The source of this latest meditation on Proverbs or Izaga ngesiZulu is a proverb that runs

amaqili awakhelani

the cunning do not build next to one another

It falls under Nyembezi’s classificiation of Ukwethembeka nokungathembeki – Honesty and Dishonesty. The first sub-section of these proverbs is Inkohliso (Deception), which I’ve dealt with grammatically in another post. The proverbs here are not the focus of today’s blog, but they will be soon.

Today’s sub-section is Ubuqili – Cunning. First, let’s unpack what ubuqili actually is.

I(li)qili (plural amaqili) is a cunning person. More specifically, according to Vilakazi and Doke, “a clever, cunning or crafty person”. It gives rise to an essential noun, ubuqili, which means “cleverness, cunning, craftiness or trickery”, offering the synonyms ubungqa and ubungqo. It also has a denominative verb, ukuqiliza, meaning “to be cunning, play tricks, or act craftily”.

But it’s not only that the cunning don’t make good neighbours, they also don’t engage in trade with one another, and they don’t sleep in the same room. Amaqili awathengani and amaqili kalali ndlininye express these exact phrases. So basically they’re incompatible with each other.

And the reasons for this are expressed by the other proverbs in this section. The first is one of my favourites, because it involves the practice of roasting and eating locusts. Other bits of idiom to do with locusts include “wethemb’ inqond’ elingenantethe” (he trusts in a leg without an attached locust) and “uyokomel’ othini njengentethe” (you shall dry up on a twig like a locust). This one is not a threat.

iqili (ng)elintethe-zosiwa-muva

an iqili is one-of-those-locusts-roasted-last-people

You see, this saying predates amagwinya and niknaks from a roadside vendor on the way to herding cattle. Foraging for food was the norm among abelusi. And what one did was to find and skewer locusts over the course of the day. Once enough had been gathered, someone would light a fire and begin roasting the catch. Everyone would share the sticks of locusts, each taking one insect and crunching through it with glee. The cunning one, however, would wait longer than anyone else to produce a full stick’s worth. He’d wait until everyone had eaten their fill of the locusts, and so he had the whole stick to himself. Clever boy. But not necessarily well-liked.

So, what do you do to deal with iqili? How does one stop him from continuing with his tricks? Well, isiZulu has a saying for that too:

ameva ayabangulana

thorns remove each other

In English, the expression is “send a thief to catch a thief” or even “fight fire with fire”. In isiZulu, the idea is based around a perennial problem – what to do when one has trodden on a wickedly long acacia thorn. Before cunningly crafted metal tweezers, people would apparently carry thorns around with them in order to do a similar job. Apparently, nothing was better for removing thorns than another thorn. So too with the cunning tricksters – they can only be defeated by one of their own kind. A related saying is that:

iqili lidliwa ngamany’ amaqili

an iqili is consumed by other amaqili

Many of the tricks of iqili are related to speech, and as such there are a number of proverbs here about that too. They relate most closely to the actual mouth, umlomo. Here are a few of them:

umlomo awushaywa {the mouth is not struck}

umlomo yishoba lokuziphungela {the mouth is a tail for driving off flies}

umlomo yisihlangu sokuzivikela {the mouth is a shield for self-defence}


umlomo kawukhelwa hlahla {a mouth does not have any branch picked for it}

Basically, even though the mouth may be the cause of much strife, and may be responsible for many issues in life, it never receives any form of physical punishment – while at the same time being useful for self-defence and preservation. A person’s speech may cause strife, but it is expected that it will likewise be used in an individual’s defence.

The final proverbs in this sub-category are to do with legal matters – after all, what could be more cunning than a lawyer (or a weasel, not to put too fine a point on it)? The first of two proverbs to do with icala has already been discussed here, together with a close analysis of the word itself. But there’s one that wasn’t discussed there:

kakucala laswel’ izaba

there is no case that ever lacked justification/excuses

Which seems like a fitting place to leave it, in light of present political matters.