Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Giving help without wasting away like soap

If you try to cleanse others - like soap, you will waste away in the process! Malagasy)

Dear Zayda,

Those of us who think we can cleanse others need to think again. First-borns like you and me may start out with the job of “cleansing” younger brothers and sisters, and we may want to continue the job for life. Some of us may even find careers – as nurses, teachers, social workers, and even human rights activists – that help us to feel we are cleansing others. Those who waste away, without succeeding at cleansing others, risk feeling angry at themselves, at the still uncleansed, and sometimes at the world.

Try as hard as we may, we cannot cleanse anyone who wants to keep his dirt. The best help we can give is to point the person to the soap and the water and show them how to cleanse themselves. Babies need people to cleanse them, but children need gradually to learn how to look after themselves. We have to be careful not to make babies of grownups, not to keep doing for them what they can do for themselves.

Still, many of us seem unable to help ourselves. Perhaps we know that deep down we are the ones that need the cleansing, but it seems easier to cleanse others than ourselves.

For example, Marie had some self-esteem issues when she married Tom. When she was growing up, all Marie knew of her mother were the occasional phone calls from New York and the barrels that arrived on birthdays and at Christmas.

Her friends thought Tom was a bit clingy, but Marie loved being needed. Tom abused drugs, but Marie was sure that she could cleanse him of that habit. She believed her love would make up for Tom’s mood swings. She had to go to hospital once when he hit her and made her ear bleed. However, she married Tom as soon as her bruises healed. Within two years of the marriage, Marie was abusing drugs as well.

When we help others, we need to keep asking ourselves if this help is helpful to the other person or to ourselves. Is our help making others dependent on us? Does our help give us a change to feel superior to others who seem weaker than ourselves?

Patrick was a bright man who spent several years in prison for fraud. He wanted to write about his experiences so as to help others who might be tempted to break the law. Sarah, who also had dreams of being a writer, decided to help Patrick. She did not want to give Patrick money just like that. She therefore hired him to work in her garden in exchange for as much as she could afford to pay him. In the mean time, she arranged for him to attend writing classes, free of charge. She also set up counseling sessions to help him overcome the trauma of the years he spent in prison. In addition she introduced Patrick to friends who might help him earn money that would at least keep Patrick's landlord from throwing him out.

Janet was proud of the strides Patrick was making. Her garden was the talk of the neighborhood, and Patrick got jobs looking after other people’s gardens. His creative writing teacher reported that he had talent and was one of the best in his class.

One day, Janet received a call expressing sadness at the passing of Patrick’s mother. As far as Janet knew, the lady had died almost ten years earlier. Gradually, Janet realized that Patrick had returned to his old life. He was, for example, getting Janet’s friends to pay for his writing classes several times over. He begged them not to tell Janet about his appeals to them for money, because she was already so good to him. At first he was asking for small sums, but he needed a lot more money to “bury his mother”.

Fortunately, Janet did not spend too much time wasting away. She turned her energy into writing, and became a published author.

Zayda, even if we try to cleanse others, we do not have to keep going till we are all wasted away like soap. We can stop. We can learn. We can decide to cleanse ourselves instead. Only then can we help others to help themselves, and let them go if they if they want to use us as props.

By being healthy and whole, we increase the chances that people around us will at least moving in the direction of being healthy and whole.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Finding peace with what runs inside us

You can outdistance that which is running after you, but not that which runs inside you. (Rwanda)

Dear Zayda,

Michael Jackson is one of many examples of people who have the means to outdistance what is running after them, but still become trapped by what is running inside them.

Michael had a lot of what many of us imagine will make us content. His songs – like “Ben”, “Man in the Mirror”, and “Billie Jean” – will remain popular for generations to come. Michael was so famous that his concerts were certain to be sold out. When he died, he was rehearsing for a tour in which all fifty concerts were sold out. At the height of his career, he had so much money that he could probably buy the most expensive item in the most expensive shop, and not notice the difference. His main home was a mansion on a ranch, where he wanted that money could buy.

This man had the talent, money, and fame to outdistance whatever ran after him. However, he could not escape what ran inside him.

Peace comes when we no longer feel as if we have to run away from what is inside. Perhaps, like Michael, we had an unhappy childhood. Perhaps, like him, we did not feel loved, cared for, or protected. Michael could be excused for thinking he had no childhood at all, because he was filling concert halls when most little boys are batting balls in the back yard.

If memories of a lost or stolen childhood keep running inside our minds, we may become ill, unless we get professional help. These memories can cause us to angry at ourselves or at others. We may then act in ways that harm ourselves, harm others, chase others away, or try to bind others to us by force or threat. Some may try to re-live their childhood through children.

Michael tried to revisit his childhood by creating a giant play space with its own zoo and amusement park. As an adult, he invited children to play with him. He had the overnight stays and the pajama parties he never could have had as a child. The child in Michael must have been amazed that the adult world thought he was harming any of these children. Perhaps he was indeed acting like the child who fulfills its own needs with no thought for what may follow.

Like Michael, we may dislike our looks because of what others say about us. Most of have to live with our looks, but Michael wealth gave him choices. So he could afford the plastic surgery that changed him from being black, curly-headed, broad-nosed, and full-lipped to looking almost like a white female.

In trying to outdistance what was running inside him, Michael might have become like the child who has no adult to guide him. He had the money to buy whatever he thought he needed. No one seemed to be able to say, “Michael, stop! That is not good for you.” Therefore, when Michael needed more and more medication to ease pain and help him fall asleep, he found those whom he could pay to bring him what he wanted.

Michael was only fifty years old, and days away from his concert tour, when the medication took his life. With the fame and money that seemed to run after Michael, he was unable to come to terms with what ran inside of him.

The best way to deal with what runs inside us is to love ourselves as we are. The best favor your mom and dad can do for you is to help you to be confident in who you are, how you look, and what you do. What you can do for yourself is to realize that the person who is unknown, penniless, and homeless might be more at ease with himself than Michael Jackson managed to be.

Coming to terms with what runs inside can be a gateway to finding peace.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sea and waves: accepting uncertainty

There is no sea without waves. (Swahili)

Dear Zayda,

One of the biggest favors your elders can do for you is to show you that life will have ups and downs.

Many societies promote a lie that there can be a sea without waves. Parents may believe that if they do more or less of this or that, their children will have an easier life. As we become adults, many of us believe that we can reach smooth seas if we get a college degree, become a top executive, and earn millions a year. We feel certain we will be happy if we are rich enough, slim enough, good-looking enough, and lucky enough to marry the person of our dreams.

Advertisements are usually based on the myth of the sea without waves. We are told we will have the body, the job, the home, or the spouse that will provide us with a life of smooth seas. All we need to do is to use this deodorant, drink this beverage, or buy this face cream. We may then believe we are to blame when the waves keep coming despite all do and all we buy. So we do more, and buy more, and wonder why we still cannot be happier.

If we flow with life's lessons, we learn that the sea is what it is. Sometimes it is smooth and wonderful for paddling. Sometimes the sea is angry as in a hurricane or destructive as in a tsunami.

We may choose to stay in a protected harbor and try to enjoy smooth seas all the time. However, we may become bored and even envious of others when we see them become stronger after facing rough seas.

The challenges you face as a baby will help you learn to trust yourself. You will spend many months crawling, standing, and falling down. Even when you think your legs are strong, you will still fall sometimes. If your parents tried to protect you from bruises, you would probably never be able to be a runner like your dad.

When the seas are very rough, we may decide to remain on shore for a while. We need to judge when the sea is safe for us so we do not take unnecessary risks. We may also develop surfing talent, so we have reason to welcome the high waves when they come. Sailors have discovered amazing skills when they are caught in hurricanes that create waves as high as mountains. Those who live near the sea know that waves can be their friends and their teachers, as well as their means of surviving. The uncertainly of waves can build confidence that we have the ability to handle the unknown. We may even trust ourselves create waves!

