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#12 - West African Proverb: If You Think You're Too Small to Make A Difference, Try Spending The Night In A Closed Room With A Mosquito.
Reflections on the power of each one to make a difference.
Proverbs on Blast is a newsletter that publishes reflection on PROVERBS from around the world and the gems they offer for personal and professional growth. Posts are written by a learner on a quest for more wisdom (me). Please keep reading. Comment at the end. Share this post. Subscribe for more.
It’s the 51st week of the year and we’re smack dab in the Christmas season. In many parts of the world where this holiday is a big deal, it’s cold, and snowy, and starry. The nights are longer and indoor activities are more rampant. Hall lights twinkle and tree lights sparkle. Log crackle in fireplaces and joyous laughter ring out from excited kids at the numerous activities that mark the holidays. This is the case in the US, where people started putting up trees and decked their halls with boughs of holly right after thanksgiving. Rolling out the heavy jackets and sweaters, people have been enjoying the crispy air while whistling and dreaming of a white Christmas. And as holiday plans heat up, many are looking forward to fulfilling their promise of “I’ll be home for Christmas.” So, whether people say “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” where you are, it’s the season to be jolly, to deck the halls, and to join or duck from others dashing through the snow, if it falls in your location.
The frantic celebratory pace of the season makes a West African proverb seem fitting for this time. It’s one that I heard a lot while growing up and has been popularized by the Dalai Lama. I’ve wondered about his frame of reference; did he experience what the proverb describes or did someone tell it to him? I also wondered the same about a dear friend who sent the proverb to me a few weeks ago as a treasured find. His text made me decide to reflect more on its message. And it made me chuckle as I wondered if he also shared the proverb based on a personal experience. The proverb states that “if you think you’re too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a closed room with a mosquito.”
The power of a lone mosquito in a closed room is personal for anyone who’s spent an extended period of time in Africa. Or in other parts of the world where the climate is conducive for mosquito presence and activities. Three questions shaped my reflection on this proverb:
Why was the mosquito made the central character?
Is the proverb applicable to everyone or to just a group of people?
What relevance does this proverb have at this important season of the year?
The central character is the most striking part of the proverb, hence a need to explore it first. Let’s start with some of its features.
The mosquito is one of the smallest but considered the most dangerous specie of life. Hippos get a bad rep for being responsible for around 500 human deaths a year. Tigers, bears, crocodiles, and lions also kill in the hundreds and are denigrated for it. However, all of them combined are no match for the tiny rascally flies called mosquitoes that get away with killing an estimated 700,000 humans a year. They are vectors of deadly viruses that cause diseases like malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, Zika, West Nile, and encephalitis. Just one mosquito is enough to rob others of sleep, and even their lives. No one is safe around mosquitoes, not humans, not animals. Grrrhhhh!
Mosquitoes thrive in air temperatures that are 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) and above. They are at their best when the temperature is between 15–25 degrees Celsius (60–80 degrees Fahrenheit). Out of curiosity, I once compared the modus operandi of the mosquitoes in West Africa with those in the eastern and southern regions of the continent. My conclusion then and now is that the mosquitoes in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and other parts of warm and humid tropical west Africa are a special breed. The climate allows them to thrive and be active throughout the year. From personal experience, it appears as though the mosquitoes sleep the morning away, then go to the gym in the afternoons for gymnastics and boxing practice. Thereafter they go home to rest a while and prep for their nocturnal hunt for the blood of unsuspecting or careless humans. In the evening, they then march out in full combat mode, ready for all-out war through the night.
Most African houses have netting on the windows, called ‘mosquito nets.’ These help keep the flies out in the day and the mosquitoes out at night. In addition, every child in West Africa knows that dusk, around 6.30 pm, is mosquito o’clock. You hear and see them swarming around, charged, and thirsty for blood. From a young age, you learn to relocate activities indoors from around that time. You learn to keep the doors closed, leaving no crack for the rascals to slip through into the house. The best efforts rarely yield total success, and the west African mosquitoes almost always manage to find their way in. They show up in people’s homes in nude leotards with boxing gloves and straws.
Once in, the mosquitoes whizz around at top speed, achieving their aim of annoying you while flitting effortlessly beyond reach. Their whizzing singsong spells disaster, especially in the dead of the night when everywhere is quiet. You hear one of them in a room with you and you know to kiss any chance of sleep or decent rest goodbye. Should you drown out their sound and succumb to weariness, they will rouse you with their piercing bites. Your captive pores are to them the gateway to the blood supply they must feed on to live. Thus, they land, armed with straws and a ferocious appetite, ready to pierce the skin and suck away with delight till they’ve had their fill, or they’re stopped.
