Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sam Sharpe: One person changes a place

A changed place can't transform an individual, but a transformed individual can change a place. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Any change starts with just one person who believes change can come. On August 1 we celebrate those who believed slaves deserved to be free. Many, like Sam Sharpe, gave their lives to bring about change.

Sharpe was born in Montego Bay in 1801. Because he was able to read and write, he found out that people in England wanted to end slavery. He became a Baptist deacon, and believed in what the Bible said about all being equal. He therefore preached messages telling people they had a right to be free.

Now, it is one thing to talk and another to act on a belief. So Sharpe suggested to the slaves that they refuse to work till they got paid. He knew the best time to carry out this plan was at Christmas when the planters needed to reap the cane or they would lose money.

Sharpe’s plan was peaceful, and some followed it by just stopping work. However, many slaves felt too angry to protest by sitting still. So in late December 1831, slaves burnt down some sugar estates, and some estate owners were killed.

British soldiers were sent to the estates to protect the owners. As a result, slaves were captured and killed. Others were tried and hanged. Sharpe gave up himself and was tried and then hanged in the market square in 1832. Just before he was hanged, Sharpe said, "I would rather die in yonder gallows, than live for a minute more in slavery."

Although this Christmas rebellion seemed to have failed, Sharpe still managed to transform a whole country. The British, who governed Jamaica at the time, realized that slaves were determined to be free. They saw that slaves were willing to come together to fight for justice. As a result, the British abolished slavery not just in Jamaica but in all parts of the world where the British ruled.

Sam Sharpe’s vision of freedom transformed his world well beyond Montego Bay.

Remember that, like Sharpe, your vision backed up by passion can give you the power to transform your world.


Your shangazi

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Not dwelling on mistakes

Aunt Ettie and me

People who love one another do not dwell on each other's mistakes. Kenya (Gikuyu)

Dear Zayda,

Your great-grandaunt, my Aunt Ettie, was born on this day in 1904. She lived fully till she was 96 years old. To me, she is an example of someone who did not dwell on mistakes whether made by others or by herself. So she freed herself to love others, and to enjoy life.

She loved to travel, and I learned a lot from the way she responded to when things (that most of us would call ‘bad’) happened to her on her trips. For example, once when she went to Miami, a hit-and-run driver hit her down. The accident left her with a fractured pelvis, and she had to remain with a relative in Miami till she was well enough to return to Jamaica.

Well, if I were waiting to hear Aunt Ettie complain, I would be still waiting. Did she have bad things to say about the driver who injured her? Never. Did she blame herself and decide to stop traveling? No. Did she tell herself that continuing to go on trips at her age (she was then in her eighties) was a mistake? Not at all.

Aunt Ettie loved herself too well to spend time blaming anyone. She just focused on getting better as quickly as she could. She was too upbeat for anyone to even whisper to her that bones of older persons didn’t heal quickly if at all. Her one concern was not seeming like an invalid. So she was relieved that the plane bringing her from Miami arrived at night so no one she knew could see her leave the plane in a stretcher. She always wanted to stand on her own feet.

When she was recovering, Aunt Ettie’s only talk was of the progress she made. So we had a celebration when she could move her toes and when she could bend her knees. The day she made it to the dining table was like Christmas Day for her. The accident took place in September, and by early November, Aunt Ettie was well enough to return to her own home. She lived by herself in a townhouse with stairs to climb, but she tackled those seeming obstacles with the courage that marked her life.

You many find, Zayda, that today many people go to all lengths to pick out and dwell on other persons' mistakes. What that hit-and-run driver did may have gone beyond just a ‘mistake’. The police could have charged him with a crime. At times, people also treat it as a crime if someone doesn’t say a word correctly, or cooks a meal that is not tasty, or wears a colour that is not in fashion. If people are looking for mistakes, they will find them. One of the main reasons is that we are only truly living when we make mistakes. That’s how we learn and grow. Just the same way as you are going to fall down a lot of times before you learn how to balance yourself on your legs.

Aunt Ettie showed how useless it is to blame others, even when bad things happen. Picking on others for their mistakes will make us unhappy. Picking on ourselves for our mistakes will make us even more unhappy. And who wants to be around unhappy people, except for other unhappy people?