So, my grandniece, whatever you do, please leave the shore if you want to grow. Paddle, swim, surf, and sail through life, learning and growing with each new wave.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lessons from travel and food

A child that has never been in a strange town thinks her mother cooks best. (Togo)

Dear Zayda,

Many of us travel to all kinds of strange towns and still think our mothers are the best cooks. However, travel will also help us to see that other people have a right to feel that their mother's cooking is also best.

Jamaican food is spicy, so Jamaicans have a hard time adjusting to bland British food. Jamaicans will wonder how the British can expect to eat meat seasoned with just a dash of salt and pepper. For Jamaicans, meat has no taste without a generous amount of onion, garlic, hot pepper, and thyme. Curried goat is a favorite Jamaican dish, but people in some cultures would as soon eat goat as horse.

To Jamaicans who love spicy foods, Ghanaian food can seem too hot, too heavy, too peppery, too great a mix of tastes. Where in Jamaica people will cook fish and meat in separate dishes, Ghanaians will have beef, pork, chicken, fresh fish, smoked fish, and snails in the same stew. So a host might honestly answer, “I don’t know” when a guest asks what is on a forkful of meat.

Some who travel want to continue eating the food they always have at home. So tourists from the USA may prefer eating pizza, burgers, and chips while they are in Jamaica. British tourists might want to see roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on the menu in Spain.

However, others use travel as the chance to try the unusual and experience what is unique in the culture of the country they are visiting. One of the best ways to get to know people is to try the foods that tell them their mothers are the best cooks.

The Chinese swear by bird’s nest soup. Cooks use nests that are made from bird saliva and harvested in caves. This soup is in high demand in China, despite the cost – up to US$100 for a bowl.

Some tourists will go to Cambodia especially to try the fried tarantulas. This dish costs just a few cents, and this delicacy tastes like crickets might taste. The spiders are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

People in Korea eat live octopus. The tentacles are still moving on the plate when the dish is served. The live octopus will stick to the chopsticks, so dining can literally be a fight.

When we travel, we learn there is not always one way that is best. We can learn to be open-minded about the ways of other people, even while holding to what is best for us.

We may also discover what it was that made our mother’s food the best. Mother’s soup might have been a little to watery, her porridge a bit lumpy, and her turkey dry at best. However, the difference between mother’s cooking and cooking in a gourmet restaurant is the ingredient that no one else can match.

Mother does her magic by ensuring that we taste the love that comes down to her from her grandmothers, and that she wants us to pass on to our grandchildren. Love is the ingredient that makes mother’s cooking always the best - for each of us.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Stooping to achieve our goals

The person who wants what is under the bed must stoop for it. (Swahili)

Dear Zayda,

People sometimes have to crawl on their hands and knees to reach a goal. The trick is to be so confident in ourselves that we can come down low and still stand tall.

In Jamaica, we tend to become locked into roles. We have some dividing lines between those who are supposed to stoop and those who must never stoop. I attended a boarding school where many of the girls were white, light-skinned and from well-off families. Teachers would punish us if we were caught washing our own clothes, because that was the job of the maids who were black and poor. The maids also cooked and cleaned, as the girls at my school were never expected to polish a floor (by hand in those days) or sweat over a stove (no fast food in those days). We could never touch a weed or trim a branch – only the gardeners were supposed to get their hands dirty working in the hot sun.

When I was in my teens, I was one day in a group that included a girl who, like me, learned at school that she was not allowed to stoop. We were touring New York and took a break to eat because we were all hungry. The nearest place was a cafeteria. As we entered, the girl froze. She said she could not possibly eat there because she would have to carry a tray. In Jamaica, only maids carried trays. No amount of persuading would have her stoop even to have a meal. Since the girls in my group had also learned that ladies are supposed to be nice even when they do not feel like it, we all dragged our hungry selves to a restaurant where this girl could be served her meal.

In general, those of us who left Jamaica surprised ourselves at how low we could stoop and perhaps stand even taller when we straightened up. Many who went overseas to study found that they would wait in vain if they expected maids to pick up after them. Their homes would become forests if they expected gardeners to mow their lawns. No one but themselves would shovel their snow. Even if they had washing machines and dryers, they still needed to fold their own clothes and put them away. They could live on fast food. However, they could be slimmer and healthier (and have more money to spare) if they learned how to cook for themselves. Help was available but costly. Some therefore saw an advantage in stooping for others, earning a living abroad by becoming someone's maid.

However, barriers still exist in Jamaica between those who refuse to stoop and those who don’t want to be the ones expected always to stoop. For example, the manager of a business will feel entitled to an air-conditioned office with everything he needs for his comfort. At the same time, a guard might be lucky to have shelter from sun and rain when he is checking on each car entering the business place. The manager might believe it is beneath his dignity to pour himself a cup of coffee. His secretary must leave the heap of files on her desk to serve him. The manager's wife is still likely to expect her maid to keep the house tidy and make sure the meals are on the table.

If we cannot stoop for what is important to us, we risk harming ourselves in the long run. The person who does the stooping can charge what he likes for the job, mislead us about what is under the bed, or keep for himself some of what he finds under the bed. As honest as the person might be, he will not be do as good a job of checking under the bed as we could, if only we would stoop and see what is really there.

Grandniece, we may not always have to stoop, but we must never be too grand to be able to stoop.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Never too short to see the stars

No matter how short you are, you will always see the stars. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Some of us are physically short, and some of us are short of something else. We may think we are short of status, money, shelter, health, friends, or education. We may think we are short of peace, wisdom, justice, and freedom. However, we will never be too short to see the stars. No matter where we are in life, we can always have big dreams. We just need to look up.

Lynn kept her eyes on the stars even when her life seemed short of everything that had meaning for her. In the 1980s, she lost her home and became separated from her husband George and her young children. One child was little more than a baby. Lynn and George were blamed for someone’s death, and they both were sent to prison for life.

Lynn could not see George, unless at the rare times when those in charge of the prison allowed them to visit each other. Relatives and friends abroad took care of their children, so Lynn could not see (let alone raise) her son and two daughters.

In the prison, Lynn was sometimes beaten. For seven years she was locked up in a cell alone. When she was finally allowed to speak with lawyers, she had almost forgotten how to use words. She worried about her husband and children, and she became sick. When it seemed she would die if she did not get medical help, those in charge of the prison allowed her to leave. However, they said she would have to return to the prison when she was healthy enough to continue serving her time. She and George were supposed to be locked up forever, so that only death was supposed to free either of them.

The medical treatment took Lynn overseas. She was free in one sense, but this time her illness was her prison. She could finally see her children who were now adults and living in different countries. She was able to meet her first grandchild. However, she was too far away to have visits with George any more. From having at least food and shelter inside the prison, she now had to fend for herself in a world that had changed a lot in the sixteen years she was locked away. She could not work because of her illness, and so she depended on family and friends to help her meet her needs.

Although she seemed short of everything, Lynn kept her eyes on the stars. Not for a moment did she doubt that she and George would be together again in this lifetime. Although she was only free till she was well enough to be a prisoner again, she worked to make George free. Since he was never supposed to leave prison, Lynn’s task would have seemed impossible to all except her. She never stopped listening for the phone call that would say George was coming home. Wherever Lynn lived, George’s spirit also lived. She would therefore choose spaces where he would be sure to enjoy. She decorated her bedroom so it would always be ready for George when (never if) he returned.

After Lynn and George were separated for 26 years, the courts finally freed George. Lynn worked with lawyers who persuaded the courts that a life sentence did not mean someone would be locked up all his life. It meant the person could be free after a certain time, if he showed he was responsible. George spent his years in prison helping prisoners to read and write, as well as develop business skills. As a result, George helped to reduce the rate of persons returning to prison time after time. At one time when a hurricane blew down the prison, and George could have walked out, he remained behind. The lawyers said George had earned the right to be free.

Lynn never thought of giving up on her dream. Asked if waking up with George in bed beside her did not seem like a daily surprise now, she said, “It’s not at all surprising to me. I always knew we would be together again.”

My grandniece, the stars can seem far away, and many of the stars are very very far away. But as long as we keep looking up, we will never be too short to see them. And the stars will guide us to goals that would be impossible if we kept our heads to the ground.

