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Site Last Update: 19 Oct, 2019
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Report of the Meeting of People Interested in African Proverbs Urban Ministry Support Group Office, Nairobi, Kenya 23 August, 2002


Dr. Gerald, J. Wanjohi
Thomas Ochieng
Joseph Githiri
Christopher Kinyua Wanjau
Evan Nyakundi
Mike Koski
Joseph Kariuki


Dr. Elizabeth Kuria


The meeting started at 2.30 p.m.

Update of Website: Joseph Kariuki giving the following update from the moderator of African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories Website, Rev. Joe Healey:

1. Steadily we are increasing the amount and variety of material on our website so that presently there are the following number of entries/references:

August 1999 to June, 2002 -- Daily African Proverbs 41 - African Stories
30 - Annotated Bibliography
16 - Book Reviews
19 - Links
The most recent posting to the "What's New" Page is the following collection of proverbs from Kenya:
Endangered African Proverbs Collections:
Bukusu and Kikuyu (Kenya) Proverbs:

African Proverbs on Food

2. Two features that will be ready in the next month are: posting the first e-book of African proverbs on our website and the African Proverbs Calendar 2003 online.

The "Search" feature is very useful in finding proverbs, sayings and stories that you want quickly.

The moderator quoted an African anthropologist who has written that the core or central African value is "participation." He said that this applies to our website as well. We depend on interested people to continue to send in African Proverbs in the three-paragraph format for the "African Proverb of the Month" (such as the Bassa, Liberia Proverb being used for August, 2002) on our website as well as other ideas/suggestions for expanding and improving our website.

Kariuki encouraged the participants to let tell people about the website and even contribute to it. He also let the participants know that as we approach next month when the world will be remembering the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the African proverbs website will also be remembering that our first Afriprov meeting on the same day four years ago in 1998. He noted that as we remember our first meeting (whose minutes are posted to the website) there have been a number of contributions on peace, etc. that are relevant to the first commemoration of the 11 September attack. He singled out an article by Gerald Wanjohi that analyses the aftermath of the attack using Kikuyu proverbs, the July, 2001 proverb of the month (which also appears as the September Proverb in the 2002 Afriprov Calendar) and the November 2001 proverb of the month among many others. He asked the participants to encourage their friends and other people to contribute material to the website.

Contemporary Nairobi sayings: Kariuki gave a report on the work he has been doing, namely collecting contemporary Nairobi sayings. In his report he said that traditional proverbs are not very much used in the city citing two reasons. First, he said that it is because of the multi-ethnic composition of the city with almost all the 42 Kenyan ethnic language communities represented. Second, he said that this was because of modernity where many urban dwellers have been influenced by Western values. He singled out the youth who are influenced very much by the Western media like music, novels, books, cinema and currently the Internet.

He said that most of the sayings that are found in the city are mainly coined by the youth and mainly these new sayings reflect the youth worldview in the urban setting. He said he has been collecting the sayings posted on matatus (the taxi-cabs that are the preferred means of transport), mini shops that are run by youth and also by listening to music especially the new crop of hip hop music that is currently in vogue in Nairobi which uses some of the most common expressions of African youth.

He also noted that just like traditional proverbs are associated with the native language of the users, Nairobi sayings have their own language sheng which is the language of the youth of Nairobi. Sheng language was coined by the youth of the city as a result of the failure to communicate in any of their different ethnic languages. The language is therefore of blend of various languages such as English, Swahili and other Kenyan languages with Swahili being the main donor of words. He said that from his research he found some of the sayings appear in sheng. He noted that Sheng language has also found its way in Kenya's schools system with students using sheng phrases as Swahili expressions in Swahili essay composition exams. He also noted that the new language has brought about communication problems between parents and their children as children continue to use this language which is "Greek" (that is, "foreign") to the parents.

Comments from the participants centered on differentiating between "proverbs" and "sayings". They were agreed that it is quite challenging to tell what a "saying" is particularly because it is a term that is also used to define a proverb. They however agreed that the term "saying" is general word for various proverbial expressions. They also agreed that most proverbs are didactic because of the underlying moral lesson.

