This website emerges from an array of contributors over many years, giving evidence to the proverb, Mkono mmoja haubebi mtoto, “One hand alone cannot carry a baby.”
The proverb collection began with the work of Albert Scheven who published his first collection of Swahili proverbs as Swahili Proverbs: Nia zikiwa moja, kilicho mbali huja with University Press of America, 1981. Albert Scheven continued to build on his collection of proverbs through the 1990s, demonstrating his love of words, wisdom, and his interest with the Swahili language. His proverb collection grew to 4860 entries, available under website’s “Listing” heading. His list is more extensive, in fact, as many entries include related proverbs referenced entries.
Added to Albert’s listing of proverbs is cultural information and pedagogical tools for teachers and students. Dr. Peter Otiato Ojiambo brought his talents to these sections – suggesting proverbs that could be taught in the classroom and supplementing these listings with audio materials. He also authored the sections on kangas, providing the cultural context in which proverbs are commonly seen in East African countries.
As background to Albert Scheven’s work, we provide his own description of his work, as follows:
The collection of Swahili proverbs featured on this website had its origin in 1973, when Dr. Victor Uchendu, then director of African studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign saw the need to provide the ever-growing number of Swahili students at the University with an interesting selection of proverbs to enrich their language learning. He asked the three instructors then teaching Swahili to undertake this project: Mohammad I. Abasheikh, Fred Kanali, and myself; and provided a small grant to initiate the work. After a good start, and substantial contributions from all, student pressures forced the first two to withdraw, and I was left to finish what was originally conceived of as a modest undertaking. Eventually it developed to its present format: a comprehensive compilation of all Swahili proverbs found in the published sources of all languages, but directed to those who know English.
As can be seen from the list of sources, there certainly is no dearth of printed proverb collections, and one may well ask why the need for one more when so many already exist.
First, it became clear as soon as I examined more than one source, that there are fascinating differences, in form, interpretation and understanding, and it would be useful to show these versions side by side – which until now had not been done.
Also, some books are out of print (Taylor, for one); other collections have been published in specialized journals or dictionaries which are not readily available to the general public (Sacleux, e.g.). Some have been written in French or German, or entirely in Swahili. Then, even the excellent collection of Farsi is very sparse in its explanations for those whose native tongue is not Swahili.
Proverbs are one of the most precious cultural heritages of a people. In the West there have been times when the popularity of proverbs has risen – and fallen. For example, in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, proverbs were so much in vogue that they were used to excess. And following this period, there was a time when the use of proverbs was considered vulgar and showing a lack of originality in thinking and expression.
Whatever the popularity of proverbs in society, it must be remembered that there is a substantial difference between the knowledge of proverbs and their use in speech. A person may be loath to utter a proverb in public, but his conduct must show that he understands it in order to follow its wisdom: “Who does not heed proverbs will not avoid mistakes.” (Turkish)
In many African societies proverbs were the main source of instruction for children and youth. They contained guidelines and principles of behavior towards God, ancestors, neighbors, and themselves. This education is still actively conducted in schools, where proverbs are studied for their linguistic and social importance. African authors almost go out of their way to use proverbs in their writings. A guide to health in Zaire includes a short section of Yombe and other proverbs related to health and its protection. John C. Messenger explains the elaborate usage of proverbs in the judicial system of the Anang (Southern Nigeria):
During a case in which a chronic thief was accused of robbery, the plaintiff aroused considerable antagonism toward the defendant early in the trial by employing the following proverb: “If a dog plucks palm fruits from a cluster, he does not fear a porcupine.” A cluster from the oil palm tree contains numerous sharp needles that make handling it extremely hazardous, therefore a dog known to pick palm fruits would be unafraid to touch a porcupine. The maxim implies that the accused is the logical suspect since he was a known thief and lived close to the person who was robbed, and many in the audience regarded the trial a mere formality. His guilt came to appear doubtful, however, in the light of evidence produced during the proceedings, and just before the Ekpe Ikpe (justices) were to retire in presented an adage that was instrumental in gaining his acquittal: “A single partridge flying through the bush leaves no path.” Partridges usually travel close to the ground in coveys and can be followed by the trail of bent and broken grass they leave behind. In using this proverb the accused likened himself to a single bird without sympathizers to lend him support, and called upon the tribunal to disregard the sentiments of those in attendance and to overlook his past misdemeanors and judge the case as objectively as possible.
