We picked up a couple of books of Swahili proverbs a while back and I’ve been using them for a language exercise. Each proverb is stated, with a short explanation of it in Swahili and then some comments about how it is used. Some of them are very telling about the things that are valued in Tanzanian culture. Others actually had the opposite meaning to what I thought!
Here are some examples:
Akili nyingi huondoa maarifa – Great intelligence removes strategy
There are people in the world who think they know a lot of things and don’t need other people’s advice, but they will not come to a good end. It looks like smarts but it’s actually stupidity not to consult others. This proverb is used to warn people not to be smart (in the smart alec sense) and to confront people who are like this.
Akufukuzaye hakwambii toka – The one who’s dismissing you isn’t saying for you to go
This is a proverb about picking up on social cues. A parallel in English might be asking, ‘What are they not saying?’ A person doesn’t have to say ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘Go away’ in order for you to know that. They can show it with their actions, so don’t wait for them to insult you. They might not be telling you to go away with words, but they might be saying it another way. Be satisfied with reading their actions.
Asiyefunzwa na mamaye hufunzwa na ulimwengu – The one who is not schooled by their mother will be schooled by the world
Children learn good manners from their parents and family. If they don’t, they will not be accepted by others and will fail to follow society’s norms and they will experience the consequences. I worked out that this was a proverb telling parents not to neglect their children, but it is also a warning to people not to neglect learning from others.
Asiyekubali kushindwa si mshindani – The one who does not agree to be beaten is not a winner
Without all the double negatives, this is something like ‘the one who refuses to be beaten is the loser.’ This seems counter-intuitive for me. My culture is all about continuing to try until you win. We’re told to keep trying no matter what. Even if you don’t win, you’re not a loser, because you didn’t give up. But this proverb argues that such an attitude is a losing attitude. The point is that not everyone can win all the time. Your success always comes at the expense of someone else. Better is to accept your losses when they come as part of life. It’s about taking your place in the community rather than pursuing individual success.
These are all just from the ‘A’ section. I’m sure there’ll be more to come. Which ones surprised you?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.