Grandmother Tongue

By Na’imah Saffiya

July 2022

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Since my grandmother’s passing last year, I have searched for ways to connect with my memory of the healthy, quick-witted and cheeky gran-gran I remember before her senses surrendered to the effects of Dementia. I still find myself searching for my cultural heritage through my grangran as she was the only grandmother I had, being a treasured bridge between my Caribbean ancestors.

The smell of her home after baking, the decor of her South London living room, all of it stays with me. But most of all, when I hear my gran-gran’s voice I hear a lady who speaks almost lyrically. Between gentle commands and quips, warning an agitated visitor of the uselessness in gossip or demanding one of her many, energetic grandchildren to stop running around the flat. Our gran-gran has a dry punchline for everything – she just mutters it too low to hear, unless you’re nosey like me!

But occasionally, grangran delivers more than a punchline, she provides a proverb every now and again that is profound, humorous, and stunningly simple. This is what I love about the way our elders talk. No Western philosopher will ever compete with the instant humbling that comes over me when I hear any one of my grandparent’s siblings and cousins pair down some huge fact of life with the most creative and endearingly honest string of words. Our wisdom is just as enlightening and ten times as poetic as Nietze, Descartes and Kant.

My maternal grandmother was Grenadian, while my paternal grandparents were Jamaicans and I like to think that if they had ever met, their exchanges would be peppered with variations of the same proverbs. At this moment, the following proverb continues to ring in my ear; “When cocoa ripen, im muss buss” – directly meaning that a person’s actions are the best way to determine their character. I think back to about a month ago when I was trying to comprehend why I didn’t anticipate the ending of a significant friendship in the abrupt fashion that it did. I came across this quote and remembered a very vital conversation we had several weeks before the conflict and at once, it all clicked. I had been shown consistently that this person was more than capable of behaving this way and words had even left their own mouth that supported their actions. Despite these warning signs, I didn’t move accordingly because I gave this person the benefit of the doubt, closing my eyes to the fruit of our friendship ripening before me, browning and turning bad. Instead, I will heed these words going forward, keeping my eyes wide and trusting the way people make me feel.

Growing up British-Caribbean, we are so incredibly blessed to receive the education that we do, the education that is passed orally from generation to generation. This is the education that survived only because our ancestors did. This form of knowledge and wisdom, so beautifully and creatively embodied in our language is one that occasionally arrives in the English literature syllabus at our secondary schools and when it does, the effort to intellectualise and sophisticate it is an attempt to make it legitimate that I can only find amusing.

We know that the life experiences our ancestor’s wisdom is founded upon is insurmountable. We know that the West Indian proverb is supposed to live exactly as it sounds and as far as it comes to the Caribbean diaspora in London, I hope to never let it die.

You can find more of Na’imah’s work here and here.