Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Giving everyone credit for what they know

He who does not know one thing knows another. (Kenya)

Dear Zayda,

Even as a baby, you know things that others do not know and need to know. There is so much you do not yet know, but you are the expert on when you are hungry or soiled, when you need attention or just want to play.

Parents and teachers are wrong if they think children are empty vessels waiting to be filled. A child may not yet be able to do calculus, but the child knows mathematics long before reaching school. He knows that two sweets are more than one; she will know if she has fewer wooden blocks now than a moment ago.They both know the difference between a small ball and a large ball.

Children are born knowing a lot. The job of adults is to help them to be aware of what they may know by instinct or by childhood experience. Teaching a child can be easier if we help them make sense of what they already know. On the other hand, teaching can be a battle if we insist on filling the child with what we decide the child ought to know. The word “recognize” really means “to know again”. So we can assume a child already knows, but we are helping him to “know again”.

We, not our doctors, are the experts about our bodies. We do not need to have passed medical exams to know how our bodies function.

Zayda, our elders lived in deep rural villages where they reached doctors only in the most serious of cases. They had to learn how to be in harmony with nature and at peace with their bodies. Elders learned from their elders how to eat foods that helped them to be healthy. In contrast, today’s junk foods are linked to diseases. Our elders also knew which herbs and bushes to use to promote health. In contrast, today’s medications may help in one way, but have side effects that may harm the body. Our elders' connection with nature and with their inner spirit helped them relieve stress. They had limits on what they knew about health, but their knowledge survives today as “alternative medicine”.

Many assume that someone who has a doctorate knows more than someone who cannot read and write. However, that highly educated person is mistaken if she thinks the illiterate person knows nothing. Many who cannot read and write need to be extra sharp to survive. One grandmother hid her reading “disability” so well that her family knew about it only when she died and they saw she signed her will with an “X”. She had supervised homework, discussed world politics, sang her hymns, and had the longest memory of anyone in the family. She may not have known how to use a computer, but no one anywhere could match her sweet potato pudding with the custard on top.

We gain a lot, my grandniece, if we accept that each person knows things we do not or cannot know. We need always to respect others for what they know and can teach us.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

No comments:


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