British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R R Yearley

Massa Gets to Speak Propa
Gold Coast Map
On the ship to take up my appointment in the Colonial Service in the Gold Coast I expressed some concern as to how I should communicate with the Africans. As well as Ga, the local language spoken in Accra and district, there was Twi, Fante, Ewe and others and I hadn't a word of any of them. "Don't worry", my colleagues said. "All the people you'll be working with speak perfectly acceptable English and the cook and house-boy and the rest of your staff will speak pidgin which you'll soon pick up. We'll start teaching you now".

Much of the conversation at table from then on was devoted to pidgin, the Anglo- Chinese colloquial speech adapted for Africa. The vocabulary was mainly English with some foreign words like 'savvy' - 'know' (French) and 'palava' - 'talk' (Portuguese) and some local words like 'chop' - 'food', 'eat'. Pronunciation was recognisably English except for some distortions; 'th' in 'this' and 'that' became 'dis' and 'dat', 'th' in 'thing' - 'ting', 'there - 'dey', 'it' - 'ee' (subject) and 'um' (object). Example: 'I put dis book for table. You want I put um for book-case? Ee dey under dis ting.'

I learned that positive questions began with 'why' and negative were in the form 'why you no?' Example: 'Why you no do dis small ting?" All my colleagues, old Coasters, could speak pidgin effortlessly and without hesitation so I quickly acquired a working knowledge including idioms like 'unless tomorrow' (no time to do it now), 'lef small' (later) and so many others. But I learned most of all from the stories they told of their experiences.

There was the wife, new to the Coast, who joined her husband a few weeks after the start of his tour. On the first Saturday he went to the office for the usual stint and at midday adjourned to the Club for a beer or two. When he got home at one o'clock he found no sign of his wife or of any preparations for lunch.

"John, where Missus? Why no chop?"

"Missus dey for bedroom. She asks me where Massa and I say Massa dey for Club, 'e come one o'clock time for chop, today 'Ground-nut stew". Missus say she the one to order what for chop. Then she make plenty weep, she go for bedroom and she slam door. I keep chop hot but I no fit make side-dish. I wait for Massa."

"You've done well. All dis be Mammy palaver."

"Dis I savvy too much, me I get two wives."

"Now you go make fine fine pot of tea. You set table with best cups and you put on clean jacket. I go get Missus. When she come you tell her sorry and she tell you sorry. She order ground-nut for tomorrow. Then you be frens. I take her to Club for chop tonight. Missus new, she go learn. After dis tea you finish duty for today. You 'gree for dis?"

"Yes Massa. Massa savvy woman fine pas all".

Then there was the story of the bride whose husband had been obliged to return to duty straight after the honeymoon, leaving his wife to follow with the freight. When, after several weeks she arrived, she was delighted to unpack and handle all the wedding presents she had hardly seen. She and her husband were invited to dinner soon after by a young, single colleague, to meet other wives and heads of department. She was pleased to see that the glasses were the same sort that she had brought and later the meal was served on the same kind of dinner plates that she and her husband had chosen. But then she realised that the glasses and the rest were in fact her own! She said nothing but when she asked her steward why he had not asked permission to lend he replied: "Dis be custom. Dis young massa, he not get wife, he not get all dese fine tings but he must en'tain his boss-men and he want to invite frens so he borrow. All massa and missus do dis. Some ting loss or broke massa replace. Later, when you give fine party for PosMaser Gen you do same ting."

Another recently arrived wife found to her horror, in the middle of a tea-party she was holding for her new friends, that her steward was taking round a plate of cakes among which was a number of foil-wrapped 'Rendells' (a popular contraceptive tablet) which she had put in the 'fridge. She managed to retrieve the plate and remove the embarrassment without anyone noticing. The next day the steward said to Massa, "Why Missus take dese sweets away? I chop one, ee be fine fine?" Massa explained, "They no sweets. They be for stop piccin." The steward commented, "I get ten piccin. I no tink one small sweet fit stop me." In this way I learned not only the language but the fact that the Africans had a great sense of humour and an unfailing indulgence for Massa's strange ways.

It was a generally accepted custom that if anyone called at a bungalow and the resident Massa was away, the visitor would be served a drink or anything else he asked for. Of course, there were abuses but there was one particular scrounger who regularly looked in for free whisky. The steward was told that if Massa X called he should be told that there was no whisky so on his next visit when he said, "Pass whisky", the boy said, "Ee finish. "What do you mean, I see um there for sideboard?" "Yes, Massa, ee deh but ee like ee no deh."

There was the story of the officer who had bought a very expensive coupe with a collapsible roof. When the steward was asked if anyone had called he said, "Only the Massa with fine lolly, get tarpaulin for top."

At the other end of the prosperity scale was the Massa who asked his steward to darn his socks.

"There be too many holes. I no fit mend um more."

"But these be old frens."

"I tink Massa go get some noo frens."

A new man from Lancashire started to throw his weight about. At the end of dinner he left his fork with the prongs down and the steward said he hadn't taken the plate away because he thought Massa hadn't finished; he had been well trained but was obviously 'having a go' at the aggressive Massa. For the same reason he refused to recognise "pass bath" with the short Northern 'a' instead of the Southern 'ah'.

I learned not to use the Old Coaster's term 'boy' for the steward, the cook, the dhobi and the gardener and always to address them by name; if you respected them they would respect you.

On disembarking at Takoradi at the end of the voyage, after ten days intensive tuition, I felt quite confident, when I interviewed a prospective steward, that we understood each other and pleased that he accepted me as 'Massa'.

British Colony Map
1946 Map of Gold Coast
Colony Profile
Gold Coast
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 85: April 2003


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