Proverbs on the Walls

Disclaimer: I have not yet visited Africa, so what I write is based on information gathered from one exhibit in the Smithsonian. My views are limited and my interpretations are my own.

The Museum of Natural History was a zoo. Hundreds of hot, sweaty bodies coming from the outside humidity were jostling and pushing toward the exhibits. Mammals, Egyptian history, the butterfly dome–all packed and overflowing. Instead of a receptacle of knowledge, the crowds stifled and bodies blocked the crucial information.

One the verge of despair, I made my way to the hall of African Voices and found a sanctuary. A lesser known exhibit plus a few select individuals created a haven from the storm. Here were the chronicles of collected proverbs, stories and cultural artifacts from many countries in an extremely diverse continent.

It was here that I discovered that in Ghana, different patterns on clothing represented different proverbs or messages. Some were regarding marriage; for example, a picture of two birds leaving a cage meant that the wife would go where the husband went. Another had an eye symbolizing jealousy. One message meant “God knows” and another “My life has been turned upside down by death.”

The fact that patterns on clothing could be associated with proverbs was fascinating to me. Proverbs represent a collective body of knowledge that the community can access to enrich their daily lives with teaching and wisdom handed down through the ages in the oral tradition. While I wish I had copied down more, two that I remember well (not necessarily from Ghana) involved eating. The first one is “He who eats alone fights alone.” The second one is, “It is better to wait for the food than to have the food wait for you.” In other words, don’t be late for dinner!

In one people group in Somalia, women often own their own homes and keep them in their families. Thus the proverb goes: “A man without a wife is without a home.” The homes are made from acacia wood and can be collapsed and packed onto the backs of camels for when it comes time to move. When assembled, they resemble domes.

In Mali, there are builders who work with mud for a unique architectural style. The mud also extends to dyeing clothing in sharp patterns. While Mali is home to several archeological sites, there have been problems with stolen artifacts, so much so that any sale of Malian artifacts must have a certificate of authenticity. These pieces are valuable, so it’s easy to understand the motivation, but what is being stolen is not just pots and utensils, but rather pieces of Mali’s cultural history.

There was a Moroccan lute and a display discussing how 10th century Spain became a place to mix Christian, Islamic and Jewish styles of music. When the Moors were exiled from Spain in 1492, they carried the music back to Northern Africa with them, where it is still used as part of the region’s cultural identity today.

One concept that really struck me was the different perspective about riches. While in the West, we tend to think of wealth as purely economical, the African definition is broader. Riches can be money or goods, but they can also be knowledge, personal connections, proverbs, stories, or cultural artifacts. It makes me think that we are all richer than we know. Perhaps it is time for us in the West to broaden our understanding of what it means to be wealthy.


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