New Book Highlights Jamaican Culture Through Proverbs

Leon Harris, NBC4 anchor, gets his book signed by Hyacinth Holder, author of "My Papa Used to Say," at the Jerk Pit in College Park, Md., on May 27. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Leon Harris, NBC4 anchor, gets his book signed by Hyacinth Holder, author of "My Papa Used to Say," at the Jerk Pit in College Park, Md., on May 27. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

Some people who’ve traveled to Jamaica, or encountered some of the native Islanders in the states may have wondered what they sometimes say.

For instance, “A nuh ebry ting gud fi eat gud fi taak.”

Translation: “It is not everything that is good for eating is good for talking.” The meaning: “Warning — there is no need to talk about, or share everything that you know.”

This and 364 other proverbs are noted in a new book, “My Papa Used to Say: A Daily Dose of Jamaican Proverbs Dispensing Wit, Wisdom, Advice and Humor,” by Hyacinth Holder, who heard these sayings growing up in Jamaica from her father, Robley Melville Swaby, a man who stayed in church all day Sunday and who she rarely saw in his bed sleeping “because he was always working.”

The retired pharmacist, who graduated from Howard University in Northwest in 1969, held a book signing Saturday, May 27 at The Jerk Pit, a Jamaican restaurant in College Park.

Dozens of family, friends and acquaintances came to support not only her, but her son Lou Holder, an anchor on Comcast Sportsnet Mid-Atlantic and communications professor at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, who helped arrange the event.

Former Washington Redskins linebacker and four-time Pro Bowl honoree Ken Harvey stopped by to purchase a book to share with his wife of Jamaican descent and their two sons.

“I think sometimes the wisdom of the past gets lost and we need to embrace it,” he said. “Sometimes what people say in the simplest form says a lot.”

The book is filled with humorous aphorisms such as the one for March 22: “Dem a batty an’ bench” translated to “they are buttocks and bench” that means “they are extremely close friends.”

The book also offers sincere advice such as a June 10 proverb: “Wen cowtail kut aff, Gad Almity brush fly” deciphered to “when a cow loses its tail, God brushes away flies.” The connotation: “God takes care of those in need.”

Saturday became a spiritual and emotional relief for Alison Panton, whose mother died of Alzheimer’s exactly one year to the day of the book signing.

“My mother and [Holder] were both pharmacists in Jamaica. She was one of the first people to send me money to help bury my mom,” said Panton, a Laurel resident. “This is a good distraction being here.”

Besides Holder signing books and taking pictures, she also gave brief history and geography lessons on how some dialects can be spoken on different parts of the island.

Holder hopes readers will laugh and learn about her Jamaican heritage, but also understand their own culture.

“[Holder’s father] used to always say, ‘there’s so much good in the worst of us, so much bad in the best of us. It behooves none of us to say anything about the rest of us,'” she said with her husband of 52 years, Neville Holder, standing nearby along with their twin daughters, Nadine Durham and Nicole Dugan. “Learn from others who have been there and you’ll understand what you have in life.”

Holder will be at the Jamaican Jerk Festival on June 18 at RFK Stadium in Southeast. To purchase a book, go to www.mypapausedtosay.com.

About William J. Ford – Washington Informer Staff Writer 252 Articles
I decided I wanted to become a better writer while attending Bowie State University and figured that writing for the school newspaper would help. I’m not sure how much it helped, but I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep on doing it, which I still thoroughly enjoy 20 years later. If I weren’t a journalist, I would coach youth basketball. Actually, I still play basketball, or at least try to play, once a week. My kryptonite is peanut butter. What makes me happy – seeing my son and two godchildren grow up. On the other hand, a bad call made by an official during a football or basketball game makes me throw up my hands and scream. Favorite foods include pancakes and scrambled eggs which I could eat 24-7. The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, or more accurately the most painful, was when I was hit by a car on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. If I had the power or money to change the world, I’d make sure everyone had three meals a day. And while I don’t have a motto or favorite quote, I continue to laugh which keeps me from driving myself crazy. You can reach me several ways: Twitter @jabariwill, Instagram will_iam.ford2281 or e-mail, wford@washingtoninformer.com