Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Mafa proverb: “Even if your father or mother is old, you can stay under his or her shade.”
(In the original language: “Ko man bab ngaya n’hala’a ba , ka nzi a mèzhèba’a genè.” )

Meaning: Even at an old age, parents are still important as they play a significant role in the lives of their children

In most African societies, people learn to navigate life and its multiple challenges through proverbs. One fascinating aspect of proverbs is that they communicate profound words of wisdom in a few words. The proverb mentioned above illustrates this truth very well.

Strong Family Bond

This Mafa proverb is rich in incredibly significant images. Let us retain two. First, this proverb alludes to the concept of ‘old age.’ As in all cultures, old age comes with its physical weaknesses and limitations.

Unlike Western practices, the Mafa people – who live in Northern Cameroon, Northern Nigeria, and southern Niger – do not isolate the elderly in retirement or nursing homes. They remain within the family and participate actively as much as possible, in all the household’s activities and events.

The family members and society respect them for their age, which is synonymous with honour, experience, and supposed or real wisdom. It is easy to understand this when old fathers and grandfathers’ weigh Mafa’s eyes under such circumstances.

Relief and Support from Family Elders

Second, the Mafa people use the image of the ‘shade’ to describe the older people. There is a contextual reason behind the choice of this image. The Mafa live in a region known for the harshness of its Sahelian climate, which constitutes their natural life framework.

Indeed, the climate is generally dry because the rainy season is limited to three or four months. The vegetation is in total desolation during the long dry season, especially from March to May, as it coincides with the “begdza” (period of great heat).

During that season, the heat is so scorching during the day that the smallest shade procures immense joy. The old mother or father becomes a providential shade that provides great psychological, moral, and social relief under the no less scorching sun of life’s trials. Even at an advanced age, they can comfort, give direction, counsel, and be effective agents of reconciliation in a tradition that places great emphasis on respect for the elderly.

Honoring the Elderly

Interestingly, the Bible recommends honouring old people (Lev. 19:32). It also declares that those who are righteous bear fruit even in their old age (Psalm 92:14). Even when they are old, they can still manifest the qualities of the father as in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15).

The father was hardworking, attentive, humble, generous, even ready to forgive a rebellious younger son and quick to appease a jealous elder son in a spirit of reconciliation with a spirit of sincere love. They deserve attention, love, and respect.

God’s Perfect Love

What a joy to know that, while the biological or spiritual parents may not always have these qualities, one can always turn to the Heavenly Father who is infinitely greater, better, and genuinely concerned about our physical, moral, social, material and spiritual well-being.

Above all, God loves all humans with perfect love. May He give all those who believe in the capacity to love and respect the elderly and the wisdom to rest joyfully and peacefully under His divine shadow even during the challenging days of life!

Prof. Moussa Bongoyok is presently serving as the President of Institut Universitaire de Développement International (IUDI) and the Professor of Intercultural Studies and Holistic Development in Cameroon.