Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Keeping ladders in place

Kick away the ladder and your feet are left dangling. (Malawi)

Dear Zayda,

We are never alone unless we choose to be. Those who have gone before and many who are present have helped us to reach where we are now. If we forget them, we will be like those who climb a ladder and then kick it away. We may have reached the top, but we have no way of getting back to the ground that nurtured us.

People are more likely to kick away the ladder when they feel ashamed of whom they are. Sometimes people are ashamed of what their parents did to help them succeed. For example, if someone is a doctor, he may be ashamed of his mother who cleaned people’s floors, washed people’s clothes, and sold goods in the market to pay for his schooling. Those who are still at the bottom of the ladder may think others arrive at the top by magic. However, if the doctor would admit to the ladder, he could show others how they could improve their lives even if they are poor now. Worse still, the doctor may find that his children learn the lesson of disloyalty only too well.

Blanche K Bruce was the first African American senator to complete a full term. He was light-skinned, and he married a woman who was even lighter-skinned. He was the first African American whose signature showed on US currency. When the US government honored him in 2002, there were virtually none of his descendants to celebrate his achievements. Over time, they had passed for white. With the ladder to Bruce kicked away, almost none of his family was aware of or could admit to being Black.

Just as some of us want to forget we were every poor or Black, some of us forget we were young. For example, we may criticize the young for their styles, forgetting the styles we wore no matter how hard our parents objected. Some of us may indeed have worn these styles because our parents objected. Yesterday’s parents were perhaps as outraged by sons who wore earrings as are today’s parents by sons who wear braided hair. Today’s skimpy skirts may well offend those who forget the micro-minis they wore in the 1960s. If generations kick away the ladder, elders are sidelined and young people miss out on the benefits of learning from their elders.

Rich and poor, Black and white, young and old all have much to learn and to teach each other. Let’s work at keeping the ladders standing upright. If the ladders happen to fall, let’s work together to get them back up again.


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