So let us love ourselves just as we are, and love others just as they are. Perhaps then, as with Aunt Ettie, how we treat mistakes can make us bless the lives of all who can see us as love in action.


Your shangazi

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Balance between stone and water

To be hard doesn't mean to be hard as a stone, and to be soft doesn't mean to be soft as water. (Kenya)

Dear Zayda,

When you start to make your first steps, you will discover balance. You will fall many times before you trust your legs enough to start running. But even adults fall when they lose balance. So we don't have to be always hard, or always soft. But we can always let love direct us on how best to act.

I was balanced (or thought I was) when I first went to live in England. I had gone to a school were I had British teachers and learnt from books written for English children. I also had a British passport. So when I got to England, I felt at home. I could eat strawberries and cream, and in spring I could enjoy the “host of golden daffodils”. In Jamaica, we would line up in the sun to see the queen on here rare visits to Jamaica. But in London, I could get to see the queen as often as I wanted to. Yes, I was at home, even with the winter damp and snow, and with long summer days that could be chilly and bleak.

Then I discovered that I was too Black. Too Black to get a decent place to rent or buy. Too Black to feel welcome in some restaurants. Too Black to be treated as just another human being. I had to decide what to do to save myself while I lived with people who just needed to see my skin colour to dislike me. Being hard seemed as stone seemed a better choice than being soft as water. And if took me a while to see that I didn’t need to be either stone or water.

I fell in love with the children I taught. I didn’t see them as Black, brown, or white. They were just my children. At first some of them saw me as Black only, and carried into the classroom their parents' fears of blackness. But as we grew to know each other, I was just “Miss” who sometimes couldn’t write straight on the blackboard. I was a fun person whom my students wanted to sit next to at the lunch table, or whose music class my students wanted to be part of so they could catch some tropical sunshine in the drum rhythms. I needed to know when to be tough with my students, and when to be soft with them. But most of all, I knew they needed me to the best of me. Authentic.

I still left home every day ready to be a hard as stone with any of the adults who got on my wrong side. If they treated me as “less than”, then I was ready to teach them some tough lessons. I found out how much English people hated tantrums, so I learned how to be yell and cry foul to get their attention.

One day I went to a white doctor’s office and cried foul at him. The office was closed when I got there, but the patient in the waiting room opened the door for me. When the doctor came to call his patient, he was angry to see me there. So he and I exchanged some hot words for a while. He said I had sneaked into his office, and I said he had closed his office ahead of time. I thought of walking out, but I needed to see a doctor that morning.

When I got into his surgery, the doctor and I started to behave like human beings. Not Black and white. Not male and female. Not doctor and patient. Just people. Somehow we started to talk with each other and not at each other as we had been doing. He admitted he may have closed a few minutes early because he had such a busy day ahead. I admitted I may have arrived a few minutes after his official closing time. He treated my complaint, but the lessons of that morning remain with me more than forty years later.

No, we don’t need to be so hard that we can’t feel anything any more. And we don’t have to be water so anyone can push us around. We can be tough where we need to be, and flexible where we need to be. Most of all we can act out of love of ourselves and others.


Your shangazi

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Preventing injury from sharpened knives

Being involved in conspiracy can backfire; too much sharpening of the knife can result in cutting oneself. (Ethiopia)

Dear Zayda,

Families can choose to be happy. On the other hand, they risk unhappiness when they allow anything to turn them against each other. Some of the worst wars occur when family members sharpen knives for each other.

Sometimes children get caught up when those they love begin cutting each other. As a child, you will find it difficult to tell the grownups to behave themselves and not bring you into their quarrels. It will probably be easier to go along with those who are closest to you, those whom you think you need most to protect you. But warring adults seem to forget that sharp knives will cut even a small child who has nothing to do with the war.

You can expect people you love to have differences. Sometimes they differences can be so deep, that these people may stop talking to each other. They may want to have you on their side. When you are little, you may have no choice but to believe what adults say about each other. However, as you grow older, you will need to learn to trust yourself and make your own judgments. One important way to judge is not to judge at all until you can hear all sides of the story.

People sharpen knives for each other for many reasons. They may be afraid of those who look or act different; they may be jealous of someone who is popular; they may be afraid of someone who seems to have power. Many times, in families, the knives come out over land and money.

