Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

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

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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