Bambara (Mali) Proverb
Background, Explanation, Meaning and Everyday Use
This Bambara proverb also has versions in other African languages. A proverb in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) says: Wood may remain ten years in the water, but it will never become a crocodile. When you see a log floating in the river, you know it doesn’t belong there and that it got there by accident. It can stay in the river for a long time, but it will not become a fish or a crocodile. A log it was and a log it will remain. A black person, even if he spends his entire life around white people, doesn’t change color (and vice versa). “Know yourself” is the way or path of the wise.
In daily use this Bambara proverb is used to make the point that you can’t be something you’re not and thus stresses the importance of just being yourself. I lived in Mali for a little over two years as a Peace Corps worker. This proverb had special meaning when Malians were interacting with a foreigner such as myself. It was their way of saying to me that I could never become a Malian and they could never become Americans. Malians are rightfully proud of their cultural heritage and cling tightly to their traditional customs. I’m sure many Westerners would say that Malians are overly resistant to change, but that assessment merely betrays a different cultural bias.
In certain ways we are called to change our lives. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). This change requires a zeal, a commitment, a forward direction. St. Paul says: “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Contemporary Use and Religious Application
On one level this Bambara proverb speaks to the importance of being true and faithful to one’s heritage and traditions. For example, the whole study of African Oral Literature (proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories, fables, myths, songs, etc.) emphasizes the values in African culture and their enduring richness.
Part of the richness of this Mali proverb is that it can also teach the opposite of its literal meaning, what some call a symbolic reversal. So on another level the proverb teaches that we can change and be transformed, that “metaphorically” a log can become a crocodile. In the political sense we can overcome corruption and bribery in Africa. In the social sense we can create behavioral change to reduce AIDS. In the religious sense we can bring about conversion and transformation in our Christian lives.
This proverb is explained in the book: Sentences et Proverbes Bambara by El hadj Sadia Traore. Published by Editions JAMANA (B.P. 2043 Bamako, Mali). 1989.
Mike McCabe (with material added by Joseph Healey, M.M.)