Explaining a proverb: Evans Nyakundi gave an exposition on a Kisii proverb that gives counsel to the elders when judging cases. The proverb, mangana amoche ongareka yachiere ngora, urges elders who are involved in resolving jealousy cases in homes (society) and are somehow party to the dispute should withdraw from being judges. He said that traditional Kisii society was polygamous and so a man's home had many wives who quite often developed disputes of jealousy among themselves. The proverbs thus urged men who were elders to adjudicate in the case through soul searching and taking time to consider if it was right that they could be part of the jury.

He said that this proverb is very much applicable to the current Kenya situation where ethnic consciousness is rife and communities are jealous of each other. He said that leaders tend to be referees, players and spectators at the same time. Participants in the meeting observed that there are many traditional proverbs from various African communities related to the omugaka, Kisii for "arbitrators." Some proverbs advise elders on how to conduct themselves in arbitration of cases. Several Kikuyu proverbs were quoted:

One elder can not arbitrate in a case

The case of the good a person should be treated just like the case of a bad person

You need several elders to preside over a case.

Dr. Wanjohi observed that in Kikuyu society the principle of presumption of innocence until proved guilty was very much applied in the Kikuyu traditional court system. He also said that the court system was democratic and that there were proverbs that acted as an ethical code of conduct for wazee ("elders") or judges.

Analyzing a radio satirist: Dr. Wanjohi's presentation was on how a Kikuyu radio artist uses literary style and proverbs in entertaining and educating the radio audience. The artist, Githingithia (Fred Maina) runs a satiric program on Kameme 101.1 FM, radio station every Monday to Friday. Dr. Wanjohi singled the satiric story of Wednesday, 21st August, 2002. The story title was the English proverb, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The story, narrated in the Kikuyu language, went like this:

During the colonial period in Kenya there were three men Kioi, Githogori and Kaminju who thought they knew everything. They decided to go to adult education classes to learn English. When they went to the school they carried with them books and pencils and put them on a table. When the tutor came he asked them, "Who put these items here?" They said in Kikuyu ni ithuii atatu. The tutor told them that to say this in English they should say we three. They learned these words and went home. The following day the tutor found they had sharpened their pencils very badly "like sugarcanes" and asked them, "What did you use to sharpen the pencils?" They said in Kikuyu na banga. He told them that to say this in English they should say with a panga or knife. They went home and came back the following day. But the tutor told them that he would not teach them until they come back with school fees, that the classes were not free. He sent them away and told them if they were asked why they were sent away they should say it was because of money.


As they walked home they feared that they might forget what they had learned so they decided to assign the three phrases they had learnt so far -- we three, with a panga or knife and because of money -- to the three of them respectively, that is, to Kioi, Githogori and Kaminju. As they were going home they came upon a man who had just been killed so they started looking around the scene. As they were looking around a colonial policeman arrived in a car, saw the dead man and asked, "Who killed him?" Kioi replied, "We three." The policeman asked, "With what?" Githogori replied, "With a panga or knife." The policeman asked further, "Why?" Kaminju replied, "Because of money." Now the three Kikuyu men thought that they knew English quite well and were eager and happy to speak with a white man. But they were immediately handcuffed and landed in jail. So the English proverb, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Dr. Wanjohi, in analyzing the story and the way it is rendered in Kikuyu on the radio, said that Githingithia may not know that the story has all the literary properties of a piece of art such as plot, characters and unity in plot. He also said that it was a "harmless wit/humor," yet it makes someone laugh at the predicament of some unknowing characters. One of the general criticisms of the stories of this artist is that the way he moralizes on the story is not the best. He should leave the listeners to draw the moral of the stories the way they understand them. Wanjohi said that interpreting imposes a personal understanding of the story or proverb on other people. He said that is the reason that even in his collection of proverbs he tries as much as possible to render the literal translation rather than interpreting the proverbs because interpreting would only give his own version of the way he understands the proverb.

Joseph Kariuki (Secretary, Kenya Proverbs Committee)

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