One of the most precious aspects of African culture, which is undergoing a slow but a sure death are the proverbs. From the Latin, Proverbium, (pro and verbum), which means a word put forth; a proverb is a saying meant to give an advice or a warning. As it is rendered in Acholi, ‘lok abola’, a word that is thrown, a challenge and the Luganda, ‘lugero’, a measure, it is a word given and meant to be a norm, a yardstick for understanding and good behaviour. One of the reasons why African proverbs are going out of use is the fact that some of the situations in which they were composed are no longer in existence.
Proverbs which refer to hunting, bark cloth making, pottery, fishing, etc cannot be understood by this generation because it no longer practices such professions. Even those few who still practice them have forgotten the original vocabulary connected to them. Moreover, the fact that they are now practiced for the single purpose of making money has eclipsed the wisdom and commitment that used to animate their practice. Some proverbs are taken on face value, a fact that impoverishes them greatly.
Others have been misunderstood because the real meaning of the words used is no longer known. An example is this: ‘Eyasuze obubi omulabira ku makeera!’ The translation is not: the one who had a bad night is seen on the way he gets up. It is: the one who slept hungry is seen by the way he treats the offal of an edible rat or grass cutter (amakeera).
The offal of a grass cutter is edible but it is not delicious. If you see someone busy preparing it for eating in the morning, it means he is very hungry. This proverb means that where there is urgent need, there is no choice. It is also a moral lesson: take a good look at what your neighbour is doing; he may be in trouble!
There is a difference between a wise saying and a proverb. A wise saying can be taken literally while a proverb is metaphoric and taking it on face value means missing the point. When you say: ‘Muzuga nyolo kitte in Alur’, (a funny looking goat produces its kind), you are not speaking about goats, it is people you are speaking about: like the father, like the son. Behaviour, virtue or vice can be hereditary. Proverbs come from a very keen observance of society and nature.
The terms of reference are taken mainly from these two. The moon shines like the sun but the signs of night time are always there. This proverb speaks about people like co-wives, traditional enemies whose relationship cannot be perfectly cordial despite what the eye sees.
Proverbs are rhythmic, either in words or in meaning. “Asiyesikia la mkuu, huvunjika guu”. Lit. The one who does not take advice from an elder breaks his leg. This is a Swahili wise saying which can be taken as a proverb since “breaking one’s leg just means trouble. “Mkuu and guu rhyme” in sound. “Asiyefunzwa na mamaye hufunzwa na ulimwengu”. Lit. One who is not taught by one’s mother, is taught by the world. Here the rhyme is in meaning. The mother teaches but the world teaches too; a painful experience is a teaching.
Some wise sayings are very realistic: “Min nyeko pe meni” (A step mother is not your mother!). In polygamous societies where broken marriages often put children in the hands of stepmothers, a good wife is one who loves children she did not give birth to and a good son/ daughter is one who is obedient to the stepmother. This proverb is a precaution, a warning that things are not always as they should be.
Proverbs are philosophical: they reveal the way things are in reality. “Omukazi murungi tebijwaro” in Runyankore/Rukiga (the beauty/goodness of a woman is not in clothes). It is not clothes that make up the beauty of a woman. Appearance can deceive, one is advised not to be taken up by what things appear to be, a deeper gaze is necessary. There are things, which appeal to the senses yet they are not real.
Proverbs have authors who coined them but they did not sign their work. They are a cultural heritage of a whole tribe, they came from ancestors. Indeed, proverbs and wise sayings are a teaching from the ancestors about life. The evils of our society today are a sign that because of the neglect of the teaching of our elders, the ancestors, our leg is already being broken.
By Fr. Edward Kanyike MCCJ