Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Teaching and learning materials science and engineering with (African) proverbs

". . . Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten."
These words come from the opening chapter of Achebe's famous novel Things Fall Apart. I learned this year that proverbs can also lubricate the teaching and learning of materials science and engineering.

One of the first things I did at the University of Ghana, Legon campus in January was to visit the university book store. A book on display there immediately caught my attention -- Bu Me Bε: Proverbs of the Akans.
It's a compilation by mother and son Peggy and Kwame Anthony Appiah along with Ivor Agyeman-Duah of over 7,000 Ghanaian proverbs. It fascinated me, but I had not realized how it had entered my subconscious until I was planning the first assignment for my course on "materials science and the future." It was an assignment that left the students, expecting a lecture on "advanced" or "nano" materials, bewildered. They were to select 6 Ghanaian proverbs with a materials connection, translate them into English, and explain the meanings and those materials connections.

To practice, I asked them to come up with some proverbs in class, but they seemed stunned and nobody volunteered anything. I provided an example and we worked on it together: “Dade bi twa dade bi mu” (Twi; iron sharpens iron). The first interpretation was that of superiority: one material has a superior property to another. Then to my delight they moved beyond that to suggest that the proverb illustrates the need for collaboration/cooperation: if a knife wants to be sharper, it needs the help of another material.
Below are some of the other proverbs they eventually came to consider. The most most popular one was versions of:

"Enam dua so na ahoma hunu soro" - Twi. It is through the tree that the thread (rope or vine) goes up (sees the sky). Others are:

"Dze mekafua edokui o"- Ewe. Salt does not praise itself.

Edon a eho apae no engyegye yie” - Twi. A cracked bell can never sound well.

Gya ne atuduro nna faako”- Twi. Fire and gunpowder do not sleep together.


Paa Kwesi said...

Fascinating--I've never thought that 'dadiɛ bi twa dadiɛ mu' translates into 'iron sharpens iron'. Literally it means 'some metal cuts some metal' and so the 'some materials are superior to others' is the first thought that comes to mind.

Thanks for writing nonetheless. Hope to read more from you.

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