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Meeting of People Interested in African Proverbs (organized by the Kenya Proverbs Committee) at the Urban Ministries Support Group (UMSG) Office

Nairobi, Kenya 15 March, 2002

The agenda for the meeting was presentation and discussions of reports/interests/experiences on proverbs.

Participants Present

  1. Elizabeth Kuria
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  2. Joseph Kariuki
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  3. Gail Koski
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  4. Thomas Ochieng
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  5. Isaac Machariah
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  6. Benjamin Wainaina
  7. Joe Healey
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  8. Gerald Wanjohi
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  9. Mike Koski
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1. Proverbs and nutrition.

Dr. Kuria presented on her on going research on proverbs, feeding and nutrition basing them on Bukusu (Kenya) proverbs and Kikuyu (Kenya) proverbs and the Bible parallels. She said that the Bible has a lot message on food and good feeding. She said she has collected more than 90 proverbs from the Bukusu community related to food and nutrition and that she had some difficulties with Kikuyu proverbs given that she is not a native speaker of the language, having learnt it through her marriage to a Kikuyu. She said she is to consult a book on Kikuyu proverbs, Under One Roof: Kikuyu Proverbs Consolidated by Dr. Wanjohi.

She said she wants to look for contemporary relevance of proverbs on nutrition and good feeding on various themes. She said that she will be looking for biblical parallels to the proverbs she is collecting because she has realized that the Bible has a lot of message related to greediness, meat (consumption of meat) and blood.

Using one Kikuyu proverb she has used, Mwana mwaga no nda (A good child is the stomach) she explained how proverbs could be used to convey information about the need to have good nutrition. She said that the proverb say that if the one feeds well one will have a good state of mental and body health. She said in contemporary times the relevance of that proverb is that if one is not well fed, one will get malnutrition and therefore perhaps may have other effects like low concentration of vision.

She said proverbs have messages that allude directly to food and other not related. She said for instance that for instance that the Kikuyu proverb Ngwaci ni ngwaci (A sweet potato is just a sweet potato) while it is about food, sweet potatoes being food, its meaning does not refer to food. It means going for the truth or "calling a spade a spade"

She said her main problem is on translation especially to Swahili and Kikuyu but said she will contact people with good proficiency in the two languages.

The discussion on her presentation focused on how its application can be used in preaching. It was said that it good especially that nowadays there is the need for preacher not to preach abstracts but instead have an all round preaching covering the on the mind, body and soul. She said that present teaching tends to focus more on matters spiritual and forget about body

2. Contemporary application of proverbs.

Rev Joe Healey gave a talk on "The Relevancy of African Proverbs in Today's World." In the background to his talk he said that there are all kinds of reactions and responses to the value and usefulness of African Proverbs. He quoted a recent message to the African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories E-mail Discussion list that referred to African proverbs as "bland". He said other people refer to proverbs as old-fashioned, out of date, a relic of the past, quaint expressions that are used to reinforce stereotypes, etc.

H said however that African proverbs continue to find new meanings and new life in contemporary contexts. He used four examples to illustrate his case.

(i) He said a popular African proverb, When elephant fight the grass gets hurt (Swahili, East Africa). The proverb was used some years ago by Julius Nyerere, then president of Tanzania in a speech at the United Nations in New York. The Zairian Ambassador to the Great Britain used the same proverb to talk to a group of missionaries of African (White Fathers) in London. The meaning was the same: In the cold war between the then two great super powers-- the Unites States and Russia--it is the poor third world countries such as those in Africa who suffered and were victimized. The same proverb was used about Somalia in 1992-1994: When the local warlords fight for power, it's the local Somali people who suffer and go with of food. The proverb continues to be used regularly to describe local officials and leaders whose disputes and divisions end up hurting innocent and powerless people. There are many versions of this proverb in Bantu languages such as When two bulls fight the grass gets hurt (Kuria, Kenya/Tanzania and Ngoreme, Tanzania), but they all mean the same thing he said.

