Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

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

No comments:


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