African languages have many proverbs, and the Songhai language is no exception. This is one of my favorites: "A gourd and its string." Now you're probably wondering what in the world that means. Well, first, a little explanation is in order.
There are many types of gourds in Niger, each with its own word to describe it. Some are spherical in shape and when cut in half, gutted, and dried, make nice bowls of various sizes. Others grow in such a way that they make spoons when cut in half. Sometimes the Nigeriens decorate these different gourds with various beautiful carvings and colors. But there is one type of gourd that grows roughly in the shape of an hourglass. It's called a zollo. Here's a picture of one of these gourds growing.
Ever see anything like that? Amazing, isn't it? Now these gourds have a variety of uses. People may cut off the top of the smaller end and put a stopper in the hole. Then they carry it around as a water bottle. Or they may put cream in it, put a stopper in the hole, and give it to a child to carry around all day. When he or she gets home in the evening, voila,.... butter, a little runny to be sure, but very much like butter. In both these cases the gourd will normally have a string attached to it so the person can carry it. The string may be long enough to carry it around your neck. So this gourd (zollo) is associated with a string attached to it.
So here's the meaning of the proverb. Actually, it's only half a proverb. But, like many proverbs in English, if you say half the proverb, most people could complete it. (Try completing, "A stitch in time..."). So the full proverb is, "A gourd and its string are always together." But the Songhai only have to use the first half of it, and everyone understands what they are saying.
That still leaves us hanging. What in the world does it mean? Well, the proverb is used about two people or things that are always together: A husband and wife, two close friends, two donkeys pulling a cart, etc. It got to the point where one of my friends in Tera would come to greet and during the long series of greetings that all Africans are really good at, he would ask me, "And how is your string (korfo)?" He wasn't literally talking about a random piece of string, but rather my wife. We all use euphemisms when talk, and this was one of them in Songhai. He didn't refer specifically to my wife. He used an expression which meant the same thing. And he didn't mean that my wife has me by the throat with a string. It is more of a metaphor indicating a close relationship of mutual support.
I could think of a lot of applications for this proverb in our own culture (our supporters and us, our supervisors and us, pastor and church, teacher and student, etc.). We are dependent on many others for help, support, and growth. We need to work together and rely on each other more. Our rugged individualism is not always such a good thing. This is especially true for Christians.
There is another use for this gourd which really interests me. As a musician, this one is especially intriguing. You can let the gourd dry out and leave the seed inside it without cutting it open in any way. Then you tie a net of beads to it, and it becomes a clacking rhythm instrument like a maracas. Here I'm holding one in my hands.
Lots of uses for a zollo, aren't there?
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