Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

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

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

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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.

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