Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Sunday, May 23, 2010

For Zayda: Truth over Force

Force against force equals more force. (Ghana)

Symbol of Maat, Egyptian goddess of Truth, Balance, Order

Dear Zayda,

The police and the people of Tivoli Gardens seem to be getting ready for war. But force against force, as the proverb says, just ends up as more force.

In Jamaica, some parents still use force to make children obey, just as some teachers still use force to make children learn. But mostly what children learn is that if people are old enough, big enough, powerful enough, they can use force and get away with it. I talked to a young man recently, and he told me he believed in force because force had made him obey his parents and listen to his teachers when he was a child. He is grown now and he is a teacher who can now apply force to his students. Perhaps Jamaica has not left slavery that far behind.

During slavery, backra (the white plantation owner) could use as much force as he wanted against slaves who could not speak for themselves or protect themselves. But no one is ever really helpless, not even a baby. If babies choose, they can use their force to keep their parents sake all night; they can prevent their parents from going out when and where they want to go. Indeed, many babies act like tyrants even when they seem able to do nothing but eat and sleep.

Slaves also had their own force to respond to backra’s force. They slowed up the work in the cane fields, set fire to the cane fields, and were smart enough to act stupid enough to destroy machines and crops.

Many took back their freedom by running away to the hills where they set up communities to protect themselves. They organized themselves and armed themselves, and ruled themselves with their own laws. Now, from their Maroon towns, these ex-slaves could use force to drive back British soldiers sent to recapture them.

Force led to more force till the British gave in. Even with better arms and greater numbers, the British were forced to accept the right of the Maroons to be independent and free. Even today, the Maroons have their own government. They do not have to answer to the rest of Jamaica.

When all of Jamaica became free of British rule, the new Jamaican leaders still seemed to believe that force alone would solve problems. The police had the job of using force to control people who were poor, uneducated, and unemployed. Even today, poor people can be locked up for using certain words, smoking weed, or even for standing on the street in their neighborhoods. Worse still, they are often locked up for nothing at all. Some even spend years in prison when they committed no crime. Nothing much seemed changed from the time white backra was in charge.

Some therefore decided to seek the freedom they were still not enjoying under Jamaican leaders. This time, they set up their communities on the plains, with their own leaders, their own rules, and their own weapons. The new Jamaican backra (sometimes black but mostly brown) used force and more force. The new communities, now called garrisons, became more and more separate from the rest of Jamaica. They also became more heavily armed to keep their freedom and protect themselves against outsiders. Followers trusted their garrison leaders to look after them, even if sometimes these leaders acted like backra of the cane field – the punishment for disobeying a garrison leader could be injury or even death.

Today, Tivoli Gardens, the oldest of these garrison communities, has blocked itself off from the rest of Jamaica. The police have a warrant for the garrison leader’s arrest, and his followers seem ready to put down their lives rather than give him up to the police.

Force against force, over decades, has led to greater force. The black/brown backra government has not learned from the experience of the white backra government and the Maroons.

At this time, the rest of us look on. Some think was is bound to take place, especially if the government decides to use even more force than it has done in the past. Others hope that wiser heads will find a way to end the war without firing a shot or risking a life.

My hope is that all of us in Jamaica will choose being free and independent to using more and more force to maintain backra status.


Your shangazi

Saturday, May 22, 2010

For Zayda: The Strength in Unity

Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won't eat you. (African proverb)

Adinkra symbol for unity in diversity

Dear Zayda,

Many of us talk inside our homes or on the phone with our friends about how Jamaica is to move forward. We have solutions to our problems, but often we talk about what someone else needs to go. For example many people think Bruce Golding should resign as Prime Minister, and then what?

The challenge comes when we need to stop talking among ourselves and act. A lot of us are scared of being punished for acting on what we believe to be true. I saw some of that this week. People told Golding they did not want a leader they could not trust, and he had to say he was sorry even after claiming he had nothing to apologise for. But the next steps looked scary - like insisting that politicians make a habit of listening to the people.

Mostly politicians think they have power over people, but this was one time the people showed their power and the politician had to listen. We can still insist tht our leaders listen to us, but I think people are starting to feel scared of what might happen to them if they go all the way in demanding respect from politicians.

Someone called me to suggest that we have a demonstration to demand that politicians know they have to answer to the people. The idea seemed good, but most people did not want anyone (least of all politicians!) to see them on the side of the road holding up placards. Some may have worried bout what their friends would say about them, especially as better off people in Jamaica almost never take to the streets. The biggest fear, I think, was of violence. Human rights advocates received threats, and a youth activist's car was bombed, apparently because they spoke their minds about Golding's not telling the truth. That fear is real. In fact, all fears are real for those who feel them.

People are not brave because they feel no fear. Mostly they are brave because they act despite their fears. Often their fears make them more alert to possible danger, and so they try to unite with others who think as they do. Fear therefore has a role – it can lead or mislead us.

Right now, a lot of people act as if they want to step back to the bank, after they seemed to be at least putting a toe or two in the water. They may be afraid that the water might be colder and deeper than it looks. They may think people will be unreliable, and might say “I will be there next to you in the crowd crossing the river,” but fail to turn up for the action.

If we really decide to cross the river with crocodiles on the attack, we may need to find others who share our dream. The desire to cross the river will need to be stronger than fear of being eaten. The risk is always going to be there, but if we stay closer together, the crocodile might well swim away to find others who travel alone. And if we keep going, we will be on the other side of the river, rather than always wishing we were there.

Putting action behind our words will not be easy, Zayda. However, if we unite, it will certainly be possible.


Your shangazi

Friday, May 21, 2010

To Zayda: Not entering fire

Even if you are brave, you can't enter a fire. (Ghana)

Dear Zayda,

Prime Minister Golding came out and apologized on Monday night. He admitted he misled the nation, but once trust is lost, it is hard to regain. So what is happening since Monday night is like a fire that is out of control. And the Prime Minister has gone absent, instead of doing what he can to put out the remaining flames.

My sons had a direct experience of a fire that got out of hand. They were about seven or eight years old and staying at my parents house for a day or so. One of my parents was not well, so my sons had time for unsupervised play. Well, there was a pile of rubbish in an outside room, and these two little boys decided to help out their grandfather by burning the rubbish. The flames were fine for a while, and then they just got bigger and bigger. If the flames are determined enough, a little water can see to make them burn even stronger. So finally someone had to call the fire brigade. Fortunately this was an outside room, and nothing much burned except for old newspaper.

