Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

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)

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at