Our faith in our dreams can make the impossible happen.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Overcoming "enemies" to achieve success

When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

An important lesson in life is to have faith in ourselves. No matter who likes us or dislikes us, we will still like ourselves. No matter what people say we can do or cannot do, we will decide on our goals and set out to achieve them. No matter what other say is impossible, we will try to nurture even the grain of what is possible.

Any thought that limits us is like an enemy within. For example, girls sometimes tell themselves that they cannot do mathematics. Kay was like that. She surprised herself by getting good marks at primary school. However, she dropped back when she decided that high school mathematics was too hard. What really happened was that she asked her teacher some questions, and her teacher gave her a look that said, “Child, are you stupid or what?” The look silenced Kay, and she started to keep her questions to herself. As her grades fell, she became more and more convinced that she was bad at mathematics.

Even when she was grown up, Kay’s mind would freeze if anyone asked her to add (let alone multiply) numbers. The enemies had moved from outside to make their home in Kay’s mind. And Kay’s doubts about herself allowed the enemies to win.

Sydney decided not to limit himself, and he was ready to ignore anyone who got between him and his dream of being a coach. Sydney had polio as a child, and wore leg braces all his life. He could not run or jump. However, he watched sports, read about sports, and pretty much lived and breathed sports.

He became a French teacher in a boys’ school, mainly so he could be close to athletics. He didn't choose a girls' school because, in those days, classy ladies were not expected to sweat. This was long before the days of such outstanding Jamaican female athletes as Merlene Ottey and Shelley-Ann Fraser. Importantly, Merlene Ottey is one classy lady who is making history now by running in international meets at 50 years old. She is at an age at which athletes have long hung up their running spikes. But Merlene continues to listen to the voice that says, “I can.”

When Sydney taught at the boys' school, he spent almost all his spare time on the play field. He inched his way into coaching, and gradually became chief athletics coach. Thanks to his skill, his boys’ school became almost unbeatable in track events.

Despite his physical disability, Sydney is one of Jamaica’s legends in athletics coaching. He began a tradition that has benefited generations of athletes and led to Jamaica's outstanding record in sprint. Most of all, he is an example of what we can achieve when we do not allow the enemy within to make room for the enemies outside and keep us away from achieving our dreams.

People will tell us we are not good enough mainly because they believe they are not good enough. So what they say applies to them, because they cannot know us as well as we know ourselves. The “enemies outside” can make war on us only if we allow other people’s fears to become ours as well. On the other hand, people who tell us we are not good enough can help us. They can give us the drive to prove them wrong.

So, my grandniece, know that only the “enemies” of your making can hold you back. Only you can decide how far you go in life.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Using Internet to heal not damage

One who damages the character of another damages his own. (Yoruba)

Dear Zayda,

I was excited when I was first connected to the Internet. Sure my connection took forever in those dial-up days, but it was all magical for me then. This was my chance to make Marcus Garvey’s dream come true. I believed that people of similar mind would come together, share their dreams, and create a family that would bring about peace and prosperity. I still believe that day can come, perhaps when we learn to use the Internet more to heal than to damage.

The first Internet group I joined was formed by Black activists. We all seemed united in wanting to fulfill Garvey’s mission. In one spot we could reach brothers and sisters from the US, Canada, Europe, and Africa. I imagined I would learn as much from them as they would learn from me. And together we would build a world in which Black people would respect each other, respect themselves, and be respected.

This group led me to some lasting relationships. I developed a sisterhood with Askhari, and we went on to become fellow writers, writing partners, and business partners. The downside of the list was the anger people showed to each other. Members and fellow activists turned their energies against each other. People damaged themselves while trying to damage others. Worst of all was the damage done to the cause we all said we believed in.

Too much character damage continues to take place on the Internet. To me, the abuse on message boards and networking sites like Facebook shows the number of people who damage their characters by their Internet posts. In the days before the Internet, character damage would spread by word of mouth, by hand-written letters, or by phone calls that were usually too costly for casual chat. Today, the damage can spread in seconds, with just one click of the mouse.

In the days before the Internet, people could see each other’s faces or hear each other’s voices. The Internet today allows people to post messages without letting anyone know their real identity. It is easier to be nasty to people we do not know and who will never know who we are.

But the same tool that can damage can also heal. Your mom and dad will teach you that lesson about about fire and about knives. Besides, if we turn around this Yoruba proverb, we can see that those who seek to heal will also be healed. This is the law of sowing and reaping.

I have just become active on Skype, Zayda, so the Internet is about to allow me to see you on real time. All I have had so far are your pictures and your voice when you babble to me in our conversations. But we are about to come face to face, showing the power of the Internet to bring people together as well as divide them.

The Internet is likely to play a much greater part in your world than in mine. I hope for you that you will use it to pursue Marcus Garvey’s dream of a world of greater peace and justice for our people. I hope you will understand the power of the Internet to damage, but that you will always use it to heal.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Choosing honesty to start the journey

If you start a journey in dishonesty, you get lost. (Ghana)

Dear Zayda,

When I was a little girl, children had to learn what we called “memory gems”. This was one of them:

Speak the truth, and speak it ever.
Cost it what it will.
For he who hides the wrong he did
Did the wrong thing still.

If we start out the journey telling lies, we usually have to tell more lies to cover up the first lies. Now, telling the truth may get us into trouble at the outset, but the trouble usually does not last long. People may not like what we say, but they will know they can trust our word.

When I was about seven years old, my teacher wrote a note to my parents asking them to come and see her. In those days teachers would cane children for being naughty, but my teacher decided to tell my parents what I did and let them deal with me. I thought I was smart and “lost” the note at the bottom of my school bag. We may think we lie by what we say, but we also lie by what we do not say or fail to do.

I thought I was safe till one day my teacher and my dad happened to meet. Well, when my dad reached home, he was furious. He would have been angry for a while if I had confessed everything right away. But sometimes when we are caught in a lie, we hope half-truths will keep us out of further trouble. I cannot remember just what I said, but I suspect I tried to be smart and cover my tracks. Maybe I admitted I brought the note home, and blamed the wind for blowing it away. Maybe I said my baby brother tore it up. I might have suggested that I gave dad the note but he was too busy to read it. Or I might have asked, "Which note?"

Confessing the whole truth may have seemed hard at the time, but it was really easier than adding the lies. I might have missed a day or two (as against a week or two) of being allowed to go out and play with my friends. By trying to cover my tracks, I risked losing the trust of my dad and anyone else who fell into the web of lies that sometimes we are tempted to weave to avoid trouble.

Today, I am grateful to my dad for showing me (by his own example as well) that I needed to speak the truth, no matter the cost. I also learned that the wrong we do has a way of surfacing, anyhow.

Right now, the Prime Minister of Jamaica is facing trouble because many people find it hard to trust his word. First of all, he had refused to admit a wrong he did. When he the truth started to leak out, he admitted some of the wrong, but not all. However, more of the truth is coming out drip by drip, and the prime minister is beginning to look lost. Many people say they no longer trust him to be prime minister.

Our lies may seem harmless at first. For example, someone asks us to help them and we agree because we don’t know how to tell the truth and say we cannot help. In addition, we might want the person to think well of us. We may then “forget” or give help in a way that it is not helpful to the person. Better we had told the truth about our feelings, and allowed the person to find help elsewhere. Better we risk losing a friend than have a friendship we have to keep by telling lies.

The journey of life is not easy, my grandniece, but telling the truth helps you hold up your head along the way.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Letting go yesterday and living today

Yesterday and the day before yesterday are not like today. (Swahili)

Dear Zayda,

Each new day is unlike any that has gone before.

This first year of your life is special for your mom and dad, because your daily changes remind that that nothing remains the same from one day to the next. Those close enough to you to see you grow can know that what is true about you, is true about us all. No day that is past can be anything like the day we have now.

Yet many of us feel weighed down by our yesterdays as we get older. We may see ourselves as stuck in old thoughts and old habits. We allow our yesterdays to dictate what our today will be like. We allow the past to decide the future.

