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A festival of proverbs

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Today I am going to set up what I shall call a festival of proverbs from across the motherland – Africa. I feel very proverbial and wise! I have also heard that the study of proverbs is called paremiology and that a person who studies proverbs is called a paremiologist.

The study of proverbs has been built by a number of notable scholars and contributors. Earlier scholars were more concerned with collecting than analysing proverbs. Desiderius Erasmus was a Latin scholar (1466 – 1536), whose collection of Latin proverbs, known as Adagia, spread Latin proverbs across Europe. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the Anglican bishop in Nigeria, published a collection of Yoruba proverbs.

But, what is a proverb? It is said that proverbs a the Latin word – proverbium which means a simple and insightful, traditional saying that expresses a perceived truth based on common sense or experience.

In his book of 1659 called Paroimiografa, James Howell writes that chief ingredients which go to make a true proverb are sense, shortness and salt.

Proverbs are also referred to as “the wit of one and the wisdom of many.” This means that although each proverb belongs to a specific community, there must be an individual who may have arranged it in the specific words through which a proverb has been known.

It means that “the author may only have clothed in happier form what others had already felt and uttered.” Proverbs are therefore communal property.

That proverbs are handed down over generations, make them qualify as part of folklore. That is why Wofgang Mieder proposed in 1993 that: “A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed, and memorisable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.”

There are various types of proverbs depending on how they function. There is a synonymous proverb, where both lines of the proverb say the same things only in different ways. Example:

“Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.”

There is the antithetical proverb whereby the teaching is presented in the first line, and the negative of the teaching or opposite is presented in the second line. A lot of the antithetical proverbs inform the reader in the first line that if you do this, you will be blessed; but if you don’t, this is what will happen. For example “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”

You will usually find the word “but” in an antithetical proverb because two different ideas are being contrasted.

There is the synthetic proverb, which is defined as a composition or combination of parts, elements that form the whole. In a synthetic proverb, both lines seem to express a totally different thought — even opposites — yet they have one common theme. Example: “The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.”

The first line is concerned with lying or falsehood, and the second line talks about slander or malicious talk. Although the actions are opposites—one conceals while the other expresses true feelings…the results are the same…harm and injury.

There is the integral proverb in which the second line of the proverb completes the first line. The thought often flows so well that it looks like one continuous thought. Example: “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” The second line emphasizes the result of applying the first line.

There is the parabolic proverb where the first line illustrates the second line. The teaching is found in the second line while the first line is an analogy. The word analogy means similarity. Example:

“A gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”

There is the comparative proverb which compares one thing with another to illustrate a common trait or theme. Example: “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike.”

In some comparative proverbs, the first line expresses something which is better or more desirable than what is listed in the second line.

Somebody has actually indicated that in Africa, we even have proverbs about proverbs and these are called metaproverbs! The Afar of Ethiopia say: “Proverbs are the cream of language.” This may mean that in the Afar community, a great and entertaining speaker ought to fill up his speech with proverbs.

Another metaproverb is from the Yoruba of Nigeria which goes, “Proverbs are the horses of speech, if communication is lost we use proverbs to find it.” From that you may discern that the horse occupies a position of pride in the Yoruba society.

The Arabic in Cairo actually say, “A proverb does not lie.” This tells you that proverbs are considered to be wise sayings that are coming from a long period of constant observation and experience and that through time, such observation have been proven true.

There are proverbs about virtually every subject in all communities. There are many exciting and insightful Moroccan proverbs about travellers and travelling to new lands. One of them goes: “A country should be entered by the aid of its owners.”

This means that the traveller should respect the customs of the country that he visits and even put up with things that he would not tolerate in his own home country in order to remain safe and tolerable.

In line with the above, another Moroccan proverb of travel goes, “If you find them worshipping a donkey, bring it grass.” It means that you may not survive in foreign countries if you go about loudly attacking the way they worship, the way they live or the way they marry.

Another Moroccan proverb actually says more about the traveller, “When you travel with him, you get to know the traveler.” This means that sometimes people really display fully who they are when they are far away from home.

It is because when one is far away from home, one feels that he is far away from the inhibiting eyes of family. With all that new found freedom, the traveller starts to do what he has always wanted

to do.
The people of Morocco also say that a man who has moved from his village because he disliked the people there, but finds that the inhabitants of the new place are just as bad, may make the following proverbial remark, “The whole sea is salt.”