And so, even today, proverbs remain a valuable means of contributing to a person’s development within a particular community.
At the same time, in Tanzania (and other East African countries), with its hundred different languages, the danger of losing this cultural heritage has been especially recognized. While more and more Tanzanians are being educated in, and using, Swahili, some fear that many of the other languages may disappear. There have been some recent attempts to address this situation, particularly by translating into Swahili proverbs from a number of ethnic groups (Chagga, Kerewe, Meru, Pare, Gogo, Haya, Ganda, Gikuyu, Kwere, Fipa, Nyakyusa, Bena, Nguu, Sambaa, Zigua, Ha, Sukuma, Iraqw, Masai). These publications have the admirable aim of preserving the collective wisdom of the several peoples for the whole of the nation. I sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of a major effort to collect and translate the thousands of proverbs very much alive among the different peoples of East Africa, before it is too late.
Finally, there is the objection that “Proverbial wisdom is exactly the same all over the world, differing only in rendering. Men are all made of the same paste.” Thus:
Too many cooks spoil the broth. (Japanese)
Two captains sink the ship. (Persian)
Two midwives will deliver a baby with a crooked head. (Iranian)
With seven nurses, the child goes blind. (Russian)
With too many roosters crowing the sun never comes up. (Italian)
However, there remains an interesting difference in interpretation, which rests with the specific situation as well as the particular culture. For example:
The rich do not feel their wealth as a burden. (Giryama)
A man won’t admit a failure of his own idea. (Zulu)
A man is capable of bearing his own troubles. (Xhosa)
A man is not borne down by his own responsibilities – family, money, or troubles. (Thonga)
This point is made very clear by Carolyn Anne Parker Duck:
… if one interprets a proverb that occurs cross-culturally, he may be misled… Consider for example the proverb… Iwapo nia, kuna njia, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” – which also occurs in English. To assume that the proverb means the same in both cultures is frivolous… The difference between the two proverbs – the English and the Swahili (for there are two proverbs here even though the texts may be the same in English) – is clarified by the cultural contexts. An American uses the proverb positively, to encourage anyone who seeks a goal while he is seeking it. A Swahili, on the other hand, would use the proverb after the fact to criticize a person’s failure to accomplish some goal. The cultural meaning of the Swahili proverb, then, is that one fails to do something only because he does not want to: where there is a will, there is a way; where there is no will, there is no way.
What is a proverb? Many have tried to define proverbs and found it an impossible task. A familiar definition, “a common and pithy expression which embodies some moral precept or admitted truth,” forced many paroemiographers to change the title of their books. More important than the linguists’ definition is to see what a proverb is in the eyes of the common man. A few examples:
A proverb is the horse of conversation. (Yoruba)
Proverbs are the daughters of experience (Sierra Leone)
A wise man who knows proverbs reconciles difficulties. (Yoruba)
A proverb is the voice of God. (Spanish, Latin, Japanese)
A proverb is to speech what salt is to food. (Arabic)
A proverb is an ornament to language. (Persian)
The proverb is the leaf they use to eat the word. (Ibo)
Proverbs are the affairs of the nation. (Kongo)
The wit of one man, the wisdom of many (English)
The more this work proceeded, the more I wanted others to enjoy this tremendous source of wisdom and information as much as I. Thus, I have given this book the subtitle “Nia zikiwa moja, kilicho mbali huja;” When minds are one, what is far comes near.
The meaning is that when people work together, difficult things become possible. But I also see its meaning extended to: Whenever people care to know about others, even far away people come close in understanding and appreciation, love and cooperation.
I sincerely hope that this new collection of proverbs will be instrumental, in some slight way, in helping towards understanding the beautiful people of East Africa, and indeed of all of Africa.
Finally, knowing all too well the many imperfections the reader will find in these pages, I welcome any criticisms and references to different versions, variations, parodies, and “new” proverbs.