Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ubuntu and caring communities

I am because we are; we are because I am (Ashanti, Zulu)

Dear Zayda,

Today’s proverb is at the centre of the Ubuntu way of life that Nelson Mandela promoted for South Africa.

When I was growing up, we practised “ubuntu” without knowing the word existed. My grandparents lived in farming communities with more food than cash. So people shared labour and food just as they shared joys and sorrows.

For example, no one needed to hire labour when time came to dig the fields. A farmer would announce his work day and people would come to help. The only “payment” was a big meal that usually featured dumplings (called “Johnny cakes” if fried, or “cartwheels” if boiled) and dishes like ackee and saltfish or mackerel rundung. The day was like a party, with mugs of coffee and chocolate, often made from beans grown right there on the land. There might also be glasses of lemonade, and usually the men would insist on rum to wet their palates.

This practice went by different names, such as “morning sport” and “day fi [for] day. Farmers helped out each other so everyone could benefit even if no one could pay for the work in cash.

Births, weddings and funerals were special events that everyone shared in.

Babies belonged to everyone. People would pamper and discipline neighbour’s children as if they were their own. On the one hand, children could have treats from any home they happened to visit. On the other hand, anyone could punish any naughty child, and parents would often punish that child a second time for bringing about the first punishment. Sometimes we wished the grown ups would look another way (except when they were offering us plantain tarts, gizzada, or sweet potato pudding!) Only when we were in our teens or older did some of us realize that Aunt X or Uncle Y and their children were not related to us by blood.

No one needed to be invited to a wedding. People would contribute food – from a goat to yams – as well as food. In addition, there was a game played at weddings, where people would bid to unveil the wedding cake or keep it hidden. Naturally those who bid for it to be unveiled would “win” but not before the bride and groom had money to set up their new home.

Funerals were (and still are) huge social occasions, once the sad part was out of the way. For about a week after the death, the community would visit the home every night to keep the family company. Nightly eating and drinking would come to a climax in a wake that was held on the ninth night after the person died. On that night, people would dance and sing to send off the dead person. There would be lots of food, especially fried sprat and hardough bread, and white rum had to be present. People would spend all night chatting with each other, telling stories, sharing riddles, and playing games like dominoes. The community would contribute food and drink, apart from moral support, to celebrate the dead person’s life.

Today, Zayda, some of the practices survive. For example, a wake was held when our relative Trevor Rhone died last year.

Jamaica has changed a lot since I was a child. However, just as Ubuntu helped South Africa to come together after a war between races, so I think Jamaica can benefit today from re-visiting the spirit of Ubuntu. What do you think, Zayda?


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