The Power of Proverbs in Ghana

In Ghana, proverbs are an education of sorts for young children like Enoch, left, and Erica

I got my wake-up call this morning right on schedule, at a quarter to six.

One of the twin girls living next door was wailing like a banshee as her mother bathed her with a bucket of cold water. As the crying girl, Akwele was being lathered up outside my window, her sister Akoko began bawling as well. Their mother tried to console them with some words in the local Ga language. When that failed, she raised a hand in the twin’s direction, but that only amplified the crying.

I went to the window as the twin’s father sauntered over to the bath basin.

He also said something in Ga and the tears stopped flowing. Still peeking out my window shutters, I saw an older boy in a school uniform join the scene as the dad spoke. Little did I know, class was already in session for the youngsters in my yard. I couldn’t understand what their father was saying, but a few English words greatly resonated with me:

“No condition is permanent.”

I may never know why the proud papa said what he said because his words of wisdom came wrapped in Ga packaging. However, I was familiar with the lesson behind them.

My Ghanaian friend, who was short on cash a few days before, also said them to me. “No condition is permanent,” he told me. “Business is slow right now, but things will change. They have to.” Even though I could only imagine the reality of the hardships that inspired his words, I understood their meaning having been raised by poetically proverbial parents.

That’s the thing about growing up Ghanaian. Proverbs play a pivotal role in our culture.

When I had to choose between two alternatives, my mom would listen to my situation and advise me that “the devil I knew was far better than the devil I didn’t.”

When I placed a dilemma at my dad’s feet, he would simply say: “Well, whatever you do, don’t test the depth of water with both your feet.” Upon careful reflection, which of course was his intention, I understood what I needed to do.

Africa is a continent known for its rich oral tradition. This is certainly the case in Ghana where one must talk little and listen much. Proverbs are life lessons. They’re morality and wisdom passed down in the form of poetic syntax. This is increasingly important in Ghana where the adult literacy rate is 65 per cent and 93 girls enter primary school for every 100 boys. Still too young to attend school, Akwele and Akoko were getting their education before sunrise.

I caught a cab to work. I was running late and Accra minibuses operate on rather loose schedules. I saw a vendor selling mobile phone credit along the way so I held out five cedi ($3.60 CAD) as the vendor jogged towards me at a red light. He gave me my phone card and my change just as the light changed. The cab took off- with the money I was supposed to hand over, still in my hand.

I looked back at the vendor who was yelling something at me as I sped off in the cab.

I felt awful. I asked the cabbie to drop me off and walked back to the point of sale. The vendor remembered me right away and smiled.

“Hey! You returned,” he said.

“Of course,” I replied, taking five cedis from my purse.

“I told you to drop it,” said the vendor, as he took his money.

“The car can’t stop on the roadway.”

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”

“You took the car back here?” asked the vendor.

“No, I walked.”

“Really?” he asked, smiling. “Thank you.”

“No, it was my mistake. Don’t mention it,” I yelled at the smiling vendor as I crossed the road to catch a minibus.

Someone once told me that you reap what you sow.

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About Antoinette Sarpong

Antoinette Sarpong was born in Toronto and grew up in Courtice, ON. After living in Burkina Faso for several months during a Canada World Youth exchange, she attended Ryerson University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2005. She then worked as a story producer at CTV’s Canada AM before moving to Osaka, Japan, to teach English and write features for Kansai Scene magazine for five years. A self-confessed travel junkie, Antoinette is thrilled be part of the jhr team. Her journey is coming full circle to Africa, and Ghana, nonetheless, the country from which both her parents hail. She will be stationed in Accra for six months, working as a media rights educational officer at the African University College of Communications where she will be producing a human rights workshop curriculum, and collaborating with AUCC students, staff and local journalists in a variety of ways to promote human rights awareness on campus and in the community.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Proverbs in Ghana

  1. Mantse Ghartey

    A very interesting piece on Ghanaian culture and its powerful oral tradition. Oral tradition is a rich source of informal education which we usually take for granted. Fact is that, the truth of many life stories lie in these proverbs, and we as a people must cherish this gift greatly. Let me throw in one of the many proverbs I have come to immensely appreciate “the child who washes his/her hands well, dines with the elderly.” Interesting right? Nonetheless, these proverbs usually affect our everyday communication by making us superfluous. This I believe, is affecting our communication. It does not make us ineffective communicators though, but being superfluous is an annoying part of Ghanaian conversations. Imagine calling someone on the phone, the first five to ten minutes or so, are used to exchange pleasantries (mostly spiced with proverbs). Let me finally end this piece with another favourite “A crab does not beget a bird” :-). Proverbs…a very interesting part of our culture.

  2. Antoinette Sarpong

    Thanks for the comment Mantse. You have a point when you say that conversations can seem excessively laced with proverbial language sometimes, but as you also aptly point out, it doesn’t make us ineffective communicators. Rather, I feel, that it means our audiences need to be more attentive listeners!

  3. Philip Armand

    So beautifully and vividly written! I am writing a story about (in my rushing about doing life) desecrating a cup of coca; cocoa that was most likely grown in Ghana. Googling “Ghana Proverbs” allowed me to find you. Thank you for this lovely story.

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