I have had malaria before, and it wasn’t funny. I know people who have died or lost loved ones because of the bite of just one mosquito. Organizations lose more manpower hours annually in Africa to the tiny troublers than to any other source. Mosquitoes are the deadliest terrorists, the most insidious murderers, and the most underrated robbers of time, strength, and health. And they don’t even stop with humans. They go after animals with equal relish, transmitting whatever pathogen they pick up from one victim to another. Just one mosquito is capable of inflicting lasting damage to any human or animal it lands on undisturbed. Thank goodness their life cycle is a short 2 weeks to 6 months!
However, the summary description of the mosquito and what it does in this proverb is merely an illustration of its core message, used for a particular purpose. Which leads to the second question that guides this reflection: who is this proverb for?
Proverb’s Applicability: To All or A Few?
The proverb considered the disreputable, destructive capabilities of the mosquito and suggests a reframing. In the first half, it clarifies that its message is focused on those who think they’re too small to make a difference. Those who think they are too powerless or feeble or inconsequential or insignificant to make a difference. The ones who slink away when there’s a need to get involved in an activity because they’re fearful that they don’t have what it takes to contribute anything meaningful. The proverb speaks directly to those who shrink in their seats rather than raise their hands to share their idea or suggestion because they think it’s not yet fully formed. You know who you are. You know how much your heart tells you to stay quiet, stay out of sight, and stay out of the range of being asked to do something because you’re too small to make a difference.
There are not many things smaller than a mosquito. This proverb specifies that its focus is not on a swarm of them, but on just one and what it can do. You know, kind of like you being one person. The proverb alludes to three things that are important when seeking to make a difference.
size, knowing that the smallest human is still several times bigger than the biggest mosquito.
space, knowing that a room is infinitesimally small compared to the world where many long to make a difference.
sealing, knowing that making a difference can easily be framed only in the context of wide, open spaces that are not closed.
However, if a tiny mosquito in the sealed small space of a closed room can get your attention and keep you awake at night, how big do you need to be to make a difference? In terms of physical size, must you be a heavyset six-footer? In terms of intellectual size, must you have a PhD to make a difference? To make the kind of impact that you desire, how much legitimate power do you need versus using the expert or referent power you already have? If a tiny mosquito can keep you up at night, must you at the size of Simone Biles become the size of Shaq O’Neal or LeBron James to make a difference? Try spending the night in a closed room with just one tiny mosquito to rethink your position.
Secondly, how much space do you need to make a difference? In your organization, must you have the corner office, or can your impact be felt from a cubicle or even no office space at all? Do you need to be the one living in the biggest mansion in town to make a difference? A mosquito does not need to bother with more than one person in a multi-roomed house. It just needs to focus on that one room and get its fill from the one or more people in there. No one would knowingly let it in, yet it manages to slip into spaces where it seeks food. No one will willingly let it feed, but it manages to do so against all odds. Still think you need a large space before you can make a difference in the world? Try spending the night in a closed room with just one tiny mosquito to rethink your position.
Thirdly, in a world where impact has largely become synonymous with going viral online, how much of an open space do you really need to make a difference? The mosquito makes itself known in a closed room. You know it’s there because you hear and feel it. Think you still need a space in an open stadium or a huge shopping mall to make a difference? Think you need to focus on everyone in the whole world before you can make a difference in the world? Do you think your name has to be splashed on a billboard, cable network or the www of the world wide web or the whole wide world to make a difference? If the mosquito can make you feel its presence or impact in a closed room whether it lands on you or not, how much of an open space do you really need to make a difference in the world with your gifts, talents, and characteristics? Again, try spending the night in a closed room with just one tiny mosquito to rethink your position.
So, this proverb is applicable to you if you have lived your life or just a portion of this year thinking that you’re not big enough, or do not have a big enough space or waiting for a space that’s open enough to make a difference. Can the mosquito change its size? Can it make itself more attractive that humans will roll out the red carpet for it whenever it’s mosquito o’clock?
As you think about the mosquito for answers to the question of whether you can make a difference in the world, the third question that guided this reflection offers some insights. It’s the question of what relevance does this proverb have at this important season of the year? The exploration of the question delves beyond the realm of mosquitoes to that of humans who understood the power of one person to make a difference. What better time than now to focus on one of those examples?
The Proverb and This Season
Five days from now, the whole world will pause to acknowledge one of the most important days of the calendar year—December 25. The religious event associated with the date is significant for the more than 2 billion people who are adherents of the religion and those who simply enjoy the glitz and glamor of its consumerized trappings. For those who do not care one way or the other, many still have to acknowledge it somewhat as business activities are limited for the day. The glitter and tinsel of the season have been out in full view for several weeks now. But what about the day—Christmas?
