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Volume 14 No. 1 (1999)





by Muchugu Kiiru

The statement: Navels never disappear completely, encapsulates an obvious truth whose universal validity is incontestable. The above statement is a proverb and as a wise saying, emanates from man's experiences in his environment. It is a cultural product and as much as it is an expression of a general truth, it is also culture-bound. Proverbs are culture-bound because they have roots in an environment, and things that they refer to are found in that environment. The basis of the proverb: Great oaks from little acorns grow can, if what we are saying is valid, be found in an environment where oaks abound. The references by proverbs to things found in an environment help to make proverbs easily comprehensible.

In spite of their local flavour or topicality, however, proverbs usually are essentially expressions of universal and general truths. That is why we can talk about proverbs as being culture-bound and at the same time as universal statements. And depending on the validity and depth of the truth it contains, a proverb can have such a long life that it becomes impossible to try to say when it came into existence. At the same time, however, proverbs are also dynamic in that as society changes, new proverbs appropriate to the new situation are created or borrowed from other cultures.

In their application also, proverbs are not necessarily tied down to the community that first produced them. Thus, one does not have to belong to a game-keeping culture to understand the Yoruba proverb: An old poacher makes the best gamekeeper, or to a bull-rearing culture to understand another Yoruba proverb: It is through his intelligence that an old man runs away from a bull.

As it can be seen from these examples, a proverb is usually a short and highly condensed saying, which is generally anonymous in its authorship and authoritative in its application. Brevity is, therefore, one characteristic of a proverb, and this brevity helps to make proverbs memorable, that is, easy to learn and retain in memory.

Some proverbs are musical, as is shown by the following Kiswahili proverbs: 1. Hauchi hauchi, unakucha. (It does not, does not dawn. It dawns.) 2. Msafiri kafiri. (A traveller is as bad as an unbeliever ([in the Islamic faith].) This characteristic facilitates their effortless retention in the memory.

In addition to their brevity and occasional musicality, proverbs are potent sayings which offer moral advice since they express what are perceived as homely truths. Never choose your women or your linen in the candle light, is one such homely truth.

As potent sayings, proverbs are pregnant with meaning. Navels never disappear completely, for instance, embodies a deeper meaning than the observation that we associate with a navel as an anatomical phenomenon. At a deeper level, we are told, this proverb offers advice to young men in search of wives. The deep meaning that we associate with a proverb can also be multiple, that is, a proverb can yield more than one meaning. Indeed, it can yield contradictory meanings. A creaking door hangs the longest, could be an expression of either comfort for, or impatience of the bedridden.

In spite of, and perhaps, because of the multiple (and at times contradictory) meanings attached to some proverbs, they are generally seen as embodiments and distillations of time-tested experiences, general truths, ancestral wisdom. Consequently, they are treasured as granaries of distilled wisdom, knowledge and truth, and are revered as authoritative codes of appropriate human behaviour.

The use of proverbs as a source of moral authority is facilitated by their nature. In their brevity, musicality, and depth of meaning, proverbs are not only easily memorable, they are also easy to apply at appropriate occasions. It is their nature, incidentally, that makes it possible for them to be easily used in everyday speech. They help enrich and add colour to everyday speech, as they help a speaker make a point briefly, sometimes with devastating effect.

Proverbs are also useful in the transmission and revelation of what are perceived as adequate and desirable moral standards and healthy social intercourse. Proverbs initiate youth into adulthood, especially in societies where they are the preserve of elders. And as the youth are initiated into adulthood, they imbibeĖ-like the proverbial calf that watches its mother's mouth as the mother chews grass--codes of human behaviour as they prepare for future roles as guardians of ancestral wisdom and culture.

In doing all this, proverbs help people to think comparatively, that is, thinking of human experiences in other but related terms. Thus the saying that: You cannot catch old birds with chaff, has a wider application than its literal meaning. Referring as it does to birds and chaff, this saying can help an individual to understand his environment better, since the saying is culture-bound. At the same time, however, the saying can help an individual to understand and generalise human experiences. In its meaning--that the old are not easily fooled--this proverb widens an individual's scope of understanding.

