Arts, Culture & Media

Liberian proverbs

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Jason Hepps with the UNHCR in Saclepea, Liberia

There’s an expression people use in Liberia: Monkey work, baboon draws. While that might make no sense to an outsider, the meaning is crystal clear in Liberia: If I do the work, somebody else should not take the credit. Proverbs are an often-used and powerful form of communication throughout Liberia, as the World’s Jason Margolis found out.

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JEB SHARP: I’m Jeb Sharp and this is The World. Liberia is celebrating its independence day today. The West African nation is 163 years old. Liberia was settled in 1822 by free blacks from the United States. That’s why Liberians speak English today. Still, some of the things they say don’t make a lot of sense to our ears. For example, take this phrase, “Monkey work, baboon draws.” Now that might not mean much to you. But Liberians understand it. Here’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s explanation of the proverb “Monkey work, baboon draws.”

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: In other words, if I do the work, somebody else should not take the credit, and take the benefit. If I do the work, I must be, the credit must be attributed to me. That can be said in politics too.

SHARP: The Liberian leader is like her compatriots in that she often uses proverbs to make her point. The World’s Jason Margolis sorts through the mysteries of the proverbs of Liberia, in this report from the Liberian town, Saclepea.

JASON MARGOLIS: My childhood friend Jason Hepps has worked in Liberia for five years. During that time, let’s just say, there have been some miscommunications.

JASON HEPPS: So I sit in meetings quite often, and I use American sayings and proverbs, related to, baseball-related to anything. And people just look at me and have no clue.

MARGOLIS: Such as what? What would you say?

HEPPS: You hit one out of the park is a baseball one. Or bingo if someone got something right.

MARGOLIS: So when you say to someone, hey, you hit that out of the park, what do they…

HEPPS: And they just look at me with a blank stare.

MARGOLIS: But often times, Jason was also staring blankly back at them. When they’d say things to him like:

HEPPS: You cannot tell your sister to naked herself for you and for her to cross a river.

MARGOLIS: Yeah. When I visited Jason, he was wrapping up a five-year tour with the United Nations in Liberia. He helped run a refugee camp. Jason wanted a way to remember the proverbs he’d heard and a way to finally understand what they meant.

HEPPS: And so I thought I need to get a collection and see what people have and they just, I don’t know, they just loved contributing. I offered this competition among our staff and something to build the team.

MARGOLIS: Jason invited his Liberian staff to each submit two proverbs. A team of judges would select the best ones. The team of judges consisted of Jason and me. The morning before the competition we made our way through some 60 proverbs to pick a handful of finalists.

HEPPS: It takes extreme care to slap a chicken without touching the eyes.

MARGOLIS: Oooh, I like that.

HEPPS: You cannot be sitting on somebody’s head and say the person’s hair stinks.

MARGOLIS: Five. Can we give it a five?

HEPPS: The food that the duck fails to swallow, a wise man will never include in the menu of the chickens.

MARGOLIS: I don’t know what that means.

HEPPS: I don’t either.

MARGOLIS: We didn’t know what a lot of them meant. Also surprising to me, a high percentage of the proverbs involved bathroom references.

HEPPS: Close your eyes and imagine this. Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off, you just have to clean them off.

MARGOLIS: We chose that one as a finalist. The competition was held that night at the UN compound in the small town of Saclapea. About 100 people showed up.

HEPPS: We have selected the judges. And the judges, to be a judge, there is two criteria. One, you have to be named Jason and two, you have to be from America. So there are two of us.

MARGOLIS: Jason then called people up to read their proverbs, and gave them one minute to explain the meaning.

MALE SPEAKER: The proverb reads: If one keeps pressing a young bird in his palms, the bird may one day stooled in his hands.

MARGOLIS: Stooled in his hands. More potty references. When Jason and I read this in the morning, we were giggling like second graders. But apparently there was nothing funny about the expression.

MALE SPEAKER: This is a political proverb. It’s about leadership and the way we react to people. And if we press people too hard, they will react. Thank you.

HEPPS: Well done. Okay, the last one for this session.

MALE SPEAKER: Your child cannot toilet on your lap, then you cut your whole leg out.

MARGOLIS: Again, nothing funny here. Not a giggle from the audience. Instead an explanation about the role of the UNHCR in Liberia.

MALE SPEAKER: If a refugee misbehaves towards a UNHCR staff, we shouldn’t neglect them, because we are here to protect them.

MARGOLIS: After the seven finalists read their proverbs, Jason and I retreated to his office to do the final judging. The intermission turned into a dance party. Even after all the explanations, Jason and I were still confused by several of the proverbs, like the proverb saying that you shouldn’t ask your sister to naked herself and cross a river. The explanation was as confusing as the proverb. But he said, like, you shouldn’t see your sister naked, was his explanation.

HEPPS: Yeah, well that’s what – you shouldn’t see your sister naked.

MARGOLIS: I know that.

HEPPS: But it’s not, the situation may not be you’re getting your sister, that you’re going to see your sister naked. The explanation may be that, may be that…

MARGOLIS: We needed some outside help. So, we asked a couple of Liberians at the party. One of them, Alexander Woart liked the proverb that you can’t be sitting on somebody’s head and say their hair stinks.

ALEXANDER WOART: Why? In life, people got to learn to be very, very grateful. It is often said, I can paraphrase this in another way, you cannot bite the hand that feeds you. And people got to be very, very grateful for the little that each and every one of us do.

MARGOLIS: The other guy, Dokie Nah, liked a proverb about a dying monkey not listening to the sound of a whistle. He explained what it meant.

DOKIE NAH: When you are overly ambitious, you want to get or wherever you want to get, but you don’t listen to advice. Even if bullets were flying, you would still brave the bullets because you think you have a cause. And sometimes it’s detrimental for your very own self and your family, or whoever depend on you for whatever.

MARGOLIS: Their explanations made sense. All of them except for the proverb about seeing your sister naked. Alexander Woart’s advice: don’t over-think that one.

WOART: Eventually if you got in that room, the person may be undressed, and you going to see something that you’re, ohhh, you’re going to close the door!

MARGOLIS: As for the best Liberian proverb of all, the two men were in agreement. There was a clear-cut winner.

HEPPS: In first place, the honor goes to, the man with poo poo on his lap.

MARGOLIS: So once again, the whole proverb was, “Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off. You just have to clean them off.” And while those words might sound a bit juvenile, the message was quite serious: Don’t walk away from your responsibilities. A good life lesson. For The World, I’m Jason Margolis, Saclepea, Liberia.

 

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