But we can always take charge of today.

Uncle Mass (my mother's brother whose real name is Colin) has been a farmer all his life. Being with living things is a way to remind us that each day is different. Plants grow and change through different seasons. Our plants in Jamaica do not have a long winter sleep as yours do in Canada, but we have seasons just the same. So Uncle Mass has his time to plant seeds, to nourish his plants, and to harvest the fruit. He keeps cows and goats as well, and each day for his animals is also different from the days that went before.

Uncle Mass is now 93 years old. He continues to let go of the yesterdays and treat each new day like a gift. By eight o’clock each morning. Uncle Mass has completed about half-day’s work on his farm. He will take a break in the middle of the day when the sun hot, and then he is back doing his chores in the cool of the afternoon. He remains as slim and healthy as men young enough to be his grandsons. Recently, he was on his roof directing repairs. When I visit him, we discuss local and global politics, and he has opinions on all the events going on around him. He and his brother Bob are neighbours, but Uncle Mass is as independent as he was when I was a child.

Aunt Ettie (my father’s sister)is a special example to me of focusing on what we can do in the present rather than living in regrets about yesterday. On one of her trips to England, someone stole all her money at the start of her holiday. I am sure she was sad for a moment, but she did not spend her “today” feeling sorry about what “yesterday” put in her way. Aunt Ettie called on family in England for help. A cousin was happy to lend her the funds she needed, and Aunt Ettie had a great trip. Only when she returned to Jamaica did she even mention to family here the loss she had suffered.

Aunt Ettie showed us how useless it was to allow yesterday, with its joys or pains, to keep us from enjoying today.

Yes, the joys of yesterday can hold us back if we allow them to do so. Some of us, when we are at school, forget that the good report was about yesterday’s work. We need to know that today is a different day with new things to learn if we want to keep growing.

It seemed as if no one could beat Jamaica’s Usain Bolt after he broke the world record at the 100 metres sprint race. However, he recently had a reminder of how different yesterday is from today. A runner from the USA, Tyson Gay, recently ran faster than Usain in a race.

Today is the day, my grandniece. The Romans used to say, “Carpe diem”. That means “capture the day.” May we, like Uncle Mass and Aunt Ettie, live fully in the present.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Families crossing life's rivers together

A distant relative can help you cross a river. (Ethiopia)

Dear Zayda,

I learned the value of extended family when I lived in Ghana. At first I wondered that one person could have so many sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts. I could understand Jacob whose father had eight wives and who had 56 brothers and sisters. Then later I found out that “brothers” and “sisters” could be distant relatives in the same age group. “Uncles” and “aunts” could be distant relatives who were elders. Sometimes, as in Jamaica, “uncles” and “aunts: were connected by friendship rather than blood.

In Ghana, relatives help each other. When I lived in Accra, I knew of no old people’s homes or children’s homes. A family would be ashamed to have strangers look after their loved ones. I grew up in a Jamaica where I do not recall seeing street people, let alone street children. Households always seemed to find space for another person, even if there was not a lot of money around.

We had a relative, Aunt Beth, who was my model of a family member with a loving heart. She adopted thirteen children whose parents left Jamaica to find better jobs. Aunt Beth’s adopted children saw her as their “real” mother, and she treated them all as if she had given birth to them. To everyone’s surprise, Aunt Beth became pregnant after 25 years of childless marriage.

Many Jamaicans used to take in children who might otherwise be unable to “cross a river”. A child would join a household to help with chores. In return the family would treat the child as a family member, and send the child to school. The down side with this system is seen today in Haiti with the “restavecs”. These are children who are sent to live in better-off households and are treated more like slaves.

In families, we need to be willing to give and receive help from each other. Problems arise when each person looks out for himself or herself only. Families break up when relatives treat each other like bank accounts where they withdraw but do not lodge. The focus becomes money rather than love. So younger relatives might value elders only because of what they may leave behind when they die.

When family members stop caring for each other, they may miss out on help in crossing life’s rivers. The young may need to know that others have crossed these rivers before, and survived. In addition, elders may miss the chance to help the young to see that life means more than money.

You will have many rivers to cross in this life, my grandniece. But there is never any reason for you to cross the rivers alone.


Your shangazi

Friday, August 20, 2010

Staying true to what was hatched

What was hatched a hen must not try to be a rooster. (Grenada, Tobago)

Dear Zayda,

Accepting ourselves as we are seems to be one of the hardest jobs, for men as well as women.

Men often need to prove how macho they are. Even little boys can be accused of acting like girls if they show their feelings. Early on, boys find out that they are not supposed to cry if they are hurt, and they are not to give hugs or ask for hugs. Often, when Jamaican men meet, they show how glad they are to see each other by sounding and looking as if they are at war. They thump each other, slap each other, and shout insults at each other. Some of our men are so keen to prove their manhood that they don’t know how to show affection to the women closest to them, in particular their wives and daughters. Sons almost never qualify for affection, and the cycle goes on.

I recently went to a television studio where my make-up artist was a man. I am proud of him for doing what he loves, even if others might say this is “hen’s” work. Some years ago, I had an exciting outfit made for me by “Biggy”, a man who learned dress design from his mother and then specialized in dancehall outfits. Interestingly, men often become celebrities when they have the courage to excel at work traditionally done by women.

The society often decides what is “hen’s” work and what is “rooster’s” work. When I was a child, I loved to whistle. If my elders heard me whistling, they would say, “A whistling women and a crowing hen is an abomination to the lord.” They claimed this was a quote from the Bible, but it seems to come from some old Irish proverb.

Many times, a mostly female group will choose the sole male as leader, because they believe heading a group is rooster’s work. When one of our relatives was on her deathbed, she asked me to make sure no females wore pants to her funeral. Indeed, I was part of a struggle in the 1970s to allow women to wear pants to work.

Women still struggle for equal pay and recognition at work. Low-paying and care giving jobs like teaching and nursing are now mostly left to women. However, women can come across blocks to positions that men claim for themselves: engineers, construction workers, airline pilots, and corporate heads.

So, grandniece, it is important to know yourself and be yourself. If you are born a hen, you can only be a fake if you try to be a rooster instead. On the other hand, you don’t have to let anyone limit you with their ideas of what hens and roosters should or should not do. You only need to be your best self.


Your shangazi

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Women struggle to be female and person

Often a woman struggles to be a person, not just a female. (Ethiopia)

Dear Zayda,

As you grow older, you will probably hear a lot about what little girls are supposed to do and not do. You may wonder how it is that little boys can do all those things and get a smile or a pat that says “That’s my little man!”

Some of us are grown before we realize we don’t know ourselves as persons, even though the rest of the world may consider us as “nice ladies”, “good wives”, “great mothers” and “dutiful daughters”. But, beyond doing what females are supposed to do, we may not know enough about ourselves to celebrate the special gifts we bring to this life.

Most of us never learn to fight, because showing anger is not supposed to be ladylike. Boys thump each other all the time, and that is how some of them break down barriers and get to be friends. For the first ten years of my life, I had brothers and my cousins were all male. When they teased me, what was I supposed to do? As a nice little girl, I guess I should have cried and then complained to an adult. However, I knew that would mean even worse teasing next time. “Tattle-tale” would be added to whatever other names they decided to call me to get me angry.

My dad, to his credit, saw me as a person – just so long as he was not the one I was fighting! He told me to stand up for myself and not rely on others to fight my battles. So I learned how to fight with fists and with words. The result is that my male cousins would refer to me as their favorite female cousin. This was not so much a compliment when I was also their only female cousin, but at least they knew they had to treat me as their equal (at least!).

Perhaps women can be female if their men keep them at home having babies and doing the tasks that the society says females do and real males stay away from. Jamaican males of my dad’s generation would rather starve than be caught cooking a meal; they would rather buy a new shirt than wash and iron their own clothes. Many mothers encouraged their daughters to do all the housework while the boys were free to play cricket and football. And learn how to defend themselves and forgive each other after the fights.

