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Volume 14 No. 1 (1999)




by Joshua N. Kudadjie

The use of proverbs in preaching and teaching is being advocated as part of what is commonly referred to as inculturation, that is, finding ways of making the Christian message and teaching reach the hearts and minds of Africans. In this article the use of Ga and Dangme proverbs in preaching and teaching is discussed1


The Ga and Dangme live in the south-eastern corner of Ghana in a kind of triangle. The base of the triangle is formed by the Atlantic Ocean, stretching from Accra, the capital city of Ghana to Ada Foah in the east, at the estuary of the River Volta and the ocean. The Volta forms the right side of the triangle and runs south to north from Ada Foah to the Volta Lake at Akosombo, with the left side running down south along the Akwapim hills to Accra.

Christianity was introduced into Ga and Dangme land over one hundred years ago. It is estimated that some 55% of Ga and Dangme people are Christians. As in all traditional African societies, the Ga and Dangme use proverbs a lot. However, the extent of use of proverbs in preaching is very little, compared with their use in everyday life.


Ga and Dangme proverbs, like those of other African traditional societies are attributed to the ancestors. In many African societies, when a proverb is cited, it is preceded with a statement like, "So said the elders...." This may be a way of according proverbs authority. It is also a way of saying that all the people own the proverbs; also, that they contain experience, wisdom, and valid counsel which are to be acknowledged by all. Thus, the collective thought, beliefs, and values of an African people can be discerned from their proverbs.

Like all other proverbs the world over, they are usually short sayings, although there are a few long ones. They contain the experiences and wisdom of the people of old. But even today new proverbs are composed by those who are observant, experienced, thoughtful and creative. The experiences and wise advice contained in the proverbs are derived from observations made about the nature and behaviour of human beings, animals, birds, plants, and other natural as well as supernatural objects and beings. Some of the proverbs state facts from the history, customs and practices of the Ga and Dangme. Others express their philosophical thoughts, their religious beliefs, and their values.

A close look at Ga and Dangme, as at other African traditional proverbial sayings, shows clearly that the main concerns expressed in the proverbs relate to every aspect of human life. The ultimate purpose of the proverbs is to teach wisdom and moral lessons.

The proverbs contain observations and good counsel against undesirable vices like anger, backbiting, greed, ingratitude, laziness, lying, pride, procrastination, selfishness, stealing and so forth. Many other proverbs also praise and advise people to cultivate virtues that promote progress and ensure wellbeing; as for instance, circumspection, co-operation, gratitude, humility, patience, perseverance, prudence, respect and unity.

The statements made in the proverbs reflect everyday occurrences. They usually have two meanings: the literal or primary meaning, and the deeper or real meaning. The real meaning of African proverbs is not always apparent. This is precisely why they are called proverbs. For instance, the Akan, Dangme and Ga expressions for "to cite a proverb," bu ab, means "to bend," "curve," or "twist words," to make them complicated. Take, for example, the Ga proverb K onyi shwu s l owuuu b. (If you follow in the trail of an elephant, you do not get smeared with the dew.) The statement is literally true. The elephant is a very big animal, and as it goes through the forest stepping on the grass and destroying the shrubs, it gets smeared with the dew. Therefore, if you follow in its trail, you stand less risk of getting smeared with the dew, since the elephant has already cleared it off the grass and shrubs. But the proverb has a real or deeper meaning: if you associate with an important personality, a rich, knowledgeable, or powerful person, you will not lack. It can also be applied to mean that if you believe and trust in God, you will not be disappointed but will succeed.

Ga and Dangme proverbs share many other common features with those of other African societies. They can be used for several purposes, as for instance, the linguistic analysis of a particular language or dialect. Historical information as well as the thought, customs, beliefs and values of a society can also be obtained through their proverbs. Besides, the proverbs are a literary device used to embellish speech. This is because many of their idioms are embedded in the proverbs. As it were, the proverbs are used as sweeteners to communicate effectively. As one Ga writer put it, speaking without citing proverbs is like eating soup without salt.

Proverbs are cited to confirm, reinforce or modify a statement; or to heighten and attract attention to a point or message; or simply to summarize a speech. Sometimes, too, they are used to communicate a fact or opinion which it might be impolite or even offensive to state in direct speech or plain language. They are also used to make people appreciate speech, or to facilitate understanding and lead to conviction. As one Yoruba observation has it: "A proverb is the horse which can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas."