When I was a child, my dad didn’t have much money. He didn’t seem to be able to hold on to jobs and keep his pride as a Black man. And he didn’t seem to have much luck doing business (shop keeping, farming) on his own. He always loved the land, and he began to make money when he went into real estate. Life was hard when he was struggling to pay the bills, but in those years he and his siblings were close. For example, my father, his four sisters and their families would meet at least three times over the Christmas Season. We would come together at one home for Christmas dinner and at another home on Boxing Day. On the first Sunday of each year, we would all meet in Bellas Gate where my father and his sisters were born. The ritual fell apart when the family as a whole seemed better off.

There may have been many reasons for the splitting up of the family, but money features as a reason that knives started to be sharpened. I need you to note that money can also bring a family together, and we could do more of that in Black families. Instead, too often we cut ourselves by not working together for the good of all of us.

I often got caught in the middle of the conspiracies. If I refused to join in sharpening knives, one side or the other would decide I could not be trusted. Some knives would then be sharpened against me. You can see what a mess this can make. It is interesting that sometimes when family members wanted to put down a knife, they would come to me to ask me to help to make peace.

No matter what, the sharpened knives would cause hurt. I wanted my mother’s parents to be at my wedding, but that meant one side had to put down their knives for that day. By the time I persuaded the fighters to have a truce, the wedding date had almost arrived. My grandparents thanked me for the invitation when they finally got it, but decided not to attend my wedding. I knew they loved me, but they didn’t want to feel they were walking into a war to get to the wedding. So the sharpened knives can cut even those who are trying to end the quarrel.

So, grandniece, try as best you can to stay away from those who sharpen knives for others. Keeping your heart loving and peaceful might not always be easy, but it will be your best protection.


Your shangazi

Monday, July 26, 2010

Leaders need to be healers

Sorry doesn't heal a wound, but it can clean a wound. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Shirley Sherrod heard a lot of people saying “sorry” when they wounded her. A lot of people judged her without hearing her side of the story. She got a phone call telling her to resign, but still no one had listened to her. Then, when people heard the truth about what she said, all (except for the most stubborn) hurried to apologize.

So the wound might be cleaned now, but what about the healing? If the wound is cleaned and left just like that, it might get infected again. Or it may just stay open and get hurt easily at the slightest touch. Or it might get people so pained that they stay angry all the time and want to hurt others.

Black people have had hundreds of years of wounds, and mostly we have not heard “sorry” let alone seen attempts healing. The wound to Shirley Sherrod, like all those others before it, is not just about a person. And every fresh wound gives another chance at healing that wound and the old wounds as well.

Not long ago, a policeman arrested Professor Skip Gates for breaking into his own home. Gates, a friend of President Obama, felt wounded at being treated like a criminal. White people wondered what the fuss was all about, and felt the policeman was just doing his job answering a call a robbery. Black people wondered what the fuss was all about, because they felt white policemen mistreated Black people all the time. But Professor Gates’ case was all over the radio, newspapers, Internet, and television stations. So President Obama invited both men to tea at the White House. The men shook hands, and that is the last most of us heard about that case.

But Black people are wounded daily. Race can determine who gets arrested, who gets sent to prison, who drives a fancy car without being stopped, who sits in a board room, or who gets a loan. President Obama could therefore accept Shirley Sherrod's invitation to visit Georgia. He could then see for himself how Black people live. He could get an idea of the problems Black people face because of unhealed wounds from the past.

Perhaps President Obama will invite Shirley to tea on the White House lawns. But after the drinks and the photos, what?

If Shirley gets to go to meet Obama in person, I hope she goes with company. I hope some Black farmers from the South go with her. I hope the farmers tell Obama what is happening to them and their families. I hope they tell him the challenges Southern Blacks have owning their homes, keeping jobs, and sending their children to school.

I hope they tell him about places in the South that are so poor they should be getting foreign aid.

Perhaps when the president is done trying to heal wounds of Blacks in the US, he might have a look at stretching a healing hand to Black people on his doorstep - in the Caribbean. In particular in Haiti where people still suffer more than six months after a terrible earthquake.

President Obama doesn’t have to do anything because he is Black. But he can do better than say “sorry” when he sees wounds that need healing.