The universal validity of such a proverb can, of course, be contested. And this brings us to some problems and ambiguities associated with proverbs, treasured as they are in culture and human discourse.

To begin with, the effectiveness of a proverb on an audience depends on the level of understanding of the latter. Sometimes, the desired impact of a proverb may be lost if the proverb is derived from stories or events that the audience is unfamiliar with. To make such proverbs effective, the audience must recall the story or event that is represented in an encapsulated form by the proverb. As a result, the audience is able to understand more clearly and learn from the implications of the proverb in question.

Then there is the problem of the existence of contradictory proverbs in the same culture. When one door shuts, another opens, and Opportunity never knocks twice at any man's door are examples of proverbs that seem to offer contradictory advice. Such contradictory advice confuses an audience as much as it does an individual who seeks moral guidance in the pair of proverbs: Absence makes the heart grow fonder and Out of sight, out of mind.

The effectiveness of proverbs as a source of moral authority and embodiment of universal truth can thus be compromised by the contradictory advice offered or the morals presented. The existence in the same culture of proverbs that seem to contradict and cancel each other out, attests to the complexity and wealth of human discourse. It is also good to note that the existence of proverbs that seem to contradict one another can open doors to the misuse of proverbs in the rationalisation of undesirable behaviour.

On the other hand, there exist in any culture several proverbs that reinforce and complement one another. Familiarity breeds contempt, for example, complements Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Similarly, the proverb: The devil finds work for idle hands to do reinforces the proverb: An idle brain is the devil's workshop.

Let us see now what proverbs have to say about woman and man respectively.

Proverbs that portray women negatively
All over the world and down the ages, some proverbs are uncomplimentary to the woman in her personal, maternal, romantic, matrimonial, and social roles. Several proverbs belittle her through criticism, ridicule, or insult. Instances of the belittling are legion. In this connection, there are proverbs which belittle the woman's capacity to reason: A woman's intelligence is that of a child (Wolof?Senegal), and A woman and an invalid man are the same thing (GÓkŻyŻ, Kenya). Further, there are several proverbs that make a demon out of woman: Women are the devil's snares (Somalia), and Your wife is your favourite but also your killer (Burkina Faso). Benin provides further examples of such proverbs: Take woman for what she is, a sister of the devil, and Woman is the source of all evil, only our soul saves us from the harm she does. (Incidentally, it is from this proverb that the misleading main title of Mineke Schipper's Source of all evil: African proverbs and sayings on women) is derived.

At the same time, some proverbs cast aspersions at a woman's trustworthiness: "Believe a woman's word the day after" (GÓkŻyŻ, Kenya), He who listened to the woman suffered famine at harvest time.(Bemba,?Zambia), Woman is not a chicken cage you hang on your shoulder (Bassar, Togo), You can trust your brother, your father, your mother, but never your wife (Benin), and A woman is like a rat: even if it grows up in your house, it steals from you (Ganda, Uganda).

Having asserted that a woman is untrustworthy, proverbs take a short step to allege that she is promiscuous: Woman is a path: don't ask who has walked on it or who will walk on it (Wolof, Senegal), and All women are unfaithful; it is only the excessively unfaithful that people call harlot (Yoruba, Nigeria).

In the same breath, some proverbs assert the husband's superiority over his wife: Two cocks do not crow on the same roof (Mongo, Democratic Republic of Congo), and The hen knows when it is morning, but she looks at the mouth of the cock (Ashanti, Ghana). Other proverbs urge a husband to treat his wife with a heavy hand. Beat your wife regularly; if you don't know why, she will (West Africa), and If you really love your wife, you have to beat her (Tigrinya, Ethiopia).

There are proverbs that are insensitive to the humiliation that a childless woman undergoes: A barren woman should not scold a bad child (Minyanka, Burkina Faso). The woman whose sons have died is richer than a barren woman (GÓkŻyŻ, Kenya). From Baganda we have this disparaging proverb: A useless person is like a woman, both lazy and barren.

