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The power of proverbs in Ghana

Ghanaian school children reading before school.
In Ghana, proverbs are an education of sorts for young children like Enoch, left, and Erica. Photo by Antoinette Sarpong.

By Antoinette Sarpong

I got my wake-up call this morning right on schedule, at a quarter to six.

One of the twin girls living next door was wailing like a banshee as her mother bathed her with a bucket of cold water. As the crying girl, Akwele was being lathered up outside my window, her sister Akoko began bawling as well. Their mother tried to console them with some words in the local Ga language. When that failed, she raised a hand in the twin’s direction, but that only amplified the crying.

I went to the window as the twin’s father sauntered over to the bath basin.

He also said something in Ga and the tears stopped flowing. Still peeking out my window shutters, I saw an older boy in a school uniform join the scene as the dad spoke. Little did I know, class was already in session for the youngsters in my yard. I couldn’t understand what their father was saying, but a few English words greatly resonated with me:

“No condition is permanent.”

I may never know why the proud papa said what he said because his words of wisdom came wrapped in Ga packaging. However, I was familiar with the lesson behind them. 

My Ghanaian friend, who was short on cash a few days before, also said them to me. “No condition is permanent,” he told me. “Business is slow right now, but things will change. They have to.” Even though I could only imagine the reality of the hardships that inspired his words, I understood their meaning having been raised by poetically proverbial parents.

That’s the thing about growing up Ghanaian. Proverbs play a pivotal role in our culture.

When I had to choose between two alternatives, my mom would listen to my situation and advise me that “the devil I knew was far better than the devil I didn’t.”

When I placed a dilemma at my dad’s feet, he would simply say: “Well, whatever you do, don’t test the depth of water with both your feet.” Upon careful reflection, which of course was his intention, I understood what I needed to do.

Africa is a continent known for its rich oral tradition. This is certainly the case in Ghana where one must talk little and listen much. Proverbs are life lessons. They’re morality and wisdom passed down in the form of poetic syntax. This is increasingly important in Ghana where the adult literacy rate is 65 per cent and 93 girls enter primary school for every 100 boys. Still too young to attend school, Akwele and Akoko were getting their education before sunrise.

I caught a cab to work. I was running late and Accra minibuses operate on rather loose schedules. I saw a vendor selling mobile phone credit along the way so I held out five cedi ($3.60 CAD) as the vendor jogged towards me at a red light. He gave me my phone card and my change just as the light changed. The cab took off- with the money I was supposed to hand over, still in my hand.

I looked back at the vendor who was yelling something at me as I sped off in the cab.

I felt awful. I asked the cabbie to drop me off and walked back to the point of sale. The vendor remembered me right away and smiled.

“Hey! You returned,” he said.

“Of course,” I replied, taking five cedis from my purse.

“I told you to drop it,” said the vendor, as he took his money.

“The car can’t stop on the roadway.”

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”

“You took the car back here?” asked the vendor.

“No, I walked.”

“Really?” he asked, smiling. “Thank you.”

“No, it was my mistake. Don’t mention it,” I yelled at the smiling vendor as I crossed the road to catch a minibus.

Someone once told me that you reap what you sow. 

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