Kikuyu Wisdom in Proverbs
Introduction to the Kikuyu People
The Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya were traditionally agriculturalists, practicing mixed farming. They kept cattle, sheep and goats but in small numbers than the Maasai who are a classic case of pastoralists. That Kikuyu language is third most widely used language. The first Swahili followed by English, which is the official language. There is however very little literature in the Kikuyu language. The word Gĩkũyũ has three meanings;
- the name of the ethnic group,
- the language they speak
- the name of the patriarch who initiated the group.
When referring to the community, Gĩkũyũ is singular and Agĩkũyũ is for several persons. The word Gĩkũyũ was transformed to Kikuyu by the British colonialists and is now more widely used when a text is written in English.
The Kikuyu belong to the Highland Bantu linguistic group which includes the Kuria, Embu, Tharaka, Meru, Kamba, Gusii and Kuria of Kenya. Other Highland Bantu groups reside in Tanzania. These include the Chagga, Shashi, Segeju, Sonjo, Ikoma, Nguruimi, Gweno and the Zanaki. The Meru of Tanzania also belong to this group, but it must be noted that apart from the name, they are not a dialect of the Meru of Kenya. Finally, the Highland Bantus belong to the larger Niger-Congo family, in the Benue-Congo language branch. The Kikuyu have three Counties which roughly follow pre-colonial boundaries of the Gaki (Nyeri), Metumi (Muranga) and Kabete or Kiambu divisions of standard Kikuyu language. Of the three, the Nyeri accent is unique and easily betrays the speakers origins.
Proverbs Encapsulate a People's Timeless Wisdom
All human communities without exception have proverbs which were memorized and passed from generation to generation through oral traditions in pre-historic and modern times. These proverbs, while expressing a people's wisdom mostly through experience, do contradict themselves as indeed human's do when it suits them. Due to similarities in human experiences, any proverb in one community will express a truth or experience that can be expressed in a different proverb from another community. For example, the Kikuyu say that "a group working together can lift the mortar (that was used with a pestle)." The Kikuyu mortar was huge and could not be lifted by one person. The English equivalent is "many hands make light work."
G. Barra, an Italian missionary, collected one thousand Kikuyu proverbs and compiled them in a book published by the Kenya Literature Bureau. Another author of Kikuyu origin, Mr Ngumbu Njururi, collected five hundred and ninety and compiled them in his own book which was published by the Oxford University Press. It is highly likely that the Kikuyu who were pre-literate society before colonialism in the early 1800's had more than one thousand proverbs.
The collection here is only to whet the appetite of anyone wishing to make a study of more Kikuyu proverbs. G. Barra published a collection of 1000 proverbs in 1939 and there is reason to believe that there could have been more out there. Proverbs show how timeless human wisdom is and how it cuts across cultures. Further, proverbs are window into how a community lived and viewed life. For example, a pastoralist society if bound to have many proverbs that are based on domestic animals and probably non on farming.
The Kikuyu traditional judicial system followed the basics of natural justice - no one should be judged without being given a chance to be heard. It required both the plaintiff and the defendant to be represented by elders from their respective families. These elders are the ones who talked during the hearing, as the plaintiff and defendant were not allowed to speak except in very special cases. A council of neutral elders sat to hear the case. The Plaintiff supplied the fees in goats for the Council of Elders to agree to hear the case. After the hearing some of the goats would be slaughtered for all the elders to eat, including the Plaintiff's and defendant's elders. It was therefore an expensive undertaking to feed all the elders at every sitting so it was in the Plaintiffs interest to conclude the matter as soon as possible, hence the proverb "a lengthy case will lead to poverty." Another proverb that conveys similar sentiments states that “a fool extends his case for an unnecessarily long period."
During war with other neighbouring tribes, most notably the Maasai, the Kikuyu (as was the case with most African communities) had to be blessed by a traditional doctor/seer. If according to his divination the time was not right for a victory, the raid was called off. One of the most important roles of the Seer was to bless the troop so that they would fight as one unified group. Without unity, they could be defeated "with one club", a piece of wood, yet they all carried spears and shields.
Like Father Like Son
This proverb implies that some vices run in the family. If you come across a friend who steals, you might like to study his family background. If a husband is stingy, it is likely that his father is stingy. People from homes that have domestic violence are likely to export that behaviour to their new homes. There is a grain of truth in saying just as the English long found out when they coined the proverb - like father like son.
Be Part of a Community
When a young man after initiation desired to move from his mother's house as was expected, he called his age mates to help him build his hut. A Kikuyu hut was built in one day, regardless of the size. This required the mobilisation of the necessary labour. Should a young man decide to build his own house, it would have meant cutting and transporting the wood, cutting and transporting the grass for thatching, fetching all the water required, kneading the clay for plastering not to mention building the foundation and all the contraction and finishing works required. This would have killed any able bodied man since the house had to be ready for occupation by sunset - hence the saying that "a fool will be killed by work that should otherwise be communal."