Lest the reader conclude that proverbs which belittle women are a preserve of Africa, several anti-women proverbs are found outside Africa. Thus in the United Kingdom, some proverbs criticise, ridicule, or insult the woman when they unflatteringly compare her docility to that of quadrupeds in: It is a good horse that never stumbles and a good wife that never grumbles. Others rationalise violence against her, saying: A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more you beat them the better they be. And likening her to a piece of garment, they lord the man over her and reduce her to an object of his selection: Never choose your women or linen by candlelight. See what a small rating a woman is given in the proverb: If you would be happy for a week take a wife; if you would be happy for a month kill a pig; and if you would be happy all your life plant a garden!

Still outside Africa, some proverbs, accusing the woman of being a Jezebel, damn her as a poisonous temptress: Like the scorpion, woman is a relative of the devil: when she sees a poor wretch, she wriggles her behind and moves away (Uruguay).

Proverbs that portray women positively
Following the habit of proverbs to display reality in contrasting terms, we come across proverbs from all over the world which sing praises to the mother as a priceless treasure: When your mother dies, you'll eat yam peels (Ngbaka, Central African Republic), and Mother is gold, father is glass (Yoruba, Nigeria). In a similar vein, some proverbs laud the woman's capacity for productive labour: Regular work tires woman but totally wrecks man (Fang, Gabon). In addition, some proverbs underline the need to treat woman's sexuality with respect: A daughter is not a fisherman's net to be placed in all brooks (Kongo, Democratic Republic of Congo). In the meantime, other proverbs endorse the woman's unassailable position in marriage: The man is the head of the home but the wife is the heart. (GÓkŻyŻ, Kenya). The wife does not call her husband hero (Mongo, Democratic Republic of Congo). He that will thrive must first ask his wife (United Kingdom).

At the same time, we have proverbs which appear to be insulting to the wife, but which in reality explicitly indicate the sufferings of the woman in a polygamous marriage, and so implicitly condemn polygamy as an institution that brings out the worst in a woman's nature: If you dance with your co-wife, don't close your eyelid (Burundi). Two wives are two pots of poison (GÓkŻyŻ, Kenya). In this way, these proverbs complement the proverb: If a wife has kicked her co-wife, it is on the husband's shoulder she has found support (Fulani, Senegal).

Gender-neutral or complementarity proverbs
Meanwhile, all cultures have proverbs that are gender-neutral, that uphold morality, that advance culture and promote universal values because they implicitly acknowledge gender equality. With a light touch but full of wisdom, some proverbs suggest ingredients of a good or a successful marriage: A deaf husband and a blind wife are always a happy couple (United Kingdom). There is more to marriage than four bare legs in a bed (United Kingdom). This class of proverbs not only asserts gender equality but also contains home truths on the nature of the woman: Woman is like a corn cob: if you have no teeth, you hardly eat (Fang, Gabon). On the sanctity of marriage: Married women are like elephant tusks: you don't touch them (Swahili, Kenya). On the roses-thorns theory of marriage: A wife is like a blanket: cover yourself with it, it irritates you; cast it away, you feel the cold (Ashanti, Ghana).

The feminist zealot has charged that it is the patriarchal societies which have used the distilled wisdom of the ages (proverbs) to both entrench male domination and rationalize ostensible female weaknesses. In so doing the feminists forget two points. In the first place, they fail to grasp that proverbs do not spare the man either, as we have seen above. To confirm this point, listen also to the following two proverbs: A moneyless man goes fast through the market (United Kingdom). One is cramped for room with a bad husband (Burundi). In the second place, in their sharp criticism of the so-called patriarchal societies, feminists turn a blind eye on the gender-neutral proverbs. These proverbs teach that man cannot get along without woman, nor can the woman get along without the man; the two complement each other in a very basic way, thus making for their mutual interdependence.

In terminating, I would like to assert that the ultra feminists fail to see that neither man nor woman is a paragon of virtue. Given the fact that It takes all sorts to make a world (United Kingdom), the proverbs criticize as well as praise both men and women with the aim of promoting better human relationships among the two genders.

Published Quarterly by DR. GERALD J. WANJOHI
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