Every culture passes on its knowledge through stories. Across Africa, the custom of condensing ancient know-how, wisdom and sometimes nonsense and superstitions, into short catchy phrases, is widespread. The good ones travel far and wide, spreading the wisdom of our ancestors in small soundbites, in much the same way as zen koans or sanskrit mantras. Village children are often taught idioms and proverbs as the basis for learning language, so literally from the mouths of babes you will hear some of the Africa’s greatest common sense. Popular idioms and sayings are frequently printed or embroidered on traditional cloth and clothing, such as Kangas in Tanzania and Boubas in Mali and the printed fabrics popular from Madagascar to Nigeria and beyond.
The subjects in African sayings tends to mirror the local experiences, so the idioms are filled with wild animals, earthy metaphors and daily village chores. In Togo they say, “Rain wets the leopard’s spots, but it doesn’t wash them off.” While in Uganda, “The hunter who is tracking an elephant does not stop to throw stones at birds.” Along the Niger river people warn, “When the music changes, so does the dance.” In Gambia, they tend to be pragmatic saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.” While in Somalia the sayings tend towards the inspirational, “Be a mountain or lean on one.”
African proverbs run deep and long as the Zambezi and offer a huge amount of insight and perspective into the rich traditions and informal acumen of Africa’s oral histories. As they say amongst the Ovambo people of Northern Namibia and Caprivi, “If you do not have patience you cannot make beer.” And in Rwanda, the locals will remind you that, “Work is good, as long as you don’t forget to live.” This is a maxim we at Mami Wata hold dear. That and the well-worn truth: “who tells the truth is never wrong”.
When your Landy is stuck in the mud and you’re on all fours with a spade trying to dig it out, or you’re faced with an old African hardwood lying horizontal, blocking your only road, a barely used jungle track from the beaches in the South to the not-so bustling metropolis of Port-Gentil in Gabon, and all you’ve got to clear it with is an old rusty panga, catching a glimpse of the Swahili saying: “hurry-hurry has no blessings” printed on the kanga you’re using to mop your brow, can give you a most precious lift.