Golding has a lot more at stake than burning rubbish. Telling the truth too late, suddenly doing what he had said was impossible had kept the flames alight. The man he was trying to protect is the gang leader in Golding’s constituency, a man termed a “don” This man is called Christopher Coke. The United States currently wants him for gun running and drug trafficking. This is the man Bruce was protecting for the past nine months. Now the police have a warrant for his arrest, but they cannot reach the street where they think Coke lives. The people in that community have put roadblocks on all streets leading into the area, so the police would have to remove the roadblocks before they can come to get Coke. A couple of days ago some soldiers in an armored vehicle tried to push past the road blocks, and gunmen fired at the vehicle. So the roadblocks remain. They are illegal, but no one has moved them for the past four days. The Mayor of Kingston represents this community. He has the job of clearing the streets, and one time he removed my car because I parked in a no-parking area. But he cannot or will not remove these old cars, old fridges, and other debris used to block these streets.

All because of lies. And probably because of fear as well – the bigger the lie, usually, is the bigger the fear.

We may not always tell the truth, Zayda, but we can avoid telling lies that cause as much damage as a fire gone out of hand. Even if we are very brave, not to mention very clever, we still can't enter fire without damaging ourselves.


Your shangazi

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

For Zayda: Telling the whole truth

A fault confessed is half redressed. (South Africa)

Adinkra symbol of understanding and agreement

Dear Zayda,

Saying sorry is never going to be easy, but we can do best if we say sorry quickly and truthfully. The longer we wait is the more questions we are likely to need to answer. The more willing we are to answer questions, is the less people will think we still have something to hide. .

Last Monday night, Jamaica's Prime Minister Bruce Golding apologized after behaving for weeks as if he had nothing to apologize for. Up to Sunday night those closest to him said he had nothing to apologize for. I commend him for finally apologizing to the whole country on television, even if he was forced to change his mind. But that was just the job half done.

Let us suppose a girl, whom we shall call Betty, hid her school report from her parents because her grades were so poor. Her parents found out Betty lied when they called her teacher to ask when the report would arrive.

Betty could write her parents a letter of apology, confessing the fault. However, as part of redressing the fault, she needs to sit with her parents to clear up a lot of questions that go well beyond the hidden report. Betty’s answers to her parents’ questions might show many other problems that need to be solved. For example, Betty might need to move to the front of the class where she could see the board and hear the teacher better – perhaps she has sight or hearing problems and needs to see special doctors. Her brain might be showing her the letters of the alphabet the wrong way around, and so she will need help and patience. Perhaps Betty has difficulties with her teacher, or with her classmates. Perhaps something happened to Betty to cause her mind to drift away from schoolwork. She might be keeping a secret that is a burden on her mind.

If she doesn’t answer questions, her parent just have to guess what caused her to lie to them. They could most likely guess wrong, and Betty might lie again to hide her problems. Or next time around the cover up could be worse. In the meantime, Betty and her parents might continue to have problems trusting and understanding each other.

So Golding still needs to talk. He still needs to answer questions. Yesterday he had a chance to answer questions in Parliament, and he didn’t. People in Parliament could have questioned him the way you can’t question a face you are looking at on television. Often the way people answer questions can tell us if they are genuine or not.

Therefore, we are still waiting. A half-way apology is never enough to build back trust.


Your shangazi

Monday, May 17, 2010

To Zayda: Price of wisdom

Only a fool believes everything he is told. (Ethiopia, Eritrea)

Adinkra symbol for wisdom, creativity

Dear Zayda,

We can be in big trouble if we believe everything we are told. That is why we need to ask questions. Children are great at asking questions, and I hope you remain a questioner for life. Children also have great instincts for truth, and I hope you always trust your instincts. Some of us as adults swallow our questions and deny our instincts. That’s when we open ourselves to being drawn into a cult.

Yesterday I thought I was watching a cult when Samuda and Baugh, two persons from Golding’s party, say Golding would neither resign nor apologize for telling lies to the country. They said the whole party believes Golding and supports him. They said people were being unfair to Golding to ask him to go when he was innocent of doing anything wrong.

Sometimes adults create their own fairy tales, and then try to convince us that the fairy tales are true. If we ask too many questions, the adults might find ways to punish us, whether we are children or grown-ups. It takes courage to stand up against a cult, and I am happy to tell you that one person (so far), someone close to Golding, has been brave enough to think for himself, even if he is alone. He has said openly that Golding should apologize.

You need to ask questions always, my grandniece. You need to learn to trust your instincts and your judgment. You have a right to your thoughts, to your own opinion. I hope you always remember that you don't have to believe all you are told, no matter by whom.

You will find cults everywhere – at home, at school, and later at work. You will hear words like “loyalty”, and “team work”. Loyalty is important in relationships, and teamwork is important because we can do so much more together than we can do alone. However, you will know you are in a cult when you have to:

• follow exactly what the group tells you, without asking any questions;
• depend on the leader and defend him even if he hurts others or breaks the law;
• avoid any sign of disagreeing with the group; and
• dislike outsiders and say bad things about them.

When I was growing up, adults wanted children to be seen and not heard. When there were family quarrels, I was supposed to take my parents’ side even if no one told me what the fuss was about. If they didn’t like someone, I was supposed to dislike that person as well and even stop playing with their children. Sometimes families act like cults, and prepare us to fall in with cults when we are adults.

Traditionally, boys get some room to be independent, but girls are often under pressure to obey without question. I hope your world is different from the one I knew. At that time, many of us girls believed that we belonged to our parents when we were young, and would belong to our husbands when we got older. I was grown with children of my own before I realized that I could belong to myself.

So you can love your parents and your elders, and still disagree with them. Parents, teachers, and bosses are human, so they are allowed to be wrong. And you are also allowed to make mistakes; you are allowed to be wrong as well. As you will soon find out, we learn to walk by falling down.

I do not think Golding’s followers do him a favour by treating him as if he were a cult leader who can do no wrong. He might be better of if his followers loved him well enough to ask all their questions, and trust their instincts to know when he is telling them the truth. They could then be able to help themselves and all Jamaica by showing him where he went wrong, and helping him to correct his mistakes.

Zayda, you can be sure that I will support you in thinking for yourself, asking questions, trusting your instincts, and coming to your own conclusions. We pay a price for being wise, but an even greater price to allowing ourselves to be fooled.


Your shangazi

Sunday, May 16, 2010

To Zayda: On Saying Sorry

Today's African proverb: Sorry doesn't heal a wound, but it can clean a wound. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Some people think Prime Minister Bruce Golding should apologize to the country. As today’s African proverb cautions us, saying sorry might clean the wound, but the cut still has to be healed.

When I was a little girl living in the country, a family came to visit us for Sunday lunch with their son. My memory of this boy is that he had a cap he loved, and that he teased me all that day. All day. I was a plump child, so perhaps he was making fun of my weight. None of the adults did anything about his behavior. I didn’t complain because my dad expected me to learn to look after myself with my mouth or my fists when other children bothered me.

So I put up with the teasing the best I could. All day. That evening, my parents walked the boy's family part way home. As we crossed a bridge over a river, I snatched the boy’s cap and threw it in the water. All the adults were then angry at me, and the little boy was crying as he watched his cap sail downstream.

I felt secretly pleased at what I had done, but I apologized to save myself worse punishment.

