My father is illiterate. He cannot read or write. And his knowledge of the English language is limited to pidgin.
Does that make my father useless or has nothing to offer his country?
For nearly three decades, he worked as the night watchman of Krachi Government Hospital in Kete-Krachi. He retired in 2018. He served his country well. But his ability to serve is limited to certain roles because of his inability to read and write or speak the official language of our country.
I am one of the children my father raised. I have a master’s degree. I am a journalist. My father, no matter how intelligent he is, cannot be a journalist because he is illiterate.
Among my Gurune-speaking people, the words “foa” and “wanga” are used literally to mean the “blind” and “deaf and dumb” respectively. Figuratively, however, they are used to refer to someone who is illiterate.
My father does not have the set of skills required of journalists. A journalist should be able to read and write and be able to speak or write the language used by his or her news organisation. To say that my father cannot become a journalist because he is illiterate does not mean he is useless or that it is an insult to illiterates.
Every job has a set of distinctive skills. The higher the responsibilities, the higher the skills required to do the work.
That’s why we must not allow those who want to reduce the Mavis-Hawa-Koomson debate to emotional outbursts to proceed or succeed on this very unintellectual tangent.
Hawa Koomson is a member of parliament for Awutu Senya East in the Central Region. In the first term of President Nana Akufo-Addo, she was the Minister of State in charge of Special Development Initiatives (SDI).
The ministry’s major achievement is that the government gave it money to procure ambulances. Buying ambulances with state funds is something an adult with the intelligence of an average primary school kid can do, especially when the usual incentives that come with government procurement were very much present in the deal.
Another major project the ministry undertook is the One-Village-One-Dam project in northern Ghana. That project has been a monumental failure. The so-called dams were poorly constructed. The immediate past Upper East Regional Minister referred to them as “dugouts” in a documentary. When a journalist asked Hawa Koomson why the dams were not up to scratch, she explained, while chewing gum, that the money voted for the construction could not construct any “meaningful dams.”
But that’s not what Hawa Koomson is remembered for in the past four years. In July 2020, there were reports that she went to a polling station with armed party thugs. The thugs, according to the media and eyewitnesses, fired shots and burnt motorbikes of persons they suspected were their political rivals.
Later in the day, Hawa Koomson came on air and claimed that she fired the warning shots. The thugs alleged to have fired the shots, it appeared, did not have the license to possess or use firearms. She took responsibility of their actions, knowing that being a leading member of the governing party made her immune from prosecution.
The police claimed they were going to investigate the matter. But every sane person in Ghana knew the police service is often a puppet of the governing party so nothing was going to happen. And nothing has happened since.
Seven months after that incident, Hawa Koomson appeared before the Appointments Committee of Parliament to be vetted as the president’s nominee for the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture. Many thought President Akufo-Addo would have fired her because of the shooting incident. But that did not happen. And she was nominated again for a substantive ministerial position.
Her abysmal performance at the vetting set social media ablaze, with many calling on the appointment’s committee to reject her nomination. It is unclear what the committee does with her, but the issue of whether her proficiency in English is important or not is worth exploring.
Her main problem is the absolute cluelessness about the sector she’s going to head. But her defenders want to reduce it to her lack of proficiency in English. They then argue that proficiency is not a measure of intelligence or competence.
On those grounds, their argument is flawed as far as the requirements of a minister of state are involved.
English is Ghana’s official language. It is studied in school. Many illiterates, like my father, are not able to speak it because they have no education at all or they had very little or poor-quality education. There are a few illiterates who can speak English because they have lived in English-speaking countries or worked in environments where English is spoken and they learned it. Even with that, writing and reading can be problematic.
In school, English is an examinable core subject. You cannot go to university if you fail English. If you don’t get a particular score in your High School English and other core subjects, your application to enlist as an officer of the Ghana Armed Forces will be automatically rejected by the electronic application system.
So, like any other subject, English is a measure of intelligence and academic brilliance. The students who write, “My father didn’t came home yesterday” are more likely to fail in the other subjects. Students who cannot reconcile the perpetual war between their subjects and verbs are also likely to struggle in calculus or in algebra.
In the basic school, I used to score higher marks in Twi than the native speaker of that language in my class. And that was the trend in the other subjects.
Incompetence is not about language. And Hawa Koomson has demonstrated enough of that. The weird argument about language not being important cannot save her.
Hawa Koomson’s cardinal sin is not her inability to speak English. The shooting at the polling station was a crass act by a member of the society from whom a class act is expected.
A minister of state and a member of parliament should not have sunk that low, but she did. She defended her action until she could not justify it at the appointment’s committee and had to apologise.
Even if we reduce the Hawa-Koomson debate to English proficiency, there is still enough reason she does not qualify to be a minister of state.
If a university graduate goes for a job interview at the ministries and speaks the kind of English Hawa Koomson spoke at the interview yesterday, that candidate will very likely lose the job.
A clerk at Hawa Koomson’s proposed ministry is expected to be able to read, write and speak English. The secretaries will not be employed there unless they can read and speak and write English. The middle-level employees, managers and directors of the ministry cannot get their jobs if they cannot write or speak English. If they attend job interviews and cannot speak English, they’re very likely to be rejected. So why should the head of the ministry be treated differently?
Our contracts are drafted in English. Procurements are made in English. Laws are written in English. International transactions are conducted in English.
English is so complex that the placement of a comma in the right or wrong place can significantly alter the meaning of a contract or its cost. One may argue that there ought to be competent people to draft these contracts and deals for the minister to sign. Someone who does not know the difference between “destiny” and “destination” cannot be trusted with complex contracts and laws and other deals on our behalf.
There are stories of how the public servants shortchange the state by screwing up unsuspecting political appointees who are not savvy enough to detect the monkey tricks of those public and civil servants who have mastered the game because of their longevity in the terrain.
If the minister does not understand what she is signing, it will be a disaster. Being a member of parliament or a minister of state is not an ordinary job. We cannot wave basic qualifications to suit the people whose work impacts us and future generations.
As an MP, Hawa Koomson is supposed to peruse and approve deals such as IMF agreements and international contracts on our behalf. How would you feel if Ghana were your business and Hawa Koomson was the one taking these critical decisions for you?
Why should we allow our worst to be in charge of the most critical and impactful sectors of our country? Why should someone not qualified to teach in the nursery because he or she does not have the requisite qualification to do so, but that same person can comfortably become the minister of education?
What will be the quality of the policies formulated by a minister who cannot read or write properly?
Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, who has been designated for the information, ministry appeared after Hawa Koomson. His brilliance could not be missed. The reason for his brilliance was not because he could speak English. He was very knowledgeable in the things they asked him. That knowledge is not from the classroom alone. He appears to have read widely.
Godfred Yeboah Dame and Dr. Yaw Osei Adutwum, nominees for the Justice and Attorney-General’s Department and Education respectively, received rousing applause on social media. They were very deep.
Godfred Dame obviously has no memory chip in his brain. His knowledge of the cases and the law are from diligent reading. In that way, he will be able to give the right directives to people under him. And those working under him will be motivated to attach seriousness to the things they do.
If we want the best from our public officials, let us demand that the best are put in those roles. We cannot lower the standards for those who take the most critical decisions on our behalf. A minister of state who has no special skill and cannot communicate properly in the official language of the nation ought to give us a reason to keep her in office. And Hawa Koomson has given us none, except that she is a politician. And people are lining up to make excuses for her.
Until we stop making excuses for the people whose poor leadership has made us a laughing stock of the world, Africa will not know progress.