Proverbs From Mali...They Travel Well

By Merritt Frey, Executive Director

This weekend I dug through some old files, looking for something I suddenly needed again. I found what I needed, but only after getting very distracted by something else.

That something else was a small project an intern last year -- Salifou -- created. Salifou is a student here in the U.S., but he is from Mali. He gathered and shared some Malian proverbs for an event we were planning. The event was canceled, so we never used the proverbs.

Looking at them again this weekend though, I thought they would be worth sharing on this blog. I find them fascinating for two reasons: 1) they are so similar to many proverbs I grew up with in a small Midwestern town, and 2) they are so totally different than proverbs I know. At the same time. 

That's what makes the world so great, and so worth exploring -- we're all the same and all so very different. 

See what you think about this small selection of Salifou's shared proverbs:

  • What the old can see sitting, the young do not see it standing ==> Meaning that elders know more about life because they have the experience. 
  • The tree trunk can last in the water, but it will never be an crocodile ==> Meaning that you cannot be someone or something you are not, so it is wise to always stay yourself no matter what. 
  • Misfortune has an advantage; it will allow you to know your true friends ==> Meaning that you should be glad for bad things happening to you sometimes because it will allow you to see who is really your friend. 
  • One is master of his words, but once the words are said one becomes slave==> We give a lot of meaning to words because once you say something it can turn against you and you can be a slave of your word because you don’t control them anymore because you have already said it. 
  • What affects the child is not the case for just the one ==> Meaning that the problem of a child is the problem of the whole community.
  • If you know you do not know, you'll know. If you do not know you do not know, you will not know ==> Meaning we cannot know everything in life. If someone knows that he will know a lot of things. But if you think you already know everything you will not know much because you already think you know and so will not learn. 
  • One finger cannot lift a pebble==> This is the value of the community -- you need all your fingers to pick up a pebble in the same way the community needs everyone. 

What do you think? Do you hear echoes of the gems your parents or grandparents passed on to you?

I admit there was no mention of crocodiles in the proverbs I grew up with and Mali proverbs seem to have a larger focus on community than the proverbs I grew up with. But otherwise I see a lot of similarities: hard times and true friends, humility about your own ignorance, being careful with one's words....these ideas travel between Mali and the Midwest with ease.