On Wednesday night, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, author of "Tail of the Blue Bird" was in Accra. I joined a number of Ashesi staff and alumni at the SyTris bookshop, which is two stories above the PMMC shop opposite Papaye on Oxford Street in Osu. After a late start, Mr. Parkes narrated some of his poems and read selected passages from his book.
During his free-wheeling commentary after one of the readings, he mentioned that his use of Ghanaian vernacular was a hard sell to the publisher, but that he had eventually convinced them that it added to the authenticity of the tale. He said that Ghanaians had to use some words that just don't exist in English, and his example was the expletive 'sεbi'.
In the British printing, the editors and author rejected the idea of a Glossary, but Nii found out that to get published in the USA, there would have to be a Glossary in order for the book to sell. This is because, like in "A Clockwork Orange," there are a number of words that would not be commonly known to most readers.
Kajsa Adu remarked that she agreed with the British publisher, thinking that any good literature shouldn't reveal all its secrets on the first reading. She enjoys re-reading books to pick up on words or ideas that she had missed the first time. In that spirit, I'll give you the contexts for this word, missing in English, from the book (page numbers in parentheses):
(2) The ancestors say that the truth is short but, sεbi, when the tale is bad, then even the truth stretches like a toad run over by a car on those new roads they are building.Confused? I was also as I read the book, and when the Ashesi freshmen were reading it this past fall, I asked for a translation. I was told that it introduces a potentially embarrassing or off-color comment. As Nii Parkes put it on Wednesday, you can just about say anything after sεbi and no one will get upset. With the political correctness of English nowadays, the concept just doesn't translate!
(7) Then listen Sargie. Sεbi, our village is like a vagina. Those on the inside have no problems with it; those on the outside think it stinks.
(70) I nodded. (I knew the place. It wasn't far from where my mother, sεbi, had her farm.)
(96) "I caught the antelope, so I will eat until, sεbi, I go crazy."
(98-99) That same night, the musician, Tintin, disappeared. Everybody thought, sεbi, he was dead, but I will tell you the truth later.
(101) It is true that those who knew Ananse understood his sadness. Sεbi, since the time before his penis knew to stand up for the right purpose, he had done everything to get close to his wife. As he matured and learned the ways of the world, he realized, sεbi, since she grew to be one of the most beautiful girls in the sixteen villages under their chief.
(102) So, sεbi, losing his wife two years after he had married her was not an easy thing for Ananse, but as his mother-in-law, Yaa Somu, said, he had a daughter.
(106) I am always repeating the elders' adage that even the eagle has not seen everything but, when I went to the place where Tintin had been living, where he had built the adakabεn, sεbi, I almost died.
(123-124) He had worked non-stop, except for one interruption from the truck driver's daughter, who wasn't so much sick as expecting. He had simply asked her a few questions since he didn't really have any supplies. She readily admitted that she was urinating more frequently than usual, but laughed when Kayo asked her if her breasts were tender.
"Are you trying to seduce me?" There was a knowing twinkle in her eye.
Kayo smiled, "No, I'm trying to find out if someone else has recently."
She cast her eyes to the floor, then raised them slowly. "Why?"
"Maybe, sεbi, he is the reason you are ill."
"Oh, really?" Her eyes widened as she realized what Kayo was trying to say, then smiled. "Oh!" She turned and headed for the door, looking back to wave, "I thank you," she giggled. Then she was gone.
(131) Sometimes we heard him beating her, or shouting at her, telling her that she had killed his wife, she was anyεn like her grandmother, Yaa Somu. There wasn't much we could do. I mean, sεbi, she was his daughter and the ancestors must lead the way, but there were times when we called on them to ask for things we didn't need, just so that he would stop beating her.
(132) By Onyame's generosity, Yaa Somu's land, where she planted her tomatoes, had not been taken by anyone (I think the chief in his wisdom kept it so), so Mensisi got my sons to help her clear it and she started planting tomatoes. Kwaku Ananse was not happy, but, sεbi, apart from beating her he couldn't do anything to her, and she was no longer afraid of the weight of his arm.
(145) It is true that we still had crops but our harvest was light, there was not much left over for the farmers and traders to sell. As for Kwaku Ananse, sεbi, his crop was destroyed that year, the cocoa pods that grew looked like a baby's fists, he could not sell them. I told my wife that the ancestors had started.
(146) Kwaku Ananse had been sick with his coughing again, but Mensisi wasn't able to come and look after him because her husband was hurt. He had been in a bad accident while travelling to Takoradi to work and, sεbi, they had to remove his leg. He was in bed for three moons but still things didn't get better and, with the passing of time, Onyame in his wisdom removed him from his suffering.
(147) We kept quiet and allowed her to do what she wanted, but we, the men, we watched Kwaku Ananse's home. We were ready, sεbi, to kill him this time, if he started beating her again. We were ready because Kwaku Ananse to us was no longer a man, and sεbi, nobody mourns a tsetse fly when it dies.
(147-148) You see, they say, sεbi, when something you don't know is approaching it is frightening, but when it gets close it is often a relative.
(168) Hmm, can you believe that this Mintah, the one who removed the bullets, also took money to his mother for him? That's why the elders say that, sεbi, bad doesn't live alone in a compound; good always lives there too.
(169) Anyway, I told Kwadwo that this is why you have to look well with people because you never know their story. I mean, they say what happens for a woman to conceive - sεbi, not the lying down, but what happens after - is a mystery to all men. But (this is what I told him), my friend, I tell you, what happens after birth is a bigger mystery.
(170) It is true that, because this woman with short short skirt and thin legs, sεbi, knew certain people, the police were here with their guns before the three days could come, so it didn't happen exactly as Oduro said.
Judges 12:4-6 Then Jephthah brought all the men of Gilead together, fought the men of Ephraim and defeated them. (The Ephraimites had said, "You Gileadites in Ephraim and Manasseh, you are deserters from Ephraim!") In order to keep the Ephraimites from escaping, the Gileadites captured the places where the Jordan could be crossed. When any Ephraimite who was trying to escape would ask permission to cross, the men of Gilead would ask, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he said, "No," they would tell him to say "Shibboleth." But he would say "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they would grab him and kill him there at one of the Jordan River crossings. At that time forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites were killed.