The Basotho people have very many exciting proverbs based on animals and birds. One of them goes: “Though it is four legged, the horse falls” (Pitsi e oa e le maoto-mane), meaning that errors can be performed by all, including by the seemingly stable and experienced. Such a proverb is clearly used to admonish those who think that they are too comfortable and experienced to err. One way or the other, failure or downfall visits all of us.

One other animal based proverb from the Basotho goes, “A cow which is threshing corn cannot be stopped from eating in the process” (E polang, ha e tlangoe molomo.) This may mean that those who work deserve to be paid or those who work should be expected to have certain obvious privileges within the territories where they work.

It is expected that those who grow a crop should have a more regular supply of it than all the other people.

A rather sad Sotho proverb goes, “The hen will die and the eggs will rot” (E ea shoa mahe a bole). Clearly this means that as soon as the protector dies, those who have been protected all along may actually die too or their fortunes may dwindle to very low levels.

The community, in all its wisdom realises that the individual does not live solely for himself. In all Africa, family comes first. When you see an individual in Africa, you must know that he could be responsible for many other people in his home and in the villages beyond.

I love beef and my favourite Sesotho proverb is “The grave of a cow is the mouth.” (Bitla la khomo ke molomo.) I sit here wondering how many cows got buried in my mouth ever since I started eating meat.

I came across Igbo proverbs that are also attributed to animals. The first one goes, “The female toad said that her husband is so sweet that when she got married, she carried her husband permanently on her back.”

This proverb is particularly attributed to a species of toad that carries the male counterpart on its back during a certain season. This proverb is apparently humorous and is used to push women into loving and providing for their husbands.

Another interesting Igbo proverb is attributed to the tortoise. It goes, “The tortoise who wants people to help it lift the earth unto its head, should show people where they will stand during this task.” This proverb appears to be a retort or a response to a person who makes impossible propositions in the community. There are limits to some of the things that we wish to do.

Another Igbo proverb is attributed to the dog: “The dog said that it barks for the benefit of its owner and the thief too.” This means that there is no single way of understanding somebody’s actions in the community. Some people’s intentions are not very clear whom they are meant to benefit and we need to be careful.

Another animal based Igbo proverb goes: “The sheep said that gazing is a big job.” This means that one should not underrate somebody else’s assignment even if it appears simple. The one undertaking the seemingly easy assignment may actually feel very engrossed in it.

The Ashanti proverbs based on relations are very intriguing. One of them goes; “When the Chief who will kill you has not come onto the throne, can you count how many chiefs you have served under?” This may mean that you may not exactly know your fate until the very end and your duty therefore is to be careful all the time.

Another Ashanti proverb goes: “When your mother dies, you have no kindred left.” This proverb shows that a mother’s love is irreplaceable. A mother is a very important person in the life of a child. This ties up well with a Swahili proverb which goes; “A hen’s kick does not hurt her chick. (Teke Ia kuku halimwumizi mwanawe.)

Another Ashanti proverb: “When you walk behind your father, you learn to walk like him.” It means that a son learns a lot about life through observing and listening to those before him and he is most likely going to behave and talk like his elders before him.

The Ashanti also say; “The enemy of a Chief is he who has grown up with him from childhood.” This may mean that the real threat to the individual comes from people who know him very intimately for a long time. Only they know full well the weaknesses of a man.

The Ashanti also say; “By the time the fool has learned to play the game, the players have dispersed.” This may mean that wisdom and knowledge tend to be a closely guarded secret and one does not become wise when his rivals are unwilling to share with him.

Another Ashanti proverb, “When you go to someone’s town and he kills a fowl for you to eat, it is not his fowl that you have eaten, but your own which is at home.” This may mean that for all the good done by others unto you, you are bound to pay back one day, in equal measure. There is not much gain in receiving good treatment because you are bound to repay it.

As you read Achebe’s novel, arrow of God, you notice that Umuaro (Africa) has beautiful and systematic thought patterns and knowledge systems. This is seen through the Ibgo people’s constant references to events in the past and the wisdom stored in the wide variety of proverbs and idioms like;

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool, When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing, The fly that has no one to advise it follows the corpse into the grave, When we see an old woman stop in her dance to point again and again in the same direction we can be sure that somewhere there something happened long ago which touched the roots of her life, He whose name is called again and again by those trying in vain to catch a wild bull has something he alone can do to bulls….”

Memory Chirere

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We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

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For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Insight

Call that a muffin?

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In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

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I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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