There is a vast collection of izaga about success and failure ngesiZulu, and these are some of the most common of them all (and some of the most figurative). Luck, misfortune, unsuccesful attempts, impossible feats, failure, despair, uncertainty and rivalry are all discussed in this part of the izaga.

The first section of these proverbs is those eziqondene nenhlanhla (to do with luck). In English, if you want to say someone was born lucky you refer to silver spoons – isiZulu says uphakathi komhlane nembeleko (you are between the back and the carrying skin) instead, which is a reference to the way that babies were transported before blankets, in a softened carrying-skin called an imbeleko. You are at your safest, and your most fortunate, when you are between your Mama’s back and the carrying skin. This imbeleko features in another proverb too, to do with a loss of hope, which is that akulahlwa mbeleko ngokufelwa (the carrying skin isn’t thrown away when there is bereavement), an encouragement to mothers to have hope for the future.

If you want to say that something lucky occurred, you don’t talk about carrying-skins. Put yourself in the shoes (so to speak) of someone attending a traditional ceremony (an umcimbi or umsebenzi) at which an animal will be sacrificed. After the deed is done, after the man with the knife has pierced the animal at the third cervical vertebra (an isiZulu expression, uyihlabe esikhonkosini, which means that ‘you hit the nail on the head) and the meat is being divvied up, you eagerly await your portion. During the process of cutting pieces of meat, some of it falls on the ground. It is considered to be most lucky if (inyama) iwe ngoboya (the meat fell hair-side down) – which is an expression reminiscent of toast falling butter-side-up. So next time you want to say “that was lucky”, think of not having to pick grit from your steak as you chew.

There are, to balance out all those lovely proverbs about luck, an enormous number of izaga eziphathelene namashwa (proverbs dealing with misfortune). The word ishwa is one I spent a lot of time with during my MA – it is derived from the ideophone shwa denoting the streaking of a comet across the sky, or of a horn ripping a red gash in the side of a cow. Misfortune is thus sharp and sudden and destructive.

There are so many proverbs in this section that Prof Nyembezi grouped them into sub-groups. The first proverb I’ve chosen here is ilumbo lidla umninilo (the magic eats its owner), which is a perfect corollary for the English expression used by Shakespeare in Hamlet Act 3, Scene 4, line 207 –

For tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar

Where the petar(d) was a cone filled with explosive in order to break open fortified doors. You had to light it and run, and if you didn’t get out of the way in time you would be hoisted up into the air by it and, most probably, die. Thus you would be destroyed by your own artifice, as the wizard would be if tainted by his own magic. There are many other versions of this proverb – uzidlise ngobuthi bakhe (he has poisoned himself with his own poison), uzihlabe ngowakhe (he stabbed himself with his own spear), and inqaba inqabela umniniyo (the fortress denies its owner entry).

The second one in the misfortune category is negwababa lize liphathe umgodo nonhloyile afise (even the crow will have a piece of excrement that the hawk envies). It falls into the section of ‘fortune is fickle’. Basically, the hawk is a very successful hunter, and usually gets enough to eat. By contrast, the crow is a carrion-eater and much less formidable in general. But the tables may turn one day, and the crow could have something that the hawk longs for. To modernize this, one might say that the Alexandrian shack-dweller might one day have something the Sandtonite values. One might also say that the Sandtonite should help the Alexandrian, as one day the Alexandrian might be in a position to help him/her.

Finally, in this section on amashwa, there is the proverb kuhlwile phambili, kusile emuva (it’s gone dark ahead, and it has risen behind). This is an expression used when the approaching situation seems to bad to continue, and one should withdraw before too much is lost.

The next set of proverbs are those eziphathelene nokwenza okungenakuba nampumelelo (concerning acting without success), another group erring on the pessimistic side of the spectrum. My favourite here has to do with the mirage, uTalagu. The coolest thing here is that the mirage is a person – for thise reason, I told my kids a whole story cycle involving uNogandilanga (the Barbet) and uTalagu. The proverb here is uyoze ubambe utalagu ngesandla (you will eventually catch Talagu in your hands). It means that you are engaging in an act of futility, similar to traversing Joburg during an umnyamangabomu.

