Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

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

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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