(ii) He also used a well-known Amharic (Ethiopian) proverb, When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion. The other version is Enough spider webs would together can stop a lion. the Amharic Ethnic Group in Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia use this proverb in many different situations to emphasize the value, importance, power and strength of unity. Individually a person is weak, but working together people are very strong. For example, if ordinary people work together they can overcome an unpopular leader like a dictator. A similar proverb is when they work together strings of a bark can tie up an elephant (Oromo, Ethiopia). In February 2002 Chaz Maviyane-Davies, one of Zimbabwe's outstanding graphic artists, used the proverb as a powerful graphic image in his Portal of Truth series as an E-mail File Attachment and on the Internet before the National elections in Zimbabwe. The message is that if the leaders of the opposition political parties unite, they can overcome (that is, win an election) the incumbent leaders. The proverbs are connected to the popular saying: Unity is strength, division is weakness.

(iii) Using a popular Swahili proverb, Heri pazia kuliko bendera, whose good English translation is Better a curtain hanging motionless that a flag blowing in the wind Rev. Healey said the proverb has been used for many years and today a new understanding has come in the AIDS education and awareness. The proverb is now used especially to caution the young people to stay with one partner (the one curtain in the house) rather than "play around" with the many partners (like a flag blowing to and fro).

(iv) Healey also quoted a paper "Gikuyu Oral Literature and the Attacks in the USA in September, 2001" by Dr. Gerald J Wanjohi, published in African Scribe an Internet magazine (January, 2002). In this article Dr. Wanjohi states: " I would like to reflect on this tragic event using Gikuyu oral literature as a guide. This tradition has many proverbs relating to war, peace, and dialogue. We can therefore expect these proverbs to teach us something about the conduct of the Moslem fundamentalists suicide bombers of the World Trade Centre in New York, of the Pentagon in Washington, also about the retaliatory acts of the American government against the Afghanistan."

In the article Dr. Wanjohi uses quotes Kikuyu proverbs and applies them to the preparation for the bombing, and the course of the war on terrorism that followed. Among the Gikuyu proverbs that he quotes, capturing the themes of wars, peace and dialogue are:

a. Mbaara ti ucuru.(War is not porridge)

b. Hinya ngugunaga.(Use of force/strength avails nothing)

c. Mwirihiria ni we muuru.(The one who takes revenge is the evil)

d. Mwaki nduhoragio na mwaki.(Fire is not put out by fire)

e. Ma ndithamaga mukaro wayo. (Truth never changes its course)

3. Recent Anecdotes:

Using anecdotes, on his recent experiences and observations, Dr. Wanjohi related on issues of interpretation, contextualisation and use of proverbs in the contemporary times.

First he related the recent outcome of the Zimbabwe elections using Kikuyu proverbs. He argued that the incumbent president won because, kahiga gakuru gatiagararagwo ni maai, an old stone (the incumbent with all his experience) is not passed over by the water or an old stone stays above the water.

He also related how at a restaurant recently, a waiter insisted to him to finish his food in the plate. Thinking over the whole scenario, he decided to end the war of wit with the waiter with another Kikuyu proverb, Kuria muno ni kworia nda, meaning over eating spoils the stomach.

Thirdly, he related how they discussed with a medical microbiologist about his [Wanjohi's] recent book on proverbs, Under One Roof: Kikuyu proverbs Consolidated. The microbiologist wanted to know why Wanjohi never interpreted the proverbs in the book. The answer to this question came when their talk branched off to a talk on why people these days are not bearing many children, once again Dr. Wanjohi saying that a Kikuyu proverb says, Ciana nyingi, mbirira nyingi or Many children means many graves. As they tried to interpret this proverb, the doctor said that proverb was true many children will mean food will be inadequate to feed them and perhaps will die of hunger or many children will mean that there will be a reduction in the medical/health care for the many children in a home and once again be affected health-wise. Wanjohi had a different interpretation of this proverb, that having many children especially from those who get them out of wedlock will bring a lot of problems and misunderstanding in that home, perhaps even fights that can lead to dead. After this discussion they were agreed on the need for not interpreting the proverbs because proverbs should be interpreted as one sees them and depending on contexts. They were also agreed that the proverbs of the pasts are not empty words or phrases but instead that they can be applied in our modern situations quite well.