Many Jamaican women today are working in jobs that require them to be persons. Well, up to a point. In Jamaica, as elsewhere, working women find that they are hired because of how they look. Those who fit the female ideal of the times – young, pretty, slim, blonde, light-skinned, and long-haired – can be well ahead of their sisters who are not beauty contest material. Once on the job, women can find themselves given female tasks, no matter the jobs they hold. If there is a meeting, women can find themselves expected to take notes, serve coffee, and leave the serious discussion to the men. A group will criticize a male boss on his qualities as a leader; people are more likely to criticize a female boss on her clothes or hair style.

The problem many women face today is in working the same hours as the males, but still being expected to do all the “female” tasks at home. Thankfully, some men have enough confidence in their manhood to wash, cook, clean, and look after babies alongside spouses or even as single fathers.

The challenge we face is to be the best of ourselves as females and as persons. We need to take care of ourselves so we can look in our mirrors and smile at ourselves because we like what we see. If others admire us as well, so be it, as long as we know we are more than our bodies. We need to learn to say “no” to tasks that ask too much of us, or make us feel as if we are allowing others to trample on us as human beings.

To be a person as well as female is to challenge patterns set by men and supported by women who accept their roles as just female. The road to being a person can feel lonely for a woman. On the other hand, those who deny themselves usually feel an emptiness that no amount of clothes, shoes, make-up, jewellery, or hair weaves can fill.

We can be who we choose to be, Zayda. Please know that I will support you all I can if you choose to express your gifts as a person.


Your shangazi

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

For Women: Freedom of Body and Mind

Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men. (Marcus Garvey)

Dear Zayda,

If Garvey is right (and I think he is) we need to free our minds before our bodies can be free. So many of us have a long way to go to consider ourselves free.

Garvey was probably too busy fighting issues of race and class to consider gender. If he were alive today, he might rephrase what he said to include women. But no matter, we will include ourselves.

Let us not forget, however, that there are many in different parts of the world who still do not want women to be liberated in either body or mind. I had a conversation on a radio programme last Sunday with a Muslim sheik last Sunday, and was amazed that he favoured a world where people are not equal. He had a list of all who are better than whom. He thought, for example, that God sees people with university degrees as better than people who can’t read or write, and god-fearing people as better than the godless. The “god-fearing” were the Muslims, and the godless were the non-Muslims. Of course, he believed that God sees Muslims as better than everyone else. The Muslim sheik believed all Jamaica’s crime problems would be solved if we had Sharia law.

Well, grandniece, if ever you hear someone mention Sharia law, you know already what they think about women’s freedom. In Muslim countries with Sharia law, women cannot speak to any man who is not husband or relative, unless a male relative is present. So you can see what that would do to a woman who tries to have a job outside her home. If women give evidence in court, they are considered as half a man. Courts can rule that a woman be given 100 lashes or be stoned to death if she has a relationship with the “wrong” man. Women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, but nothing stops men from marrying non-Muslim men.

I told the Muslim sheik that, from the way he spoke, I probably needed to get myself a burqa. This is the Muslim outfit that covers women from head to toe, just allowing them room to see. Control of women’s bodies and clothes is a way of controlling their minds.

So, little girls in many Muslim countries have a far way to go. Some are not allowed to go to school, and they certainly cannot go to schools that any boys attend. If they like sports, men can’t coach them, unless by cell phone at a distance. If a girl from a strict Muslim country wants to be a runner, she must still be fully covered – legs, arms, neck, and head. In some Muslim countries, women are not allowed to vote or drive cars.

It is not only in Muslim countries that women have to liberate their minds and bodies. Countries in the West, who say they follow Christian values, may allow women greater room, except at the top. Christians will say that their God created all equal, but they will still insist that the man must be the head of the household. In some churches, women are not allowed to hold leadership positions except in the Mothers’ Union.

What the law does in some Muslim countries, ridicule and isolation can do in countries where women are supposed to be free. For example, women who hold or want to hold top positions can find all kind of roadblocks. They can be accused of acting like men, wanting to wear the pants, or neglecting their families. People will exaggerate the woman’s weaknesses, real or imagined. They can be criticized for their hairstyle of the clothes they choose to wear. The result is that few women aim for positions as powerful as President of the United States of America.

However, Muslim girls manage to find freedom even when they can barely show their faces. Women risk their lives to be themselves, to go to school, to wear designer clothes under dresses that look like shrouds, to marry whom they like, and to work in meaningful jobs. If their minds are free, they know they are free, Sharia law or not.

In our countries, Zayda, we can be free as well. We can take no notice of the pressure to let men tell us what to do, what to wear, what to say, what lower-level jobs to fill and leave the more profitable jobs for the men.

We have a way to go to free our minds, but only we can enslave ourselves.


Your shangazi

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Garvey's message on self-confidence

With confidence, you have won before you have started. (Marcus Garvey)

Dear Zayda,

Today is Marcus Garvey’s birthday. He was a Black Jamaican who created a movement among Blacks all over the world. He went global long before the Internet and the cell phone. In those days, travel was expensive, and people rarely made overseas telephone calls. If someone called long-distance, we would hold our breaths for the bad news we were sure was the reason for the call. But Garvey achieved what many would be proud to do with all we have to help us today.

Garvey was confident in a time when Black men had little to be confident about. Like my dad who is your great-grandfather Allan, Garvey had only primary school education. He left school at age 14 and went to work with a printer. Like my dad Allan and other Black men of that time, Garvey made the most of what he learned at school. Garvey then taught himself whatever else he thought he needed to know. For example, he taught himself to make speeches that drew crowds to him.

In Garvey’s day, whites were rulers of every Black country, except for Ethiopia. This was the day of the British Empire, and other countries like France and Portugal “owned” colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean as well. The rulers therefore expected Blacks to accept that they were not and could never be equal to whites. Garvey challenged that kind of thinking. He considered that Blacks were members of a “mighty race”. He believed we had a lot to be confident about, and only self-confidence could help us take our rightful place in the world.

Marcus Garvey, a short Black man with African features and limited education, became so powerful that the white world feared him. A way was found to lock him up in prison on charges of fraud. The government of the United States, where he lived, deported him to Jamaica after he served time in prison.

Jamaica is still short on tolerance for Black men who have confidence in their blackness, look to Africa as home, and encourage others to do the same. Black men still find it easier to be accepted when they mimic how white men act and speak, what white men they wear, and whom white men marry. Black men who are poor still find themselves without jobs and without much schooling. As in Garvey's day, prisons are full of Black men.

Many in Jamaica therefore rejected Garvey and all he stood for. Garvey, disappointed at the way his own people treated him, left Jamaica for England where he died.

But Garvey’s message of confidence lives beyond him. He inspired African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, and worldwide movements such as Rastafarianism.

My dad Allan’s legacy of confidence also lives beyond him.

Allan wanted to be a lawyer. Since that chance was not open to him, he worked hard so his children could be lawyers if they chose. He didn’t approve when they chose other careers, as he believed only law and engineering were worth studying. He loved going to court. One of his pleasures was to be a juror and then play all the roles in telling us stories of court drama.

Allan was a realtor. He had such deep knowledge of land law that attorneys would consult him on land matters. One of his close friends was a judge. To hear them argue law, you would not have known which was the judge entitled to dress up in his wig and gown for court.

Allan’s confidence served him well in business. Career choices for Black men were limited to being farmer, teacher, shopkeeper, pastor, policeman, tradesman, or unskilled labourer. Allan wanted to be a businessman in a time when only whites had the money to own businesses. Blacks were not getting bank loans to allow them to start a business. Allan therefore had to work with whites who definitely did not share Garvey’s view of Black people. Allan knew that if he spoke his mind or showed his confidence, he could lose jobs. So he kept his pride and lost jobs till he discovered his joy helping Black people to own land and build their homes. He knew what it was like to have his family on rented property, and he never forget the joy of having his house title in his hands.

So Zayda, Garvey carries the message of confidence.

In addition and your own great-grandfather Allan gives you an example of where confidence can take us. And you won’t have to look hard to see the lessons of confidence that your mom and dad learned from their families.

Let nothing stop you from being the winner you were intended to be, my grandniece.


