"One is Born, One Dies, The Land Increases"

This quote is on an interior dome at one entrance to the Hall of Man in Africa at the American Museum of Natural History, and has been since they put the hall up in the 1960s. I was an enormous fan of the AMNH, and used to go there all the time, so I frequently passed through this small room and looked up at that quotation, which is attributed to “Galla”. And wondered…

…what the hell does it mean? And who is Galla?

It bothered me that the AMNH never bothered to explain this, but acted as if everyone would know, or would figure it out. I have since learned, through experience, that this isn’t a good idea. Generally, it engenders not enlightened speculation but wild guessing and myth creation.

Fortunately, we now have the Internet, from which I learn that “Galla” isn’t a person, but the name of an Ethiopian people, now called the Oromo. In fact, “Galla” is now seen as a pejorative name for the Galla people, although it had at one time been a commonly-used name without any pejorative intent. (Times change, but the AMNH doesn’t. They still have Japanese imperial “sunrise” flags painted in the murals in the upstairs Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. )


As for the quote, looking it up on search engines reveal that it is also (less commonly) rendered “One is born, one dies, the land grows”. Most sites are content to simply quote it, without explanation. I find a few sites that claim it means “life goes on” – you know – one person is born, but somebody else dies. I’d kinda gathered that from my earliest readings. What confused me, and still does confuse me, is that last part – “…the land increases (or grows)”
Except for places like Surtsey, the land doesn’t increase or grow. “Buy land,” Will Rogers advised, “They ain’t makin’ any more of it.” Okay, maybe I’m too literal. Is it supposed to mean that the land increases in experience, or cumulative wealth, or something? Because, although the saying doesn’t say it, The Land Forgets, too. And It Loses Money, too. just what does it mean by “the Land”, and what does it mean by “Increases, or Grows”?

As it stands, it seems to me that it has the mock-profundity given by ambiguity.

A Google search returns a book listed on Google Books, “African American Psychology: From Africa to America”, by Faye Z. Belgrave, Kevin W. Allison. The author mentions this as an Ethiopian proverb, and states

For a literal interpretation within this context, I think it might be noting that when the individual dies, he returns to the soil.

ETA: There is also an essay for sale on this topic.

Sure it does. When somebody is buried, did you ever notice the mound of dirt on the grave? The land increases.

Yes indeed. Example: France is Bacon.

I don’t know the Oromos at all, but I’m reading this in the most cliché’d, metaphorical way possible: when someone dies, whatever he did in his lifetime doesn’t die with him. Ergo, the net sum of “one man is born, one man dies” is still positive, because the new man is born into a world that has everything it had before, plus the dead man’s contribution. The more you repeat that cycle, the more the land “grows”.

Unless the dead man is Hitler, which skews the stats a bit.