Your shangazi

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Courage to be happy

If you hold your anger, it will kill all your happiness. (Gullah)

Dear Zayda,

I hope you will learn that it’s all right to be angry and show it. When I was growing up, lots of us got punished for showing that we were angry, so we decided to make ourselves feel safe by holding the anger. Adults praised us for being quiet and well-behaved. When we got older, we were praised for getting along well with others because we always tried to agree even if we didn’t feel like it. And then we wondered why we didn’t feel happy.

The anger goes someplace if we don’t express it, and sometimes it takes hold of our hearts. Our feelings go into a deep freeze, and that means good feelings as well as the feelings others tell us are not good.

Holding our anger can mean we store it up and take it out on ourselves or on others. When people go to war against themselves, they are almost bound to get sick. Sometimes, to make themselves feel better, they try to make others feel bad about themselves. In Jamaica, some of the anger shows as violence. People harm each other for reasons that don’t seem to make sense. For example, people in Jamaica can get badly hurt or worse because they disagree with someone over how to vote or even how to cook a meal.

When you express your anger, my grandniece, realize this is your feeling. No one else is responsible for your feeling, even though we are all tempted to blame others. If you take responsibility, then you have a chance of healing your anger. Often there is some past hurt that jumps out when you hear certain words, or when someone acts in a certain way. The more you hold in the anger, is the more the other person’s words or actions can control your feelings about yourself. We get peace when we realize that other person’s words or actions don’t have to affect us. The other persons are probably dealing with their own anger feelings that they are holding.

You may find that boys who get angry, have a fist fight, and then perhaps become friends. They didn’t hold back their anger, and they gave themselves a chance of happiness with a new friend. Mostly, girls are not allowed to fight with their fists, so at times they show anger with their tongues. Men do that as well, when they don’t have the chance to let out their anger directly, or the courage to confront the person who angers them.

We can safely let our anger out by speaking honestly about our feelings, and by listening to others express their feelings. We can respect and accept feelings for where they usually come from – how we are taught to look at our world.

Laughter helps to relieve anger, and Jamaicans are great at finding humor in serious matters. But laughter can also harm us and others.

If ever you are tempted to laugh at someone, Zayda, please think again. Perhaps a child in your class looks different, dresses differently, speaks differently, or acts differently. Others may make jokes at this child’s expense, and the rest of the class may laugh as well. Sometimes we laugh even though we are uncomfortable, because we know one day we can be the butt of the cruel jokes as well. We might not want to stand up for the person because taking a stand for that unpopular child might make us unpopular as well. We might not want to risk seeming different or sensitive to others’ feelings.

But this is what I would like you to remember. People who try to put others down are usually feeling angry at themselves and others. Or they want to look witty and cool, even while they are harming someone. They may not have the nerve to be playground bullies, but they can always use words to pick on others behind their backs.

If you feel uneasy even as you try to laugh, then you need to respect the feeling of unease. If you have been in the habit of expressing your feelings, you can say you feel uneasy without blaming anyone for your own feeling. If you value your own dignity, you need to stand up for the dignity of others. At the very least, you can move away from those who are putting down another person. You don’t have to be their friends unless you like what they do. You definitely don’t have to laugh at jokes that cause you any discomfort.

We need to be happy first with ourselves, and then we can be happy with others. That takes courage, Zayda.


Your shangazi

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The difference a mosquito makes

Shirley Sherrod

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

You will grow up as a Black girl in a country where most people are white. Being Black and being female can seem like good reasons to think we can’t make a difference. And if we believe that, we will let our lives slip away with thinking “if only…”

But one tiny mosquito can make a difference. Somehow mosquitoes know where our ears are, and they will zoom us and keep singing all night. If you turn on the light, you most likely won’t see the mosquito, but as soon as you lie down again, it will be buzzing your ear or biting any part of you it can find outside the cover sheet. Mosquitoes don’t give up easily.

Shirley Sherrod is a Black woman whose is right now making a lot of people think again. She is an ordinary, hardworking, Black Woman who is making a big difference. She was in the news because she didn’t keep quiet when people (a lot more powerful than she) treated her unfairly.