Your shangazi

Monday, August 16, 2010

Finding God in the heart

Adinkra symbol of the supremacy of God

Man looks only on the outside of things; God looks into the very heart. (Nigeria – Efik)

Dear Zayda,

Most of us cannot even imagine God. Many of us make up for that by creating God in our image.

I grew up in the Anglican Church. The God I learned about was old, white, and male, so where was there space for me, young, Black, and female. I knew I could become old with time. I could adopt all things white and try to be white in my mind and my view of the world. But being female would always be an obstacle to identifying fully with the God of the Anglican Church. Until very recent years, the Anglican Church did not allow women to be ministers.

Now, I could have considered joining the Roman Catholic Church. True enough, their overall leader was a Pope (always male). In addition, heads of their churches were priests (always male). However, Mary had a very special place. Sure she was female, but all the paintings and sculptures showed her as very white. I could never be sure how she remained so pale if she was supposed to have lived in a desert climate. However, little girls in my day were not supposed to ask those kinds of questions. Mary was also a virgin when her son was born, a definite challenge to me if I wanted to have a family. Unless I could be sure to meet an angel like Gabriel, and Mary was the only person I heard of with that good fortune. Besides, not even Mary would be allowed to be a priest (let alone Pope) in the Roman Catholic Church.

When I was a child, Anglicans were at the top of the social class, because this was the church of the planter class. Almost every single Anglican minister was white and from England. One Sunday, one of my brothers made the mistake of sitting in a church seat that “belonged” to a white person. The usher tried to make him give up the seat.

Catholics were perhaps next on the social scale, because they supported slavery and didn’t give Blacks any ideas about being equal.

Baptists and Moravians, who reached out to slaves, sometimes found their churches burnt down. Two of Jamaica’s National Heroes, Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle, were Baptist deacons. They believed that God looked into their hearts and found them equal to anyone else whom God created.

People who belonged to planter class churches tended to look down on people who belonged to churches with Black members and even Black pastors. Some of these churches even had drumming and clapping taken from ways in which Black people worshipped God in Africa.

My great-grandmother Priscilla Brown left the Anglican Church to join the Salvation Army. I think part of the reason was that she wanted a change from the dead music of the Anglican Church. She wanted some rhythm in her soul. Priscilla was light-skinned, so her family was shocked that she would go and worship with villagers whom they employed on their farms. But Priscilla didn’t care.

I could have joined one of the newer churches where the leaders and the members looked more like me. But I still had some issues with the image of a God that relied on man’s view of the outside of things. Even today, I would need to be silent in some of these newer churches. The reason, they say, is that Paul told women to be silent two thousand years ago. Now, Paul might have had a wife who was nagging him, or he might have been bossed around by an older sister or other women in his family. Or maybe he told the men to be silent that day as well, but the man who was recording the message somehow left out that part of the advice. Whatever the story, I find it hard to believe in a God that doesn’t want women to express themselves.

In some of these churches, women must wear hats, but men can have their heads bare if they want to. Now, I love hats and headwear, but I don’t see what part God has in what I choose to put on my body. I hold the same view for churches that say women must never wear pants (not even at the gym), or makeup, or jewellery. Interestingly, none of these rules apply to the men.

Rastafarianism attracted me because of its links to Africa. I loved the emphasis on natural hair, natural looks, and natural food. However, when I checked more closely, I realized that the freedom from the white man’s world applied to the men. As in some of the new Christian churches, Rastafarian women were not allowed to wear pants, short dresses, or even sleeveless tops. Even today, Rastafarian women can be set aside at certain times of the month when the men consider them unclean.

I respect those who rely on the outside of things (and people) to find God. However, my choice is to find a route that leaves my dignity and self-respect intact. I believe God lives within my heart, just as I am. He is therefore already and always within my reach.


Your shangazi

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Helping the youth to have roots

A youth without a link to the elders is like a tree without a root. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

A tree might stand without roots for a while. However, the tree like my ancient Bombay mango tree has roots so deep that the trunk and branches can heal from damage. In addition, the roots are so strong that the tree suffers from neither flood or drought. More than twenty years ago, a hurricane shook up that mango tree badly, tearing off most of its branches. Still, the roots kept the tree alive, even if the tree was not strong enough to bear fruit for three years.

My ackee tree also teaches me some lessons about roots. The hurricane that tore up the mango tree brought down the ackee tree. Half the roots remained in the ground, so I sawed off most of the tree and left back a stump. In a short while, the leaves started to grow again, and three years later I had ackees around the same times as the mangoes returned. The new ackee trees grow like branches out of the stump, so they are not rooted directly in the soil. These trees therefore come down with each hurricane. However, the roots that remain on the stump keep providing me with ackee crops, no matter what. I learn from my ackee tree that even a portion of the roots will give new life to a tree. And bear fruit.

My sons were born in Africa, the place I consider as the source of my roots. They were born in Ghana, the land many of our ancestors left behind when they were forced to come to work in the Caribbean and the Americas. I was happy that they were born on the continent of Africa. However, I also knew that my current roots were in Jamaica. I had no name, language, known family, or ancestral village to help me to claim my African roots.

When I moved to England, my two-year-olds were in a place where none of us had roots. I spoke knew all the English kings and poets from my schooling, and I read more about daffodils and strawberries than hibiscus and breadfruit. But people who looked like me and my sons were called names, like monkeys who needed to get back to their trees. My sons were babies living in a country where, according to a song by Big Bill Broonzy:

"… if you was white, should be all right,
If you was brown, stick around,
But as you's black, hmm brother, get back, get back, get back"

As soon as they started school, the winds of racism started to toss my sons around. At times they talked as if they were ashamed of being Black. When they saw mothers come to pick up their children after school, they asked me why they didn’t have a white mummy also.

I saw around me Black people become strangers to themselves when they tried somehow to identify as white. I therefore took it as my duty to create for my sons the kind of roots that could stand up against the racism. I wanted my sons to be whole, proud of their roots in Africa and in Jamaica.

They therefore grew up with elders such as Haiti’s Toussaint L’Overture, and Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey. They heard often about America’s George Washington Carver, and South Africa’s Shaka Zulu. In addition, bedtime stories were the tales my Jamaican elders passed on to me, such as our Anancy stories.

My sons came to Jamaica when they were seven years old. They were happy to see around them so many people who looked like them and their parents. They could also connect my stories to ancestral roots that they could see and feel and touch. In addition, they had the privilege of having first-hand contact with elders, including their great-grandparents who were born in the nineteenth century.

Zayda, I want to pass on to you the strength I draw from links with my elders. I want to help you make your roots so strong that you always have the means to rise again no matter the challenges facing you when you grow up.


Your shangazi

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Remembering to mend your own fence first

Do not mend your neighbor's fence before seeing to your own. (Tanzania)

Dear Zayda,

If ever you are a big sister, your mom and dad will expect you to help with the baby. That means you may find yourself protecting someone else even before you can really protect yourself. A lot of us big sisters are asked to do the impossible, and some of us continue doing it all our lives. Our own fences may be broken down, but we think we have to go mend someone else’s fence first.

It may take a lifetime to see that we have a duty to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. Where big sisters feel they have to take care of younger ones, little sisters often get the job of taking care of parents when they get old.

Somehow, boys seem allowed to look about their own fences first. Or better still, boys often have sisters, mothers, wives, and later daughters to mend their fences for them. At work, many men will expect women to continue doing their fence-mending.

A lot of us may shout “unfair” when we get loaded with so many burdens that we don’t look about ourselves. Or we feel guilty if we don’t do what others want us to do.
Many of us suffer in silence, especially when people tell us how wonderful we are to give so much to others.

One of our relatives (let’s call her Sally) is the first of ten children. She was therefore her mother’s right-hand person with caring for nine babies. As soon as Sally got her first job, she stretched her salary so she could rent a house. She wanted enough space for her younger brothers and sisters who came from their home in a country village to work or attend school in the city.

