When only an African proverb can help me tell my story

The power of African proverbs

I love African proverbs. They are powerful treasures of wisdom. In one stroke, an African proverb will teach you a life lesson. Achebe Chinua said that proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. This is so true. The brevity of words, the sharpness that can sting and the clarity of meaning of most African proverbs have a lasting impact. They are condensed, thought-provoking conversations that can be peeled back layer by layer at your own leisure, long after the storytellers have departed.

If ever I felt the urge to peg a story within the tapestry of African proverbs, it is the story that I saw emerging from Shafiek, the regular busker, on a sunny winter's day.

Shafiek crooning, oblivious of his audience
Shafiek, the busker

Whenever I visit TEARS, one of my favourite charity shops, I see Shafiek, the busker. I must confess I deliberately dawdle in the area or sit in my car when I hear a few of my favourites “like Hey Jude “or “When I fall in love”. Shafiek who hails from the poverty-stricken area of Lavender Hill in Retreat,has been busking at this shopping centre in Lower Bergvliet for the past four years.

 On the day I took the picture, he had his daughter with him. He told me that she is his ‘laatlammetjie’ (his youngest child that he had at an older age) and sometimes he brings her along when the weather is good. Strangely on that day, while listening to the strains of “Yellow brick road” from the comfort of my sun-kissed car, I notice all the paraphernalia surrounding Shafiek.

There is the customized bicycle with the plastic crate doubling up as the basket for his young daughter and possibly for the guitar as well. The seating of both father and daughter is the remnants of plastic crates and plastic chair. There to Shafiek’s left is the overflowing cement dirtbin, beautifully covered with beach stone. On the paving lies the ‘tithe’ bag - a cap with a skull - atop the guitar cover. Resting on the branded Shoprite bag is the Flip file which holds all the words of the songs. And the takkies are emblazoned with the Nike brand.  

Are we deliberately blind to the realities of inequalities?

All these contradictions sit side by side: the throwaways of the rich become the treasures of the poor. One world yet the scales are precariously uneven. Only 15% own 85% of the wealth in the world. So while all the riches are in the hands of the exclusive clubs of the minority, 85% of the world's population hang on for dear life.

 The picture of Shafiek speaks volumes on behalf of the 85% economically-dispossessed .  How, with all our technological advances, our increasing levels of intelligence, creativity and our acute awareness that we have to protect the only earth we have, are we getting it so horribly wrong? In the words of our African forefathers , when are we going to see that “When the chief limps, his subjects limp too”? Or would it be more apt to advise that “One fly causes the whole carcass of a cow to rot’?

 As much as I enjoy Shafiek’s music and the occasional chat, I cannot ignore the reality that our world is screwed up and we are living off the sufferings of many like Shafiek and his daughter.


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