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Transcript of the Voice of America (VOA) Radio Program on "African Proverbs"
(Broadcast on the programs "Africa World Tonight" and "Dateline" during the months of November and December, 1999. The reporter was Bill Eagle.)

Introduction:

In Africa, political leaders sometimes use traditional sayings to convey important messages to their people. Religious leaders also find these sayings useful in their teaching, pastoral work and evangelization. From Washington, William Eagle reports on the proverbs of Africa and the role they play in the life of the continent.

Text:

The Yoruba of Nigeria say, A proverb is the horse which can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas. Increasingly, these days, traditional proverbs are being used to carry modern messages.

The wife of US President Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, used another Yoruba saying -- It takes a village to raise a child -- as the title of a book she wrote that emphasizes the importance of the community in teaching values to children. During the days of the Cold War, African leaders used a Swahili proverb to illustrate the effect arguments between the United States and the Soviet Union often had on other countries: When two elephants fight, even the grass gets trampled.

In some ways, proverbs are like Madison Avenue advertising campaigns -- they send their message to the listener through vivid pictures, or humor.

Kofi Asare Opoku [pron. KOE'-fee Ah-SAH'-rech Oh-POE'-koo] is a visiting professor in the department of religion at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He says the message is conveyed in the image of the saying.

/// OPOKU ACT ///

Instead of saying "Let's all cooperate," you can put it in the proverbial way. Because of the imagery which you tend to remember, you can say, "Let the elephant fell the trees, let the bush pig dig the holes, let the mason wasp fill in the walls, let the giraffe put up the roof -- then we will have a house." Look at the picture you have!

/// END ACT ///

Professor Opoku has collected over two thousand proverbs from the Akan ethnic group of his native Ghana as a part of an initiative to record and preserve African sayings. He is part of something called the Africa Proverbs Project, which includes research centers at universities in Nairobi [Kenya], Abidjan [Ivory Coast], Pretoria [South Africa], and Accra [Ghana]. The project has produced a CD ROM that contains over 28,000 African proverbs and their meanings. The research on a project like this is often difficult, but he quotes a popular Akan proverb that shows hard work pays off: "If you take the time to skin an ant, you will even find its liver."

/// OPOKU ACT ///

Patience and persistence accomplish what is impossible. You would think that ordinarily an ant is so tiny, it does not have a liver; but you take your time and skin an ant [and you'll find it]. [Take for example], the discovery of the Salk Polio vaccine. Jonas Salk toiled and toiled and came up with the liver of the ant -- the polio vaccine. People at the time thought this disease could never be overcome. So persistence helps [get results].

/// END ACT ///

Father Joseph Healey is a Maryknoll priest in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. He's involved in the Africa Proverb Project at the website -- www.afriprov.org -- that collects and promotes African sayings. He says traditional wisdom can be used to reinforce family and community values and unity.

/// HEALEY ACT ///

There's a proverb from the Kuria people of western Tanzania: One person is thin porridge; two or three people together is a handful of cornmeal, the basic food in this part of Africa. One person alone is weak; two or three people together are strong. When spiders unite, they can tie up a lion. That's Amharic [Ethiopia], for strength in unity.

/// END ACT ///

A proverb from the Kikuyu of Kenya shows respect for the environment:

/// HEALEY ACT ///

Treat the earth well; it was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children.

/// END ACT ///

Uganda's largest ethnic group -- the Buganda -- have a saying that encourages tolerance of and learning from other cultures:

/// HEALEY ACT ///

The person who has not traveled thinks his or her mother is the best cook. [It means] when you meet new people, you realize there are other good [ideas].

/// END ACT ///

Father Healey mentions a campaign backed by the US Agency for International Development in East Africa that uses proverbs to fight AIDS. He cites one Swahili saying that has become quite effective:

/// HEALEY ACT ///

It is better to have a still curtain hanging inside the house than a flag blowing to and fro outside the house. The reference is to faithfulness in marriage -- it is better to have a single partner, [comparable to the curtain in the proverb], than to go back and forth [like a flag blowing in the wind] -- between different partners. It's [such] examples that get people to think about their behavior.