Another proverb in this category has special resonance for me, since it concerns my happy place, the kitchen. Umpheki udla intuthu (the cook eats smoke) is self-explanatory, as it tells the story of hard work in the kitchen going unrewarded.

These next two are among the most useful things you can say when something’s utterly impossible, izaga eziqondene nento engenakwenzeka noma sekunjani (the proverbs dealing with things that can never happen, no matter what). In English, this is the realm of flying pigs. In isiZulu there are a lot of different options here – though my personal favourite (for obvious reasons) is that umlungu angathunga isicoco (a white man could weave a headring). An isicoco is a marker of a man’s maturity in the culture of the amaZulu, and would be woven together once he had become an umnumzane. However, there would be no need of an umlungu weaving one of those, as there are different markers of that transition in the isilungu culture. So this is an equivalent for ‘pigs might fly’.

Secondly, isiZulu suggests that kungawa ilanga licoshwe zinkukhu (the sun may fall and be pecked up by chickens), which is such a totally awesome image. I imagine the chickens scratching and clucking and going kho kho kho kho kho in the dust, until they find the glowing orb of the sun and start to peck at it, tearing off pieces in a flurry of feathers and beaks and claws.

If you failed to heed the warnings of the previous few categories, then this next one is specially for you – eziphathelene nokwahluleka (proverbs to do with failure). There are many to choose from, including the one about izimbeleko mentioned earlier. The one I’ve chosen here is specifically related to someone being bested in argument – amathe abuyele kwasifuba (the saliva has gone back to the chest). This is equivalent to the English “he was made to swallow his words”.

Another one in this category, of a more generic nature, is that ithemba kalibulali (hope doesn’t kill). This is the heading of a programme on uKhozi FM, in which people phone in to ask for people who’ve disappeared or who’ve abandoned their families. Yes, it’s as grim as it sounds, and I end up in tears if I listen to it. Basically, this is a proverb to say that one shouldn’t die as a result of your hopes being dashed.

If the previous section wasn’t depressing enough, the next one is what happens once you’ve failed – ezingobunzima nokuphela kwethemba (proverbs about hardship and despair). I’ve just chosen one here – ukhukho lumuka nomoya (the mat is going away with the wind). Nyembezi’s explanation here is as follows

the Zulu grass mat for sitting on or for sleeping is easily carried away if there is wind. A person who is very ill, and all attempts at curing him seem useless, is likened unto a mat which is being blown away by the wind.

So when all hope is lost, and death is imminent, people are likened to grass mats.

Only two left in this category of proverbs. The first is those eziqondene nokuthandabuza (proverbs dealing with uncertainty), which might also be termed the “God knows how this is going to turn out” category. The one I’ve chosen here is kayihlatshwa mvusi, ihlatshwa abaphambili (it isn’t stabbed and killed by the ones who raise it, but by those ahead). This proverb is taken from hunting, where one hunting party would raise or flush out game but not necessarily catch or kill the one they raised. It is used most often referring to courting, where one young man will eventually succeed with a particularly beautiful girl who has resisted the advances of many others. It can also be used when someone’s good idea is stolen by others, who then benefit from it.

Finally, once you’ve succeeded or failed, you then have to deal with the fallout – eziphathelene nemibango (proverbs to do with feuds). These are quite visceral, and the one I’ve chosen has to do with the process of butchering a beast after a sacrifice – kwehlukana inhloko nesixhanti (the head is separating from the neck and ribs). When a beast is slaughtered, the various parts are divided up – the head usually goes with the neck and the ribs, but the head itself is specially for the men and so must also be cut away, leaving the isixhanti behind. This expression is used when a final decision is being made in a dispute – because the cut has been made.
So if you’re thinking about luck and misfortune, the images that should be running through your head are those of carrying-skins, meat falling hair side down, crows and hawks and mirages, chickens pecking at the sun and huge pieces of meat being divvied up.