When it comes to wisdom about relationships and enmity, isiZulu has a total of 94 separate proverbs to use in almost every situation. These are some of my favourites, and I particularly enjoy teaching my Class 10s about threats and grudges. In fact, I could write a whole post just about the 24 common proverbs in that sub-category.
The izaga in this group rely quite heavily on natural observation, and also grant a clear view into the martial society of the amaZulu. Before looking at the idea of enmity and threats, it’s important to start with those sayings to do with friendship (eziphathelene nobungane). One of my all-time favourites in this group of ten is ubucwibi obuhle buhamba ngabubili – good waxbills travel in pairs. I used this in a story I wrote for my step-son, Dambuza – what it means is that “two heads are better than one”, because one waxbill (that’s a kind of bird, for all those non-twitchers out there) eats while the other watches for danger. Another proverb in this category is the classic bangamathe nolimi (they are as close as spittle and tongue), which never fails to get an “eeewww” reaction from my classes.
In contrast to those about friendship, isiZulu also has 11 proverbs about enmity and conflict (eziphathelene nobutha nokulwa). Out of all of them, all of the contrasts (enemies are “fowl and wildcat” – inkukhu nempaka) and the expressions for the meeting of opponents on the field of battle (zindala zombili – they’re both full-grown and ready to fight), the one that appeals most to me here is akukho thusi lathetha lilodwa – no copper ever argued alone. Maybe it appeals as a result of our recent spate of copper-theft by local izinyoka, but this proverb speaks of the early trade in brass and copper. Ithusi elimhlophe is brass, where ithusi elibomvu is copper. The verb root seems to be ukuthusa, meaning “to startle someone”, and the ideophone at its heart is thu, an enigmatically wonderful little syllable denoting
1. the puffing out of smoke
2. the sharp report of a gun or a car backfiring
3. demolishing a wall or a house
4. thudding like the beating of carpets or a rifle
5. a pale biscuit or light mustard colour
6. increase, improvement, progress
But that’s a sidetrack, for another blog perhaps. More to the point, this proverb means “it takes two to tango”. A single plate of copper is soundless. put it with another plate and you have a sharp report – THU! Similarly, there is never only one person and one viewpoint in a quarrel.
As I mentioned earlier, isiZulu devotes a wonderfully eloquent section to grudges and threats (eziphathelene namagqubu nezisongo). These would not be out of place in Game of Thrones, and are ideally suited to angry exchanges with taxi drivers or recalcitrant Home Affairs employees. Just a friendly warning, though: be prepared for the spirit of Ilembe’s amabutho to be manifested in a fist to your face if you tell someone ikhanda lingakhel’ ongoso ngelanga (a head can make a home for field-mice in just one day).
Once you’ve made your threats, and decided you’re most decidedly enemies rather than friends, the Japanese would then mention something about digging two graves in your search for revenge. Isizulu speaks of revenge as “ukuphindisa”, a word which literally means “cause to repeat” or “cause to return”. The 6 izaga eziphathelene nokuphindisa generally focus on the destructiveness and inevitability of revenge, but for once there’s a more prosaic proverb I’ve selected here: umenziwa akakhohlwa, kukhohlwa umenzi, which means that “the one done to doesn’t forgets, but the doer forgets”.
In your quest for revenge, there are 18 different proverbs dealing with various types of cruelty and callousness (izaga eziphathelene nolunya). My all-time best one here has a whole story attached to it: impunzi iyathakatha ngokukhamela icimbi ethuvini beqhina (the duiker bewitches by squeezing out a caterpillar onto the steenbok’s dung). The story goes that there was a certain tree which bore delicious fruit, and that all of the animals were prohibited from eating this fruit, which was a vivid green colour. During the night, while everyone was asleep, the impunzi went and ate a whole bunch of the fruit, until his belly was full and he had had enough, whereupon he went somewhere to sleep it off. He awoke to a great commotion, as all the animals living around the tree had discovered the theft of the fruit. Impunzi sidled up to the council of the animals, just in time to hear Impofu sounding off about the dire punishment awaiting the perpetrator. Impunzi, rather than slinking off guiltily, boldly suggested a way to catch the thief. He contended that, since the fruit was green, the dung of the animal who had stolen the fruit would also be green. The witchhunt began, and they soon discovered that the iqhina’s dung was bright green, and swift punishment awaited him. Nobody noticed the empty carapaces of the amacimbi behind the next tree, some green entrails still dripping from them. And nobody saw the duiker’s evil little smile.
IsiZulu devotes almost as much time to stubbornness (inkani) as it does to the other sections. One chosen at random here is said when someone is manifestly not listening: wofika kwangqingetshe (you will reach the-place-of-tight-fastness-as-of-a-rock). One might say that the person is going to hit their head on something hard, but making it into a locative (KwaNgqingetshe) somehow makes it more lyrical, as though the place belonged to a person whose name was ‘Rock-solid’. Another one here (because I know you want more) is isalakutshelwa sibona ngomopho – the-one-who-refuses-to-be-told sees by-the-flow-of-blood. The fool learns by hitting his head.
Finally, after all the stubbornness and cruelty, all the friends and enemies and vengeance and threats, there are a few proverbs dealing with bravery and cowardice (eziphathelene nobuqhawe nobugwala). You’d be right in assuming that is section is particularly important to the amaZulu, fearsome warriors that they are. Of the nine proverbs here, I have chosen indoda ifela ezinkomeni – a man dies among the cattle. The import of this proverb should be obvious, from all that has been said here and elsewhere about the importance of the cattle in the life of the amaZulu. In case it isn’t, here’s what it means – a man should die defending the things that matter most to him, bravely and without any trace of cowardice.
Now that you’ve learnt a few ways to make enemies and insult people ngesiZulu, as well as the earlier explorations of home truths (Hyena Gravy) and Ubuntu (A Bird’s Kidney), you’re now ready to explore the idea of luck, success and misfortune. But only next week.