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African Proverb of the Month
November, 2002

Wax soxu fetal la; su reccee, dabu ko wees. (Wolof)
La parole, c'est une charge de fusil, si elle s'echappe on ne peut pas la rattraper. (French)
Words are like bullets; if they escape, you can't catch them again. (English)

Wolof ( Senegal , Gambia ) Proverb


Background,
Explanation, Meaning and Everyday Use

Wolof is a language used in Senegal and The Gambia in West Africa by about 10 million people. The story goes that a Wolof man named Oumar was an apprentice to a mechanic. He fell in love with Mariama and asked her to marry him, but her father refused, saying that he didn't want a "blue-collar" worker (that is, an ordinary worker) as a husband for her. He wanted someone that had gone to school like Mariama had and who at least had a diploma of some sort. Five years passed. Oumar went to France during that time, came back as a fully qualified mechanic and opened a mechanic's shop. The father of Mariama, seeing that Oumar's business was prospering, sent a friend to tell Oumar that Mariama still loved him and that he could now marry her. Oumar, quite vexed, responded that he had never gone to school and that he was still a blue-collar worker. He then added this proverb: Words are like bullets; if they escape, you can't catch them again.

Biblical Parallels

Genesis 27:18-30: Jacob lies in order to get Isaac's blessing. His action led to future problems with his family members.

James 1:19: "Dear friends, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry."

Numbers 21:4-9: The Israelites complained and were punished with a plague of poisonous snakes.

Philippians 2:14-15: "In everything you do stay away from complaining and arguing so that no one can speak a word of blame against you."

1 Samuel 14:24-30, 36-45: Saul's reckless vow got him into trouble when his own son Jonathan ate before the Philistines were killed.

James 5:12: "But most of all, dear brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned for it."

Contemporary Use and Religious Application

The Wolof people in Senegal and The Gambia teach that each person is responsible for his or her words. When one realizes that words can hurt and cannot easily be "taken back," then more effort will be taken to speak words that are helpful. Being careful with the words that one speaks is the main value of this proverb. A person of good character is described as "dafa yaatu" in Wolof, or "one is wide." An essential quality of a strong person, i.e., one who is wide, is that he or she makes allowances for others in their faults and weaknesses. A person with a wide soul or character is one who has control over himself and his or her tongue. A person of weak character is described as "dafa xat" or "one is narrow." The narrow person is impatient, self-centered, inconsiderate of others and does not control his or her tongue.

Emotions are thought to have a fixed charge. Each emotion, positive or negative, consists of a certain quality, quantity and force. If anyone has anger, for example, he has a fixed amount of it. It only comes in one size or quantity. If, therefore, this person appears to be a little angry with one person and very angry with another person, it is assumed that the only difference in the amount of hatred is the amount that is apparent to others.

This concept of emotions has far-reaching implications in interpersonal and cross-cultural relations. For example, a little anger, disdain or disrespect shown by a foreigner in the Senegambia may be judged quite differently from what a foreigner would expect. Conversely, a little respect, goodwill, or expressed pleasure may receive a more positive reaction than one might expect. (Adapted from Peace is Everything by David E. Maranz)


Mrs. Carol Bornman
B.P. 335
Louga, Senegal

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