Shirley was born more than sixty years ago in Georgia, USA. At that time, Blacks in southern states could not eat in any restaurant or even drink from any water cooler they wanted to. They certainly couldn’t live where they wished, work where they wanted, or send their children to schools where they would get the best education. If they traveled on a bus, they had to sit in the back, or else stand up if some white person wanted a seat. If they talked back to a white person, they could die.

When Shirley was 17, a white farmer shot her dad to death, and a white jury set the killer free. Shirley chose to remain in the south to try to help Black people to have the same rights as anyone else. She studied in Ohio, but returned to Georgia to help poor farmers keep their land. Because of her work, the first Black president Barack Obama appointed her as Georgia Rural Farm Development Commissioner.

Well, about a week ago, she was shown in a short section of a videotape speaking about her attitude to a white farmer who came to her for help more than twenty years ago. The Black group that defends rights of Black people in the USA immediately condemned Shirley. The group said she had used her power against the white farmer, a man called Spooner. She was fired from her job.

All of that happened before people watched the full videotape and heard all that Shirley said. All of that happened before anyone asked Shirley a question. All that happened before anyone heard from Spooner, the farmer Shirley was supposed to have wronged.

Shirley did not stay silent. She may have been “small” but she did not decide to be insignificant. She spoke up for herself on television. When people saw the video, they could see she was just sharing her fears, but she didn’t use her fears to harm anyone. The white farmer said Shirley was his friend, and she saved his farm.

Those who condemned Shirley now said they were sorry. President Obama apologised to her personally, and she was offered her another job.

My grandniece, never believe you have to be silent. Never believe you are too small for your voice to be heard. We have power, and one of the best ways to use it is by speaking up for ourselves and others.


Your shangazi.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The courage to ask "why"

This is Ra, the Egyptian Sun God. May we keep seeking to know so that, like the sun, our light can keep shining.

He who knows nothing, doubts nothing. (Brazil)

Dear Zayda,

As soon as you have enough words, you will begin to ask “why”. I hope nothing stops you from continuing to ask “why”. I can think of no way to increase what we know, other than asking questions about what others tell us.

Still, my grandniece, you will find that “why” questions will get you into trouble at school and later on the job. I hope your parents encourage your questions so you never get in trouble at home for wanting to know more.

When I was growing up, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. For sure, they were not to ask questions of adults. Today, too many adults still try to be seen and not heard, unless they are accepting all they hear, and doubting nothing.

“Why” questions can be scary for adults. They may have to think thoughts that they hide from themselves, or they may have to re-think what they believe to be true.

You may find that some questions are taboo – questions about sex and religion. And questions about politics. When I was a child and my dad was active in politics, it was a lot easier for me to dislike the side he thought was wrong. So I grew up believing that side had no sense and would beat up people who didn’t support them. I also believed that side was made up of rich people who cared only about getting richer, and poor people who didn’t mind if the rich people made them poorer.

My dad was about seventy years old when he was first able to face himself with “why:” questions. He knew enough about his political party to start doubting them. Then he asked even more “why” questions and decided that his party was no longer good for Jamaica. It took him longer to decide to vote for the party he disliked all his life.

Sex brought us all here, Zayda, but this is one area where you might find the most blocks to “why” questions. I tried to answer my sons’ questions about sex, but sometimes I would feel confused about what to say, and want to distract my sons. Sometimes adults get cross as a way of avoiding answers that they may not have or may not know how to give. So I talked with my sons about babies. It was easy to talk about babies being in their mummies’ tummies. But it was not so easy to answer how and why the babies came about.

Religion can be another area where questions are not allowed. “Why” questions about God means doubts, and for many church people doubts about God are not allowed. Be warned, one of the questions not to ask is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” I am sure you will think of your own why questions, and I am sure your mummy and daddy will answer them for you. But they may also warn you not to ask those questions around some family members.

Hopefully, you will feel so free to ask your “why” questions that you will ask them anyway, and let the adults take care of their own fears and doubts. I am sure, also, that your questions will help adults to know more. And perhaps to doubt more.


Your shangazi

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Recognizing alligator's eggs

Alligator lay egg, but him is not a fowl. (Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

Things are not always as they appear. In a short while, you will be at the stage of questioning, and of saying “no”. You need to keep this quality when you are grown up. Sometimes people see one and one and they get two; at other times, people see one and one and swear they have 11 or even 1001. So fowls lay eggs, but not every egg was laid by a fowl.

