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GHANAIAN PROVERBS
(Selected by Humphrey Barclay)

 

“There’s an old African saying …”

 

In Trix Worrell’s Channel 4 comedy series Desmond’s, the African ‘eternal student’ Matthew liked to show his superiority to his sparring partner Porkpie and the other West Indian denizens of the barbershop by quoting an African proverb.

 

Over the six years of the series this built up into a catch-phrase ritual, so that he only had to summarise an observation by adding “There’s an old African saying …” for the audience to burst into anticipatory laughter and applause before he had even quoted the proverb.

 

Though Matthew came from the Gambia and not Ghana, where Gyearbuor Asante the actor himself originated (this was Gyearbuor’s own suggestion to avid aural confusion for the viewer with Guyana, where Desmond, Shirley and Porkpie all came from) the proverbs the writers used in the script were all Ghanaian.

 

In Ghana, there being no written culture, the wisdom of the ages is enshrined in the oral tradition of proverbs, which are sometimes also expressed in graphic ‘Adinkra’ symbols and used in decoration and fabric design.

 

Here are fifty of the best:

  1. If you have some cotton tied to your bum, don’t jump over a fire.

  2. It’s a wanton tree that falls across a path.

  3. It’s only on the day the frog dies that you can measure its length.

  4. Too many wives bring poverty.

  5. When times change, so must we.

  6. A crab doesn’t give birth to a canary bird.

  7. People of the same height walk together.

  8. If the hunter doesn’t become rich, it’s because he likes good soup.

  9. No one has to point God out to a child.

  10. If the tortoise and the snail were the only animals in the forest, you’d never hear a gun.

  11. The rain only dampens the leopard’s spots: it doesn’t wash them off.

  12. Fish don’t choose to sleep on the fire.

  13. When the cockerel drinks, it raises its head to God in gratitude.

  14. However long a log stays in the water it will never become a crocodile.

  15. The heat of the fire is better enjoyed from a distance.

  16. Had the elephant not been found in this country, the buffalo would have been thought huge.

  17. No one buys a cock to let it crow for another town.

  18. Walk behind the elephant and you won’t get rained on.

  19. Power, like an egg, remains intact when you hold it firmly enough: but it breaks if you hold it too tightly, or let it slip.

  20. If you’re climbing a good tree, there’ll always be someone to give your bottom a push.

  21. You know yourself best from other people’s eyes.

  22. A wife’s good appearance is a credit to her husband.

  23. Only patience makes a marriage.

  24. Marriage is not palm wine, that you can taste and put aside.

  25. Listen my daughter: marriage prospers only through the hard work of the wife.

  26. The best beads make no noise.

  27. Death’s favourite is she whom the living love most.

  28. Virtue and honesty are of one family.

  29. What’s right is beautiful: what’s beautiful breeds joy: what breeds joy is goodness.

  30. A true friend is hard to find.

  31. It’s easier to straighten a wet stick than a dry one.

  32. Those living in the Chief’s Palace don’t think of him as Chief.

  33. The cooking pot tells the drinking pot it is black .. and all the while they both are.

  34. However ugly you are, your face will always be prettier than your bottom.

  35. One dog falls and the other falls too: that’s how dogs play.

  36. It’s always through the help of someone that you get somewhere.

  37. The tiger has seven whiskers, but where are you going to stand to count them?

  38. If you chase an animal and it gets away, you’ll say it was smelly one.

  39. If you sit on a rotten tree stump to eat paw-paw, your bum gets wet as well as your mouth.

  40. It’s for sheer beauty that young women hold their breasts when they run, not to stop them falling off.

  41. If you try to look into a bottle with both eyes your nose will get stuck.

  42. The child who spends too many years sliding around on its bottom thinks it’s annoying its parents. In fact it’s wearing out its bottom.

  43. He who shits by the roadside will meet flies on the way back.

  44. The reason two antelopes walk together is so that one can blow the dust out of the other one’s eyes.

  45. The monkey’s just as good as the vulture: after all, one’s bald on the head and the other’s bald on the bum.

  46. I’ve come to help you and all you can do is sit there and scratch your balls.

  47. By the time the fool has learned the game the players have dispersed.

  48. The dog barks but the cat just blinks.

  49. Fish and guests stink after three days.

  50. The respectful goat doesn’t fart in front of the Chief.

‘Gye Nyame’ (illustrated above) is seen everywhere in Ghana. It means ‘Except God”, or ‘Without God nothing is possible’, or  “God is omnipotent’. ‘Nyame’ is the name for God in both the Traditional Faith and Christianity.