Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women's History Month
When an elder shares, there is peace.(Ghana)

Dame Nita Barrow

Compassion is what marks Nita Barrow for me. Picture a nine-year-old girl coming from the country to live in town. One day she had two brothers (one a baby, really) and freedom to roam to neighbors where she could find children to play with and a game to join in. Later that same day she is sent to live with her aunt, a posh lady who lives in a rich neighborhood, so the neighbors here are mostly white or very light skinned.

The little girl sees the mostly white or very light skinned children, but they don’t see her. Only one other black girl lives on the road, and she becomes the little girl’s only friend apart from classmates who talk to her and sometimes invite her to play ring games at break times. A long time passes before her classmates invite her to their homes for birthday parties.

The little girl is afraid her aunt is going to forget her birthday, and she doesn’t want to seem pushy and ask what the plan is. If she were with her mom and dad she would at least have home made ice cream on the Sunday afternoon closest to her birthday.

When her birthday comes, the little girl gets a cake baked all for her. A whole cake just for her. She can’t remember getting a birthday cake before, with icing. Her mother made Christmas puddings and steamed them in a pot. But this is a regular cake baked in a regular oven and not in a pot with coal to the top and coal to the bottom. This is a magic cake with the brown and yellow swirls.

Nita Barrow made marble cakes for me for all the birthdays from I was nine till I left my aunt-mother’s home to get married. She is the reason my sons always had marble cakes on their birthdays.

Since I had only one neighbor to play with, I read a lot. I was reading the newspapers since I was about four years old, and that got my dad so excited that he bought me Tale of Two Cities. As a result, I resisted even looking at a Charles Dickens book till I was forced to read him in high school. But at my aunt-mother’s house, reading was a way to make believe I was not alone. It also turned out to be a great way to avoid doing chores.

Nita Barrow introduced me to the Little Prince by Saint Exupery, and until today I am never without a copy of that book. I re-read it the whole book two or three times every decade. And I open it a lot more often to re-read my favorite passages.

I considered myself grown up by the time I did university entrance exams, but I still felt like Nita Barrow’s favored little girl when she invited me to have lunch with her between exam papers. She was then the matron of the university hospital, and that was no mean feat for a Black woman at the time. Predictably, the head of the university - a college of London University in colonial times - was white, as were most of the lecturers.

By the time I was on summer holidays at the end of my first year at university, Nita Barrow organized a holiday job for me in the matron’s office. By that time she had moved on from being matron, and the new person was white and British (what else?).

Nita Barrow always treated me as if I were grown up when I was a child, and as if I were her equal when I was grown and she was a high flying international advisor meeting with world leaders. She remained caring and plain-speaking when her brother was the Prime Minister of Barbados and later when she was knighted by the Queen of England and became the first female Governor General of Barbados. . Her conversations with me were always catching up with all I had done since we last met. She never made herself the focus of the conversation, never dropped names, and she had plenty to drop if she chose. She was still baking cakes in her kitchen even when she was Barbados’ head of state.

As soon as we heard Dame Nita had passed on, my aunt-mother and I booked our tickets for Barbados. I don’t feel obliged to attend funerals unless the person is my close relative or a close relative of a close friend. Nita Barrow felt closer than a close relative.

I felt the reach of her love beyond her death when her family embraced my aunt-mother and me as if we also shared their bloodline. We shared all the family’s privileges at the official funeral for Nita Barrow.

Barbadians mourned their loss as if Nita Barrow were everyone’s mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, or best friend. I learned that any child was welcome to visit her in Government House. I heard about a coconut vendor who had his shack near government House. When the police wanted to move him, Dame Nita instructed them to leave him alone and instead to help him improve his location. People who cried real tears for her. The tributes spoke to her dedication to health care, her passion for social justice, her advocacy of women’s rights, and her reputation as a diplomat.

But for me, she remained most of all the person who always treated me as special, moat of all when I was an emotionally fragile nine-year-old.

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at