Stories and Proverbs

The Jamaican poets, like the griots of the West African people, lead us to some answers to where did the African-Jamaican woman, man, children threadbare osnaburg clothing, draw the strength to lay the foundation of our nation by their insistence not only on freedom but also on justice, and to create that rich unique Jamaican seed-bed of culture, our folk lore, form which comes the tunes and music, the rock steady and reggae that carry the name of Jamaica around the world?

Lorna Goodison and Derek Walcott remind us that our history is both chronicle and chronology, synthesis and analysis, poetry and archaeology, art and science, compilation of data and intuition. We also have tried to see our history not as a march of ideologies but as a human event of complicated and often tragic outcomes. We have often tried to understand how the enslaved people revealed their inner selves through the mechanisms they developed, through the language they bequeathed to us, the culture they created, a culture rich in its own right. The very name of that the people gave to places tells of their mood, hopes and fears. As Sherlock wrote “I love so the names of this place, how they spring brilliant like roses…Stonehenge….Sevens, Duppy Gate, Wait a Bit.. Wild Horses, Tan and See, Time and Patience, Unity. It is Holy here, Mount Moses dew falls upon Mount Nebo, south of Jordan, Mount Nebo…Paradise is found here, from Pisgah we look out and Wait a Bit, Wild Horses, Tan and See, Time and Patience….”

The African-Jamaicans along with other participants from Europe were performers in the process of adaptation and of fashioning a Jamaican culture and a history. They did this without the inspiration of psalmists and prophets, knowing only that they had to find ways of communicating, of fashioning a new language quickly and they did. There was no Jamaica talk in 1700 but by 1800 the folk had an English learned incompletely with a strong infusion of African influence, a vigorous, vivid language made up of preservations, borrowings, new formations, transferred meanings, and special preferences the two chief components being English of various kinds and African.

Africa contributed more than vocabulary. It provided ways of forming new words or plurals by repetition, as in “wass wass” meaning plenty of wasps, or “fool fool” for foolish, as well as our way of speaking with the whole body, of using sounds as exclamation marks or full stops.

The proverbs are sparkling nuggets of sunshine. They take us into the inner world of the ancestors, where they record in a sentence years of experience, evaluations and warnings. Their ancestors, not having mastered the art of writing, passed on their experience and wisdom in their proverbs, the wise sayings of the dark. Their eyes are Yorubo, Ibo, Ewe, Efik, Fon; but they had made the Middle Passage, worked as plantation slaves and absorbed the lesions of their new condition. The proverbs of the homeland are polite, elegantly embroidered, tactful, poetic, as in the riddle..”We call the dead, they answer, We call the living, they do not answer. The dry leaves on the earth are dead, crackle when trodden on, whereas green leaves, the living, make no sound when we step on them.”

The Yoruba and the West Indians delight in irony, but West Africans speak from a more stable, more secure society, in which throughout the generations the elders have spoken with authority, knowing that “When we divide the meat, the gall must get its share.”

The Jamaican’s historical experience is that some get all the gall. His proverbs are witty, as ironic. The sense of comic is as keen, but there are sombre moods also, an inaccessible loneliness, the menace of lightning hidden in a cloud. The plantation taught him that “Poor man never vex” because he dare not show his anger; “Man you can’t beat, you have fe call him fren.” Let the overseers remember that “Time longer dan rope” and “Every day you goad donkey, one day him will kick you.” “Not everybody who kin dem teet (smile) wid u is fren.” Let eh blacks beware of those who carry tales: “When six yeye meet, story done.” And “De dog dat carry bone come will carry bone go.” Never forget that “When black man teef him teef half a bit (5 cents) when backra teef, him teef whole estate.”

The Ashanti handed down to us brilliant folktales about the trickster Anansi, the spider-man, as the hare is the chief character in the Yoruba folk tales and the tortoise in the stories of the Ibo people.

As in the West African stories Anansi is “craven” (greedy) and being small and weak, he wins by guile, not by strength. It is Anansi who mek wasp sting, who mek dog belly come hollow, who mek Jackass bray. The Anansi stories belong to evening time, the work songs or jamma to sun hot time, when field work becomes tedious, as in yam time when in Hanover to tek out yam without Jamma was impossible. The term “anancyism” is derived from this these stories and mean the art of playing a trick on someone for one’s personal gain

Some popular proverbs which serves as advice or warning are” Donkey say di worl nuh level.” ” Pig did ask him mumma why him snout so long, Hog say yuh a grow, yuh we find out.” “If fish come from water bottom and say alligator hab belly ache yuh mus believe him.”