However, wounds tend to remain unhealed and may even get dirty again if left alone after the initial cleaning. I was still angry that I was the one to apologize after all I had gone through that day. No one had made the little boy apologize for mistreating me. In addition, I expect my apology did nothing to help the little boy get over the loss of his favorite cap.

For healing to take place, all the persons involved need to act and think differently. For example, in this incident I needed to be able to accept that being angry is all right, and then to know how to manage the feeling so I wouldn’t have to choose revenge. In addition, I may also have needed to contribute in some way – loss of pocket money or privileges - to restoring the cap that I threw in the river.
My parents could have taken this as a change to teach me healthy ways of dealing with teasing. They could also have helped me to love myself so well that this boy’s teasing could have no effect on me. The boy's parents could have realized that their child was a bully before he was a victim. Those are important lessons to learn.

Avoiding further trouble is usually one of the main reasons we say we are sorry. The test comes when someone wants us to follow up the cleaning with healing. We may then say, “Didn’t you hear me say I am sorry? What else do you want me to do?”

Sometimes an apology contains a sting that adds to the hurt. For example, we may say, “If this bothers you, I am sorry. But why do you have to be so sensitive? Can’t you take a joke? Besides, I spoke the truth. It’s not my fault that you are fat.”

The less we are ready for the healing is the more false our apology is likely to sound. Even if the apology is well meant, others might not accept it without seeing signs that healing will follow.

Prime Minister Golding might want to remain Prime Minister, or his party might want him to continue to lead them. Today they have a meeting where they will discuss his future. He might be persuaded to apologize to the nation. However, his apology is not likely help him or his party if so much damage is already done that people don’t trust his words. So there may be a problem at this stage even with the cleaning of the wound, let alone the healing.

So, Zayda, an apology is less than half a job done, worse still if the apology is empty and forced on us. The healing is the major part, the part that shows our good faith.

Apologies therefore need to come with reparations. If we are truly sorry, we also need to be willing to repair whatever damage we have done. Besides, when we act wrongly, we often need to start the repair job inside of ourselves.


Your shangazi

Saturday, May 15, 2010

To Zayda: Truth and spilled water

Today’s Proverb: When water throw away, we cannot pick it up. (Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

What is happening to Bruce Golding now shows just how hard it is to to pick up water once we have spilled it.

Let us say someone lies, and then lies to cover the lies. The day he tells the truth, do we believe him? First thing we are bound to ask is why now? Why decide to tell the truth now? Can the spilled water return to the bucket?

Not long sago, a policeman named Lyn Sue admitted that his lie sent a man to prison. He arrested a man and could find no witness to say the man was guilty. Lyn Sue so strongly believed the man to be guilty, that he created a witness and wrote an imaginary statement. The case went to court and the judge accepted the statement because Lyn Sue said the witness could not attend court. That was actually true, how cold the witness attend court if he did not exist? The arrested man was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to spend several years in prison.

Well, Lyn Sue had a change of heart. Since the court case, he had become a Christian. He therefore wanted to confess his sins so he could find peace in his heart and with his God.

Still, Lyn Sue had done wrong. He had misled the court. Because of his lie, a man spent time in prison for a crime he did not commit. At least there was no proof the man had committed any crime, so he was entitled to his freedom. As a result, Lyn Sue had to pay a penalty. He was tried for obstructing justice, and spent about six months in prison for that offence. Some people thought he should not have been punished for telling the truth. However, Zayda, actions have consequences, and it is never all right to lie especially if that causes other people to suffer.

People confess to lies for different reasons. Let us imagine a little boy whom we will call Fred. He took some money from his mom’s purse, and bought ice cream. When his mom found out that the money was missing, she looked all over the house for it, and she decided she probably lost it when she went shopping. She didn’t ask Fred about the money, and he said nothing. Some may say Fred didn’t exactly lie, but he did. That was a lie by omitting to tell the truth.

Fred felt he got away with lying (as well as stealing) and he boasted about it to his friend Jimmy. “My mom thinks she is so smart, but I fooled her,” he said. Jimmy didn’t advise Fred to admit the truth to his mom. He didn’t tell him to try to find the money to pay back his mom. He said, “That’s a great way to have ice cream whenever you want it.” So Jimmy joined the web of lies.

A couple of days later, Jimmy came across Fred who was eating chocolate chip cookies, the tender moist cookies that made Jimmy’s mouth water.

“Give me a cookie.” Jimmy said.
“This is my last one.” Fred swallowed the last of the cookie and brushed away the crumbs.
“No, I can see you have another one in the bag.”
“That’s for my mom.”
“Tell her it fell and a dog ate it.”

Jimmy tried to grab the bag, and Fred held it behind his back.

“Well, I am going to tell your mom what you did to get ice cream.
Did you steal her money again to buy cookies?” Jimmy said
“She won’t believe you.” Fred’s upper lip trembled as he spoke.
“Try me.” Jimmy said as he walked away.

Fred realized that if his mom heard the story from Jimmy, she would probably ground him for life. When his mom came in from work that evening, the dishes were all washed up and the table is set. His room was tidy for once, with all the toy cars lined up and the books on the shelf. He had also done his homework.

When his mom was seated on the couch, sipping a glass of red wine, Fred sat down next to her, with tears in his eyes. He told her he found the money on the floor and put it in his pocket till he could give it to her.

“I just forgot about it,” he said. The tears are spilling now. “So I spent it with the rest of my pocket money. When I heard you asking for the money, I just didn’t know how to tell you without your getting mad at me.”

“You know you won’t watch any television this weekend. You can’t just take money and spend it without knowing where it came from.”

“I am so sorry, mom. I wouldn’t be in this trouble if it wasn’t for Jimmy.”

“What does Jimmy have to do with this?”

“He tells lies all the time. He told me not to tell you about finding the money. I don’t think I want to be around him anymore.”

“I agree,” his mom said. “You did wrong, but you are a brave boy to come and tell me the truth.”

Many people think Bruce Golding is brave to have finally told the truth. Many others wonder whether what he said was as yet the truth, or whether he was trying to excuse himself by pointing fingers at other persons. A few people wonder why he is telling the truth now after lying for so long. Was he converted to the truth by a baptism of some sort? Was he forced to confess before someone else spilled the story?

Your best bet, Zayda, is to tell the truth the first time around.


Your shangazi

Thursday, May 13, 2010

For Zayda: No short cut to honesty

Better you lose time than character. (Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

You will find a lot of short cuts in life, and you will want to avoid those that will place your honesty in question. Sometimes the rocky path up the hillside does us much more good than the smooth highway down the valley.

The Bruce Golding we see today bears little resemblance to the person who seemed to be taking a long rough road to honesty more than ten years ago. He said then that he would be a new and different politician, and many of us believed him. We wanted a leader we could trust. Perhaps we wanted to believe him so badly that we did not look beyond his words. Remember, my grandniece, that words are never enough.

