In the Inqolobane yesizwe, by Nxumalo and Nyembezi, there are 41 different categories of proverbs in isiZulu. 41. Just think about that for a second. The 41st one is ‘miscellaneous’. It alone has 100 different proverbs.

There are 929 proverbs collected in this one book. This list is not exhaustive, at all. And all of these come from an oral tradition, so they would all have been remembered orally long before they were first written down. This is something that many proverbs in many languages have in common.

They are perfectly formed, weathered by time and the scars of the first valley-languages that gave them birth. They defy initial understanding, and some can only truly be understood after years of cattle-herding, after long seasons in the veld spent observing animals and insects. They are rhythmic, tonal, musical haikus of reference and history and meaning.

IsiZulu doesn’t have the monopoly on proverbs, of course. Have a look at the bible. Go and find a Brewers. How many are there in the book of Proverbs?

While I let that sink in, and since I hope to have ignited some kind of spark in your mind, I’m going to carry on.

I’ll give you the category of proverbs, then one representative one from each category. It’s really hard, limiting it to just one proverb. They’re all awesome in their own special way. Today I’m just going to focus on the first category.

The first main category is those proverbs related to the home (ezasekhaya). In it there are eight different sub-categories.

First, those pertaining to marriage (eziphathelene nomendo). Marriage is something which varies greatly across cultures, and for more info on the idea ngesiZulu, you can look here. The proverb I have chosen from this section for is uthand’ alukhethi ludwan’ oluwela kulona – love does not choose the blade of grass on which it falls. The English say that “love is blind”.

Secondly, the establishment of the homesteads (ukwesekwa kwemizi). The umuzi is a lot more inclusive than a simple home – it also means the various dwellings and people under the protection of the umnumzane. The isaga I’ve chosen for here is Akukho muz’ ungathunqi ntuthu – there is no homestead where smoke doesn’t issue. Smoke represents quarrelling, and so the proverb means that every home has its quarrels.

The third sub-category is about raising children (ukukhuliswa kwabantwana). Of course, every culture has something to say about this. My favourite here is inkunzi isemathole – the bull is in the calves. Wordsworth said that “the child is father to the man”, but his English stiffness doesn’t hit as close to the mark as the pastoral imagery of the amaZulu.

Fourth is the one to do with heredity (ufuzo). I used this one yesterday, when there was a large Eastrander in the Roman’s Pizzeria in Edenvale together with his identical son: ukhamba lufuz’ imbiza – the small pot is like the big one. Nuff said.

The fifth’s to do with families (imindeni) in general, and isiZulu has a bunch of different proverbs here. One for a taste is ingwe ikhotha amabala ayo amhlophe namnyama – the leopard licks its spots, white and black. Thus the parents (should) give love to all their children, good and bad.

The sixth category here is to do with conversation (izingxoxo), which might seem like a strange thing to include in this section were it not for the importance of speaking and proper turn-taking in conversation in home life. A very common one here is this: ngigeqa amagula ngiyemuka yini? – am I then going away that I should empty the calabashes? In a roundabout way (involving amasi, of course) what this means is basically “do you want to empty me of all stories as though you were never going to see me again?” and is used when someone is tired of telling stories. The expression ukugeqa amagula can also mean “to come clean”.

The penultimate category for home proverbs is those to do with borrowing and lending (ukweboleka) – always a contentious one, just ask Polonius. The proverbs are a little weird here, and the weirdest is this: into yomuntu ngumhluzi wempisi – a thing belonging to someone else is hyena gravy. According to Nyembezi,

there is a legend which is connected with this expression. The story goes that once upon a time the people of a certain village killed a hyena and cooked it. The gravy they mixed with the uphoko meal to make it thick. To their great amazement, however, the gravy would not thicken. More meal was added, but the gravy still remained as watery as before. When the people had wasted much of their meal with no success, they realized that the gravy of a hyena was useless. Some people state that the expression is derived from from the fact that a hyena is not eaten. Its gravy, therefore, would be of no use to anyone.

What this means is that another person’s possession, when borrowed, is as much use as hyena gravy because it can be recalled at any moment.

Finally, there are the proverbs about what is right and proper (ezingokuhamba ngemfanelo). The one I’ve chosen here again harks back to the pastoral environment: ayikhab’ izibay’ ezimbili – the cow doesn’t kick in two kraals. What that means is that a man is only master in his own home, and a woman is only mistress in her own home too.

So until next time, I leave you with these eight proverbs and their assorted imagery – kicking cows, hyena gravy, maas-calabashes, leopards’ spots, little pots, bulls in calves, smoking homesteads and love falling on blades of grass. Next are those to do with ubuntu.