Although all these uses are important, they are, in fact, means to an end. The ultimate purpose of proverbs is to impart wisdom; teach good moral and social values; warn against foolish acts; provide a guide to good conduct; and to influence people's conduct, and help them to succeed in life.


The many positive features of African proverbs make them most invaluable and unavoidable as instruments of teaching. At this point in Africa's history when there are cries everywhere for moral and social reform, the use of proverbs in moral education is urgent. The Church which has always been interested in people living the morally good life, must use African proverbs even more earnestly, especially in preaching and teaching. Their use will help immensely to teach the truths of many Biblical themes and stories, and to affect the moral, social and spiritual lives of the people for the better; for when a proverb is used correctly, it speaks to the intellect, the soul and the heart - that is, to the understanding, the feelings and the will. Over the centuries, African proverbs have successfully done this. They can, thus, be used to great advantage in Christian preaching and teaching.

The use of African proverbs in African congregations has great advantages. The citing of relevant proverbs makes the audience interested, stay awake, and pay keen attention to the message. It also gets them involved by using their imagination. Thus, they understand the message better. Moreover, they enjoy the message, remember it, and see themselves agreeing with the truth being proclaimed. It is because of these advantages that our Lord Jesus himself used proverbial sayings frequently. And he succeeded in getting his hearers to understand and respond to his message--even if they did not always accept it.


An analysis of Dangme and Ga proverbs shows that certain themes regarding the successful life occur again and again. Different people may classify the themes differently. We have identified 15 major themes to be the most common ones. These are stated here, briefly, with selected examples of the proverbs that express them.

1. Making Right Use of Opportunity and Acting Appropriately
One should make maximum use of opportunity, avoid procrastination, refrain from what one cannot do, and do well what one can do.
(1) Kji onine sh Akle n l ogbe l nylo (Ga). (If you lay hands on the animal of your hunt, you do not allow it to escape but kill it right away.)
(2) Kuwi (ovn) ke n Mawu b l sibul he je e d si ng e nane n se si n ebuu (Dangme). (The frog says, since God created it to squat, it never stands on its legs but only squats.)
(3) K nu ts y t mli l eshaa (Ga). (If water keeps too long in a bottle, it goes bad.)

2. Cause and Effect, and Boomerang Reaction
People are to be careful how they behave, because certain consequences follow certain other acts, and whatever one does bounces back at one.
Examples: (1) Kaa f loofl (Ga). (A crab does not give birth to a bird.) (2) Apletsi ke e ng n ko tita n pu se e li kaa l nits e hlemi nya n e ng pu (Dangme). (The goat says it is messing up someone else's compound without realizing that it is soiling its own tail.)

3. Circumspection, Cautiousness and Discretion Life is full of dangers; therefore, one should be circumspect, cautious and discreet, in order to avoid pitfalls that so often bring unnecessary trouble and pain to the unwary.
(1) K odonti y odunaa l ohuruuu otkeee la (Ga). (If cotton wool is in your anus, you do not jump over fire.)
(2) Henkwm jeee yakagbm feem (Ga). (Being circumspect does not mean one is a good-for-nothing fellow.)
(3) Ke o y Nakony we mi , o be Nakony pa he fu nu (Dangme). (If you do not go to Nako-mother's house, you will not smell the foul smell of Nako-mother's sore.)

4. Co-operation and Community
No one can make it alone in life, and what affects one affects all; so people should live together in community and co-operate with one another.
Examples: (1) Nine kake nui ngmo (Dangme). (One hand (or finger) does not catch a louse.) (2) K oy ll mli l olo emli nu (Ga). (If you are in a canoe you (are obliged to) bail water out of it.)

5. Self-reliance and Individual Responsibility.
Notwithstanding the emphasis on co-operation, many Ga and Dangme proverbs stress the importance of individual responsibility and self-effort. One cannot expect others to do everything for you. Examples:
(1) M ko enuuu tsofa ehaaa helats (Ga). (No one drinks medicine on behalf of a sick person.) (2) Ahaaa m yoo ni aha l saa hu afata he (Ga). (No one gives away a daughter (to a man) in marriage and provides him with a bed besides.) (3) Apletsi ke e ny n a he, se pi l n a he (Dangme). (The goat says that it was its mother that was bought, not itself.)