Sally’s sisters and brothers all got married, and most went to live overseas. Sally stayed single. She lived abroad for a few years, and after that she mostly traveled to visit her brothers and sisters and their families. Part of her yearned for a family unit of her own, and she met a man whom she loved. He loved her too, but he was not free to marry her. Still, he wanted her to join him overseas so they could be closer to each other.

By this time, Sally’s parents were too old to live by themselves in the country village. Sally’s brothers and sisters supported their parents with money, but were mostly too far away to offer personal care. So Sally remained in Jamaica to take care of her parents in their last years.

Sally deserves every medal for mending other people’s fences, but what about her own? On the other hand, I may ask myself why I am judging the state of her fence when I have my own to mend.

Like Sally, I am a first child, with habits of mending other people’s fences first. I think I may have even mended people’s fences when they did not ask me to do it. Then I would be surprised when those people were annoyed that I was giving them help they didn’t even ask for. Some might even be rude (and candid!) enough to point to my own broken down fences and advise me to mind my own business.

But it is never too late to learn, and I think I am a better person for mending my fences. If others invite me to help them mend their fences, I can say “yes”. And sometimes I say “no” and let other people get the chance to learn to protect themselves. I am still learning how to accept help from others, but that will come.

If ever you are someone’s big sister, Zayda, I hope you will remember to take care of yourself first so you can take even better care of that younger one.


Your shangazi

Friday, August 13, 2010

Strengthening weak fences

Cow know weak fence to jump over. (Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

As little as you are, you have a right to protect yourself. You do that by crying out when your needs are not met, when you are hurt or when you are angry.

When you are around two years old, you will learn an important word: “No.” You might say “no” even when others think you should say “yes”, but you are exercising an important right. Grown-ups sometimes allow their fences to be so weak, that they forget how to say “no”.

Cows will know the weak fence and jump over it. One weakness in the fence is when we need other people to approve of us. We will then leave room for people to come into our space and treat it as if it was theirs.

Let us imagine you are old enough to be playing with a ball. Along comes a child who wants to take the ball from you. You can say “no”.

The other child might say “You are mean!” or “Last time I let you play with my marbles, or “I won’t play with you again if you won’t let me have the ball,” or “I am going to tell you dad and he will make you share the ball with me.”

If people can’t just jump over the fence, they will beg, plead, promise, or threaten so as to weaken the fence. No matter what, you still have the right to say “no” if you consider that is the best way to protect yourself.

I am not talking about being mean – that is another issue we will discuss at another time. This is about not doing something that will make you feel angry at yourself, or angry at whoever forced their way over your fence.

Moms and dad need to be very wise to help children to protect themselves so they don’t put themselves in the way of harm. Sometimes “no” is just the child’s way of testing how serious the adults are about discipline. For example,

“Do you want to eat your vegetables?”


“Do you want to do your homework?”

Sometimes “no” is not an option, because adults have a responsibility to train children so they become healthy and responsible adults. Still, adults can try to persuade rather than force. So vegetables can be look more attractive and taste better, and children can be invited to share homework problems. Adults need to help children understand that “no” can lead to deeper understanding.

Mostly, however, “no” leads to conflict that the child is almost sure to lose. The child therefore learns, as an adult, not to risk saying “no”. At least, not directly.

So we may learn unhealthy ways of keeping people from jumping over our fences. We may lie or try to get someone else in trouble. We may ignore our feelings, or we may stay away from any kind of contact that could weaken our fences. We may build walls so high and so thick that no one can get in, and we certainly cannot get out.

If we want to be happy, Zayda, we will have boundaries that protect us and yet leave space so others can be close to us. We won’t need to blame others for jumping our fences, because we will make it clear to them where the fences are. If they can't or won't respect our space, we will stay away from them. So we won’t allow anyone to weaken our fences, and we will not feel offended when others say “no” to protect their boundaries.

We will then be free to be ourselves, and to live life to the fullest.


Your shangazi

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The long road to honesty

Long road draw sweat, shortcut draw blood. (Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Vincent)

Dear Zayda,

This was one of my grandmother’s favorite proverbs. I still think of this when I am tempted to take a short cut because it seems easy at the time. Getting into bad habits usually starts with trying to get somewhere without taking the effort we really need to get to that place.

For example, last year taking a shortcut looked like one way to keep my car on the road. My car is a 20-year old BMW that is now a classic. This car has been faithful to me. Besides, people are always stopping me on the streets to find out if I am willing to sell the car. Some say newer BMW models are not as good as this one. Whatever the reason, my car is like a magnet for BMW-lovers, and I have no immediate plans to part with it.

Last year, my car gave me a difficult choice. If I didn’t have a paper to prove the car was fit, the police could fine me and stop me from driving the car. To get the paper, one mechanic told me I had to pay a huge bill. Then someone else gave me a shortcut to keep the car on the road without paying the huge bill. I could cheat. That is, I could pay someone a fraction of the size of the bill, and that person would so something illegal. He would give me the paper that would convince the police the car was in order even though it was not.

Well, Zayda, it’s all right to be tempted, just so long as we don’t yield! So I saw my car parked in my garage when I needed it. And I saw myself having my car to use whenever I wanted. I saw a big expense to take the long road, and a small cost for taking the shortcut. And then I realized that the shortcut could indeed draw blood. In the first place, the rule that the car must be in good order is to protect me and others who use the road. I also realized that if I did something dishonest today, I could hardly refuse if people who cheated for me then asked me to do favors (and perhaps cheat) for them.

Besides, my grandmother’s words were as fresh in my head as if she was in the room with me. So I decided to fix the BMW so it would be fit enough to be on the road. I was not able to find the mechanic who had told me I would need to pay a lot of money to fix the car. So I checked with someone with a lot of experience. As a result, my car was fixed an amount of money I could afford - about one-third of what the first mechanic told me. So, the long road didn’t draw as much sweat as I feared it might, and I didn’t have to worry about the “blood” that the shortcut might have drawn.

This week, in Jamaica, a woman lost her job. It seems she may have just taken too many shortcuts. As a result, she is now branded as a thief even though she might not have started out intending to steal.

Shortcuts are often like being on a slope where the grass is smooth and slippery. So we may intend just to go down the shortcut just this once, then there are two times and three times. Gradually the habit forms, and we convince ourselves that shortcuts are the sensible person’s way of shortening the distance.

This woman now has not only lost her job. She has also lost her reputation. Others who should have known about the shortcuts have also lost their positions. Shortcuts can draw a lot of blood. And for a long time. It is possible that no one will want to give this woman (or people who were closest to her) a job again.

This is a matter of trust.

So, Zayda, you may need to remember to tell the truth even when it seems a lie would do. Or do your homework even when a friend may make it easy to copy her work and present it as your own. Like all of us, you will be tempted, and the choice – between the long road and the shortcut – will be yours.


Your shangazi

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Power of little axe over big tree

A little axe can cut down a big tree. (Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

We always have more power than we think we have. A little axe may take a while to bring down the biggest tree, but the tree will come down if the axe keeps going. At the same time, the ax is connected to the tree, so we also need to learn that giving away even a little of our power can come back to harm us.

Let us remember the words Bob Marley sang about the power of the "Small Axe":

Aesop, the African storyteller, also noted the power of the small axe. I re-tell for you his fable of the trees and the axe.

A man came into the forest and said to the trees, “Will one of you please give me a handle for my axe? I want the hardest wood.”

The old oak trees and the great cedar trees agreed to help the man, even though they said they had no branches to spare. From their height, almost touching the clouds, these trees pointed to a little ash tree. “Take that one,” the oak and cedar said to the man, “It probably won’t amount to much, anyway.”

The man was grateful. He fitted his axe with a new handle and went to work. In a short while, he chopped down oak trees, cedar trees, and the biggest giants in the forest.

“Look at what the ash tree did to us!” a cedar tree said. It still had its trunk, but had lost a lot of its branches.

“No,” an oak tree said. “We did this to ourselves.”

“Are you saying we cut ourselves down?” the cedar tree said. “That’s ridiculous!”

“The man cut us down,” the oak said. “But we gave him the handle for his axe.”

“And your point is…” the cedar tree said.