Since the 1970s Golding had been like a prince expecting to become king in the palace. In 1995 he came out and said that palace was rotten inside even if it still looked great from the outside. So he left the palace and set up his own little hut outside. “A hut where you can be honest is better than a palace where you have to be dishonest to keep your place,” his action said.

Many of us fell in love with Golding’s little hut, even though we may have yearned to be in the palace where we could sleep on soft beds and eat shrimp and steak all day if we wanted to. Just calaloo and water (no wine in the little hut) could be boring after a while, but we had the great feeling that the hardships were building character. We would wait for the day when the prince would become king on his terms. He would never allow power to go to his head like those who entered the palace as mice and became tigers overnight. He would be neither a mouse or a tiger, but just a man who cared for people and would rule in their interest.

Many were shocked when Golding returned to the palace in 2002, especially as the palace seemed the same as it was when he left it seven years earlier. The king was then fighting a battle in a war that he had lost for 13 years. If he won this time, he would finally be able to rule the whole country rather than just the gardens around his palace. Perhaps life in the hut was moving too slowly. Too many years would pass before the hut could look like a palace and Golding could act like a prince again. Perhaps he could see no way to become king that year, the next year, or even 20 years after that. In addition, some of his followers wanted to get back to the luxury of the palace; and they thought Golding was the only hope of their being on the winning side again.

Golding took the shortcut. As far as anyone could see, the palace was indeed the same as it had even been - just as dirty and dusty and broken down inside. Those who questioned the king could still be cast into the dungeon, and those who did the king’s bidding were still sure to sit at banquets with him.

Golding and his followers captured the palace, took power from the king, and won the war. With the crown on his head, Golding promised change. He would be the chief servant of the people, not a tyrant as kings tended to be. He would be open and honest, not corrupt. He would clean up the palace and allow the people to come in to inspect it if they wanted to. Some people had doubts about this man. They were worried that he left his hut for the palace because he was hungry for power. However, many others wanted change so badly that they believed his promises and were happy to have him as their king.

Many of those are now insisting that he leave the palace and never return, because he took one shortcut too many and lied to the people about it for eight weeks.

As a Yoruba proverb says, Zayda, “One loses one's reputation in one day, but the disgrace is for all days.” Golding tried to gain time but lost character, and that loss might last for the rest of his days.

A lesson is here for each of us who is tempted to take a shortcut.


Your shangazi

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

For Zayda: Short Journey of Truth

Daily African Proverb: Whereas a liar takes one thousand years to go on a journey, the one who speaks the truth follows and overtakes the liar in a day. (Ghana)

Dear Zayda,

The truth might get you into trouble, but in the long run telling the truth is worth the risk. Bruce Golding, Prime Minister of Jamaica, has been lying to the country for eight weeks, and today he is in big trouble.

Golding is related to us on both sides of the family. Some of his blood relatives are McCallas like you, and some of his in-laws are my mother’s cousins. In Jamaica, blood or marriage connects many of us. But lies take away trust, even in families.

The first truth we need to tell you, my grandniece, is that all of us lie at some time or other. Mostly we tell lies when we are afraid of being punished. Let us say that someone whom I will call Bobby breaks him mother’s favorite crystal vase. He might say, “The dog did it.” Since the dog can’t speak for itself, Bobby is safe for the moment. But what if the dog is not allowed anywhere near the crystal vase? Bobby might say, “Someone left the door open and the dog slipped in.” Bobby may well have to continue to tell lie after lie to cover up the first one.

Bobby, like Golding, will now have to remember all the lies he told. So Bobby might throw tantrums to cover up gaps in his stories. Let us imagine his mother says, “Who could have left the door open?” Bobby might add to the lie by naming his brother and getting him in trouble. Or Bobby might act upset that his mother would think he would disobey her order to keep the door closed. He may jump to defend himself even before he is accused of anything. He may become angry so as to push away any possible blame, so now he is lying not just in his words but in his action.

At the start, he could have said, “I broke the vase. I didn’t mean to do it, and I am sorry.” His mother may have fussed for a few minutes, and she may have sent Bobby on time out for a while. Bobby may have had a short period of discomfort, but his mother would know she could trust him. If, on another occasion, Bobby said, “I did not break the vase,” his mother would know she could take him at his word.

Bobby also needs to be able take his mother at her word. Like you, Zayda, Bobby was born knowing truth, and he learned lying from adults.

Prime Minister Golding could restore trust in his word by admitting that he lied. He could stop sounding angry in the hope of shutting up those who question him. He could stop blaming others in the hope of taking attention away from his own lies. He could come clean and take what comes from telling the truth.

Golding and the rest of us need to set the young an example of honesty. We need always to opt for the short (even if sometimes painful) journey of truth.


Your shangazi

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi: Walk Good!

Today's African proverb: Where the runner ends, there the walker will end. (Nigeria)

Dear Zayda,

The runners in our family often outshine the walkers. You may therefore have to dig hard to hear about some family members. Like Aunt B, the first-born of my maternal grandparents. Yesterday I realized I had no photos of her in my photo album. A few quick calls to some family members did not unearth any bring me any luck, but I will keep trying because I would like you to see her.

Two of Aunt B's grandsons at the repast after her funeral

Aunt B looked African in a family where all her siblings had straighter noses, longer and less curly hair, and lighter skins. My mother said when she and Aunt B attended primary school together, children teased Aunt B and called her my mother’s maid. Aunt B did indeed work as a maid for most of her life – as a chambermaid in the upscale hotel that later became Couples, Ocho Rios.

So I cannot recall Aunt B visiting my parents’ home or being present at family gatherings (except at my grandparents’ home). No one dropped Aunt B’s name in conversation, the way relatives might mention our links to this doctor or that lawyer or some propertied person.

Perhaps Aunt B might merit a mention for some now that one of her great-grand-daughters has attended Harvard.

For me, Aunt B is a special example of someone who made the most of opportunities, however limited. She managed her money well, and was able to own her home as well as rental property. I am not aware that she ever asked any of her better-off siblings for help. Instead, she placed herself in a position to raise her child - she was a single parent – as well as two of her grandchildren and her two great-grand-daughters.

Her marriage went by in such a flash that I never knew her husband, and she always seemed content with having to answer to no one but herself. And her God. She was devoted to her church. Although she would have been raised with her siblings in the Church of England, the church of the planter class, she chose to worship where she could feel Africa. Her church, with its grassroots members, praised God with drums and dance and possession by the Holy Spirit. She wanted none of the sterile hymns, stiff prayers, and bland sermons that that a god from snowy Europe seemed to demand.

Aunt B and my grandmother Miss Annie were best friends. They were pregnant and had children at the same time. Miss Annie did not have enough breast milk for Bob, my youngest uncle, and so Aunt B wet-nursed him. In turn, Miss Annie helped Aunt B to raise Ran, Aunt B’s son. During their lives, I think Aunt B visited Miss Annie at least once every week, because they always lived no more than a few miles apart.