He also shared with participants how at another restaurant he saw the headwaiter harassing subordinate staff. On inquiring further, he learnt that this was a usual thing in this restaurant and he being a visit and coming to learn about what was happening here, he thought of which Kikuyu proverb to relate to this situation he came found this proverb to be more apt; Mucii umenyagwo ni murari, A home is better understood by one who has spent the night there, not a visitor.

4. Proverbs, youth and morality:

Benjamin Wainaina presented on youth and morality using Kikuyu proverbs. He said that proverbs could be used to teach the youth on good moral conduct. He said that some Kikuyu proverbs have a lot of counsel to the youth. He said that Kikuyu proverbs have guidelines on what to do and not what to do. He said that the proverbs could today be used to warn the youth on the dangers of carefree living. Quoting Kikuyu proverbs and their biblical parallels, he said that proverbs are as applicable today as they were used a hundred years ago, only that the context are different. He noted that the youth do not have regard to proverbs yet most of the problems they face can be answered by looking at the proverbs. He said he has currently 25 proverbs that he will develop in a presentation during the next meeting. He has collected the proverbs from the rural area and from Nairobi.

5. Short notice from America:

Jay Moon sent some highlights of what is happening at Asbury Theological Seminary, USA. He said each week, several of Africa doctoral students are meeting to discuss oral literature and its use in ministry. The students are from Nigeria, Zambia, and Kenya and are focusing on proverbs but also have discussed some myths and stories. They meet to discuss the meaning of the oral literature and then use the Scripture to interpret it. They hope to begin the process of learning contextual theology. The hope is that students can begin to do this at seminary and then continue as they return to their ministry location. So far every thing is going on well. After meeting for awhile, each of the participants has now selected some themes that they will write about. They plan to compile this as part of a class project on contextual theology, hopefully completing this by May.

Another item that Jay has been working on is a 20-minute video that shows various forms of oral literature in use. This is an initial attempt to help students to think about all of the valuable material that is available so as to encourage them to begin utilizing this in ministry and theological training.

His article on Builsa proverbs will be published in the Missiology journal in April. The article looks at the use of proverbs to open a window of understanding into the worldview. Then, these values can be interpreted in the light of the Scripture. He has included a song and story that deal with the same theme that emerged from the proverbs.

6. Any Other Business and updates.

a. The meeting agreed on the need to start the 2003-year African Proverbs Calendar well in advance. Joseph Kariuki said that he has already collected graphic art that can be selected and used for the calendar. Participants were asked to participate in the selections of proverbs that can be used for the twelve calendar month apart from the ones that has been used already for the 2002 calendar. The choice for the twelve proverbs for the 2003 calendar is from the 33 remaining proverbs of the 45 contributions that has been posted to the website since June 1998. Suggestions for the proverbs can be sent to the moderators at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

b. It was also agreed that Dr. Wanjohi's article Gikuyu oral literature with reference to the bomb attacks in the USA, first written in November after the terrorist attach in America be sent to that "What's New Page" of our website, for wide distribution and appreciation by all visitors to the website.

c. Mike Koski, director of the Urban Ministries Support Group (UMSG) briefed participants that UMSG in partnership with the United Bible Society (UBS) is working to a acquire a dedicated line that will help people who come to use UMSG computers to browse efficiently. He said the acquisition of a dedicated line will ease the work of African proverbs project, the UMSG and the Child Data Exchange (CDX), a project of the UMSG once it is installed.

d. Rev Healey informed the participants that African Proverbs Project website has a new search engine on our website using the "Perlfect Software". The new feature is "user friendly" in searching by name of country, language, ethnic group, theme/topic, etc. The search Engine can be found at the bottom of the home page (front page). He asked visitors to the website to send feedback/comments/suggestions, etc to the moderators at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or the administrator at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it



The meeting ended at 5.12 p.m. after coffee and tea.

Joseph Kariuki (Secretary, Kenya Proverbs Committee)


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