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January 2018 To make marks on the trees. Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverb/Story

Kusema (Kutema) mbago. (Sukuma)
Kuweka alama kwenye miti. (Swahili)
Marquer des marques sur l'arbre. (French)
To make marks on the trees. (English)

Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverb/Story

Background, Meaning and Everyday Use

A Sukuma story called “The Parable of the Two Brothers” goes like this:

Two brothers wanted to go to a distant country to make their fortune. They asked their father for a blessing, saying: “Father, we go on our way to make our fortune. Your blessing, please.” Their father agreed, saying, “Go with my blessing, but on your way put marks on the trees lest you get lost.” After they received the blessing, the two brothers started on their safari.

The older brother entered the forest and cut down some of the trees as he passed and made marks on other trees. He did this for the whole journey. The younger brother took another route. While on the way, he arrived at the house of a certain person. He knocked on the door. He was invited in and made friends with the children of that family. The younger brother continued on his journey and made friends wherever he passed.

Finally, the two brothers returned home. On their arrival their father gave them a warm welcome, saying, “How happy I am to see you back home again, my sons, especially since you have returned safely. Wonderful! Now I would like to see the marks which you have left on the trees.”

So, the father went with his firstborn son. On the way the older brother showed his father all kinds of trees that he had cut down and others with the marks that he had put on along the way. They traveled a long distance without eating on the trip. Finally, they returned home empty-handed.

Then the father set out with his second born son. During the journey different friends warmly received the younger son and his father. They were treated as special guests at each
place they visited. Goats were slaughtered to welcome them. They were very happy. They brought home many gifts including meat and other presents.

Then the father summoned his two sons and said: “Dear sons, I have seen the work that you have done. I will arrange a marriage for the one who has done better.” He turned to the firstborn son and said, “My son, I think you are foolish. You cannot take care of people. I told you to put marks on the trees wherever you pass. You have cut down many trees. What is the profit of all these trees?” Turning to the second son he said: “My son, you are clever. I am happy you have put such important marks wherever you have gone. Wherever we passed, we received a very good welcome. This came from your good personal relationships with the people we visited.”

Then he said: “My dear children, now it is good for me to give my reward. I will arrange a big feast for my younger son. We will slaughter a cow for him. For my younger son has made good and lasting marks wherever he passed.”

From this Sukuma story comes the Sukuma proverb: To make marks on the trees. The theme of the story and the proverb is “Good Personal Relationships in Life.” The meaning is that to build good relationships with people is a very important priority in our lives.

 

Biblical Parallels

“For a story of African origin, this “African Parable of the Two Brothers” has interesting parallels with The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). There is a mutual illumination and enrichment when biblical stories and African stories are used together. Both the biblical story and the African story have three main characters: a father and two sons. At the end of each story the younger son gets the glory and the reward. But the African story has several different twists. Both sons go on a long journey. Then the father himself accompanies
them on their second trip. The younger son does not waste his life, but cleverly builds up personal relationships.

The biblical story has its own twist, which brings a unique depth. The theme of the African story is “Good Personal Relationships” which is central to the African worldview.
The theme of the biblical story is “Forgiveness” which is central to the Christian worldview. In fact, forgiving love is the heart of God’s relationship with humankind and the heart of Jesus Christ’s teaching right up to and including his death on the cross. The biblical story illuminates the African story by a dramatic reversal. The prodigal or bad son is rewarded. The wastrel is given the feast. “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).

The “person-in-community” is a very important reality in African society. A person is first and foremost a member of the community and secondly an individual. As mentioned in Chapter Two, a person receives his or her identity through the extended family and the clan. Africans are a communitarian people. A person’s life is geared to the wellbeing of the community. A fundamental African proverb says: I am because we are; we are because I am. Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole community, and whatever happens to the whole community happens to the individual. Another African proverb says: We are our relationships. A person discovers his/her full personality in group relationships.

The African emphasis on personal relationships is closely connected to family values. African family values are inclusive. Whether people are members of the immediate family or the extended family or close friends or even visitors, everyone participates in the close family relationships and friendships.

The “Parable of the Last Judgment of Nations” from Matthew 25:31-46 goes like this:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46).

The Sukuma “Parable of the Two Brothers” has exciting parallels with this “Parable of the Judgment of the Nations.” There are, for instance, three main characters in both stories, namely: father and the two sons in the Sukuma story, and Jesus and the two groups of nations in the biblical story of the Last Judgment. Jesus who is portrayed as the Son of Man, the King and Shepherd, is like the father in the Sukuma parable who gave blessings to the baptized people. Like the two brothers, they are two groups of people who are called nations. There are those who stand on the left and those who stand on the right hand of the King/Lord/Son of Man/Jesus.

The group of people that stand on the left hand, like the elder son who cut trees, did not do good deeds to the people on their distant journey to the heavenly kingdom. They are called goats. They did not build good personal relationship in their ways of living. They are like the elder son who just cut trees throughout his trip.

After receiving their blessings during baptism, like the two brothers, the baptized started their distant journey on earth throughout their lives to the heavenly kingdom. They were told to make marks on the trees, that means, they had to build good personal relationship, by doing good deeds to their fellow human beings, whom they met with on their long distant life journey to the eternal life. They had to relate friendly with others by doing good deeds to them.

Unfortunately, those who stand on the left hand did not do good deeds to their fellow human beings. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me. Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46).

On the other hand, the group of people who stand on the right hand, that is, the group of sheep, after being baptized made good relationships with the people by doing good deeds to them on their way to the eternal life. They, like the young brother in the Sukuma Story, built good personal relationships with the people whom they lived with in their lives on the earth.

