i n t r o d u c t i o n
The tongue of Egyptian experience has the most truth. A lie runs in Cuba only until the truth overtakes it. The tree with the most leaves does not necessarily produce Brazil's juiciest fruit. It is before the drum that a Haitian learns the samba. If you dance with a crocodile in Guyana, you better plan what you're going to do when the dance is done.
As "daughters of experience," we share a passion for proverbs. Short, snappy sayings surround our lives. During our upbringings, we both learned that "a proverb is to speech what salt is to food" (Ethiopia). When Askhari misbehaved and believed she had gotten away with something, her grandma Addie always said All shut eye ain't sleep.
Grandma also reminded her not to be picky, but that she always had choices, by saying Any kind of water puts out a fire.
Askhari's great aunt Weezy, a proud but poor woman, used to sit in her rocking chair, cross her legs, and say Even a poor rat has at least one hole.
Askhari's mama, referring to her father's dark complexion, told her The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
Askhari's mama frequently used that proverb to remind Askhari to feel beautiful and to strengthen her children's and students' self-esteem in a whitedominated society.
In Jamaica, Yvonne's mother, like Askhari's mama, warned against premarital sex by saying He won't buy the cow if the milk is free.
Yvonne's mother also warned her that disaster could follow the pleasure of the moment: Chicken merry, hawk near.
Miss Annie, Yvonne's grandmother, cautioned her, in particular, against creating problems where there were none before: Trouble don't set up like rain.
Yvonne's dad advised her always to take responsibility for solving her problems:Who have raw meat must seek fire.
Some of these elders have passed on, but they left us both with words and wisdom collected over centuries. All over the planet, individual experiences have become part of a collective experience: "Proverbs are the daughters of experience" (Sierra Leone). These proverbs provide lifelines that we can grasp in trying to understand and appreciate our world.
Someone once described proverbs as "short sayings based on long experiences." Around the world, people use proverbs to express basic truths in memorable, commonsense form. These proverbs gain credibility through widespread, repeated use.
Adults often use proverbs to give children advice and instruct them on ethics and values. Many parents and grandparents, as well as many spiritual and community leaders, guide young people with messages. In that same way, people use proverbs to resolve arguments and to solve problems. One proverb even speaks to this point: "A wise man who knows proverbs reconciles difficulties" (Benin). In fact, since "one who applies proverbs gets what she wants" (Zimbabwe), people frequently use proverbs in discussions to add weight to or to support a particular position. Proverbs can also shed light on problems, from the personal to the global.
Proverbs reflect common human experiences as well as unique views of the world. Messages may be similar, but the wisdom of proverbs is often based on setting and experience. European proverbs often refer to oaks, ravens, geese, castles, kingdoms, porridge, and horses. Asian proverbs may speak of flutes, bamboo, roses, and rice. In contrast, African proverbs speak of drums, crocodiles, yams, and gourds.
African elders have kept alive centuries of experience by handing down proverbs by word of mouth. However, much of this wisdom seems in danger of being lost in a world driven more by technology than by collective experience. We intend to preserve African and Africentric proverbs. Lifelines
crosses Africa and travels with Africans to all corners of the globe. Readers will find more than two thousand proverbs from more than fifty countries, from about eighty ethnic or linguistic groups. We identify proverbs by country and/or ethnic or language group. The most popular, widely used proverbs are identified by region (West Africa, Caribbean) or continent.
In this collection, we include proverbs that we attribute, without question, to continental or diasporic Africans. We avoided proverbs associated with non-African cultures. Therefore, we excluded proverbs known to be associated with Afrikaans, British, French, or Portuguese settlers in Africa.
We favored proverbs with self-evident meanings that did not need elaboration. We preferred proverbs that seemed likely to offer "lifelines"—lines that can provide our readers with a handhold in the rough weather of life.
Early on, our then editor, Christian, said, "I am not interested in another collection of proverbs arranged alphabetically by theme." He suggested we arrange the proverbs by life cycle, so we began to look at the proverbs as they related to important life events. These life-cycle events are a part of the natural rhythm of Afridiasporic communities across the world. The proverbs in this book are therefore organized broadly by life cycle: Birth; Childhood; Adolescence,
Initiation, and Rites of Passage; Love, Marriage, and Intimacy; Challenge; Ethics and Values; Elderhood; and Death and Afterlife. Within the lifecycle categories, we grouped proverbs by theme. In the Love, Marriage, and Intimacy category, for example, there are proverbs grouped under the themes of friendship, women and men, sex, and home. We placed proverbs under themes based on our response to the content of a particular proverb. However, our themes are intended more as a guide to the reader than as a classification. We therefore wish readers to consider and reflect on the proverbs beyond the assigned categories and to form their own impressions of each proverb.
Yvonne introduces each section with vignettes that show how events in her own life led her to greater understanding of proverbs, or how proverbs led her to greater understanding of her life. We both speak and understand other languages and dialects, but English is the language we share. For this reason, we included only those proverbs available to us in English. We relied on European translations of African proverbs, so we acknowledge the possibility
of shifts in meaning and nuance in the translation process.
Several proverbs are offered in creole, pidgin, patois, and other forms of localized speech. In these cases, we chose to honor and appreciate the rhythm of the people to whom we attributed the selected proverb.
We used our best information to source proverbs and identify a specific ethnic or language group with which a proverb was associated. We sought to use names of countries and ethnic and language groups used or preferred by African peoples. For example:
• Côte d'Ivoire. "Ivory Coast" is often used in English, but the government prefers the French name, Côte d'Ivoire
, to be used in all languages.
• Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The country was called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1964, renamed Zaire in
1971, and again renamed DRC in 1997.
• Igbo. The name of this ethnic group was misspelled "Ibo" by colonial powers.
• Agikuyu. The British colonialists introduced the spellings "Kikuyu" or "Gikuyu."
• Akan, Ashanti, Twi. Twi is a dialect of the Akan language—other Akan dialects include Fante and Akuapem-Twi. Ashanti is one of several geographical areas in which Twi is spoken.
• Mandinka. This term refers to the ethnic groups also known as the Malinke and Mandingo. In general, proverbs in this collection offer a broad, inclusive view of humanity. However, readers will come across proverbs that demean women and
proverbs that exclude women by using male-centered language. We have retained some offensive-sounding proverbs, as we consider them to represent an authentic aspect of African cultures, even though we personally (and politically) disagree with sexist language and concepts.
We are persons who love, live by, and learn from proverbs. We believe in the oral and written tradition of our ancestors. Most essentially, we are people who value, respect, and appreciate Africa and her children, wherever they may be. For a combined total of ten decades, we have been collecting proverbs, and we are pleased to be finally able to share the proverbs in written form.
We hope that you will want to keep Lifelines
close by to remind yourself of sayings that you may have forgotten; confirm a moral creed you already knew by instinct; and find freedom in truths that may have been buried. "A proverb is the horse of conversation: when the conversation lags, a proverb revives it" (Niger). These proverbs may indeed provide a lifeline, something to grab hold of or refer to in times that require grounding and/or spiritual connection.
Here, in Lifelines
, we share with readers the wise heart of the motherland and her children. The proverbs on these pages offer inspiration. Guidance. Wisdom. Passion. Inspiration. Strength. Truth.
"When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it" (Rwanda, Burundi).
Please accept our invitation to Lifelines
by turning the page. Askhari Johnson HodariBirmingham, AlabamaAugust 2009 Yvonne McCalla SobersKingston, JamaicaAugust 2009From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lifelines by Askhari Hodari Johnson and Yvonne McCalla Sobers; Foreword by The Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Copyright © 2009 by Askhari Johnson Hodari. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.