“Challenging the mainstream patterns of thinking” – an interview with Dr. Kofi Yakpo
The arrival of Dr. Kofi Yakpo as our new Deputy Master earlier this year was a paramount addition to the continuous enrichment of diverse and exciting opportunities here at Chi Sun College. His accomplishments in the fields of linguistics and work for global justice are impressive. More importantly, however, those of you who have interacted with Kofi will come to the quick realisation that he has an interesting perspective on life and learning.
On March 16th, he gave a presentation on The Death and Birth of Languages, giving us a brief insight into his research specialisation in multilingualism. In particular, he spoke to us about his work on English Creole languages and various social, cultural, and political forces that impact languages. His presentation was characterized by quick wit and humour, and his examples were often so personal and engaging that it felt more like campfire stories rather than footnotes in an academic paper. A week later, Chrysilla Ongky (8th floor), had the chance to sit down with Kofi to hear more about his life stories, his thoughts on Hong Kong, the future of Chi Sun, and our role as students in society.
But first, an attempt to summarise his incredibly varied list of experiences: Kofi grew up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and the ancient German city of Heidelberg, a place filled with cobbled alleyways and beautiful castles, lush forests and rivers, and (according to him) highly recommended for any future exchange studies. His background as a Ghanaian-German would later on inspire his passion for multilingualism. He obtained his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Cologne (Germany) in Linguistics, Political Science, and Anthropology. Whilst still figuring out his direction in life, he completed a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Geneva, and ultimately, finished his PhD in Linguistics at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Out of interest, he also studied law for a year at King’s College London.
His first job was with FIAN International, a non-profit organization that advocates for the Right to Adequate Food and Nutrition. As the Africa Coordinator, he collaborated with African organizations, governments and international organizations on the just distribution of farmland, supporting local farmers for better marketing of produce, and standing up against the harmful and exploitative practices of multi-national corporations on the environment.
Driven by this desire for global justice, he later worked for a Member of Parliament (MP)’s office in Germany as a Policy Advisor and Parliamentary Assistant while simultaneously completing his doctorate in Linguistics. His PhD thesis was the first-ever description of the grammar of Pichi, a language spoken on the island of Bioko, which is part of the small Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea. The intention was to open up opportunities for the design of education programmes, and vitally, preserving the legacy of the country and the community it represents. Kofi came to HKU as an Assistant Professor of Linguistics in the School of Humanities in January 2013.
What is it about linguistics that captivates his interest? Kofi describes it as a “frontier science” – more so like space exploration or botany. Unlike other humanities subjects such as history or literature, where you often re-interpret known facts, linguistics deals with the uncertain and the unknown. After all, of the over 7,000 languages of the world, over 60% have not been documented properly with a dictionary or grammar book. Here are some of the topics that linguists ponder: the role of communication in the fabric of society, the differences in speech between different genders, age groups, and social classes; how languages reflect human creativity, and so on. Kofi finds all of this incredibly exciting, as he explains that every topic he works on has not been covered by other researchers before.Aside from linguistics, we ventured into the dark, unforgiving abyss of the Internet where we discovered that he was the founding member of a rap group called “Advanced Chemistry” – the first, in fact, to rap using the German language. He was part of a pioneer movement that brought underground Hip-Hop into the mainstream during a time when British and American sounds dominated the German music scene. Of course, music is an integral form of expression and communication, just like language. This is why he would like to see dance and music being brought to ChiSunners in the future, both practically through Salsa classes for example, and as a subject of academic interest.
Kofi is also interested in complementing the speaker series we have at Chi Sun College, focusing on the interactive over purely academic content. He hopes through these activities he would be able to bridge the gap between postgraduate and undergraduate students, as well as residents from various cultures.
Another activity he is looking forward to organizing is regular film screenings. Unbeknownst to many, he says, the biggest film industries in the world in terms of output are Bollywood (India) and Nollywood (Nigeria). The dominance of Hollywood cinema is simply due to superior marketing power and this leaves whole continents like South America and Asia and regions like West Africa with exciting movie scenes largely out of the picture.
To him, the Chi Sun motto, “nurturing a community of freely enquiring minds” means that we should constantly be aware of the power of our individual choices. Criticising and breaking through the mainstream way of thought shouldn’t be seen as an ostracising or aggressive act, but as an expression of realizing who we are, and who we want to become.
Kofi offers this piece of advice to all Chi Sun students: We are all part of a distinctively privileged minority in the sense that we are able to enjoy subsidised education and housing. We should utilise this privilege and give back – not just by going to lectures and seminars that we have to go to, but take part in activities that are new and foreign to us.
Finally, he concludes: People around us are the richest resource we can ask for – so park your phone every once in a while. Reach out, explore, discover, and connect.
Written by Nessa Wong (8th floor), final year student in Accounting and Finance