On one occasion Aunt B was walking on the country road between her home and my grandparents’ when a man attempted to rob her at knife point. At that time the road was more of a track for donkeys taking produce to market, and parts of that road are lonely even today. Aunt B, not much over five feet tall, had no way of calling for human help. Cell phones were then a couple of decades into the future. So she called on her God. By the time she prayed, went into the spirit, and spoke in unknown tongues, the thief fled.

Even if family members outside Aunt B’s immediate circle could not produce photos of her, she followed the progress of each family member with love and pride. I visited her whenever I was close to Ocho Rios where she lived, and I was always amazed that she kept such close track of what I and my children were doing. She could tell me what I said if I were a guest on a radio show, and she would know if my name or photo appeared in a newspaper.

I was honored to give the eulogy at Aunt B’s funeral. For me her strength rested in meeting life with a loving heart, and making the best of her abilities no matter the obstacles. She may not have run after medals, palaces, university degrees, or life in foreign cities, but she walked a good walk.


Your shangazi

Monday, May 10, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - Breathing love

Today's African Proverb: Where there is love there is no darkness. (Burundi)

Dear Zayda,

Love is like the air we breathe. No matter how long or how deeply we breathe, the air is still there. If we try to trap the air, it becomes stale and perhaps even toxic. Just as we can survive only by breathing, so I think we can survive only by loving.

Aunt Ettie

Aunt Ettie and I held back from breathing fully and openly. Nonetheless, anyone who knew us will say today, “What are you talking about? You were her daughter, and she was your mother. Anyone could see that!” Still, I think that until now, perhaps up to yesterday, I was making a distinction between those whom I “should” love, and those whom I feel drawn toward loving.

When we treat love as free as the air we breathe, some of those distinctions disappear. We find that we can do a better job of loving when we are simply drawn toward love.

Zayda, I hope you are always able to love all the members of your village. Some you will want to be close to, and some you may prefer to love at a distance. The more freely you love others is the more freely you love yourself and the more skilled you become at trusting yourself to make judgments about love.

From the time I went to live with Aunt Ettie and became her daughter, I was in a tug-of-love. My parents wanted to retain my first loyalty even though I was no longer living under their roof. Later, I learned that they thought I had abandoned them, even though I had no choice about leaving their home. I think that the more they tried to compete for my attention was the safer Aunt Ettie’s love felt to me. Still, I would try to placate my parents by doing the “shoulds”.

So I grew up believing that love was not safe, and that true feelings needed to be kept secret. I believed that the love that could show its face needed to be walled in by “shoulds” and by duty. I felt I needed to earn my parents’ approval even though I was already assured of my aunt-mother’s love.

But yesterday, I celebrated your first Mother’s Day by freeing myself to love Aunt Ettie without holding back, so I can pass on her love to you. If some persons think they need to hoard love or battle over if as it were water in a drought, we can love them but we don’t need to give in to their fears.

You don’t have to choose this family member over that one, my grandniece. You can have all the love from all the hearts of those who offer their love to you. And you can return love as freely as you like, because our love will help you to be wise enough to understand what love is.

Much love,

Your shangazi

Sunday, May 9, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - Mother's Day

Child & Family
Letters to Zayda born April 30, 2010

Love is like young rice: transplanted, still it grows. (Africa)

Aunt Ettie and me in the 1980s

Dear Zayda,

Aunt Ettie, your great-grandaunt was a legend inside and outside of our family. I am proud to be her child and to celebrate her on Mother’s Day.

I was eight years old when I was reborn as her daughter. Just as you must feel tossed out of the comfort of your mom’s womb, I also felt torn from all that was familiar to me when I first joined my new mom. But any new birth has moments of pain, and sometimes the labour pangs linger on.

When I left my birth parents home that December morning, I fully expected to return. I was accustomed to visiting my grandparents and other members of my extended family. For example, before I started school, I would spend long periods with my grandmothers in Bellas Gate and Healthy Hill. But after I started school, these visits were always just for the holidays. So I expected to be back home in time for Christmas, and definitely in time to return to classes at my primary school in Linstead. In those days the school year started in January, so I was looking forward to having a new teacher, and to boasting to my classmates about the time I spent in Kingston. Some of them had visited Kingston, but none would have stayed with an aunt as rich as mine.

The Black people I knew as a child were mostly farmers, teachers, policemen, or post office workers. Some were pastors, but rarely of mainstream churches where the leaders still needed to be white. Business persons were always white or brown-skinned men, the kinds of persons who could qualify for bank loans.

Aunt Ettie was a Black woman who set up her own business in the 1940s. For 15 years before that, she worked as a chemist at P.A Benjamin’s, a manufacturing business that still exists today. I have no idea how she financed her own business – perhaps from her savings and from whatever funds her siblings could spare to lend her.

When I went to live with her, she manufactured wine, syrup, bay rum, and vanilla flavouring on the back verandah of her home. She had two employees – Mrs Mendez and Victoria (whom I named Queenie) - who had moved with her from P.A. Benjamin’s.

The night before I left my birth parents’ home I was sharing a bed and a bedroom in the rented half of a house in a country town. Less than twelve hours later I had my own bed and my own bedroom in a house my aunt owned. The wide roads, trimmed lawns sculpted hedges, homes set well away from the street, gardens with roses and poinsettia, all spoke of wealth such as I had never before seen in my life.

I discovered that a meal was not just a way of putting food in the stomach; it was a ritual. Until that first night in my aunt’s house, I thought knives and forks and plates were just means to an end. Now I had to make my way around spoons for soup and for dessert, forks for main meal and for dessert, knives for cutting and knives for spreading, plates for food and plates for bread or bones. This was my first experience of a live-in maid (or a maid of any kind) who arrived at the table at the tinkle of a bell, serving from the left and clearing from the right. In addition, I had to decide how and when to unfurl and use the white napkin that was tucked inside the napkin ring. I also had decide how and when to tip my soup plate. Still, I looked forward to telling my friends at school about my city adventure when my new school year started in Linstead.

But, Zayda, I didn’t return to Linstead. No one ever fully explained why I needed to be re-born as Aunt Ettie’s daughter, and for years I tried to unravel that mystery. Today I know that all questions do not need to be answered in the head, because the answers were written long ago in the heart.

From my heart, Aunt Ettie, I accept your mother love.

Honour to all the mothers, by birth or not.

Your shangazi

Saturday, May 8, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - Ashanti ancestor

Child & Family
Letters to Zayda born April 30, 2010

Warm water never forgets that it was once cold.(Nigeria)

Zayda's great-great-grandfather Arthur Brown at Healthy Hill

Dear Zayda,

Stories about the Coromantee Woman come from my mother’s side of our family. Some history books talk of Coromantee as if it were an ethnic group, but captains of slave ships gave that name to those who came from the interior and left from Koromantyn on the Atlantic crossing. When I lived in Ghana, I visited Koromantyn.

