Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Paying attention to other people's wisdom

Other people's wisdom often prevents a chief from being called a fool. (Yoruba)

Dear Zayda,

You are never too little or too young or too anything to have wisdom. Indeed, our African ancestors believe that infants come with special messages for elders. So even if I don’t understand your language of babbles, I know you are passing on to me information I need to be wiser.

People who see themselves as chiefs often think they are supposed to know everything. Children try to teach adults all the time, mostly because children speak their thoughts from their hearts. Many of us adults speak other people’s thoughts – what we read in books or newspapers, or what we see someone say on television. Or what people in power (like parents, teachers, doctors, or presidents) tell us we should think. One of the problems adults have is in not following their instincts. So often they will argue themselves out of their inner wisdom. They want to do as the “experts” tell them.

Years ago, I worked in a light and power company. Canadian experts came to re-build a power plant, and man who swept the floors told them of a part they needed to replace if the plant was going to work again. Well, this man had no university degree. In fact, he could barely read and write. So why should these experts listen to him?

The company spent a lot of money on the power plant, and the experts did a great job. Except that the plant would not work when they tried to switch it on. Yes, the man who swept the floors was right. He not only followed his instincts, but he was bright enough to see what had worked over the years. And he was confident enough to express his opinion.

This man’s wisdom could have saved money and helped the experts to seem wise.

We need to listen to each other, Zayda. When I was a teacher, my students protected me from looking foolish. I tried to clear space on my timetable to give my students time to teach me. I learned about the music they liked, the movies they watched, and the sports they enjoyed. I also found out about things in their lives that bothered them. As a result, my students were more inclined to listen to me.

Sometimes I would slip up and forget to listen, and I would be grateful if my students put me back on track. For example, once I was fussing with a teenaged male student because he had missed school for several days. Thankfully, he let me know he had a story he wanted me to hear before I punished him. He told me he had been absent because the police locked him up without giving him a chance to make a telephone call to his parents. So he was lost in jail for those days I didn’t see him at school. He taught me that I always needed to listen, even if wrong behaviour seems “obvious”.

Wisdom that does not rely on books will often come to the point with words that may not be well chosen or even in Standard English. To some, being direct may seem like bad manners. It may therefore be easy to ignore other people’s wisdom especially if we see ourselves as chiefs.

But being humble enough to listen to other people’s wisdom gives us the chance to be wise chiefs rather than foolish chiefs.

So, my grandniece, please speak your wisdom.


Your shangazi

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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