Then Jesus, like the father in the Sukuma story, invited those people to enter eternal life. “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40). They are, like the young brother in the Sukuma Story, rewarded by being invited to inherit the heavenly kingdom. They had good interactions with their fellow human beings on their lives on earth.

“Interactions in African context always incorporates hospitality, which for Africans is both a privilege and duty. Visitors bring gifts of food and drinks to their hosts and hosts who will return in kind. Gatherings incorporate eating, drinking, music, dancing and lively discussion, though never drunkenness. The goal is to maintain happiness and relaxation of both the individual and the community.” See the book African Cultures: Cycle of Community and Communal Activities edited by Michael C. Kirwen, published by MIAS Books, Nairobi, 2015, p. 36.
Hence, such kinds of interaction build good personal relationships that is very important in our lives, on the way to the heavenly kingdom. We can do so by doing good deeds to our fellow human beings in our daily lives. We are also on the way to the eternal kingdom. We have to treat people with kindness and consideration. “If we treat them with kindness and consideration, they will become our friends. If we despise them, they will despise us in turn.” See the book African Stories for Preachers and Teachers, compiled by Joseph G. Healey, MM, published by Paulines Publications, Nairobi, 2010, p. 19.

We have to put emphasis on treating our fellow human beings with kindness and consideration enough to build good personal relationships in our families, communities, and institutes -- also building the world of friendships and peace on our way to the eternal life.
“The African emphasis on the importance of personal relationships is closely connected to the African understanding of family. Whether part of the immediate family or the extended family or simply close friends or even visitors, everyone participates in the family’s relationships and friendships.” See book Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy, compiled by Joseph G. Healey, Orbis Books, New York, 2004, p. 33.

Contemporary Use and Religious Application

Making good relationships and friendships is connected with helping people: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Pope Francis goes further and says to reach out to the poor and needy, to the marginated and those on the periphery of society. The best thing we can do for other people is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, explain salvation in Jesus Christ, and help people to save their souls.

Healey and Sybertz discovered a need of integrating the African Stories and proverbs in practical evangelization. See Towards an African Narrative Theology, page 51. They say, “Western people can learn a great deal from Africans on how to be present to other people and to relate to them in a life-giving and positive way. Africans are deeply aware of the presence and need of other people in their lives. To pass by a person without greeting him or her is totally un-African, but is considered a normal way of relating in the Western world. In Africa everything is done to maintain good personal and communal relationships and harmony. Anger and confrontation are looked down on. Among the Kuria in Kenya and Tanzania the greatest sin is to strike a parent.”

“Personal relationships and person-centered values in the family and close circle of friends can be seen in many African proverbs and sayings. Families take care of their own (Oromo, Ethiopia). A parent beats the child with a half-closed hand in order not to hurt the child too much (Ganda). A letter is half as good as seeing each other (Swahili, Eastern and Central Africa). It is through people that we are people (Swazi, Swaziland). A person is a person because of neighbors (Tumbuka, Malawi). Mountains never meet but people do (Gusii and Kamba, Kenya; Sukuma, Tanzania). See Chapter Two on “Church as the Extended Family of God” in Towards an African Narrative Theology by Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz, pps. 104-107.

Living a peaceful life is also important in our lives for the development of our families, communities and institutes as well as our nations. Such a way of life will maintain our good personal relationships with our fellow human beings on earth to the point of being invited to inherit the heavenly kingdom at the end of life of every one of us. This is due to the fact that good personal relationships also bring people together enough to give services and mutual aid as well as social outreach in Small Christian Communities (SCCs). See the book Building the Church as Family of God, Evaluation of the Small Christian Communities in Eastern Africa, by Joseph G, Healey, published by AMECEA Gaba Publications-- CUEA Press, Nairobi, 2012, p. 39.

Therefore, we can also say that doing good deeds to others leads to good treatments of them that results in good personal relationships for building peaceful families, communities, institutes and nations that have good company on the way to the eternal life. “Good company is seen when people make efforts to protect the lives of each other and also each other’s properties.” See the book African Cultural Domains Book 2: Cycle of Family and Interpersonal Relationships, edited by Michael C, Kirwen, published by MIAS Books, Nairobi, 2010, p. 100.

There is a call to each one of us to go on making marks on the trees on our distant journey to the heavenly kingdom, by doing good deeds to our fellow human beings enough for us to be invited to inherit eternal life. By so doing we can also do good deeds in the name of Jesus who blessed us during baptism and sent us to spread the good news of peace to others on earth.

 

Rev. Zakaria Kashinje, OSA
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
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Photographs provided by:

Cephas Yao Agbemenu 
Department of Fine Arts
Kenyatta University
P.O. Box 43844
Nairobi, Kenya
Cellphone: +254 723-307992
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This story has been printed in many places including: Joseph G. Healey and Donald Sybertz, Towards an African Narrative Theology, pps. 104-107. Joseph G. Healey, “The Two Brothers,” African Stories for Preachers and Teachers, pps. 64-65. Joseph G. Healey, “Kaka Wawili,” Hadithi za Kiafrika kwa Wahubiri na Walimu, pps. 64-65. “Uhusiano Mwema Maishani,” Kugundua Mbegu za Injili, pps. 65-66. “The Two Brothers,” African Stories Database, African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories Website, retrieved 30 December, 2017, http://www.afriprov.org/resources/storiesdatabase.html?task=display2&cid[0]=190
 

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