The Gold Coast Europeans quickly realized that grandma laced her speeches with proverbs and aphorisms. To better understand grandma, they – notably Riis, Christaller and Rattray – collected proverbs. They might have been somewhat disappointed to find that when those proverbs were translated, they made little sense. One commentator would later question if these sayings were worthy to be ranked as proverbs at all.
Since most Akan proverbs have hidden stories and are expressed by homely images, translation tends to weaken their meanings compared with English proverbs. It is thus difficult to translate them literally into English without losing the nuances. One needs to understand the images used in the proverbs to appreciate their deeper meanings. Let me illustrate this with one Akan proverb: Abɛ baako na ɛsɛe mmɛ-duasa nsa (literally: one palm tree’s wine can spoil the palm wine from thirty). To the European mind, this might sound too trite to count as a proverb. However, the wisdom embedded in the proverb becomes clearer when the proverb is explained. In fact, a similar proverb is found in the Bible!
To get palm wine, several trees are felled at the same time. Then an incision is made in each of the trunks, below the leaves and the sap or wine is collected through DOROBƐN (olyra latifolia) into the AKETEKYIWA (palm-wine pot) below. Every day, fire is applied to the incision to stimulate the flow of sap and a fresh cut is afterwards made. Now imagine the palm winner tapper forgets to apply fire to one of them and the wine goes bad. The palm wine is generally removed twice a day, and the contents of all the single pots are then poured into one larger vessel (to be distilled into APIO). Thus, if one of the trees has yielded a bad palm wine, the whole will be infected. That is the story behind the proverb.
Now, let us see what the Bible says about the subject. In his letter to the Galatian church, Apostle Paul was alarmed that the church was being misled by someone with false doctrines. Contrary to what Paul had taught and had been accepted, a few within the Galatian church now believed that circumcision was a prerequisite for salvation. In warning the church against accepting such doctrines (because false teaching and its consequences are never limited to just a few people in a group), he declared: A little leaven leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9 KJV). Leaven, or yeast, does not remain isolated in a single spot within a lump of dough. It spreads and becomes part of the entire loaf. The palm wine proverb makes exactly the same point!
In fact, if Paul were from Atwima, he would have probably used palm wine – and not leaven – to make his point. This is just one example showing that grandma, although she could not write her name, was a psychologist and a philosopher. In fact, most recent insights from academic psychologists just validate what our grandma knew thousands of years ago. Take the phenomenon Leon Festinger named cognitive dissonance as an example. It confirms sour grapes, by which people, in trying to avoid conflicting beliefs, rationalize that the grapes they cannot reach are sour. Grandma expressed the same idea with the proverb ‘Wopam aboa no na woannya no a, wose ne ho bↄn’ (If you are unable to catch an animal in the chase, you say its body smells). Hopefully, one day, we will systemically demonstrate to the world how wise grandma was, and how science is reconfirming her insights.
By: Kwabena Antwi Boasiako