So Coromantee Woman was most likely Ashanti. That might explain the warrior nature of some of my family members. The Ashanti set up an empire under the first Asantehene (Ashanti king) Osei Tutu, and the British didn’t mess much with the Ashanti people. When a British governor decided he was powerful enough to sit on the Ashanti’s sacred golden stool, a woman called Yaa Asantewaa led the Ashanti soldiers to war. The Ashantis didn’t win in the long run, but the British knew they had to tread lightly with these warrior people. The Ashantis therefore were able to rule themselves in their own way, even when the British had enough guns to force the Ashantis to obey them.

Coromantee Woman had two children with a plantation owner. In those times, slave women didn’t have a choice except to do what their owners wanted of them. Maybe she was beautiful, maybe she was strong, maybe she was strong and beautiful. Maybe she never accepted slavery even when her body was in chains and she could be bought and sold like a horse. For whatever were the plantation owner’s reasons, he freed the Coromantee Woman and her children. Freeing her was not enough. How as a Black woman would she be able to set up and support a household? She would have had no schooling, and no way of earning a living. Men who were freed might work as masons or carpenters, but no paying jobs existed for women. They could market their crops, but first they needed enough land to cultivate the crops.

The oral history does not tell us if Coromantee Woman negotiated terms with the plantation owner. However, we know that he gave her hundreds of acres of land. Zayda, when you come to Jamaica, you can drive from Eltham, near Ocho Rios, all the way to the road that leads to Fern Gully, and you will pass through land that Coromantee Woman owned. Apparently she also owned slaves, but that is another story.

Now that she had land, she still needed to feel protected in a slave society where Blacks had no rights, women had no rights, and Black women were the worst off. Apparently, just around this time an English man named Brown came to Jamaica. According to family legend, this man had been Queen Victoria’s lover, her coachman who was exiled from England for having an affair with the queen. In those days, England often exported its problem persons, even its convicts, to colonies like Jamaica.

Queen Victoria did apparently have a suspected lover called Mr Brown. What I cannot say for sure if the Coromantee Woman shared her Mr Brown with Queen Victoria.

According to the family story, Mr Brown was exiled to Jamaica. He, being a white male, came with ready made advantages in Jamaica’s slave society. However, not having land, he would have needed to work in a low-status position (for a white person) as an overseer or bookkeeper on a plantation. If he was indeed Brown the coachman, he may have been barely literate. He would therefore have had to settle for manual work and 'poor white' status. Now, Coromantee Woman was the wrong gender and colour for the times. But she had land.

We can only imagine how Coromantee Woman and Mr Brown each saw opportunities in defying society to become husband and wife. In those times, only the very rare Blacks and whites would dare marry and set up a family together.

Mr Brown gave his name to my mother’s family, but seems to have been no more than a backdrop to Coromantee Woman. Much of the family property has been sold over the years. However, if you go to Healthy Hill today, you will see many members of the Brown family still living on land that the Coromantee Woman was sharp enough to acquire and keep. Your great-grand-uncles Colin (better known as Uncle Mass) Brown and Bob Brown still farm the land left by your great-great-grandfather Arthur Brown.

Special hail to Coromantee Woman, founder of the Brown family and fortune!

With respect for our legacy of strong women,

Your shangazi

Friday, May 7, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - burning passion

Child & Family
Letter to Zayda born April 30, 2010

Man who carry straw cannot fool with fire.(Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

You will find that family members have such different views about their elders and about each other that you will wonder if each person I tell you about both angel and monster. Yesterday I mentioned to two of our relatives that I had written about the love Aunt Lyn and I shared. One who is senior to me said, “I am not sure how you could say those things. As far as I was aware, she just made trouble and mischief.” The other relative, my junior, said, “Hmmm, you could get into trouble with some family members for talking about Aunt Lyn like that.”

So how will you know the truth about Aunt Lyn, or about anyone else? All I can say, Zayda, is to listen with ears of love, ask questions with words of love, and judge very very very slowly. And most of all I will ask you to remember that people have strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes their strengths are also their weaknesses. I need you also to remember that people sometimes see others through veils of fear, mistrust, self-interest, or inability to let go of a past that might never have happened except in the imagination. In addition, some people lie.

To come close to the truth, my grand-niece, you will need to realize that all the stories you hear will contain bias, because we all see our world differently for complex reasons. You can try to test the stories by using logic and reason, but you will be limited by what people do not or cannot say. You can also take the stories at face value and learn from them the conflicting ways in which humans think and behave.

Aunt Lyn loved fiercely. Her passion was a fire that could warm as easily as it could burn. If someone messed up, she would give you a piece of her mind and the story would end there for her. No carry-over. She would then give you all the support you need even if that meant offending other family members who were on the other side of some family quarrel. Some people were prepared to love her when she opened her arms to them, but not when she told them bluntly what she thought they needed to do to shape up. She was therefore an aberration among those family members who could smile even while delivering lethal back stabs.

Aunt Lyn didn’t smile just to bare her teeth; she smiled because she meant it. She didn’t tell stories behind people’s backs; she told you what she was thinking to your face. Unlike many in our family and in our world, she would never pronounce people guilty without giving them a chance to present their side of a conflict.

We have to understand, Zayda, that not all people like fire. As the proverb says, those with straw need to stay away from fire. So Aunt Lyn’s desire to protect her loved ones singed some people, and perhaps left others with blisters or burns that may remain unhealed even today. Such persons may have so feared the fire that they didn’t experience the warmth.

Passion is such a risk that many choose indifference instead. Feelings get locked up in a freezer for so long that they can no longer thaw out; or we thaw them out to find nothing solid is left. Passion needs warmth and light to keep it alive. Passion brings change in our world – passion frees us, preserves our lives, renews our spirits, saves our universe, and connects us spiritually with those who have gone before. Passion also creates discomfort in those who fear to dare, and label as “trouble-makers” those who step outside lines drawn by those who prefer to feel safe rather than risk giving and receiving happiness.

For better or for worse, Zayda, you have a legacy of passion. You also have a legacy of resistance to passion. I will support you with the fierce love I learned from Aunt Lyn, no matter your choice.


Your shangazi

Thursday, May 6, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - peace in war

Child & Family
Letter to Zayda born April 30, 2010

If you offend, ask for pardon; if offended, forgive. (Ethiopia)

Dear Zayda,

Aunt Lyn

Aunt Lyn’s tongue could be as sharp as a ripe Scotch bonnet pepper, but she was the peacemaker in a family of warriors. War is sometimes necessary. We McCallas have a practice of standing up for what we believe in and if it means war then so be it. Aunt Lyn definitely stood up for what she believed in. But she was never part of the family infighting that took (takes?) place as the warriors make war on each other. An African proverb says, “Black ants bite, but they do not bite each other.” Aunt Lyn could bite, but she would never intentionally bite her family, her loved ones.

