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Anis Haffar Writes | The Legacies of Dr Francis L. Bartels of Mfantsipim

Tue, 19 Aug, 2008

The purpose of this piece is to carry the work of appraising Dr Bartels’s book, The Persistence of Paradox, one-step further by poring over another central aspect of the book: the preservation of the Akan language.

The sequel to this review focused on Dr Bartels’s vision for the University of Cape Coast in its germinal stages. It was published in the Daily Graphic (April 2, 2004) titled That lucky old son: Dr Francis L. Bartels of Mfantsipim.


His hopes for the University of Cape Coast were inspiring. He foresaw an evolving Cape Coast, where both town and gown lived and grew together in the metropolis, and shared and upgraded key amenities – schools, parks, theatres, stadia, castles, fishing villages, and industry. Like something in the spirit of prophecy, the practical merger of the elements of education within a planned, growing, urban environment still rocks many educational landscapes. While the thought stood at Dr Bartels’s elbow as early as about half a century ago, it is splendid that the idea is still kicking in his lifetime.


Today, who can dispute that a key educational experience is collaboration? The expansion of learning demands deeper and wider margins outside the parochial classroom and dormitories. Cognitive science continues to show that teamwork and partnership support varied thinking and learning modes. Mere lectures, textbooks, and isolation are insufficient; and would not help Ghana bridge the gap between a hipc and a rich nation.


There was no magic in limiting spheres of thought and action, nor in the preservation of some sacred cow. The thrill was in the widespread access that encourages and stimulates everyone, and brings together the works of the many potential and imaginative scientists, artists, musicians, athletes, farmers, researchers, and business people. The Cape Coast experience could have advanced this precept, and alerted the other educational sites to borrow its flame.


Another Bartels legacy involved the “accepted written form of Fante”.
In 1941, the Methodist Synod set up a committee (with Bartels as secretary) to write a series of graded readers in Fante. A word list was needed to ensure consistency in spelling.


With Mr J.A. Annobil from Wesley College, they produced a word list that was published by the Methodist Book Depot in 1942 as an interim study. From those beginnings, the Fante primary school readers, Fie Na Skuul (Home and School) and A Fante Grammar of Function, were published.


Following the usefulness of that endeavour, Dr Bartels envisioned Akan as a common indigenous language, which was understood by a majority, and could be the start of a national language.


With Mr Annobil, he carried “proposals for an Akan word list, in the shape of a unified orthography and spelling forms, which would replace current ones in Akan-Fante, Nzima-Fante, Asante-Twi and Akwapim-Twi”. At a meeting at Akropong under the chairmanship of Dr C.A. Akrofi, where the presentation was made, the suggestions “were rejected out of hand”. This new territory must have overwhelmed the group.


In an e-mail to me from France in February 2005, Dr Bartels was passionate about this: “It is one of the questions relating to the problems of a language of wide communications. We lost a wonderful opportunity of working towards such an objective in the 1940s; and this needs to be known”.


Two offshoots, however, sprouted from the earlier dream: the Fante Word List benefited the Methodist church in the revision of the Fante Bible by Mr Gaddiel Acquaah and his team in 1944. Also, Mr Annobil nursed a Department of Ghanaian Languages in the University of Cape Coast until illness ended his service.


Dr Bartels is a hard driving mentor whose superior instincts permeated his views and achievements. The eloquence of his book (and the ideas in it) takes time to absorb. The more one perceived the effort, the more illuminating it continued to be. From a closer scrutiny, certain judgments re-emerge, and revive the appeal for practice. It needs to be emphasized at the outset that he’s a too tough an act to neglect.


If, as they say, each generation stands on the shoulders of those who came after them, then Dr Bartels’s torso must be pivotal for the generational layers piled on it. (The man turns 95 years March 13, 2005). He has turned many, many boys into tall men.


His stamina and love for education seemed always rejuvenated by the Churchillian piety “that we are spirits – not animals, and that something is going on beyond space and time which, whether we like it or not, spells duty … We may be proud and even rejoice that we have been born”.


On re-reading his texts, one absorbed the seriousness (better, the embers of good taste) with which Dr Bartels evolved his syntax and metaphors, and invoked language – be it in Fante, or English (and perhaps in French as well). You sensed the attitudinal bond with Kenneth Hale, once a linguistics teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum.”



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