Rodney Schofield tries on a few proverbs for size
PROVERBS, even wisecracks, play a more important part in African cultures than in Europe. Many of the minibuses that ply their trade carry a message to the public, blazoned in front or behind. “God help us” and “Things fall apart” are two slogans often seen in the Zomba area, somehow failing to inspire complete confidence in the vehicle’s roadworthiness. More innocuously there is a small fleet which reads “The way it comes” as it approaches, and “The way it goes” as it retreats.
Shop fronts are often labelled in the same IF fashion. The “No money no friends” maize mill makes its point succinctly to the ever hopeful customer. Slightly more puzzling was this sign reported recently by a friend: the “You’re not going to be happy” restaurant. He asked the proprietor if this was not rather off-putting for a ,going diner? “Oh no,” was the reply, “It’s not for those eating inside. We’re telling people standing outside that they’re really missing a ,great treat. They’re not going to be happy if they’re not eating with us.”
So, as Professor George Caird used to reiterate endlessly in our Biblical lectures at Oxford, “meaning = text plus context”. To azungus (“strangers”) the African context is not always what it seems.
In Chichewa, proverbs are called mwambi. The term includes riddles and other oral genres which not only reflect the African world-view nut also express the practical wisdom of society. The RC Bishop Patrick Kalilombe, now a lecturer at the University in Zomba, describes Malawian proverbs in these words:
“Proverbs are the mirror in which a society looks at itself as well as the stage upon which it exposes itself to others. They describe its values, aspirations, and preoccupations, as well as the particular angle from which it sees and appreciates realities and behaviour, what we call a mentality or way of life is best pictured in them.”
Father Joseph Healey is an American Maryknoll priest who has worked in East Africa for over 30 years and has extensive knowledge of indigenous oral tradition. There are a growing
number of theologians and writers who, like him, see this tradition as the African style of theologizing, par excellence. In fact, the phrase “the fifth Gospel” is in common use now to indicate those facets of Christian revelation already present in African religion. Alternatively, oral literature and tradition has been called Africa’s Old Testament, their “unwritten Bible”, in which there are many striking similarities between African wisdom
“As vehicles of the wisdom and soul of the people, proverbs are a precious source of material and of inspiration for the modern media.”
and Hebrew wisdom. Parallels can be noted too with a number of Dominical sayings in the Gospels:
God’s rainfalls even on the witch/ What goes into the stomach is not lasting l You laugh at a person with a bad eye while you hide your own defects.
Fr. Aylward Shorter has said:
“Proverbs and riddles are two closely related forms of didactic literature, in statement and question form. They play an important role in traditional African societies in the process by which the young are initiated to life.”
They serve, that is, a significant ethical and religious purpose. Indeed, Pope John Paul II has himself commented, “As vehicles of the wisdom and soul of the people, they are a precious source of material and of inspiration for the modern media.”
My opening illustrations suggest that, although with changing times some sayings will
disappear, others will be adapted and new ones will take their place (and back in my earlier days of study Professor Caird again delighted to illustrate the process of semantic change even within the Biblical literature). Hence in the past decade considerable work has gone on to baptise this oral culture into the service of evangelisation, not least in homiletics and catechetical instruction (giving rise, for example, to “Proverb Catechesis”). Fr. Healey himself has sketched out a contextualised theology of mission, healing and the sacraments.
The patient person eats ripe fruit/Little by little the moon becomes full: yes, most of us find ourselves involved in the waiting apostolate. So too, in our orthodox “integrity”, the process of reception requires us to appreciate how Eyes that know how to wait put the crown on the head.
But there is also an urgency in proclaiming the true Gospel, as in this riddle: As 1 walk along 1 spit out white shells. White is a symbol of blessing, so the person who spits out sugarcane pulp (and every Malawian loves sugarcane!) – which looks like white shells – is symbolising the spread of God’s good news.
In the process we cannot be wholly wedded to past forms or traditions. The Catholic movement will live if it is ready to adventure for Christ in new ways. And as you will now expect; Africans have a phrase for it: The ant tries to eat the rock.
Others in the Anglican Church may dismiss us as a spent force, but let me end on a prophetic note: A hidden, even contemptible, path is the one that leads to the highway. After all, the Chewa were once saved, not by the proud warriors of their tribe, but by a crazy man who recognised the enemy in their disguise: It was the mad person who saw the enemy approaching.
Are we not to be fools for Christ’s sake?
Rodney Schofield teaches at Zomba Theological College, Malawi