|Na mhuli igatumagwa. (Sukuma)
Hata tembo hutumwa. (Swahili)
Même l’éléphant peut-être envoyé. (French)
Even an elephant, that is, an important person, can be sent. (English)
Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverb
Background, Explanation and Everyday Use
The Sukuma Ethnic Group is the largest ethnic group (“8,130,000 increasing” according to the 2016 Ethnologue: Languages of the World) 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. 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.
A long time ago the Sukuma people told a story about God that followed the stories in the Bible. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit met in heaven to discuss human beings and their many problems on earth. It was decided that they would send Jesus Christ to earth to solve all these problems. So, God sent Jesus Christ, a very important person, to earth. In fact, God sent the greatest person — Jesus Christ his beloved son — to redeem humankind.
From this story came the Sukuma proverb Even an elephant, that is, an important person, can be sent. In creating this proverb, the Sukuma people used the symbol of the elephant, the largest and strongest animal, to teach the values of humility and missionary service.
In some ways this Sukuma proverb and its teaching is countercultural. Some African men consider it a near taboo to be sent by a woman.
This Sukuma story/proverb is posted on the:
Sukuma Legacy Project Website (No. 152)
The Sukuma story is told is Sukuma, Swahili and English.
Nanetya Foundation: Ethnic Stories in Mother Tongues Website
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (theology of the incarnation)
John 20:17: “Jesus said [to Mary Magdalene), ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (reversal: Jesus Christ the important person sends a woman)
Philippians 2:8: "Jesus Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross." (classic biblical text)
Philippians: 2:7: “Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (classic biblical text)
Contemporary Use and Religious Application
The use of this proverb in an African context is seen in the true Tanzanian story “The Sukuma Bishop Who Was Sent by His Worker:”
One day a Sukuma bishop in Tanzania prepared to go on a safari to a distant parish in his diocese. One of the workers on the compound of the bishop’s residence wanted to send a package to a friend who lived in the very place where the bishop was going. Before asking help from the bishop to carry the package, he used the proverb Even an elephant (that is, an important person) can be sent. The bishop immediately agreed to take the package.
On 15 June, 2018 at the end of the Maryknoll Mission Institute at Maryknoll, New York, USA each participant was asked to choose an animal. I chose the elephant and presented the missionary characteristic of humility as portrayed in the Sukuma, Tanzania proverb Even an elephant (that is, an important person) can be sent.
This Sukuma proverb can be used in connection with the Christian teaching on servant leadership. Pope Francis urges a leadership style that is more listening, more accompanying and less clerical, hierarchical and self-reverential. The Christian tries to imitate Christ in his humility and service.
NOTE: This story/proverb has been published, explained and applied in many places – print and online. Here are some references:
Sybertz, Towards an African Narrative Theology, (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 1996 (1st Reprint 1996, 2nd Reprint 1997, 3rd Reprint 2000, 4th Reprint 2005, 5th Reprint 2012) and Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997, (many reprints, New Cover, 2012). Available as an Ebook on Amazon (for Kindle) and Google.
Rev. Donald Sybertz, MM
Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers
P.O. Box 321
Maryknoll, NY 10545-0321
Rev. Joseph G. Healey, MM
P.O. Box 43058
00100 Nairobi, Kenya
0723-362-993 (Safaricom, Kenya)
973-216-4997 (AT&T, USA)
Photographs provided by:
Cephas Yao Agbemenu
Department of Fine Arts
P.O. Box 43844