Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

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)

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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