence, many in Liberia, including my own mother — peace be to her soul — counted money in English pounds, shillings and pence.

We know the free slaves as ‘Americo-Liberians’ because they are supposedly descendants of freed American slaves, and have since made English the official language for diplomatic communication. However, there are more than 17 dialects for communication in Liberia, and one traveling a radius of 50 miles must be fluent in more than two or three dialects to be able to understand neighboring ethnic groups.

At the University of Minnesota, I had to take a freshman composition class. It was in that freshman composition class I realized how little American children know about Africa. A young woman sitting next to me asked me this question. “David, when did you learn how to speak English and what African did you speak when you were in Africa?” She asked proudly, knowing she had caught this country boy by surprise. Every eye and ear in the entire class of the introduction to political science — a large group lecture class, were now focused on me. The professor, a young African American male slowly put down his chalk as he listened attentively with the rest of the students.

I was not offended as I replied. “Ma’am,” I said, in an African accent I knew everyone could understand. “I learned how to speak English on the plane on my way from Africa. You see, there is a small room on the plane and they put you in that room and for the duration of the flight you had to learn how to speak English,” I told her. She opened her mouth so wide that I could see her wisdom teeth and her eyes almost popped out of their sockets. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “You’re smart!” she proudly acknowledged. “That is awesome!” She did not hide her admiration of this African from Liberia who learned how to speak English on Pan Am.

While this young woman was drooling over my tall tale, a young African American male sitting next to her openly showed his embarrassment. The look on his face clearly showed she had shown her ignorance to the world at one of America’s Big Ten Universities. “You see, Ma’am,” he began to respond. “In this world, if you ask a stupid or dumb question, in most likely cases, you will receive a stupid or dumb response.” His answer was now more of a monologue than a direct reply to her.

“This guy is taking freshman composition and his grades are even better than most of us who claim English is our native language. He tells you he learned English on the plane and you’re drooling?”

My young college freshman classmate was not in a class of her own. Each time I speak to students in metro Detroit schools — something I do often and enjoy immensely — I am confronted with the question of how I learned how to speak English. They’re usually surprised when I tell them it required checkers, switches and a 50-cent rooster.

As a child in my hometown of Jakakehn, in eastern Liberia, I was forbidden to speak my native language both in and out of school. Because speaking English was equated with civilization, students were told to be “civilized,” like the so-called Americo-Liberians, and missionaries, who did not speak any of the native languages.

My school had a “Good Speech Club,” in which the officers appointed by the teacher monitored students’ English-speaking abilities. These officers, known as the “checkers,” were students picked by the school instructors to enforce club rules. These kids, some of whom were barely more fluent in English than those they were checking, either were children who lived with the school instructors or who were exposed to English-speaking people like Americo-Liberians or missionaries.

It was a prestigious achievement for a student to make the transition from learning how to speak English to becoming a checker. Students who spoke in their native language were either “fined” or punished with a switch called a “tit-tie” (rattan). This harsh punishment for speaking in one’s language caused some children to stop speaking to their parents, who could not speak or understand English. Some children even stopped attending school. The checkers carried notebooks they used to record the number of times non-English students spoke their native language. For each word they spoke, they were “fined” a penny and at the end of the week at a club meeting the number of non-English words spoken during that week was tallied and presented to school instructors.

It was very hard on both the students, who were punished for communicating in their own language and thus denied the right to express themselves culturally, and for their parents who had to scrape together their little earnings to pay for their children’s fines. Sometimes new students, who knew little or no English, either had to rely on sign language or not communicate at all while a checker was nearby. Some parents had to sell their livestock in order to pay the club. Some people who had money took advantage and bought the livestock at unusually cheap prices.

I still can remember how my mother had to sell the only rooster we had for 50 cents to pay my fine. I could not afford to place unnecessary expenses on my parents, who, though they could not read and write English, were supportive of me and my brothers in school. While in school, we were told to become Christians because most schools were either headed by Christian missionaries or by people who were exposed to the Christian religion. For example, a child in school would be told to take the name of a saint. This was one way, the missionaries said, in which the child’s prayer would be answered — first by his or her patron saint and then by God. That’s how I got the name David. Because most saints’ names were European, many indigenous Liberians who embraced Christianity and were Western-educated, had to give up their given African names to take their saint’s name — European names.

Even children were told to give up their African surnames for European names. To gain higher education, children had to travel away from home to live with Americo-Liberians; teachers easily associated a child with the person with whom the child lived. Also, pronouncing African names was difficult for the instructors, who only spoke English.

Gradually, indigenous Liberians who were more proficient in English and became Christians even refused to accept they could speak in their native language. One of the reasons was they were afraid of losing their “civilized” respect among their peers. Today, some of those Liberians claiming to be Americo-Liberians are victims of the system. As a result of Liberia’s civil war, Americo-Liberians have come to be regarded by many as an oppressive elite class. Thus many Liberians, who adopted European names, or names of their so-called patron saints for formal Western education or to become Christians, are now going back to their original African names.

As for me, I have always been and will always be proud that I am a native son, forced to speak English. I am able to communicate in more than six Liberian dialects, and as for English, my story of the eight-hour English course on the airplane from Africa, influence’s how I communicate with the world today — thanks to my mother’s rooster.

David C. Butty, a native of Liberia, West Africa, is executive dean for international programs at Wayne County Community College District. This column appears monthly in the Michigan Citizen.


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