6. On Virtues
Society is built on all kinds of commendable virtues. All must cultivate these, if society is to progress. Such virtues include: fortitude, generosity, hardwork, honesty, humility, patience, perseverance, self-effort and taking one step at a time.
Examples: (1) Kji okotsa ekw sh l, osiliki duku kplekeee (Ga). (If your soft sponge does not travel beyond the seas, you will hardly see your silk head kerchief coming down.) (2) "Aekoo" hi fe "S f." (Ga) (To be told "Well done" is better than "How was back?") (3) Kposu ke hesibami hu hi, se l ngua n tatu gbee l (Dangme). (The elephant says it is good to be humble, for huge as it is, a tiny ant kills it.)

7. On Vices
Vices destroy both individual and community life. Each person should eschew cultivating bad character traits and habits such as: greed or selfishness, hardheartedness, haste, hypocrisy, ingratitude, laziness, pretense, pride and treachery.
Examples: (1) Ak himii eny kw t mli (Ga), meaning, You do not look inside a bottle with both eyes. (2) Adaa dani akpaa (Ga); that is, One must grow up before one cackles (like a hen that is mature and about to lay eggs.) In other words, one must take one's time in life and be ripe for something before seeking to do it. (3) Ali n piani n a suu kane gbku k hy e h mi (Dangme). (You do not know a fellow during the day and light a lamp at night to identify him.)

8. The Value of Human Beings
No human being is entirely useless. Every individual is valuable and can fulfill himself or herself in some way. Therefore, people must treat each other with respect and look upon themselves with dignity.
(1) Gbm f hi fe sha folo (Ga). (A bad fellow is better than an empty house.) That is to say, it is far better to have a human being around than to have no one at all around, even if the person around is not a particularly good fellow. (2) Ms n nyu hu gbe la (Dangme). (Muddy water also can be used to put out fire.)

9. Contentment
It is wise not to indulge in greedy clamour for bigger things; instead, one must be content with small beginnings, and hold in high esteem, whatever is one's own.
(1) Bbyo hi nya mi n a kpaa anyagba (Dangme). (You do not whistle when there is a morsel in your mouth.) (2) Adam ekome no akane eny (Ga). (You depend on one to count two.) This proverb advocates contentment with small beginnings, while working gradually for the bigger things; it discourages hasty or greedy clamour for bigger things. (3) N ko je we e mu nine ng ts we e je bl (Dangme) and M ko k ebku ets etsmi awe (Ga). (No one uses his left hand to point to his fathers' home.) In Dangme and Ga culture, the left hand is associated with that which is dishonorable, contemptible and worthless.

10. Being Calm and Letting Things Take Their Natural Course
Life is full of vagaries, uncertainties and disappointments. Therefore, it pays to remain calm and trust nature to take its course, instead of seeking to have one's own way in everything. Those who desire to be able to cope with the ups and downs of life and live peaceful and victorious lives must be aware of such facts of life.
(1) Kji nu n l, ets enaamhe (Ga). (When it rains, the rainwater itself reveals safe spots.) (2) Ejurfeel l gbhe ew (Ga). (The generous, hospitable person often sleeps by the way side.) In other words, it is a fact of life that a good person is often treated unjustly; and one must learn to live with that fact.

11. Against Worrying or Being Too Certain About the Future
Since the future is unknown to human beings and can bring changes in one's fortunes, one should not be too certain about the way things will turn out; yet, one need not worry unduly.
(1) Anuuu nu atooo Aharabata (Ga). (One does not drink water in anticipation of Harmattan drought.) (2) Je ng se k nya (Dangme). (The world (or life) is backwards and forwards.)

12. Preparing for the Future
Although one may not be certain about the future--indeed, for that very reason--one should be forward-looking, and plan for the uncertain future!

(1) He waom hew ato waonaa y (Ga). (It is because of a future need to scratch oneself that one grows finger nails.) (2) Piani kuma he n a yaa pa mtu ng (Dangme). (It is because of afternoon thirst that you (have to) fetch water in the morning.)