Christmas came about because of a middle eastern man who was born in interesting circumstances. His parents were poor peasants whose sustenance depended on finding daily work. Yet, when a heavy cloud of scandalous suspicion hung over his conception, his parents were likely shamed and shunned from finding work or retaining close contact with respectable community throughout his gestation. In more ways than one, things were rough for him from the start.
His arrival to the world was no less dramatic and spurred the male infanticide of the boys he should have had playdates with. To survive, his family had to flee in self-exile to another country till the tyrant king that ordered a mass killing spree of infant boys like him died. They returned to their country, still poor with no sign of specialness about him. He was derisively acknowledged as the carpenter’s son, considered not worthy enough for recognition or the respect of the educated and elite high society of his time. His actions, which evidenced that he was capable of so much more than he was given credit for, were explained away by those who looked down on him as a combination of a con man, lunatic or demon. And his choice of associations did not help matters. He was often in the company of the least, the little, the lost, and the last of those from the communities around him.
This man lived to be 33.5 years old, short by the reckoning of a human life cycle. He never traveled beyond 200 miles from either the tiny village where he was born or the infamous one where he grew up. He was not a writer, politician, or pundit. Without a bullhorn or pulpit, he often had to retreat from crowds who traveled from far away to throng him at all hours of the day and night. Unlike the mosquito, he touched hearts and lives with healing and hope, rescued them from diseases and charging them to tell no one. He did not covet a viral platform nor need a recognized position of authority. His deeds commanded attention, including by those who disdained him. Looking back, we can divide his life into 11 parts of 3 years each. The first 10 parts were spent trying to live, keep his head down, and prep for the fulfillment of his life’s purpose. The last part of 3.5 years of his life were spent fulfilling his purpose. So significant was the life of this poor, homeless man that his words and actions are still pored over by the most educated and sophisticated today.
His name was Christ. His name is Christ. He had 12 disciples then but those who profess belief in him as at 2020 number 2.4 billion people. History bears record of the infamous name of the king who wanted him dead shortly after birth with not much dedicated to him. We still read about the ring leaders of those who scorned him, the disciple who betrayed him, the high priest who oversaw his trial and conviction, the ruler who sentenced him, and many others who played prominent roles in being for and against him. Whether you have faith in the supernatural or not, and whoever you choose to believe, Christmas is a fixed holiday every year. It impacts more than just Christians, even if that only means that certain places are not open or come people are not available on that day. Many Christians view it as not just a holiday, but a holy season of advent. It’s the reminder that someone came to earth, lived a short, purposeful life, died, and rose again to still live. Christmas is a big deal, because of that one person—Christ.
In human terms, Christ’s life was short but impactful. Similar to the mosquito’s, which is also short but impactful. Distance and space were no barrier to Christ’s activity or impact. Similar to the mosquito’s. Distance and space need not be a limitation to the difference you can make with your life.
Like the tiny mosquito, you really can make a difference. Unlike the mosquito, the difference you make can be positive without inflicting pain or being a vector of illnesses. You know when a mosquito is around through their sound and their bite. History tells us that two ways people knew when Christ was around were through his words and his touch. You also have both. What can you do with your mouth and your hands? How can you touch the world with your words and your hands—whether it is by speaking, teaching, singing, writing, creating things, etc.?
Through this proverb, you can learn or be reminded of the message that there is considerable power in one person to make a difference. All it takes is to spend a night in a closed room with a mosquito. You can also learn it from the one short life that about a third of the world celebrate at this time. Who feels your impact when you share their space?
Many organizations are splurging on some sort of celebration. Communities are hosting numerous activities. Schools and churches are agog with plays, inspiration, communal singing, and food. The stores lure with cheery décor, seasonal products, and massive sales. The radio stations blare with Christmas music. Because of that one short but impactful life.
Two weeks from now, we’ll be filling in a new year when we write dates. However you have spent this year, reflect on the tremendous power you have to make a difference in the new year. You are enough to start making a difference. Grow in that knowledge and expand your skills and influence to keep doing more. And if you still struggle to think that you can, so that you’re paralyzed by fear or inaction to even start, try spending the night in a closed room with a mosquito to rethink your position.
Merry Christmas and may the reason for the season inspire you to be the difference in whatever closed room that is your world.
Were you able to make a difference this year? If you had to overcome feeling small or being told you were too small to make a difference, how did you? Share your steps to inspire and teach us.
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