African Proverb of The MonthBene byo ni bo bene inambu. (Rwanda and Rundi).
Walio na mali ndio hao hao walafi. (Swahili)
Les gens qui ont assez des biens, ce sont les mêmes gens qui sont gourmands. (French)
The people to whom things belong are the same people who are greedy. (English).
Background, Explanation, Meaning and Everyday Use
The main people of Rwanda and Burundi, the Banyarwanda and Barundi respectively, are basically divided into three traditional classes--the Tutsi (the cattle-keeping, royal, upper class), the Hutu (the agricultural tilling class), and the Twa (the minority and least socially significant class). The Tutsi and Hutu live alongside each other, speak the same languages, embrace the same culture and intermarry. The class or sub-class to which one belongs is quite flexible. One can move upward or downward in social status, depending on circumstances such as allegiance, marriage, enrichment, impoverishment or dispossession. The fertility rates and the migratory rates are so high that there are significant populations of the Banyarwanda and Barundi in the neighboring countries of DRC, Tanzania, and Uganda. These ethnic groups have strongly influenced and inspired the cultural traditions of many ethnic groups in East and Central Africa, and they have even impacted the politics of the region.
The proverb is often mentioned locally, and it serves to decry sarcastically the tendency of the powerful and rich to (paradoxically) be the most greedy, acquisitive, covetous, monopolistic and selfish. Despite the significant social and political transformation of Africa over many decades, Africans continue to uphold the virtues of being giving, kind, sociable, considerate and generous to the less fortunate. As John Mbiti summarized it, Africans embrace the philosophy that I am because we are, and because we are, therefore I am. The personal name "Benebyo" (the possessors/those to whom the things belongs) is associated with the proverb. The parents of the named child bestow the name to decry sarcastically society-at-large, the neighbors, or even family members or friends for being needlessly materialistic, possessive, monopolistic, acquisitive, exploitative and selfish. In African society material or monetary gain is commendable, but only if it is acquired justly. Most Africans are materialistically in poverty. Any of them who become disproportionately powerful or well-off are required or expected to look after and help build up their relatives or community.
The Bible offers a precise parallel of this African proverb: "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless" (Ecclesiastes 5: 10). Many other passages display the innumerable consequences of greediness. Spiritual rather than materialistic enrichment is of paramount importance in a person's life. "A greedy man stirs up strife, but the one who trusts in the Lord will be enriched" (Proverbs 28:25).
Many who enrich and empower themselves immorally would not only bring disrepute to their families, but they can put themselves and their families in danger. "Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live" (Proverbs 15:27). Excessive greed breeds immorality, irreligiousness and exploitation of the weak and poor. "In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor; let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised. For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord" (Psalms 10:2-3).
Contemporary Use and Religious Application
The most important use and application of this African proverb is the excessive desire for material wealth, status, money, or power being itself a source of dissatisfaction and evil. Greediness is associated with an extensive host of vices that include lust, covetousness, and gluttony. The drive for personal gain breeds unlawful and immoral acts such as bribery, theft, robbery, violence, trickery, disloyalty and betrayal. Excessive desire and acquisition is associated with sinfulness. It is counterproductive to the Christian and African virtues of communalism, cooperation, kindness, openhandedness, openheartedness, consideration and taking interest in the wellbeing of others. Those in the significant positions of power and influence are the most vulnerable to the sin of greed, while the poor and downtrodden are the most vulnerable to being exploited. This proverb reminds us of the need to check on and regulate excessiveness of power and accumulation, sins that are heavily detrimental to society as a whole. Political leaders in Africa should take particular note of this challenge.
St. Thomas Aquinas famously stated of greed: "It is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one person cannot over-abound in external riches, without another person lacking them...it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as people condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things." Greed is listed as one of the "Seven Deadly Sins."
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Professor Alexandre Kimenyi (deceased)
Department of Ethnic Studies
California State University