13. Respect for Experience and the Elderly Past experience is invaluable for success in the present and future. Elderly people have a wealth of experience. Youth ought to respect and learn from them. To heed the advice of the elderly, is to find success and life; to ignore it, is to court failure and death. The current attitude and saying that 'the wisdom of Solomon has nothing to do with the age of Methuselah' is not the common view of African societies, and, for that matter, the Ga and Dangme.
(1) Blema kpaa n atsaa (Ga). (You (have to) pattern your rope according to the original (ancient) twist.) (2) Onukpa leee n ko l ele wdi w (Ga). (If an old person knows nothing at all, he knows how to slumber.) (3) Kpni tui hungm se bumi blema munyu (Dangme). (The beard does not tell the eyebrow ancient stories.); for before the beard grew, the eyebrow was!

14. Keeping Domestic Matters Private
Even though it is good to have a `we-feeling' and share things together, the wise person knows that there are matters that are better kept private. The value of discretion and secrecy is so important that at a child's adorning and naming ceremony on its eighth day, the child is exhorted, among many other things, to hear much and see a lot, but speak little.
(1) A wui jeme to kpa ng ma n (Dangme). (A goat belonging to an esoteric society is not tethered in the market place.) (2) Kuku n ha a kuku n n e laa ng (Dangme). (A rubbish heap knife must needs get lost in a rubbish heap.)

15. God's Providence and Care
Life in Dangme and Ga society is often harsh, and many a person experiences helplessness and hopelessness. But there is trust in God's providence and care. It is believed that the sovereign God (Nyingmo or Ataa Naa Nym) can overrule, and that if He allows someone to encounter a problem or be given some heavy responsibility, He also gives the grace and ability to bear or discharge it.

(1) K Nym tere bo jatsu l, ehaa bo tako (Ga). (When God gives you a load He also gives you a soft pad to carry it.) (2) Beni ahuko Lama ti an l ji aduji l ye nii (Ga). (Before Lama (i.e., a stony hilly area on the western boundary of Ga land) was cultivated the monkeys that lived there had food to eat.)
These expressions of trust in God may be said to be summarized in the Dangme proverb, Mmm t ngo bu mi. (The salty taste never ceases in a salt-pot.) One of the meanings of this proverb is that God's grace and mercy towards humankind never cease, for loving kindness is of the very essence of God.

Needless to say, the themes presented above do not represent all the themes that Ga-Dangme proverbs address. The fifteen themes stated above only represent the topics that occurred most frequently when Ga and Dangme proverbs were examined. It is possible to regroup them in other ways, and to include other themes that are not included here. Themes like the value of children, the dignity of womanhood, justice, peace, human free will, the inevitability of death, and many others occurred rather infrequently in the sample. But there can be no doubt that they and many others are important in Ga and Dangme society. The church, especially in Ga and Dangme areas, can and should, use these themes as basis for teaching authentic living in the communities.


In this section, we evaluate Dangme and Ga traditional values in the light of Biblical teaching. We shall also enumerate some important traditional values that should receive more attention than the church has given them.

1. What the Gospel Affirms
The Ga and Dangme call to make the right use of opportunity and act appropriately is affirmed in Biblical texts like the popular passage that there is a time for everything under the sun (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8); in Jesus' response to his mother at the wedding in Cana that his time had not yet come (John 2: 1-5); and in Paul's exhortation that believers should live not as ignorant people but like wise people, finding out what the Lord wants them to do and using every opportunity they have (Ephesians 5: 15-57; Colossians 4: 5-6).

Again, the teachings on cause and effect and boomerang reaction are echoed in the deuteronomic principle which runs through the Bible; namely, that if you obey the Lord, you will prosper; if you disobey, you will suffer. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 28.) The Bible teaches also that a person will reap exactly what he sows (Galatians 6: 7-10). Then, again, the theme of co-operation, inter-dependence and community is commanded in Romans 12: 3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31.

Quite apart from the fifteen themes discussed above, there are many other important values that are taught in Ga and Dangme proverbs which the Gospel affirms. The following are some examples:

Justice, Fairness and Impartiality are counselled in the Ga proverbs: K ok wi n l, ok shikp hu n. (If you speak in respect of heaven, you must say something about the earth, too.) The idea expressed here is essentially the same as the one expressed in Deuteronomy 16: 18-20 concerning the appointment of judges and administration of justice in Israel.

