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African proverbs that will get you thinking about science

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Globe and Mail logo
February 01, 2022

Written by Kevin Hewitt, Physics Professor at Dalhousie University, Co-founder of Imhotep’s Legacy and Co-founder of the Canadian Black Scientists Network

“Only the knife knows what’s inside the coco yam.”

Black History month, celebrated every February, offers an opportunity to remember the historic contributions of people of African Descent to the sciences. Africans have a rich history of involvement in the sciences, from Imhotep’s genius in designing Egypt’s first pyramid and being credited as the world’s first physician to Canadian scientist Elijah McCoy’s advancements in engineering, to Philip Emeagwali’s work on the supercomputer, Africans have been instrumental in the development of the scientific world.

In this article we spotlight the value of African proverbs in sparking curiosity and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Combining ancient wisdom and science offers life lessons as well as mnemonics that can help us understand and remember scientific principles. Proverbs are used regularly in the Imhotep’s Legacy Academy (ILA) program in Nova Scotia to introduce hands-on STEM activities and showcase the contributions of people of African Descent to the sciences. Using proverbs in this way draws from the past to inspire future generations.

As you explore the following proverbs, consider the embedded life principle as well as the STEM connection – noting that the parables do not explain the actual scientific principle but rather offer a way to understand certain concepts. The cocoa yam proverb above can be used to represent what’s inside our cells, inspiring an exploration into DNA. An interesting twist on this particular parable is that the yam browns upon exposure to air. That browning appears similar to the change in the colour of blood when it is exposed to oxygen. Below are a few examples of the use of proverbs in the STEM enrichment activities of the ILA’s after school program.

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.”

We all know too well that despite its tiny size, a mosquito can keep us awake all night. The lesson to be learned? Size is not an important factor in making a difference in someone’s life or in any situation. What a great way to think about electric circuits. When was the last time you stopped to consider the size of electrons that underpin electricity?

“You can’t use your hand to force the sun to set.” Nigeria

Some things in life can’t be changed with human force; we have to accept that they are out of our control. This is true for many natural events. Think of tides that are caused by the motions and positions of the earth, moon and sun. This parable reminds us that we cannot change these events so we have to accept them and adapt to them.

“Words are like bullets; if they escape, you can’t catch them again.” Senegal

You should be very careful what you say because once you’ve said it, you cannot take those words back. The gaseous state is an equally elusive state of matter; gas particles expand to fill whatever container they are in. Unlike liquids or solids they do not stick together; you cannot clean up a gas leak like you can clean up a spill. Like our words, once gas particles escape, they are out in the world and hard to catch.

“A single bracelet does not jingle.” Congo

This is a great reminder that sometimes one can achieve greater things with the help of others. A beautiful symphony requires the participation of many musicians, not just one person. Like an orchestra that combines many instruments to create beautiful music, many substances in and around us are made of small repeating units called monomers that join to form amazing and useful substances called polymers.

“Where two rivers meet, the waters are never calm.” Uganda

When two people with different ideas or different ways of life meet, they often clash. It takes time for them to work out their differences and work together. The waters are never calm where two rivers meet because each exerts a force on the other. Water pressure can be enormously powerful.

“What is inflated too much will burst into fragments.” Ethiopia

One who thinks very highly of oneself is said to have a “big head”. If you let your ego grow, and you boast all the time, eventually you will not be able to live up to it. Your ego will shatter, in a sense. The same is true for substances. As a substance heats up, the particles vibrate faster and expand. If the particles are contained, they will exert more and more pressure on the substance containing them, and the container may eventually burst.

“A paddle here, a paddle there—the canoe stays still.” Sierra Leone

We can never underestimate the value of balance – in life and science. Paddling a canoe in a rhythmic, consistent, steady manner maintains a smooth momentum and allows us to reach a destination – but it requires a balancing of the effort put into paddling on both sides. In the same way, acids and bases can balance each other out to produce a neutral solution and achieve a desired outcome.

“When spiders unite, they can tie up a lion.” Ethiopia

Not simply folklore or cultural storytelling, many parables are riddles that can help people link ideas and think creatively. They help us to look differently at the world in which we live. By connecting them with STEM to form associations, parables can offer a fun and effective way of learning and remembering important foundational concepts in STEM. They can help us explain difficult concepts in simpler ways, in language and contexts that are relevant to readers by creating links to the world. Some also remind us that, like the spiders in the parable, we are stronger and more effective when we work together to confront daunting challenges.