originally printed in Maryknoll Magazine (June 1997)
The Brooklyn Bridge hangs suspended from huge cables woven together with millions of thin wires. Those small wires support the heavy roadway connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, allowing people to pass from one shore to another. Those wires are like African proverbs, little sayings that tie the Lord to the people, allowing revelation and prayer to pass back and forth.
I got interested in African proverbs when I was studying the Kisukuma language to work with the Sukuma people of Tanzania. During the yearlong program, I visited homes and conversed with people. It gave me great pleasure to hear them laugh whenever I used one of their proverbs. Often they gave me proverbs in return. I wrote them down and by the time the year was up, I produced a booklet of 100 Sukuma proverbs with English translations.
Later, in my pastoral work, I would often start a catechetical class with a proverb or two. For example, “That which does the cultivating is in the stomach.” We would discuss how a person cannot work hard without eating first. Similarly, a person cannot live a Christian life without first hearing and then absorbing the Word of the Lord. In our classes one person would read a Gospel parable or miracle story, then go back and read one or two sentences and wait for me to come up with a related proverb. I would usually have one or two ready to trigger the discussion. Little by little, the people would enter into the conversation. It was not unusual to spend a whole hour on one passage.
Following are some African proverbs we used frequently to bring home the lessons of the Gospel:
“Where you see the tail, there is the mouse.” Sometimes the mouse is not seen, only its tail. Jesus said, “See the lilies of the field.” Seeing the wonders of nature, one knows there is a wonderful Creator God.
“Elephants carry each other.” When an elephant is wounded, two elephants will come to its sides and with their trunks lift it along. If these great animals help each other in trouble, should not people do as much?
“I pointed out to you the beautiful moon, but all you saw was my finger.” Jesus showed the Pharisees a wonderful, new way of life, but all they saw was an uneducated worker. Jesus shows us the way to true happiness is found in the beauty surrounding us-nature, friends, food, health.
“The constant singer does not build a nest.” Talking about the Gospel is not enough; we must live it.
“Beware the snake in the hole; it will bite you.” Correct bad habits before they bring trouble.
“The singer is not the song maker.” A gifted composer writes the song, but many people sing it. The Gospels reveal the Word of God; we pass it on.
One time when we were discussing the glory of the resurrection of Jesus, an old woman mumbled something that made everyone laugh. I wanted to know what she had said. It was a riddle: “What went away naked and came back clothed?” The answer was a corn or peanut seed. From then on, any time we discussed resurrection, I used that proverb. Perhaps people now think of resurrection whenever they are planting their corn or peanuts.
This proverb is similar to what Jesus said, “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains just a grain. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”
In discussion groups made up mostly of men, the talk tended to get heavy. Women’s groups often chattered on. Teenagers were frivolous with their peers. But when the groups were equally balanced with men and women, older people and youths, the discussions were serious, informative and meaningful and at the same time, humorous and enjoyable.
Oftentimes I asked the people from whom they learned the most. They always answered, “From each other.” It’s good to know that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in all of us.