When my dad went to war with her, as he did too many times for too little reason, she always said to me, “This is my brother, my only brother. I loved him as a child, I love him now, and I will always love him no matter what. Even if he is not speaking to me, I will speak to him.” And she would do just that. She would call and take the insults till my dad got tired of fighting with his own demons. I don’t know how she did it, but she persisted. She believed in love. She believed even more in forgiveness.

Sometimes her bluntness irritated me. One day, after I had separated from my then husband, she called my house and a male voice answered.

“Which man is that?” she asked.
“None of your business,” I said. I may have been more diplomatic, but not much.

“This is your auntie trying to make sure her niece is all right.”

“Sure, but I am over forty now. I can take care of myself. But I know this is not what you called me about.” And then the topic changed.

No matter what, I could never stay annoyed at Aunt Lyn. She always found ways to remind me that I am her daughter. A few days after I was born, my mother Ettle contracted pneumonia. Since she was too ill to take care of me, she and my dad sent me to live with Aunt Lyn whose son was then four months old. So Aunt Lyn took me to her heart and her breast.

“I gave you my milk,” she said to me if ever I spoke to her in a sharp tone. “So cut out the foolishness. I love you.”

Just as she would speak her mind to me, I would also know I didn’t need to measure my words with her. Even if she thought I was out of place and even rude, I knew she would never go to war with me. She would tell me to my face whatever she needed to say, and I would never need to hear her complaints second-hand and twisted by family members in search of war drama.

Like her siblings, Aunt Lyn was bossy. Anything she wanted done needed to happen instantly. In fairness to her, she would also deliver on her promises quickly, as long as she was well. In her last years, she was often unwell, and she needed to have a hospital bed set up in her home. She was such an active person when she was well, that she must have felt imprisoned by needing to depend on others who seemed to have feet sunk in clay.

On this particular day, I had taken her some pork chops she needed to have as a matter of urgency (everything for her was urgent!). I wanted to express my feelings directly as I had always done, but she looked so ill and frail lying on those sheets with tubes on her night table. She had been in and out of hospital, mainly with the nose bleeds she inherited from her mother. Aunt Lyn would lose so much blood that she would have to be placed on a drip in hospital. She tried to get help from local and overseas doctors, but still she would hemorrhage when the blood vessels in her nose broke for any reason, even a sneeze.

The weight of what I wanted to tell her had lain heavy on me for a while, and I had started to avoid visiting her. Then I would feel guilty about abandoning Aunt Lyn, because she was my friend as well as aunt and mother. So I took a deep breath, asked the ancestors to guide my words, and spoke.

“Auntie,” I said, “I have a problem.”

“Talk to me,” she said.

I told her that I wanted to visit her with love, but resentment was taking over and I didn’t think either of us deserved that.

“Can we agree on something?” I asked.

“Tell me what you think I can do better. By the way, do you think the others in the family feel like you do? I notice some of them not coming to see me as much these days,” she said.

“Yes.” I said. “I know that time moves slowly for you when you are lying here all day. But the rest of us have lives to lead.”

“Tell me what you think I should do.”

We talked for a while, and agreed that she would call me every Friday to let me know what she needed at the shops, and I would visit her every Saturday and deliver her shopping then. If she had emergencies, she was free to call. Real emergencies. If I needed to miss a Saturday visit, I would give her as much notice as I had.

“And, Auntie,” I said, “One more thing. Sometimes you are so busy fussing about what I didn’t do for you, and about how little time you think I am spending with you, that you forget to say ‘thanks.’”

“Look at this now,” she said, “I taught you manners and now you are coming back to teach me!”

We hugged and kissed and she reminded me, as usual, that I was her daughter.

The gamble paid off. Aunt Lyn kept her side of the agreement and so did I. As a result, I could visit her without pressure, leave early without guilt, and be happy to stay long at her bedside even if I had other demands on my time.

So Zayda, Aunt Lyn taught me some important lessons. We can be warriors who choose peace. We can have conflict in our bloodline and yet choose forgiveness. We can listen to each other and respect each other no matter who happens to be the elder. We can be honest if our words come from a place of love.

Peace and forgiveness always,

Your shangazi

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - freedom to love

Child & Family
Letter to Zayda born April 30, 2010

If I have decided to love somebody, I oblige myself to be patient with him/her. (Tanzania)

Dear Zayda,

I want you to know that I will love you the same tomorrow as I do today. That is so much easier to say than to do, because today you are tiny and vulnerable, lying down where your mom and dad put you, and asking only to be fed and kept clean and dry. You never have to ask for hugs, you never need to wonder whether everybody around loves you and cares for you.

I want you to know that I will love you when you are when you give back chat, when you are sure you know much more about life than I do, when you have decided the thing you most want to do is the thing I least want you to do. I want to show you that no one has to earn love. No one has to be cute enough or bright enough, or obedient enough, or dutiful enough, or rich enough to be loved. Love is. Love is.

In lots of families, the bright and famous ones are talked about and boasted about. But people like my cousin Roy (not his real name) is the invisible person in our family. He is the one you won’t find at family gatherings, or in family photos. Hardly anyone will call him on his birthday, check to see how he is doing, drop his name in conversation (“My cousin Barry says…) or make sure to contact him at Christmas. On his rare appearances, like at the funeral of a parent or a sibling, relatives disappear after a quick greeting and a glance around to see who saw them talk to Roy.

I don’t use his real name because I don’t want to cause him any further hurt or pain. But I want you to grow up loving even those whom people decide are not worthy of love. That, Zayda, is the only way you can truly love yourself with all your imperfections. We all come with imperfections, even though they may take a while to show up. And admitting and overcoming those imperfections makes us as perfect as we are ever going to be.

Roy may think he is alone, but he is not. He is just one of thousands of gay men whose families reject them. About seventy years ago he was a cute baby too. He could vomit and shit all he wanted, keep his parents awake all night as a baby or smash chinaware as a toddler, and he was still precious. Family members might have sympathized with him if, as an adult, he was a drunk, a thief, a woman-beater or even a murderer. But not gay.

Roy didn’t choose to be gay. No one says, “Shall I fall in love with men or women?” If they did, then no one would be gay in Jamaica unless the person was crazy or suicidal. Roy didn’t choose to have his family treat him as if he didn’t exist. I don’t think he left Jamaica because he wanted to, and I don’t think he stays away because he wants to either.

He migrated to Florida in the late sixties or early seventies. The parents of a loving cousin (we discovered each other recently on Facebook)see him sometimes. My cousin wants to meet Roy. She wants to reassure him that he has committed no crime by being who he is, and by loving whichever consenting adult he is minded to love. But Roy may by now have built a wall of anger and resentment to protect him against those who hate him for the way he was created. And who would blame him. My cousin’s parents give different reasons why they have not yet arranged for her to meet Roy. But my cousin and I love Roy, no matter if he thinks he has had all the rejection he can deal with in this lifetime, and won’t risk any more.