Yet children as well as grownups can get into trouble for asking questions and saying “no”. And if we get into trouble often enough, we may start to say what others want us to say, rather than what we think and believe.
Jamaica’s State of Emergency ends today, after being in force for two months. The two parties continue to argue about who is to blame for ending this State of Emergency. It seems that most Jamaicans want it to continue, but those are not the Jamaicans like Leon.

Leon called me once when he needed someone to talk to. Actually, his uncle, a policeman, suggested that he call me. Leon was so angry at the police, that his uncle feared he might do something bad and get into real trouble with the law.

Leon was working with a man who refused to pay him what was due. One day, Leon decided to go to the man’s office to demand his money, but still had to leave without getting paid. On the street outside the office, the police came and arrested Leon. He spent a week or two in lock-up before the police released him. He was angry at the man who still owed him the money and caused him to be locked up. He was even angrier with the police who kept him in a jail cell that was smelly and crowded, where he needed to go to the bathroom in a bucket and the food was not what anyone should have to eat.

Well, Leon and I talked, and then I arranged for him to see a counselor. As a result, Leon seemed more hopeful, and decided to move on with his life even if he never got the money owed to him.

He lived in a poor community. Because he had no job and no money, he was sleeping the only place he found shelter – in a chicken coop. He was worried that he didn’t have the means to support his son whom he loved a lot. He talked with me about going back to Clarendon to work on his family’s land there.

He did return to Clarendon, and that where the police held him. He has been in lockup now for about three weeks, and the police have not charged him with doing anything wrong. The police could hold him for as long as the State of Emergency lasts, and no one could help him.

I will try to get Leon an attorney, and hope that he gets justice before he gets angrier.

The State of Emergency might look as harmless as a fowl egg to a lot of people. But young men like Leon see it as an egg that hatches an alligator with sharp teeth.

My grandniece, we need always to try to see the world from other people’s points of view as well as our own. We need to realize that truth can be a lot more than what we see or think we see.


Your shangazi

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When sheep and goat need to unite

When rain fall, sheep and goat does have to mix. (Trinidad and Tobago)

Dear Zayda,

Sometimes we need to get together with others even if we don’t like them or agree with them. We may need to join with them because that is our best way of dealing with a crisis.

Many of us get caught up with who we are, what family we belong to, what schools we attended, and where we happen to live. :Too often we find reason to stay divided even when we need to come together under one umbrella to shelter from rain. Jamaica has a history of being divided, starting with the plantation where even slaves were divided among themselves. Some slaves worked in the house and they thought they were better than those who worked in the fields. Those who were light-skinned with less curly hair and straight noses thought they were better than those who were darker-skinned with more curly hair and broader noses. Some of us continue to find it hard, even today, to come together on matters we need to stay alive.

Yesterday we had an example. Jamaica’s leaders met yesterday to discuss whether the State of Emergency should continue. When they met a month ago, both sides voted to continue the State of Emergency. Yesterday, the orange side was not sure about continuing. People on that side said they needed more information to be sure they were doing the right thing for the Jamaican people. The green side said the police and soldiers said they needed to keep the State of Emergency for another month, because it was working to reduce crime.

Now, the orange side said they would not vote for the extending the State of Emergency just because the green side wanted them to. They said they wanted to see reason to take away the rights of people. You see, the police held about four thousand persons on one side of the divide (those who were poor and uneducated). Most of them were let go after they spent days or weeks in filthy jails, and it was not clear whether the police had charged any of the others.

Well, the sheep and the goat just could not mix, even though the rain was falling. They could agree that crime was a problem, but what to do about it? The orange side offered a way out of the rain. They would vote for the State of Emergency to continue for 15 days instead of 30 days. During that time, the green side could give reasons to keep the State of Emergency. The two sides could then discuss the crime problems, and decide what best to do.

The green side said it had to be 30 days or nothing at all. That side didn’t have enough people to vote for 30 days, so they lost the vote.

Well, it is hard to say who won and who lost here. Green and orange blame each other, as usual. Both sides could try to discuss a plan to deal with crime, but that seems unlikely while each side decide it is right and the other is wrong.

