It's been a year since I began serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Ghana — but some of the local lingo still eludes me. I speak a good amount of Dagbani nowadays,but I still can't figure out why everyone's been telling me recently: "You used to be the tall visitor and now you're the small villager." Is that good or bad? I mean, I haven't shrunk as far as I can tell.
And then NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibia Quist-Arcton asked me to explain a saying she saw on BBC's Africa's Proverb of the Day website, which said it came from Ghana: "The day the billy goat breaks its leg, it will find its way home."
So I decided to head to the experts — I asked a group of teachers at the local elementary school to give me a primer on the goat proverb and otherDagbani adages. I've included the literal English translation of each proverb, as well as the original Dagbani in italics. (Fun fact: Dagbani is written using a Latin script, just like English, although some characters may not look familiar — and you can learn more about how it's pronounced here).
Proverb: The day the billy goat breaks its leg, it will find its way home (Bulaa bgali kabbu dali Kano baŋdi yiŋa).
Explanation: Despite a person's attempts to domesticate and control a billy goat, only once a billy goat is harmed by its own actions will it go home. This goes for humans too — no matter how much advice you give a friend or family member, only once that person suffers from his or her actions will he or she come home and listen to you.
Proverb: The tall visitor follows the short villager (San' waɣinli dɔli la tiŋ bi jiya).
Explanation: An important visitor should respect the modest villager — the latter is the one who knows the ins and outs of the community.
Proverb: People are scared of the infamous man's feces, not himself (Bi zɔri la wɔɣiri bindi pa ni o man maŋa).
Explanation: People don't fear the evil man — they fear his actions.
Proverb: A child with clean hands can mix an elder's dawadawa (Nuu viɛla nŋuni n samdi kpiem dɔri).
Explanation: Dawadawa is a nutritious and delicious yellow powdermade from African locust beans. It can be mixed into porridge or fried into hush-puppies. A responsible kid with hands that are clean enough to mix dawadawa is clearly trustworthy and wise — perhaps even wise enough to advise the elders.
Proverb: The one that rides a horse does not know that the earth is hot (Nŋuni bari wɔhu bi mi ni tiŋ tula).
Explanation: The rich man cannot understand the poor man's struggles.
Proverb: It is because of the donkey's wickedness that God did not give him horns (Buŋ tiɛha zuɣu ka naawuni mɔŋ o yila).
Explanation: Donkeys are mean, ill-mannered animals. If they had horns, they'd cause some serious damage. Some humans are mean and ill-mannered as well, which is why God didn't give uslaser vision. So if you say this proverb to someone, you're basically saying "stop being such an..." Well, you know.
Proverb: He who has done wrong opens his ears wider (Nŋun tum ka di biɛ nŋuni n gbilsi tibli).
Explanation: A man who's done something bad eavesdrops and listens more carefully in order to hear what is being said of him.
Proverb: If there is a hailstorm, we all cover our heads (Saa zuɣu jaambɔŋ so kam taɣir'la o zuɣu).
Explanation: When a catastrophe happens, we must be vigilant and take care of ourselves.
Proverb: The one making the road will not notice that it is crooked (Nŋin maandi sɔli bi mi di gɔŋbu saha).
Explanation: It's difficult to see your own mistakes because you're too close to your work.
Proverb: A small elephant is not a rabbit (Ka wɔbigubilaa n nyɛ sooŋa).