The LAFA (Locally Acquired Foreign Accent)
Insecurity is a crippling thing. If you happen to be a flawlessly rendered superhero pulled from the pages of a comic book – geekily handsome by day, muscled and mysterious by night – you have nothing to worry about. The rest of us, on the other hand, live with an eternal fear of having our gnarliest corners exposed. Those angular edges desperately in need of sandpapering? Those things keep the rest of us up at night, tossing and turning. The root of all this self-persecution? Inferiority.
Ever since our chromosomes crawled out of the primordial slop, congealing into the first fully-formed human beings, every society on earth has been obsessed with “measuring up”. Over the years, humankind has only gotten craftier at pushing our proverbial skeletons even deeper into the darkness of the proverbial closet. And who excels most at this obfuscation olympics? Why, post-colonial peoples, of course. Simply cast your mind back to the 19th century and the infamous European colonial project and allow me to illustrate.
The year is 1884. Following a period of brief deliberation France, Britain and their other European buddies decide to carve up the African continent for themselves, mindless of any rights the indigenous peoples inhabiting its 30 million square km may already possess. The caveat: to realize this preposterous ambition, our would-be “rulers” needed to occupy our territories, institute foreign laws and begin the daunting project of subjugating hundreds of unique and independent cultures. Bring on the brainwashing…
To stamp out our way of life, the Europeans didn’t have to actually eradicate our practices. They simply needed to inculcate their disdain for our rich, varied cultures into us. Sufficiently convinced, we the oppressed would do their job for them. After more than a hundred years practicing this psychic suicide, African peoples have become skilled at viewing their own languages, fashions and food (to name a precious few) with mild embarrassment in some cases and outright contempt in others. And rarely is this more obvious than the delicate issue of how we handle English.
Ever heard a Ghanaian you know (for a fact, mind you) has never set foot on U.S. or British shores speak with an accent you found downright baffling? Or had a friend return from the briefest of summer vacations with a new, inexplicable tendency to slur words while completely sober? This, my dear friends, is L.A.F.A – the Locally Acquired Foreign Accent – and it is taking Accra by storm. Oh, and it gets better: the motherless tongue actually has dialects. The most common, the American strain, has been known to turn “water” into “waarhdurr” and “God” into “Gaaahd”. The newer, trendier incarnation is the “Fake London Boy” accent (thank you, Tiffany) which adopts an affected Cockney swagger sprinkled with “right?” and “innit?”
Once upon a time, L.A.F.A was a niche pastime. Within the last few years, however, it has all but overrun our communal spaces. You’ll hear it being crooned into cell phones as you walk the city streets; on the trotro as passengers converse; even on the airwaves of national radio. Without accounting for our colonial past, one must still admit that as card-carrying citizens of an increasingly interconnected world, Ghanaians (like the other 7 billion people who don’t live in China) must speak a language that isn’t their own. I would even call it commendable to desire to reach the lofty heights of “fluency”.
The problem with L.A.F.A, however, is that its objective isn’t fluency: it’s superfluousness. Rather than the warm glow of achievement one gets from the actual mastery of a language, L.A.F.A grasps at the hollow admiration earned by showboating for a crowd. Far more concerning is that this is merely a symptom of a larger societal sickness: Ghanaians’ burgeoning obsession with the superficial, to the neglect of the significant. Achieving fluency in the international language of the moment isn’t only noble; it’s advantageous. Actual fluency, however, occurs when one comprehends correct grammar and syntax. It demands that one builds a decent vocabulary and puts it to semi-frequent use. It involves matching verbs to their subjects, getting one’s tenses right. To disdain these building blocks of actual language mastery and exchange them for rolled R’s and softened T’s or “innits” is to approach language from a thoroughly warped perspective.
And let us not neglect the question of self-hate. Already, we live in a world dominated by Western ethnocentrism. Wherever we turn, Africans are told that “ours” lacks the luster of “theirs”. The result? We clamour for straighter hair and lighter skin. We quote Shakespeare and Freud, knowing nothing of Ata Aidoo and Gyekye. We clothe ourselves in Dolce and Gucci, paying lip service to Ghanaian fashion once a week, if at all. And as if that wasn’t enough, we feed our natural accents to the trash compactor, retrieve them mangled beyond recognition and actually consider these Frankenstein creations superior? At a certain point, the blanket of self-loathing we’ve wrapped ourselves in stops comforting and begins to suffocate. I’d say we passed that point quite a while ago.
While our fawning for the West and callous dismissal of the beauty of our own culture is significant, there’s at least one other element of the L.A.F.A concept that is problematic: L.A.F.A is an affront to your audience. Whether that audience is a broadcast listenership numbering thousands, a circle of old secondary school mates or the neighbourhood credit wura you buy recharge cards from, deploying a fictitious accent is an act of purest disdain. What the L.A.F.A linguist suggests – without ever explicitly stating it – is that you aren’t sophisticated enough to spot them faking the funk.
Let’s pull back a bit to revisit the interconnected world we glimpsed earlier during our colonialism overview. For better or worse, we now live in a neo-colonized world. On a planet saturated with Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, where CNN’s talking heads have become as familiar as family and our toddlers can recite Lil’ Wayne choruses without a single hiccup… how audacious is it to presume nobody can tell the difference between that hodgepodge of unfamiliar sounds you’re emitting and a genuine American or British accent? Audacious enough to make you reconsider the fabricated inflection in the first place? We can only dream.
Of course, the painful irony is that the joke’s on you, Mr. and Mrs. Masquerade. Whilst you’re busy making ill-mannered assumptions about your audience, they are staring, not with amazement but rather incredulity. See, they know. That thought could be frightening; hopefully, it’s also sobering. Because when you strip us all down to our barest elements, each of us is simply a lone skeleton dangling in a closet of fears and insecurities. That’s the very nature of the post-colonial experience: self-doubts loom larger and rough-edges seem more jagged than they ought to.
The solution isn’t pretense, however. It’s excellence. It’s proficiency. It’s mastery. And trust me: that can be achieved with your R’s and T’s intact.
Written by Eli Tetteh (@elidot)