The Dangme realize the blessing that comes from the truth, as stated in their saying: Ankwale j ka tsui he. (Truth-telling cools down an angry heart.) The Bible also teaches that knowing the truth makes one free (John 8: 32) and speaking the truth to one another makes for harmony (Ephesians 4: 20-32).

The desire and counsel for peace and reconciliation is expressed in the Ga proverb: Aj, aj l, es b sane. (Peace, peace, brings no trouble in its wake.) Similar sentiments can be found in Matthew 5: 25-26 and Romans 12: 14-21 where people are advised to make peace and not seek litigation or revenge.

Knowledge and wisdom are not the monopoly of any one person. Therefore, the wise thing to do is to confer with others in order to benefit from their wisdom. This awareness is shown in the proverb: Yi kake y da mi (Dangme), or Yitso kome eyaaa ajina (Ga), meaning, One head does not sit in council. Proverbs 3: 7 and Romans 12: 16 advise people not to claim any special wisdom, and in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, Paul shows the limitation of human wisdom.

Human beings have certain God-given rights, among which are the freedom to express oneself and seek redress. The Ga say: Ayiii m ni atua l yaafo hu. (You do not beat a person and prevent him from crying), meaning, you do not trespass on someone's right and restrain him from complaining. Many Biblical injunctions and stories clearly state the principle that people have the right to complain and to seek redress for their grievances. Examples are the appointment of divisional judges (Exodus 18: 16-26) and of helpers in the church to settle disputes and distribute food and funds to the needy (Acts 6: 1-6).

In a Ga or Dangme household, parents and children have mutual rights and privileges as well as obligations and responsibilities. Parents are to provide for their children, bring them up and train them properly, while children are to obey and respect their parents, and look after them in their old age. Sayings such as the following two express these important Ga and Dangme traditions: Ak komi el bi. (You do not bring up a child on kenkey) a Ga staple food, meaning that training is more important than feeding. Bi ni nuuu nii l eyaa anuuu nii ma. (The child who does not listen or pay attention to advice goes to the 'they-don't-listen-town) that is, such a child experiences the undesirable. The Bible affirms these teachings: that parents are to train their children (e.g., Psalm 78: 5-8; Proverbs 22: 6; Ephesians 6: 4), and provide for the family (2 Timothy 5: 8); while children are to obey their parents, heed their wise insights (Proverbs 5: 1-14; Ephesians 6: 1-3), and take care of their aged parents (1 Timothy 5: 4).

2. What the Gospel Adds
As far as social and moral values are concerned, it may be difficult to find any entirely new value that the Gospel adds to those of the Ga and Dangme. What may seem new are really differences of degree rather than of kind. That is to say, they are corrections of, or improvements on, the indigenous values and ideas. Such examples will be discussed below under "What the Gospel Corrects or Replaces."
However, the Gospel has brought new ideas in religious and spiritual teachings. For example, while in the traditional African context, the sources of the proverbs are accepted to be the human composers, in the Bible, God is acknowledged to be the final source, at least of some, of the proverbs. (See Proverbs 1:1 and Ecclesiastes 12:11). Again, proverbial sayings have been used in the Bible in a new way to communicate the important message of God's gracious provision of salvation and eternal fellowship with himself through the sacrificial death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. Jesus used proverbial sayings to teach lessons about the Kingdom of God. Where people respond positively to the message, God gives them the power to become his children and to live out good lives. Thus, if, following the Biblical example, Ga and Dangme proverbs can be created (or existing ones modified) to tell the message of Christ, it will be an important addition to proverb use among the Ga and Dangme.

3. What the Gospel Corrects or Replaces
During his teaching, Jesus corrected and replaced some of the Old Testament teachings in important respects. (See e.g., Matthew 5: 17-48.) He did that, not to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets, but to make their teachings clearer. In the same way, the Gospel can be said to have corrected and replaced some of the values in Ga and Dangme proverbs. Following are examples.