So I promise to love you always just as I do today. I want you to feel sufficiently loved that you never run away from love. I want to love you enough that I remind myself to love those whose failings I don't want to see because they remind me of my own. So loving you helps me love myself better, just as I am, just as I was created. We will love each other, Zayda, no matter what we look like, act like, or think like. And no matter whom we decide to love or sleep with.

With unconditional love,

Your shangazi

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - Family Origin

Child & Family
Letter to Zayda born April 30, 2010

Every path leads to a road and every road leads to a village. (Africa)


Dear Zayda,

I expect that, like me, you will wonder one day ask about the origin of the McCalla surname. The family tree on this side goes as far as my grandfather Joseph Mc
Calla, and then you will find a blank wall. Mystery.

“Who was Joseph McCalla?” I once asked his daughter, Aunt Ettie. “Who was his father? What did he do before he married my grandmother Miss Clemmy?”

“I don’t know,” Aunt Ettie said.

“But you were his favorite.”

“Yes, I was,” Aunt Ettie said. “But in my day children didn’t ask their parents those kinds of questions.”

So, even though I asked "those kinds of questions", I didn't get many answers. I pass on to you the bits and pieces I have, and perhaps one day this will lead you further up the family tree.

I know for a fact that Joseph had a brother who fought in the Boer Wars in South Africa more than a hundred years ago. My dad Allan loved this uncle who was Robert Johnson McCalla, and so he asked for your dad to be named "Robert". When I was a little girl, I met my granduncle Robert. He was then 99 years old and bedridden.

My grandfather Joseph McCalla was born in 1859, just about two decades after slavery ended. So were his parents slaves? Did they leave the sugar estates and go to the hills? Even today, Bellas Gate feels very far away from life on the plains. I was an adult before Bellas Gate had light and running water, and people had to walk nine miles down steep hills to the nearest doctor. But no matter how hot the plains are, Bellas Gate is always cool and sometimes cold (for us in Jamaica!). If I stand at one of the high points on my grandparents' property, I can look down on the plains and coastline in three parishes – Kingston, St Catherine, and Clarendon. I think we have a legacy of independence from those early McCallas, Our people preferred to struggle in the hills rather than continue to work for backra on the plantation.

Some stories say the name McCalla is Irish, and that McCalla brothers settled in Bellas Gate because of a gold mine nearby. What I am certain of is that all McCallas in Jamaica originate in Bellas Gate. I can’t tell you for sure if we are all related by blood; but I accept all McCallas who ask me to be their Facebook friends. I never know which ones might be connected to us through Joseph McCalla and his unknown past.

Joseph owned land and had cash to spare, so he was the banker for the community. People who couldn’t get loans from formal banks (and that was just about every one in those days) could borrow money from Joseph. When the Anglicans wanted to build a church in Bellas Gate, Joseph gave them the land. Zayda, when you visit Bellas Gate, look for the graves of two of my father’s sisters. Aunt Syl, and Aunt Mac. Then walk down the hill and you will find the graves of Joseph and his wife Miss Clemmy on what was their property.

I hope you have better luck than I in finding out if Joseph had children before he married Miss Clemmy. Every now and then, I would hear a whisper about a son in Cuba, or a son in Bog Walk (always a son, never a daughter!), just enough information to create new sets of questions. Just a few months ago, I heard that someone found the grave of one of Joseph’s sons on the Bellas Gate family property.

I know for sure that Joseph was strict and perhaps even harsh on my dad Allan. Those were different times from now, when children were expected to be seen and not heard. And I don’t think my dad Allan would have been silent long – he was never afraid to express himself, no matter to whom or where. So he left Bellas Gate, never to return, as soon as he was sufficiently grown to leave home.

I also know for sure that Joseph drank a lot. The bar was often the only entertainment in small villages like Bellas Gate, and Joseph may have had reasons for turning to rum. No doubt in reaction to Joseph’s habit, my dad Allan never touched liquor.

So Zayda, this is Joseph, your great-great-grandfather, man of money and mystery.


Your Shangazi

Sunday, May 2, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi

Child & Family
Letters to Zayda born April 20, 2010

Respect a little child, and let it respect you. (Bantu)

Zayda's shangazi as a toddler

Dear Zayda

I have been in love since your dad called me yesterday morning at 8 am my time to let me know you arrived. So for twenty-four hours now, I can hardly think of anyone else but you. I smile. I will actually complete my connection and make sure I can see you on Skype. Besides, I want your dad to call me when you are home so I can say a quick word to your mom though I know she will be busier with you than perhaps she has ever been before in her very active life. Then I tell him I want him to put the phone to your ear so you can hear my voice and so I can tell you, “I love you, Zayda.”

Not a lot of people in my family say, “I love you.” A lot of them don’t even act out “I love you.” So I want you to know those words are possible and real, that it’s OK to love, that it’s safe to love, that it’s natural to love. I need you to know that I already hear the message you bring from our ancestors. I need that message so I know what our ancestors demand of me for the rest of my life before I join them. And already, in these twenty-four hours, I begin to know what you mean for me. My heart feels soft, pliable. I want to change the way my family has behaved toward each other, so you can have a different set of experiences from some of us.

Do you know Sonia? Did you see her just join the ancestors before they sent you to us? I hope she knows I love her, and that I commit to giving you the love I have for her and did not express because I didn’t know her. She and I are the same age, yet I didn’t know about her till two years ago. I lived all my life and no one even mentioned Sonia. Yet today I want to hire a small plane and write your name across the sky. You are already in Facebook, Zayda. My son announced your arrival yesterday. But none of us were supposed to know about Sonia.

I hear Sonia was beautiful. I hear she walked tall and graceful as a giraffe. In a little while, Zayda, your dad will take you to look at animals and you will know what I mean. Sonia had her baby alone, because her dad thought she brought disgrace to the family by getting pregnant when she was not married, by getting pregnant for a man too poor to support her and too black to fit into a family with traces of Europe in their noses, hair, and church-going habits. Yes they went to church, the slave master’s church with a white Jesus on the stained glass window. And this child would have been too close to African roots, too connected to the drum.

Sonia lived on the streets. Perhaps I passed her and did not know. Perhaps I put money into her hand at a traffic light, or maybe I rolled up my window as she approached so her gutter smells would not enter my car. Her father, like a Victorian patriarch, ordered her to take herself, her disgrace, and her unborn child from his farm. And that was the first of many deaths for Sonia.

Zayda, you are the chance for my family to start afresh if they want to. This time with a love that sets us free of the mistakes of the past. This time with a love that allows for the mistakes of the present and future. This time with a love that exists for no other reason than to celebrate life. This time with a love that nothing, no one, no circumstance can destroy.

Thank you, Zayda for today’s message from our ancestors. A message of respect for you, for Sonia, for all the babies that have ever been born to my family. To all the babies that have ever been born.

Much love,

Your Shangazi (Swahili for paternal aunt).


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