As Africans, we strongly believe in the fewer people know about something, the more likely it is meant to happen. I have been around many people in my lifetime, and I believe very few if none will wholeheartedly share a piece of upcoming good news with you unless it has happened. Most of us grew up with parents or grandparents telling us to …shh… exciting news just because walls are either thin or have ears. We’ve also seen celebrities and non-celebrities keep pregnancies quiet until safe delivery, people keeping traveling date or visa appointments quiet until everything goes accordingly, social media influencers keeping a project or their re-branding quiet until completed.
The idiom is said to emanate from Greek mythology About a tyrant ruler of Syracuse (400-367 B.C.) called Dionysus, he constructed an ear-shaped cave so as he could hear what people were saying in other rooms. Over the years the idea of such listening post spread out to other empires. In several places, the saying may vary in meaning and depth from one community to another when it is translated into their native language.
Examples; Wolof: Maraj yi den am norpa
Lingala: Malembe ba voisins bakoyoka or Mur ezalaka na matoyi
French: Les murailles ont des oreilles
Italian: I muri hanno orecchi
German: Wände haben Ohren
Turkish: Yerin kulaği vardir (The ground has ears)
Japanese: 壁に耳あり障子に目あり (walls have ears, sliding doors have eyes)
You could say that, it has gradually become the unspoken rule that everyone seems to know about regardless of their origins or geographical location. This way of life and the expression itself seems to exist in every culture with slight variations. For instance in the architecture faculty, students often work in groups several days before the jury (it’s an internal evaluation event of student’s work that are critiqued and graded after the presentation), however most of them keep their wild cards close to their chest – these are the finishing touches or the little details that set one’s work apart from the rest, which are left out until the day before or hours to their presentation.
But at this time, I can also recall having a conversation with a colleague I’d known for years but only got close to like a month before our conversation due to group work. He was explaining his intentions of starting a solo career and how he intends to become a household name. Mind you he isn’t African, as a good listener, I gave him the required attention, I even threw in some ideas and suggestions here and there which he appreciated genuinely. His excitement and ambitious views were so inspiring at the same time entertaining. I know of many people that would not in a million years share such plans, but he did with the purest of intentions. I guess people are “wired” differently.
I later proceeded to ask another person the following to be sure this culture is not particular to a certain group of people.
“Supposed you were lobbying for a multimillion dollars project, who will you tell?”
“I won’t tell a single soul… what do you expect? They will jinx it, and the contract will go to someone else”
That answer didn’t even surprise me at this point as I was expecting something along those lines. What about you, what variation of walls have ears does your community have? What’s the meaning or myth behind it?