You don’t have to look too far to find an African proverb or saying to help you get the tough lessons of life.
It’s been a tough year, hasn’t it? We’ve gone from the euphoria of ‘Africa Rising’ to currency crashes in Ghana, the horrific kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, murder trials in South Africa and, of course, the tragic consequences of the Ebola pandemic in the western sub-region.
We’ve lost loved ones and gained new responsibilities, survived health challenges and abandoned challenging goals, juggled family duties and sacrificed personal time. We’ve experienced some highs, battled many lows and struggled with balancing both budgets and time.
But if you are reading this, what is certain is that you have survived the year – and, with that, comes hope for better times ahead. Dealing with the tragedies and the set backs life throws at us is never easy and neither is trying to understand, and learn, the lesson that each of these situations is meant to teach us.
I’ve recently discovered a hidden gem in the form of a compendium of African proverbs – Wit & Wisdom of Africa: Proverbs from Africa & the Caribbean by Patrick Ibekwe – and I’m realising afresh how much we can learn from the richness of our cultural heritage and from those who came before us. And what this fascinating book has reminded me is that you don’t have to look too far to find an African proverb or saying to help you get the tough lessons of life.
The Importance of Proverbs
Proverbs are our common inheritance, the gifts of collective wisdom handed down from generation to generation.
Proverbs, says Ibekwe, are “an expression of a people’s conception of themselves, of their values and of their attitude to life.” The diversity and richness of proverbs originating from Africa and the diaspora in the Caribbean and elsewhere, he says, “provide a window on African humanity, on and beyond the continent.”
How we measure success in today’s world, for example, is often tied to the material reflection of that success: the size of the car, the cost of the house, the exclusivity of the labels on the clothes, the level of fame. Isn’t it refreshing, then, to be reminded by the Swahili proverb that success is not what you bought but what you built? “The area covered by your life is not as important as what you build on it.”
Taking Responsibility and Taking Action
This Yoruba proverb urges us to take responsibility for our choices: “Those who work during the night should not blame the moon for disturbing them.”
We are reminded about the importance of focus when we set our goals and objectives with the Yoruba proverb: “The person who pursues two rats will miss both.”
When things don’t work out as we want the first time, we are encouraged by the Swahili proverb to be persistent and that “Where there is a purpose, there is no failure.”
When we rush to pass judgement, it helps to reflect on human nature and to remember the Fante proverb: ‘A good man also sins.’
If we are quick to anger, the Swahili proverb cautions us about the potentially destructive reactions we could unleash and to remember that: “The greatest remedy for anger is delay.”
And as a call to action, my personal favourite is the Zimbabwean proverb: “You can’t plough a field by turning it over in your mind.”
A Pragmatic Roadmap for Life
Proverbs present a descriptive record of our heritage as well as a pragmatic roadmap for how we can live.
Take, for example, the prosaic reminder from the Tshi of Ghana that if you are getting worked up by your difficult offspring, you were once like them: ‘If youthful arrogance were wealth, every one of us would have been wealthy.’
If your kids treat you like their personal ATM, remember the Guyanese proverb that: ‘Faada wo’k picknie spen’’’ (father works, child spends).
Wisdom is keeping an open mind and being ready to learn, says the proverb from the Sukuma of Tanzania: ‘Be unable to handle an axe, but don’t be unable to handle instruction.’
Does it feel like everyone else is succeeding and leaving you behind? Take comfort from the Haitian proverb that says: ‘Starting early doesn’t mean a thing; it’s knowing how to get there that counts.’
Keep harmonious relationships with others by not embarrassing them, advises the Nigerian proverb: ‘Never count toes in the presence of a person with nine toes.’
Avoid the trap of stubbornness, say the Nyanja people, for ‘a person who does not hear, learns when the axe is in his head.’
Don’t be drawn into gossip, says the Swahili proverb, because ‘One who tells you about others will tell others about you.’
Letting go of ill-feeling is not only smart but healthy, according to the Swahili proverb ‘To forget a wrong is the best revenge’ and the Kongo: ‘To take revenge is often to sacrifice oneself.’
And being courteous to others does you no harm, say the Hausa people: ‘To salute a dwarf by bowing will not prevent you from rising to your full height again.’ Or indeed, as the Ashantis say, ‘When you go to someone else’s house and the owner is squatting there on the ground, you do not ask for a stool.’
It Still Takes a Village
Proverbs in Africa, says Ibekwe, may be described as a “dialectic of wisdom”. While technology and progress may have changed the way the world looks from the outside, human beings are no different to what they have been for centuries, making the wit and wisdom of our elders as applicable today as they have ever been.
The village that raises our children may now have brick walls instead of adobe but the humanity that we should strive for in our dealings with our neighbours and within our communities has not changed. How we see ourselves and our world and how we deal with our challenges can still benefit from the collective wisdom of our ancestors.
So, as we bring this turbulent year to a close, let’s look ahead to new beginnings, new adventures and new challenges with a different mindset. While we can’t control the things that will happen over the next 12 months, we can certainly take more responsibility for how we choose to respond to them and to deal with life.
However tough the coming year gets, let’s approach it with gratitude and with appreciation for what we have rather than disgruntlement about what we lack. After all, as the Nigerian proverb points out, “a one-eyed person does not thank God until he sees a blind man at prayer.”