My grandniece, no matter how strongly we feel, we need to be open to discussion and perhaps even change. In our own interest. And in the interest of others. Humility goes a long way.


Your shangazi

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Climbing down from the high horse

The higher the horse, the hotter the drop. (Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

One of the important lessons I learned from Dame Nita Barrow was that very important people can still be humble. Dame Nita Barrow became the Governor-General of Barbados, but she never lost touch with people. I knew her for most of my life, when she was a hospital matron and when she was an international celebrity, and never saw her on any high horse.

She made marble cakes for me on my birthdays, and she made my wedding cake. Decades later, I came across someone who said Nita made her wedding cake as well. At that time, Nita headed an international agency in Geneva. Later, when she was Governor-General, she was still in her kitchen baking cakes.

She loved children, and any Barbadian child could go to visit her in the mansion where she lived as Governor-General. Whenever she visited Jamaica, no matter what the office she was holding at the time, she always took time to find out how I and my children were doing. She talked about herself if I asked her. She never boasted, even if she had a lot to boast about.

Hers is an example that other leaders could do well to follow. For nine months, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding rode a very high horse. He protected Christopher Coke, a man charged in the United States dealing in guns and drugs. When the public pressured him and demanded that he resign, Golding changed his mind. He said he was sorry for protecting Coke, and a warrant was sent out for Coke’s arrest. As a result of his actions, there was burning and shooting that led to a State of Emergency. Police and soldiers also entered Tivoli Gardens, an area where people set up barricades apparently to protect Coke. As a result of the action by police and soldiers, about 80 persons in Tivoli Gardens lost their lives.

Now, Zayda, you might Golding would have climbed off his high horse by this. But no. Just yesterday he was cussing out the media and any others who criticize him. He said that many of those who want him to resign don’t have any following. He said that membership of their organizations wouldn’t even fill a page in an exercise book.

So rather than climb down off the high horse, he seemed to look for an even higher horse. According to the Jamaican proverb, this higher horse is likely to give an even hotter drop. Time will tell.

You can choose which of these two leaders you would rather be like. Remember that if the ground is your friend, you won’t have to fear a fall. You will be free to ride the highest horse or walk on the ground, and still be true to yourself. You will be secure enough to listen to those on the ground, so they will be there to guide you when you need to climb off the high horse.

We can walk, ride, fly, my grandniece, but we need never forget that our origin is the ground.


Your shangazi

Monday, July 19, 2010

Replacing fear and hate with courage

This Adinkra symbol is "Akofena". These two swords represent courage.

That which you fear most is likely to occur; the one you hate the most is likely to take over. (Ethiopia)

Dear Zayda,

If this Ethiopian proverb is right (and I think it is), we seem to be building up a lot of trouble in Jamaica right now. Whatever we fear and whomever we hate has power over us. On the other hand, faith and love have power beyond what we can imagine. Our strength comes from the courage to think our way to solutions, rather than simply react to problems.

People in Jamaica seem to fear crime so much that they don’t want to look at it. And if you don’t look at something, you can’t solve it. In fact, looking at something puts you have way toward solving it since you know what you are dealing with. Or at least you are willing to see what the problem is.

So at this moment we have a State of Emergency that has gone on for almost two months. The government is likely to renew this State of Emergency this week, and seem likely to continue renewing it for the rest of the year. The police like it, business people like it, people uptown and downtown seem to like it, and I can think of few people who think it should end now. But sometimes, Zayda, we have to stand up for what we believe even if we are alone or in a small group. It’s not a question if we are right or wrong, it’s a question of being firm in what we are convinced is true.

I can understand the public response to the State of Emergency, because living with crime and fear of crime can make people so stressed out they get sick. Living that way makes many of us prisoners in our homes and in our cars. We feel we must live behind grills and with our windows rolled up and car doors locked all the time. We panic if we hear a sound at night, even if it is just a neighbour’s cat hunting for mice. If the wind rattles a window we might freeze in our beds. Yes, it is that bad to live in a country with a high rate of crime.

