Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Understanding pain others feel

Adinkra symbol of understanding and agreement

The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun. (Haiti)

Dear Zayda,

Haiti suffered a terrible earthquake seven months ago. Those of us who do not live in Haiti could watch news reports that filled our newspapers and televisions at the time. Some of us felt sad for Haitians, and others blamed them for putting up buildings so poorly that even a palace came crashing down. However, none but the Haitians knew the pain of losing everything. None of us knew the pain of not having food, or of losing loved ones and not even finding their bodies. None of us know what it is like even today to live on the street or sleep at every night in a friend’s car.

For many, the Haitian tragedy ended when the news reporters left Haiti and started to talk about other news, like the oil spill in the US. But for the Haitians, rocks in the sun, the pain continues.

A city like New Orleans suffered Katrina five years ago, and now had the sadness of oil spilling in the sea and killing fish and birds. I visited New Orleans a week after your mom and dad got married, and I fell in love with the city. The seafood was fantastic; I enjoyed the crab, shrimp, and couldn’t; get enough of fried catfish nuggets. New Orleans is in fresh pain today, but many of us can move on to the next big news item.

Moving on and forgetting is bad enough. What is worse is when those of us who are rocks in water add to the pain of rocks in the sun. For example, last week, a Jamaican businessman said that Jamaica needs more prisons to lock away people who break the law. I have no doubt that many of the rocks in the water agreed with him. However, the rocks in the sun would have different stories.

Now, people like this businessman (in the comfort of the water) and poor people (in the discomfort of the sun) are just as likely to break the law. Those in the water have a good chance of not being caught. The police are unlikely to search their houses or cart their young sons off to jail, beat them, and keep them locked up for weeks or months. Those in the water can afford lawyers to defend them if any heat reaches them and they are accused of doing something wrong.

Those who are like rocks in the sun have a good chance of being taken to jail even if they have done nothing except be found in the sun. Often, by the time the police release them from lockups, the scars from the beatings have healed. Anyway, this young man does not want to do anything to make the police angry at him. Therefore he gives up his right to getting money to make up for losing his freedom without having done anything wrong. If he had a job, the chances are he will lose it because he did not turn up for work all those weeks he was locked up. Or his boss (from the cool of the water) might decide the police would not have locked up this young man if did nothing wrong. In any event, the young man will not have the money to get a lawyer to take his case to court.

Now, if this businessman had an idea what was happening to people who are like rocks in the sun, he might want to be as sure as he can be that those (from water or in sun) who are locked up deserve to be punished. It seems, however, that it is easier to talk without seeking to know.

I hope, my grandniece, that you will be one of those who are rich and those who are poor are still human beings. I hope you can see that rocks in the water and rocks in the sun are still rocks, just with different stories to tell. I hope you will be able to tell your story and to listen to the stories of others, and try to understand.


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