“Well,” the oak tree said, “If we did not give up the rights of the little ash, all of us might still be standing.”

We make a big mistake, my grandniece, if we assume that what is little has no power. You will already have found out how much power you have to change your parents’ lives, even though you are just a few months old. Jamaica, for example, is like a dot on the map compared with the United States of America, but we have some of the fastest runners in the world.

We make an even bigger mistake if we think we are safe when we give away someone else’s rights because we think that person is little and therefore of no great importance. We need to remember that all our rights are connected. If we allow something bad to happen to someone else today, the same thing can happen to us tomorrow.

We put ourselves in danger when we ignore who or what we decide is small stuff. It makes sense to love and care for others (however big or small) just as we would want others to love and care for us.

What do you think?


Your shangazi

Monday, August 9, 2010

Independence means trusting yourself

His opinions are like water in the bottom of a canoe, going from side to side. (Efik)

Dear Zayda,

I imagine that you already have opinions of your own, deciding when you want to eat or when you have had enough to eat. Most of all, you probably have clear ideas on when you want to sleep and when you want to play. Babies are good at knowing what is on their minds. By the time we are grown up, however, many of us stop trusting out opinions. We may then change our mind depending on what the last person told us to do. This is when we go from side to side, confusing ourselves and others around us.

When I was a little girl, I learned this fable that was first told long long ago by Aesop who was an African.

An old farmer and his young son were taking their donkey to the market. The two of them walked along a path with the donkey beside them. They didn’t ride the donkey because they didn’t want the animal to get tired.

On their way, they met some people who laughed at them.

“You and your son are so foolish,” they said. “Why are you both walking when at least one of you could ride the donkey?”

The farmer thought those people were right, and he made his son ride the donkey. They went on a bit further and met a group of older persons.

“You are so foolish,” they said to the farmer. “How could you let your young son ride the donkey while you walk? Tell him to get down and let you ride instead.”

So the son got off the donkey and his father rode the animal. A little further along the path, they came across a group of women going to market.

“You are foolish and hard-hearted,” they said to the father. “How could you ride the donkey and leave your poor son to walk?”

The father then made his son ride behind him on the donkey. They had not traveled far when they met another group of people.

“You are cruel,” a man shouted at them. “How could you treat a dumb animal like that? Do you want to kill the poor donkey with all that weight?”

By this time, the market was close by, and the farmer wanted to get a good sale for the donkey. So he and his son decided to carry the donkey the rest of the way. They tied the donkey’s legs together and slung it from a pole that they hoisted on their shoulders.

When they reached the town, people laughed at the sight of these two men carrying a donkey.

“You are both so foolish,” the people said. “Don’t you know the donkey is supposed to carry you?”

The people laughed so hard that the donkey started to bray and kick. The rope that held him to the pole broke, and the donkey ran away. So the farmer and his son walked back home without the donkey and without the money from the sale of the donkey.

My grandniece, we can’t please all the people all the time. We can’t have opinions that go from side to side like water in the bottom of a canoe. We need to be open to changing our opinions, but not just because other people think differently. And we also need to know which views are not open to change because we hold them so deeply and for reasons that are important to us.


Your shangazi

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Understanding pain others feel

Adinkra symbol of understanding and agreement

The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun. (Haiti)

Dear Zayda,

Haiti suffered a terrible earthquake seven months ago. Those of us who do not live in Haiti could watch news reports that filled our newspapers and televisions at the time. Some of us felt sad for Haitians, and others blamed them for putting up buildings so poorly that even a palace came crashing down. However, none but the Haitians knew the pain of losing everything. None of us knew the pain of not having food, or of losing loved ones and not even finding their bodies. None of us know what it is like even today to live on the street or sleep at every night in a friend’s car.

For many, the Haitian tragedy ended when the news reporters left Haiti and started to talk about other news, like the oil spill in the US. But for the Haitians, rocks in the sun, the pain continues.

A city like New Orleans suffered Katrina five years ago, and now had the sadness of oil spilling in the sea and killing fish and birds. I visited New Orleans a week after your mom and dad got married, and I fell in love with the city. The seafood was fantastic; I enjoyed the crab, shrimp, and couldn’t; get enough of fried catfish nuggets. New Orleans is in fresh pain today, but many of us can move on to the next big news item.

Moving on and forgetting is bad enough. What is worse is when those of us who are rocks in water add to the pain of rocks in the sun. For example, last week, a Jamaican businessman said that Jamaica needs more prisons to lock away people who break the law. I have no doubt that many of the rocks in the water agreed with him. However, the rocks in the sun would have different stories.

Now, people like this businessman (in the comfort of the water) and poor people (in the discomfort of the sun) are just as likely to break the law. Those in the water have a good chance of not being caught. The police are unlikely to search their houses or cart their young sons off to jail, beat them, and keep them locked up for weeks or months. Those in the water can afford lawyers to defend them if any heat reaches them and they are accused of doing something wrong.

Those who are like rocks in the sun have a good chance of being taken to jail even if they have done nothing except be found in the sun. Often, by the time the police release them from lockups, the scars from the beatings have healed. Anyway, this young man does not want to do anything to make the police angry at him. Therefore he gives up his right to getting money to make up for losing his freedom without having done anything wrong. If he had a job, the chances are he will lose it because he did not turn up for work all those weeks he was locked up. Or his boss (from the cool of the water) might decide the police would not have locked up this young man if did nothing wrong. In any event, the young man will not have the money to get a lawyer to take his case to court.

Now, if this businessman had an idea what was happening to people who are like rocks in the sun, he might want to be as sure as he can be that those (from water or in sun) who are locked up deserve to be punished. It seems, however, that it is easier to talk without seeking to know.

I hope, my grandniece, that you will be one of those who are rich and those who are poor are still human beings. I hope you can see that rocks in the water and rocks in the sun are still rocks, just with different stories to tell. I hope you will be able to tell your story and to listen to the stories of others, and try to understand.


Your shangazi

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Coming together to run far

When you run alone, you run fast. When you run together, you run far.

Jamaicans have run fast when they seem to run alone. Usain Bolt, fastest man in the world, proves how fast we can be. True enough, Tyson Gay ran faster than Bolt yesterday, but I have no doubt that Bolt will be back charging into the tape faster than any other in his race.

We Jamaicans run well in almost every race we enter. In athletics, we have won more medals than countries much bigger than we are. In music, we have Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and a long, long list of others who are famous in every corner of the globe. Some have made their mark as doctors, soldiers, and politicians. For example, we have Ben Carson (neurosurgeon), Colin Powell (former American chief of staff and Secretary of State), and Yvette Clarke (American congresswoman), and Diane Abbott (aiming to lead the British Labour Party). So we know we can run faster than anyone else, when we choose.

In our communities, we have seen that we can run far when we run together. For example, when Jamaicans first settled in England, they met racism. Whites didn’t want to rent or sell them places where they could live and raise their families. It was hard for Blacks to find an apartment in a safe area with its own bathroom and kitchen, let alone its own front door and space for children to play.

So here is how many of those Jamaicans decided to run together in order to run far. They piled up in the slum apartments and saved their money together. This is a system in Jamaica known as “pardner”. People form a group in which each person contributes a set amount of money. One person is the banker, and this person makes sure all the money comes in and one person each month gets a “draw” – the total sum handed in by all the others in the “pardner”.

The first person who had enough from the “draw” would buy a house, and the others would move into rooms in that house until they had a “draw” that allowed them to buy their own house. The “pardner” would run until everyone had shelter that gave them a feeling of dignity. Before they had their homes, no banks would lend them money. However, with their own homes, they had a better chance of getting loans from banks.

“Pardner” schemes have worked for years, and many Jamaicans still rely on “pardner” to help them do what they cannot do alone. However, these schemes are really for individual benefit. As a result, individuals have run fast, but Jamaica as a whole seems left behind.

I hope, my grandniece, that together we can find ways of running far as a country, even while helping individuals to continue to run fast. And let us remember that those who run fast, like Usain Bolt, never really run alone. They have a team that helps them to run (and win) race after race.


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