/// END ACT ///

Proverbial help for AIDS is also being used in Malawi. Simon Sekwese [pron. sih-KWEH'-she] is a script writer for the Story Workshop Educational Trust in Blantyre, Malawi. The group produces two weekly radio dramas in the official language of Malawi -- Chechewa -- that teach democracy, human rights, and food security. The social messages of each show are reinforced with a traditional proverb.

One show was devoted to fighting AIDS. In the radio drama, a young woman is forced into a marriage with a man who is promiscuous. He in turn infects her with AIDS. Mr. Sekwese says script was based on the proverb: A forced bone can easily break a clay cooking pot.

/// SEKWESE ACT ///

She contracts the virus, and the village people say, If only we had known we would not have forced the marriage. The bone is the lady; and the pot is the marriage she was force into. And when it breaks, she has the disease, and everything has been shattered.

/// END ACT ///

Proverbial wisdom can also be used in caring for the ill. Father John Eybel [pron. EYE'-bil] is a Maryknoll priest who works in Mwanza, Tanzania, helping to train pastoral counselors for the sick at Bugando Medical Center. He encourages his students to develop a sense of compassion and humility -- rather than a sense of self-righteousness or condemnation -- attitudes that can prevent counselors from reaching patients. Father Eybel cites a couple of proverbs that help the students understand their own attitudes:

/// EYBEL ACT ///

The baboon does not see his own backside, but that of his companion. The other is: It's astonishing that the camel points to the humps on the cow. In East Africa cows have a hump on the back [unlike dairy cows in the West]. The idea is that pastoral counselors might well recognize in themselves those human traits or weaknesses which they point out only in others.

/// END ACT ///

Not all proverbs are enlightening, and some can be used to oppress -- like those that subordinate women to men. Script writer Simon Sekwese of Malawi says he tries to focus the audience on proverbs that show the partnership between men and women:

/// SEKWESE ACT ///

There is a proverb that says even if you are beaten by [your husband], you must endure. It says the man is the head of the family, and you must respect him. (But) there are other proverbs which counter those: we try to bring in proverbs like one head cannot carry the roof -- [which means] that for a family to be strong, you need someone to assist you.

/// END ACT ///

Some proverbs also seem to contradict other proverbs: In South Africa's Xhosa [pron. KOE'-sah] language, one advises against advancing oneself socially by using other people; another seems to encourage the opposite -- accepting the help of others. The proverbs are: A bird builds out of another's feathers, and A bird must not build its nest using another bird's feathers. These are contradictions.

Reverend Mlungisi Menziwa of the Reformed Church of Southern Africa says the apparent contradictions are good -- they lead to what he calls creative tension that makes people think in new ways. He says new ways of thinking often lead to new understanding -- not just of proverbs, but also of political differences.

Just as the listener may try to suppress or eliminate contradictions between proverbs, some in society wish to repress "tension" or dissent by opponents. But he says one can live with conflicting proverbs, as one can live among races and people with differing points of view.

Some proverbs offer the listener a choice between using people to get ahead, on the one hand, and self-reliance, on the other. Reverend Menziwa says one can do both: accept the help of others when it's offered, yet still work towards becoming independent.

Reverend Menziwa says tolerating tension -- and seeking new ways of seeking solutions -- is not just a way to solve the paradoxes of riddles. He says it also necessary for starting the economic and political rebirth, or renaissance, of Africa.

/// MENZIWA ACT ///

For the renaissance to take shape, people must embrace the paradoxes of life and continue on. Opposites maintain unity -- to come to life, one must have a mother and father. It's the same [example] for the African Renaissance. It is out of differences we manage to build; tolerance of those different ways of seeing things that people manage to survive.

/// END ACT ///

Reverend Menziwa and others say the real test of a saying is whether people get its message, whether they find it worthwhile in their lives. As a saying of the Ankole [Ahn-koe'-lay] people of Uganda puts it: 'Does this thing have meat?' said the hyena at the sight of a car. In other words, that which is not useful, does not have any value.

 

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