Inferiority of Women
It seems natural that wherever people live together and relate to one another, some should take a leadership role and others a subordinate position. This is to ensure harmony and smooth running of their affairs. This arrangement is reflected in various proverbs and sayings. Sometimes, however, the arrangement is misunderstood. One such example, among the Ga and Dangme, is where women are treated as if they were inferior to men. The Bible has corrected this view by revealing that both men and women were created in the image of God (Genesis 1: 26-28), and that both have fallen and have been redeemed by Christ and made heirs of the Kingdom (1 Peter 3: 7). So before God, there is no difference between men and women (Galatians 3: 28). They are equal and must have mutual regard for each other (Ephesians 5: 21), while playing different roles that best suit their peculiar nature.

Selective Truth-telling
There is a Ga saying that: Ankwale ni jwaa maa awieee. (Truth that can destroy the town (community) is not (to be) told.) This suggestion that the truth should not always be spoken needs to be corrected and replaced with one that commands the truth in all circumstances. The Gospel teaches that we must no longer tell lies but rather always speak the truth to one another (Ephesians 4: 25-32) because truth makes us free.

Again, the tradition to respect the elderly and those who have distinguished themselves in society has come to mean discrimination against the less fortunate. So people such as the rich, elderly and political leaders are unduly favoured, as these Dangme proverbs show: Adowa se mi p. (The antelope's back does not get wet), meaning the evils of an elder or important personality do not easily leak out. Also: Bl he ngmhul hu we ngm kpkp. (One who farms by the path does not keep a crooked farm), which means that a wealthy person is never guilty. While the Bible supports respect for the elderly and the noble (see e.g., 1 Timothy 5: 1-2 and 1 Peter 2: 17), it disapproves of discrimination and favouritism. Instead, the Gospel teaches fair, just and equal treatment for all (Acts 10: 34; James 2: 1-13).

The Ga proverb, Ofi yitso mli kpaaa la (There is always blood in the head of a tsetse fly) and the like, were meant to caution people when dealing with a person known to have done some evil. Unfortunately, this caution has been taken to suggest that people can never change from bad to good: once bad, always bad! But the Gospel has shown this view to be mistaken; for when anyone is joined to Christ, he is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5: 17).

As has been shown above, there is much that the Bible affirms in Ga and Dangme beliefs and values. These must be firmly preserved. But the Bible also corrects and replaces some of the values, as we have shown. In traditional society itself, proverbs are changed to suit new situations. In much the same way, the values and beliefs they contain ought to be changed, where new light and understanding shows them to be incorrect; there is no need to hold on to them rigidly. This search for renewal is one of the most beneficial tasks the church in Africa can perform for the progress of society.

4. Values which Local Proverbs add to Biblical Emphases
It may not be possible to find positive values in Ga and Dangme proverbs which are entirely absent in the Bible. However, there are a number of values that are of special relevance to African societies which the Church in Africa must emphasize more than it is doing at present. This is necessary for two main reasons: (1) In some cases, the Bible does not lay as much emphasis on the values as in traditional African society. (2) Owing to the strong influence of non-African cultures, especially European culture, and other factors on African societies, these values - important as they are for keeping up the society - are getting lost; thus, causing break-down in African societies.

We draw attention to the following, and suggest that churches add to them, and find effective ways of protecting them.

  • Marriage: its seriousness and permanence;
  • The family: its closeness and strength;
  • Human community and fellowship rather than individualism: the tradition that all are their brother/sister's keeper;
  • Respect for the elderly, authority and procedure;
  • The reality of the world of the spirit: the mistake and failure of the view that only material things are real or matter;
  • Dependence on the supernatural: hence, e.g., knowing how to appropriate the power of the Holy Spirit in one's life; and
  • Need for development of the whole person: body, mind and spirit.

    As stated in the Introduction, much progress has been made in the effort to make Christianity part of the African's way of life. But much still remains to be done. The African Proverbs Project (1993-96) is making an important contribution to the effort of making the Christian message take deep root in the African soil. It is our prayer and hope that the African church will meet the spiritual, intellectual, moral and emotional needs of Africans, through the use of the rich store of African proverbs.

    NOTES 1. The bulk of the material in this article is from the manuscript of the author's book in progress, Ga and Dangme Proverbs for Preaching and Teaching, to be published under the African Proverbs Project 1993-1996.

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