African viewpoint: Flying insults

Image caption,
It seems that being likened to an animal is a major insult in Ghana

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and former government minister Elizabeth Ohene reflects on political name-calling.

This is a difficult subject for me. But there is so much bad language flying around in Ghana these days, that it is impossible to ignore the subject of insults.

It is in the area of political and public discourse that things appear to be getting out of hand.

This being the global village, I suspect that it is to Ghana's eternal shame that by now the rest of the world has heard that a young man, said to be a supporter of the main opposition political party, has said on the radio this past week that the president of the republic looks like a chimpanzee.

Mercifully for all of us, the president, or to be accurate, "the presidency", has ordered the police not to bother about prosecuting the young man - he of the foul mouth.

There are wise people at the presidency.

Can you imagine the headlines everyday as the case winds its way through the courts and the legal arguments about the endearing nature of chimpanzees and what constitutes an insult?

I have friends who would testify about how lovely and loving chimpanzees are.

Playground talk

The young man has been disowned publicly by his friends and political allies, and has sought to defend himself by saying he had used the offending words as a result of having been provoked beyond human endurance.

Image caption,
President John Atta Mills chose not to prosecute the man who insulted him

How was he provoked, I hear you ask? The other young man on the panel with him who belonged to the ruling party had apparently called the opposition leader a frog.

You see the drift? His leader having been called a frog, he was left with no other choice but to call the opposite number a chimpanzee.

I have been wondering about the nature of insults in Ghana.

When I was growing up, the biggest insult on the playground was something you said you did to the person you were angry with - and when you were brought up too well to actually say those words, you used a hand signal.

And then of course as you grew up you discovered that languages had intricate ways of allowing you to dish out insults without sounding offensive.

The most famous being this response by a person provoked: "I do beg your pardon, with the greatest respect, you are a fool."

Thieves, rogues and worms

And then there is the very interesting word, "taflatse", that once used, allows you to get away with most insults without sounding crude.

Once grown up, you discovered that among the elders, the biggest insults had to do with human behaviour - as in stealing, being lazy and showing signs of not having been brought up well.

I am not quite sure when animals got into the act and at which point it became more of an insult to be called an animal.

Ghana is a country where once you are a public figure, it seems acceptable to be called a thief, a rogue and even a murderer, and nobody will bat an eyelid.

If you are a female and in public office, the name-calling is even more colourful.

Yours truly, during the course of an election campaign, has been called a "prostitute", a "concubine" and a "childless spinster".

When I complained, and since then, every time I have narrated this, I am told I should understand it was "political talk".

Obviously if I had been compared to an animal, I would have got more sympathy.

I must confess I have been guilty of animal name-calling myself. I was once so angry that I called somebody a worm.

Now when I think back on it, I believe I did an injustice to worms by comparing that man to one of them.

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