Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, September 3, 2010

Crossing rivers to reach success

One does not cross a river without getting wet. (Zulu)

Dear Zayda,

Someone once said, “Whatever is worth doing, is worth doing badly.” If we want to stay dry, we might never leave one side of the bank for the other. However, getting wet is the price we pay for crossing the river. If we manage to cross the river and remain dry, whatever or whoever carries us across the river will get wet.

In life, as Jimmy Cliff points out in his song, there are many rivers to cross.

Every time we attempt something new, we risk getting wet. However, many of us want to play it safe, especially as we grow older. Mistakes are the price we pay for crossing rivers. Courage is the reward for learning that we can be dry again after we have reached the other side. If fear keeps us stuck on the river bank, we risk feeling unhappy in our lives. We live with regret that we did not allow ourselves to get wet so as to explore other sides of life.

Those who love us may think they are doing the best for us when they try to keep us dry. A parent might say to a child who wants to be a dancer, “Why don’t you become an attorney or a doctor instead, and dance as a hobby?” We need to be ready to defy well-meaning family and friends so as to cross rivers that beckon to us.

“Cornbread, Earl, and Me” is already a classic, and I am sure you will see this movie before long. Madge Sinclair plays the mother in the movie. She is an example of someone who was determined to keep going toward her goal, no matter the hardship. She was a Jamaican primary school teacher with the dream of becoming a movie star.

Few other Jamaicans had made it to Hollywood by then – that river seemed to broad, wide, and deep for someone like Madge to cross. She spoke with a Jamaican accent that she wanted to keep; she had no contacts in the business to open doors for her; she had no trust fund to keep her going while she tried to get acting jobs. As a Black woman, she had difficulty getting roles to match her talent. In addition, she was thirty years old when she started out in an industry that favors the young, white, and conventionally beautiful.

Madge had left a family behind in Jamaica – one of her sons was in the same class as one of my sons. So she must have been tempted many times to return to the side of the river that she knew best. She could have stayed safe as wife, mother, and teacher. But she chose to remain in New York even when food and money were short, and jobs were nowhere in sight. However, she was already in the water, already getting wet, so she continued to push for the side she was determined to reach.

If you watch re-runs of the Roots mini-series, and of Trapper John MD, you will see Madge. You will hear her voice in The Lion King. As far as possible, Madge kept her Jamaican flavor. For example, in Trapper John MD she plays the role of Jamaican nurse working in the USA, and periodically she bursts out in broad Jamaican.

Our dreams are always within reach, Zayda. We will get wet crossing rivers. We may even slip and feel as if the currents are taking us with them. We may need help to get across safely. But the other bank is always awaiting us. New horizons. A chance to fulfill dreams.


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