So the State of Emergency gives an ease, at least for a while. However, it is like a band-aid over a broken leg. The State of Emergency gives the police huge powers, so every the police cordon and search areas – they surround a community and block it so people can’t just go in and out as they wish, and then they search for bad men and guns. The police can also arrest as many people as they like, and they don’t need to have a reason. Besides, they can hold the people for months, and they don’t need to charge the people with any offences. So crime is down, mainly because the wrongdoers are laying low for a while. The band aid is on, but the broken leg is not fixed.

At some point, the band aid is going to drop off or be taken off, and then what? That which people fear most is likely to return, perhaps all the worse for being allowed to get worse because we feared it so much we would not look at it and try to deal with it directly. The State of Emergency will end, even though I think there are those who would like it to continue indefinitely, so we never have to start healing what is admittedly ugly to look at.
At this time, people are saying how much they hate criminals. Some would like criminals locked up forever, and many say outright that they have no problem with killing criminals. Others compare criminals to cockroaches or other pests that the country needs to get rid of, even if some innocents die in the process. So, if the Ethiopian proverb is correct, the criminals seem likely to take over when the State of Emergency ends – what we hate most is likely to take over. Worse still, if our fears prevented us from solving the problems that were making people do bad things rather than look to what is good for everyone.

We probably can’t help all of Jamaica to turn from fear and hate, but we can help ourselves. So, my grandniece, let us look at life through the eyes of love. Let us look at people, no matter their actions, through the eyes of love. Love doesn’t mean we allow bad things to happen. Love means we try to prevent the bad things from happening. And if the bad things happen, love means we look for ways to prevent them from happening again. And courage means we take steps that may not make us popular.

Our solutions don’t need to be perfect, since we can keep learning how to do things better. What is important is that, no matter our fears, we keep growing. And loving.


Your shangazi

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Not judging the meagre mule

When fly bother meagre mule nobody see; but when the mule kick, everybody say him bad. (Jamaica)

My dear grandniece,

I knew the events in Jamaica of May 23 and after had an effect, but I didn’t think it would be such as to silence this blog for two months. I made attempts to write blog entries, and seemed to find no words I chose to publish. Perhaps I wanted to be hopeful in this space, but could not see my way these months. I am not sure what makes the difference today, but I think I am deciding that silence is not the way to go, no matter what.

On May 23, there was a kickback in Jamaica that took us on the edge of a cliff. It seemed for a moment that criminal gangs were truly in charge. Police stations were under attack, two police stations were set on fire, and security persons were being fired at and killed. Chaos.

So the government took strong steps – the strongest action a government can take – to control the conflict. The Governor-General declared a State of Emergency. This means that everyone in the country loses their rights while the security forces makes the country secure. As a result of this action, Jamaica quieted down in a few days.

The country felt relieved, especially as the State of Emergency created a breathing space that we had not had in years. People were being locked up, and wrongdoers seemed to be on the run. Most importantly, the security forces seemed to be in charge of the situation.

So the mule kick, and everyone say him bad, but were there flies bothering the meagre mule that nobody see? It is important to take action and serious action, Zayda, when a crisis occurs. Equally important, we need to see what caused the crisis. If we don’t address the cause, the incident is likely to occur again. We could cuss the meagre mule all we want when it kicks, but it will kick again if we don’t get rid of the flies that bring about the bad or the criminal behaviour. And if we tie mule’s legs together, he won’t be able to kick, so we will have solved the problem – up to a point. However, if the flies continue to bother the mule, we better be sure we tie the mule so it can never move again. The flies will make the mule more and more angry, and not being able to kick will make the mule more and more frustrated. So no one will want to be around if ever the mule gets a chance to kick again.

At present, most people in Jamaica feel so relieved to have been spared this kickback, that I think they wouldn’t mind getting rid of the mule altogether. Except that, in reality, we are talking about human beings who can talk and say what is wrong and what was the build up to what happened on May 23. Perhaps people need to be calmer to get to the point of listening to each other even if they don’t like each other, and even if some would want others to be permanently locked up or else removed from society.

Zayda, perhaps these messages can help. Maybe those who are fat can see that those who are meagre have reasons to kick. Maybe we will get around to seeing and listening. Maybe we will get around to removing the reasons for anger strong enough for some to kill and destroy. Maybe we will manage to deal with our own anger.

So I am back on the blog. With hope.


Your Shangazi


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