Sankofa – go back and take

Sankofa, look back and learn from your past

Struggling with the Dutch language

For thirty years now, I have been married to a Ghanaian who came to Holland in the eighties – when possibilities to study in his own country were limited.
When I first met him, he had just finished an intensive language course at a Dutch university, and was conversing in what I called ‘book-language’. Soon thereafter his careful Dutch got contaminated with my sordid expressions, like calling the kind of coffee he drank ‘dishwater’. It didn’t take long before he politely ordered “a cup of dishwater” in a local cafe.

Struggling with a Ghanaian language

He got his chance to make fun of me in return when I became fascinated by his mother tongue ‘Twi’, one of the Niger-Congo languages. ‘It is an easy language and we don’t write it,’ Ghanaians would tell me. But no way Twi was easy on me, being a tonal language – the meaning of a word changes when its length or pitch changes. I was hacking my way through a forest of papá, pápa, papaaa, paaapaaa, papa, high-low long-short etcetera for years – with ears that were never prepared for this singsong kind of language – before I finally learned how to engage in some simple conversation.

Learn from your past

And although Twi is indeed not written, I discovered it contains a wealth of proverbs, represented by symbols that look like an early form of writing to me (Chinese characters also developed from images). These proverbs are called ‘adinkra’s’.

Sankofa is my favorite one: It symbolises a bird that turns its head to look back at its past and learn from it. ‘San ko fa,’ literally means go back and take.


Accumulated experience is a big advantage of getting older – I will keep the disadvantages to myself. When I was young and freshly stuffed with book knowledge, I wandered through the office feeling utterly inadequate. I thought this was a personal shortcoming. Nowadays I know it hampers most of us at beginnings.
Experience helps to discover similarities between situations and predict possible outcomes – not like a wizard, but simply because you have been there before. You lived through.


Experience enables you to cluster details that you have muddled through one by one in the past, to mold these details into bigger chunks. Chunking helps to oversee large topics (I got this from Steven Pinker’s excellent book, ‘The sense of style’).
Experts often label their chunks with short inner-circle expressions which nobody else understands.

Admittedly, experience can be tiresome when it comes in the form of sheer repetition. Been there, done that…. Yawn. Sigh.
Still, having a basis of routines frees up headspace for real issues.

Causes that matter

I love looking back to use my experience for things that matter. I cannot be motivated by effective marketing techniques in their own right, they only acquire meaning when serving a worthwhile cause. That’s what I call, honest marketing.

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