Hard Work is Celebrated
A beautiful girl cost more dowry during negotiations. This dowry with was paid in cows and goats greatly enriched a father who had several beautiful girls. However, the suitor’s elders could counter the issue of beauty during the negotiations with this proverbs - beauty is not eaten. This meant that a hard worker was more valued as she would work on the farm and ensure that her family was adequately supplied with food. Rich men usually married more wives to help with work on the farm.
Exert Yourself, Don't be Timid
The cow or bull that is not strong will be elbowed out of the way at the drinking hole. By the time the big ones are done drinking, the water will be very muddy indeed. This may happen all the time unless one adopts a different strategy - like getting up earlier than all the rest. Simply put, either grow some muscle or adopt a new strategy.
Save for a Rainy Day
Being a farming community, every Kikuyu homestead had a granary that build with woven sticks to allow a free flow of air to remain cool. It was also raised from the ground to keep moisture and rodents away from the grain. It so happened that some families consumed and sold all their grain in times of plenty. When the weather turned around and the rains failed, families with nothing in the granary turned to begging from those who had stored some grain. "If you have some savings, you will not go hungry." In the modern economy, one should have some savings in case of hard times."
Time and Tide Waits for no Man
Kikuyus have several proverbs to remind you that you are aging; that "time and tide waits for no man" as the English would say. The knife that was once sharp gets blunt, eventually. Here are translations of two more Kikuyu proverbs that have a similar meaning;
1. The dancer now sits down to watch other dancers.
2. The fellow that that used to jump (when fording a river) now wades in the water.
The Law of Forensics
This proverb echoes one of the Principles of Forensic Science - Principle of Exchange. "when a criminal or his instrument of crime come in contact with the victim or the objects surrounding him, they leave traces...." Simply put, if a cow is slaughtered, expect to find traces of blood.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Lying is despised everywhere, even among the Kikuyu. This proverb discourages against lying by warning that the vice cannot go on forever. In any case, a professional liar has to make up many more lies to the cover up for the earlier ones. At some point, one is bound to forget an earlier lie which will lead to confusion during interrogation.
Seek Knowledge Always
When you are talking to a clever person, they have a way of feeling in the blanks. These is proverb is usually said when two people are discussing someone without wanting to mention names. The listener is expected to act clever and fill in the missing blanks without expecting too much information, especially at a place where others may be listening.
Be Generous wth the Little You Have
To this day a Kikuyu will feel embarrassed to eat as you watch. No matter how little the food is it is shared even with complete strangers. Things have changed in urban settings but the rural folk believe in this old adage that "if you eat alone, you will die alone." This means that in case you come under attack and scream for help, no one will come to help you and you will literally die alone. But if you were a generous person who participated in communal activities, there will be many people willing to answer you distress call and even willing to die for your cause.
It is Better to be Brainy than Brawny
Sometimes strong people use their power to settle scores or even argument. This what is English is called using brawn rather than brain. Reasoning can lead others to agree with you and even support your cause. So next time you are in an argument, avoid pulling back your sleeves to settle the matter.
Nock and it Shall be Opened Unto to You
Knock and it shall be opened unto you, so the Bible says. Be proactive and you will go places. When in need, shyness will not solve your problem. Let others know, knock doors until you achieve what you want. A homeless or hungry person will remain in that state for a long time if they feel shy to speak out to those who are in a position to help.
A Parent's Love is Unconditional
A parent has maternal and paternal instincts which makes them sympathetic, protective and ready to defend even an errant child. If you have serious problems, the first people who should know are your parents. They will even sell a valuable property like a farm or house to defend you in court. These feelings should be reciprocal however. Children should take care of their parents after their (parents') energy and resources have been drained.
Go Out and Seek Wealth and Knowledge
The Kikuyu believed in waking up early to go to the farm. The farmer, both male and female usually stayed in the farm the whole day. One either carried a small bag (kondo) with a packed meal, a gourd of porridge or both. The Kikuyu practiced mixed farming so there were cows, sheep and goats to take to pasture too. The only people who remained at home all day were toddlers and their caretakers, invalids and the very old. This saying emphasizes that it is wrong to spend all your time at home when you are able. One of my uncles used to add that when you stay in bed, your are asking poverty to come and find you.
Reuse and Recycle
Most of the things that are abandoned outside the house are usually deemed to be useless. They are soon disposed off during cleanups. This proverb warns that there are some items that are better left undisturbed even when they appear to have been abandoned. A thread, twine and rope are the example given here. In modern times we can add wires and plastic bottles. This proverb is a good advocate for a "re-use" campaign.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Emmanuel Kariuki