Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Learning how to lead

The egg says, “I am like authority. If you hold me too hard, I break; if you let me go, I fall and break to pieces on the ground.” (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Women are still learning how to lead. Since we know what we do not know, we may be better off than men who think they know. With centuries of practice, men are still making a mess for women to clean up. For too long we have accepted the work and expected none of the authority or even the credit. Increasingly, we women are demanding our share of authority not just at home but in the boardroom and in parliament.

Girls usually become leaders much younger than boys. When the new baby comes, parents usually give some of their authority to the big sister. Parents may blame the three-year-old girl for any harm that comes to baby under her watch. If she and a younger child have a fight when they are grown, parents will say, to big sister, “You are the older one, so you must set the example.” Perhaps some of us avoid authority because we link it to blame, sacrifice, loss of childhood, and loss of fun.

While the girls are doing chores and supervising younger children, the boys (certainly in Jamaica!) are usually outdoors playing games. They therefore learn about authority through games. So while women take authority seriously and often too seriously, men tend to see authority as a game. Where women may take a loss to heart, a man may accept a loss as the price for staying in the game. Women may think their power base is formed in discussions at meetings; men know the power base is formed over drinks at the bar.

Women with state authority used to be rare. The first female elected to head a government was Sirivamo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, in a country where men usually lead while women follow several paces behind. From similar cultures came such leaders as Indira Gandhi of India, and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. Today we had many more women holding state power in countries such as Liberia, Germany, and Chile. Portia Simpson Miller was Jamaica’s first and only female prime minister, and this year Kamla Persad-Bissessar became Trinidad’s prime minister. You can see a list of women currently in power at:

Women continue to search for positive ways to handle authority. Most women, such as Maggie Thatcher of Britain, have decided to hold the egg hard, often so hard that they defeat themselves. Some, like Eugenia Charles of Dominica, stay the course as a strong leader, not seeming to care if others think they are acting like males. Many more women avoid handling authority. They let go of the egg out of fear of being seem as trying to be a man.

My grandniece, you can begin to practice handling authority as soon as you have any kind of leadership role – at home or at school. Remember the lesson of the egg. Carry an egg around with you for a few days and see what you have to do to protect the egg.

Understand that you can be gentle without allowing the egg to fall. Notice that you can hold the egg firmly without crushing it. Remember that if you put down the egg, someone else may pick it up and act as if the egg belongs to him because that is what he grew up to believe.

And if you find no other sources to guide you, Zayda, remember the wisdom the ancestors have set down for us in these proverbs. Remember women such as Yaa Asantewaa and Harriet Tubman. They had the courage to take up the egg and nurture it. They could be tough and gentle, flexible and uncompromising.

Balance and self-trust are some of the qualities we need to feel at home with the authority that belongs as much to us as to anyone else.


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