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Site Last Update: 19 Nov, 2019

February 2019, The medicine for a rising river is to go back. Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverb

Bhugota bho mongo ni gushoka. (Sukuma)
Dawa ya mto ni kurudi. (Swahili)
Leo mèdicament pour une rivière en deluge est de retourner. (French)
The medicine for a rising river is to go back. (English)

Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverb


Background, Meaning and Everyday Use

The Sukuma Ethnic Group is the largest ethnic group (more than six million people) in Tanzania in East Africa and live mainly in rural areas in the northwestern part of the country on or near the southern shores of Lake Victoria – mainly in the Mwanza and Shinyanga Regions. The Sukuma are the largest ethnic group in Tanzania. Sukuma means “north” and refers to “people of the north.” They are relatives of the Nyamwezi Ethnic Group and share a similar language of Bantu origin. Traditionally part of an oral culture, the Sukuma people use many types of oral literature such as proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories, myths and songs to communicate values and priorities.

This Sukuma proverb offers advice after a very heavy rain. It is a very practical proverb for the Sukuma people in Sukumaland, Tanzania during the rainy season when water flows down nearby hills and fills the dry river beds. The fast-flowing current can push over people walking across and even sweep cars and trucks off the cement drifts. Before they decide to cross or not to cross the river on foot or by a vehicle, the local people measure whether the river is rising or receding by placing a stick at the water's edge. If the water gradually rises to cover the stick, they do not cross.

The two of us learned this lesson when traveling from Mwanhuzi to Ndoleleji during Holy Week one April, the season of heavy rains. Traveling on a dirt road we reached the fast flowing Semu River and the local people immediately told us to put a stick at the water’s edge. After 10 minutes water covered it. So we went back – taking the longer, roundabout but safer way -- to reach Ndoleleji.


Biblical Parallels

Proverbs 14:16: “The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence.”

Ephesians 5:15-16: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time.”

Matthew 7:13: “Enter by the narrow gate. For one gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the other gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life.”`


Contemporary Use and Religious Application

This proverb teaches about caution and carefulness. Don’t try foolish things, take bad risks, be foolhardy. Some examples:

  1. Avoid risky behavior. Examples in Africa: A child gets too close to the fire and burns herself/himself. There is the universal saying Don’t play with fire. Young people having sex outside of marriage including unwanted pregnancies. People in rural areas who have been drinking alcohol think they are very brave and are foolish to try to cross swollen rivers.
  2. Take care of one’s health such as taking one’s medicine regularly.
  3. Follow the classic spiritual advice of avoiding the near occasion of sin, that is, avoid those people and places where sin and excessive behavior can happen.

NOTE: For more Sukuma proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories and songs (with their Swahili and English translations) go to the

Sukuma Legacy Project

Nanetya Foundation: Ethnic Stories in Mother Tongues Website


Rev. Donald Sybertz, MM
Mission St. Teresa’s
P.O. Box 321
Maryknoll, NY 10545-0321 
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Rev. Joseph G. Healey, MM
Maryknoll Society
P.O. Box 43058
00100 Nairobi, Kenya
0723-362-993 (Safaricom, Kenya)
973-216-4997 (AT&T, USA) 
Email:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Skype: joseph-healey

Photographs provided by:
Cephas Yao Agbemenu 
Department of Fine Arts
Kenyatta University
P.O. Box 43844
Nairobi, Kenya
Cellphone: +254 723-307992


Other Proverbs From The Same Ethnic Group

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