Background, Explanation, Meaning and Everyday Use
The earliest European missionaries to West Africa used to say “language is the soul of a people.” Following that dictum, the earliest missionaries undertook the reduction of various vernaculars to writing. They wrote some of the earliest grammars of the vernacular, published dictionaries of the vernacular, and compiled vernacular proverbs. The curious twist is that they hardly took it to the logical conclusion to develop African theologies in the vernacular with the result that African churches and theologies have been in North Atlantic captivity.
Language is more than syntax and morphology. It is, more importantly, the vehicle of a culture, the code of a people, an index of their identity, their sense of perception and idiom of communication. Proverbs typically distil the memories, art, stories, folktales and experience of people. Indeed, proverbs spruce up and saturate the discourse of the wise in African societies and are marks of leadership because proverbs are distillations of generations of wisdom.
The Akan people of Ghana, constituting some 40% of the population, have the proverbial aberewa, the old woman. In family and community discussion, after considerable palaver they break to consult aberewa, the literal and/or symbolic figure of wise and seasoned wisdom. In the matrilineal family the grandmother has been the one who cares for and advises the younger ones in their development. It is mmusu, a curse, not to respect and venerate the grandmother or grand old woman who symbolizes the continuity and permanence of the family.
Against this background stands this proverb quoted above. A popular way of stating this Akan proverb is The mother feeds the baby daughter before she has teeth, so that the daughter will feed the mother when she loses her teeth. The aberewa looks after the young one. This is a reflection of what normally happens. Even a young mother relies on her mother or grandmother to initiate her into parenthood because she is the sum of experience. So to speak, she is the backbone and anchor of a developing family. She carries that responsibility until the children grow teeth, the symbol of growth. Even when the children have grown, and to change metaphors, have flown out of the nest and the tutelage of the old ladies, they continue as a point of reference.
There is a corollary to the above story, namely the responsibility of the youth to the aberewa, that is, the aged when they have lost their teeth (unable to be self-reliant, not strong and who do not enjoy the vitality of yesteryears).
The proverb thus inculcates Akan epistemology and ontology of the sense of community, mutuality, solidarity and fellowship. In Akan society bad behavior of the young is blamed on the elders because it signals inadequate, if not irresponsible, parenting. On the other hand, young family members become the butt of opprobrium and ridicule for the wretchedness of the elderly.
The foregoing insights then represent praeparatio evangelica for the churches’ ecclesiology especially when churches are identified as koinonia/communio. Mutuality. solidarity, partnership, and fellowship characterize the community of the church descended from a common ancestor, this time not just a biological one but the unique great ancestor, Christ and Lord, who constituted the group through the unique sacrifice of the cross at Calvary.
Already the church is depicted as “mother.” St. Augustine used his mother Monica as the model mother. But in Akan society it is not any mother but the aberewa. The church as aberewa is as well community-communion which not only nurtures her children in the wisdom of the community-communion, but also socializes the group in interrelatedness and mutuality and fosters a sense of each having a stake because they are descended from one aberewa.
The search for biblical parallels can easily become forced translations. One must be mindful of the separate worldviews at play in the Bible and among the Akan. Hence it is only ideas, or sometimes a partial idea, that can be translated as parallels. So let us identify ideas that relate to the two worlds of the Bible and the Akan.
The respect for the mother figure of aberewa is echoed in the Decalogue: “Honour your … mother” (Exodus 20:12, 15). Conversely, “Whoever curses his father and mother will see the lamp extinguished in the midst of darkness” (Proverbs 20:20). In other words, to turn one’s back on the source of one’s formation is to deny oneself the source of renewal and head for destruction.
Mutuality of relationships is emphasized in both traditions. For example, Jesus castigated those who dared to allow religious obligations to be reason for opting out of their obligations to their parents. Thus Matthew 15:3-6: “Why do you break God’s command for the sake of your traditions? For God commanded: ‘Do your duty to your father and your mother.'”
The aberewa, as the rallying point of the family, receives some echoes of Jesus’ harsh statement regarding “rebellious” Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered your children together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you refused!” (Matthew 23:27/Luke 13:34). God is like the aberewa who is the focus of identification of God’s people. Security is found only under the wings of Mother God.
Lamentations 2:12 is of particular interest to us. Against the background of the destruction and horrors of the calamity of the 6th century B.C, the people recognized they deserved punishment for their constant rejection of the warnings of God. In this context of the second lamentation, the people now cry out to their mothers: “Where is the bread and wine?” As they faint like the wounded in the streets and public squares, as their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms.” The mother figure remains the point of reference and ultimate security after the delinquency of the people of God.
Contemporary Use and Religious Application
There is an important lesson: no condition is permanent. Today the churches of Africa, Asia, Pacific, and Latin America are designated as the younger churches, while the churches of yesteryears have lost their teeth, drive, energy etc. The older churches of Europe have lost their teeth. Evidence: empty churches.
But before the churches of the North Atlantic became the heartlands of Christianity, there had been a seemingly vibrant church in Roman North Africa which produced such influential leaders as Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo Regius, not to mention those who incurred the displeasure of the church like Tertullian, Donatus, etc. That church, too, lost its teeth. Dare we remind each other that the life of the churches has been decumanus fluctus, like the ebb and flow of a river?
How do we prepare ourselves for when we naturally grow old and lose our teeth? One important way concerns the ecumenical imperative. The twentieth century has been described as the ecumenical century, with such promontories as the Edinburgh Conference on World Mission (1910), the Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Vatican II, etc. In the context of the ecumenical movement, the church has been rediscovered as koinonia. In that rediscovery, the church is like aberewa.
This raises certain questions for consideration today: How does the church live the life of sharing and caring for one other? How and what may the so-called younger churches contribute to the life of renewal and the transformation of the older churches? The younger churches (of Africa, Asia, Pacific and Latin America) are now the vibrant part. They owe it to the so-called mother churches (of Europe and North America) to share insights, so that together they may be renewed and transformed. This is an opportunity for mutual revitalization.
John S. Pobee
P. O. Box 48
Korle Bu, Accra