This is the local equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me.” Local walnut sellers count walnuts by the handful. They know exactly how many walnuts are in each handful and are extremely fast at their arithmetic as their hands transfer walnuts lightning-quick out of their large sack and into the customer’s bag. For the uninitiated (like me) it’s very hard to follow. But apparently I’m not the only one. This speedy method of the walnut sellers has become a local idiom for any time information has simply been over your head, too complex to grasp.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get any of that. It’s like your counting walnuts for me.”
Time is like a sword; if you don’t cut it, it will cut you.
Local Oral Tradition
This is a surprisingly time-oriented proverb among our focus people group, which is typically event-oriented. Things are changing because of globalization and urbanization, but most locals here still consider time as more like a lazy river that must be traveled. It is linear, yes, but not something to be dominated. But then comes this sharp proverb out of nowhere, perhaps functioning as a warning against those who might get a little too relaxed when it comes to the use of time. I guess no matter how a culture is oriented to time, there is always some kind of lifestyle that represents a failure to make use of the potential that time affords.
Were I to teach on the biblical truth of “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” (Eph 5:16) I would likely reference this local proverb by way of illustration.
This is a proverb very appropriate for a culture like this one that prioritizes the group over the individual. In contrast to the English proverb “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” this local proverb tells you that it’s better to relinquish or hide your advantage and handicap yourself for the sake of not bringing shame to the community. This is the logic I’ve often heard in this culture for married couples being discouraged from showing affection in public. “Think of how badly the singles must feel when they see that,” is how my local friends put it. Similarly, I’ve read of cultures where it’s shameful for a runner in a race to win by too great an advantage, because that would make the other runners feel too embarrassed. Cultures or individuals who are more individualistic might be fine with displaying an advantage that others don’t have. “What about my rights and being true to myself?” But in group-oriented cultures, this can be considered immodest and even shameful.
You don’t know how to line dance, so you say the ground is uneven.
Local Oral Tradition
Humans tend to blame shift when they are actually the ones coming up short. Apparently we have an English equivalent that goes, “A bad workman blames his tools.” However, I had never heard of this English-language proverb until I came to Central Asia. That could mean it’s from a different part of the English-speaking world, or it could just represent another TCK gap in my American cultural knowledge – these still emerge occasionally. Yes, I’ve still never seen Mary Poppins and I know precious little about professional sports. But no, that is no one else’s fault. I take full responsibility!
Our focus people group suffers from an unusual amount of internal disunity. Just ask any local man in the bazaar and he will gladly elaborate for you on this theme. Now, I know that the entire world seems polarized right now. But there’s something about people groups that are still essentially tribal in their thinking – and who haven’t had a powerful unifying leader or consensus emerge – that keeps them particularly and continually divided by outsiders and among themselves. Even when the outside world fumbles and they have a chance to gain some advantage they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Personal gain undermines the common good time and time again.
A local tale cautions against this kind of disunity and holds out the hope of a better strength that might someday be possible. It goes like this.
“There once was a father with seven sons. He was up on the roof working and he overheard his seven sons fighting… again. Frustrated, he descended from the roof and called his seven sons together. One by one he gave six of them a single stick.
‘Break the stick, my son,’ the father ordered his sons, one after the other.
Each of the six sons with a single stick was able to break his stick in half easily. The father, after observing this, gathered up the stick fragments in a bundle and handed them to his seventh son.
‘Break the sticks, my son.”
Try as he might, the seventh son could not break the bundle of sticks.
‘Pay attention, my sons!’ said the father. ‘When you are divided and each of you stands alone, you can be easily broken. But if all seven of you stand together, you will be unbreakable.'”
This tale reminds me of the wisdom of the scriptures.
And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12 ESV)
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1 ESV)
Unity for unity’s sake is always an illusion. Unity requires substance, a shared love, shared commitments, and confessions. It requires definition. Broadness and narrowness applied in the right places. I don’t know if the tribes and political parties of our focus people group will ever be able to achieve meaningful unity. Perhaps. But my hope is that if they do, it will be because they will have learned it from the brotherhood displayed by a future network of healthy churches. The gospel will advance among this people group. And that means that one way or another, a healthy unity among believers and churches here will one day emerge.
The goat which is doomed is the goat which eats the shepherd’s food.
Local Oral Tradition
He ate the shepherd’s food, so now he becomes the shepherds food. Out in the mountains, the shepherd doesn’t really have another choice. This proverb seems to be somewhere in the realm of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Perhaps with an emphasis on avoiding the stupidity of shortsighted self-interest. It also makes a nod to the strong emphasis on fate and determinism in this culture. “It was fated to be so,” locals might say, shaking their heads at this kind of goat (or person) when their own actions bring about their doom.