izimvubu nezingwenya

In all the change and chaos this week brought to things in general, what with last-minute about-turns and an 11th-hour resignation, there was one little gem that I choose to pick out.

It involves hippopotami, crocodiles, and isaga sesiZulu (a Zulu proverb).

You see, just before 18:30 on Wednesday (usuku lwezithandani, futhi) I was on my way to a lesson – and, of course, I was listening to uKhozi FM. Specifically, I was listening to Abasikibebunda, the evening current affairs programme – and when I tuned in it sounded like Msholozi had actually passed away. An anonymous reporter was recounting everything that had happened in the years that he had been president, obituary-style. And then the presenter welcomed Nhlanhla Mntaka to the show – a political analyst and editor of Bayede newspaper. I’ve mentioned his other engagement with uKhozi FM before – Hlaziya ipolitiki ngolimi lwakho (Analyse politics in your language) – and I am a great fan of his work. Perhaps I am an even greater fan after the story I’m about to relate.

With the commercials needing to be aired, and with the headlines at 18:30 drawing near, the presenter interrupts the analyst’s flow of speech, and says:

MfokaMntaka, sesiphethe-nje – ngifuna siphinde sibuyele lapho enkulumeni uMengameli  abe nayo, ekhethekile, noSABC. Nokuyilapho phinde futhi khona ngaphambi kokuba aphethe inkulumo, akuchasise khona ukuthi-ke kungase kube ne-crisis eNingizimu Afrika, uma ubheka indlela lolu daba olusingathwe ngayo ngubuholi be-ANC.

{Man of the Mntaka clan, we’re wrapping up now – I want that we return to the speech that the president gave, the special one, with the SABC. And specifically the point just before he concluded his speech, where he explained that there may actually be a ‘crisis’ in South Africa, if one looks at the way that this issue was dealt with by the leadership of the ANC.}

And he replies:

IsiZulu sinaso isisho. Sithi isiZulu: Ak’kho zinyane lemvubu ladliwa zingwenya kwacweba isiziba. Angikwazi ukuchaza ngokudlula lapho.

{the Zulu language has a saying. What the language says is: it doesn’t happen that the hippo calf is eaten by crocodiles and the pool (in which they both dwell) remains clear. I am not able to explain this more accurately than that.}

And it ends there. The presenter thanks him for his input, and the show cuts to commercial. A proverb is considered a perfect answer to the topic under discussion.

But how does this proverb relate to the issue at hand? Who is the hippo-calf, and who the crocodiles?

Firstly, the way the proverb was used in the broadcast is a variation of the more standard one: “Izinyane lemvubu kalidliwanga yingwenya kwacweba iziziba” {with the hippo’s calf not eaten by a crocodile, the pools remained clear}.

Here’s how uSolwazi Nyembezi explains it:

  1. Inqolobane, ekhasini 158: uma uzwise omunye ubuhlungu obukhulu, lindela ukuthi naye hleze aziphindisele. {if you cause another great pain, expect that they will of course exact revenge}
  2. Zulu proverbs, page 79: Crocodiles and hippopotami live in the water. The crocodile, if it should ever eat the hippo calf, must expect trouble from the parent. The water cannot be clear because of the blood of the calf, and also because of the fight of the parent. Therefore, when one does something which hurts extremely, one should expect results.

So, there are a few more questions. Is Zuma the hippo calf? In which case, who’s the hippo cow or bull that will defend him? Is Ramaphosa the crocodile?

While I leave you to ponder the effect of the battle between a hippo and a crocodile on our economy and our daily lives, I want to say one more thing.

I think it is absolutely awesome that an answer that makes sense, gets listeners thinking and that is culturally resonant can be expressed as a single proverb.

Ngubunyoninco bangempela.




umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

{What follows is a meditation on the deeper meaning of this proverb, which I wrote as an explanation for some work that a friend of mine is currently doing on the intersection between ubuntu and human rights.}

This is the phrase which is so often uttered as an expression of ubuntu – I have seen it scrawled on walls and have heard it proclaimed by various government functionaries as the ideal towards which we must all strive. But what does it mean?

Now that’s not an easy answer, even though the first level of translation is:

a human is a human through other humans

a person is a person through other people

Here’s where the interesting thing happens. What is the word for human, from which the word ubuntu is derived? The obvious immediate answer is that it is ‘umuntu’, in the first or human noun class (NC 1). But this word is sometimes used in a way that belies its other meanings. To have a closer look, Vilakazi’s (1958) dictionary gives us a window:

umu-ntu (plural abantu)

  1. a human being, a person
  2. a member of an African indigenous race; a Black person
  3. a person with human feelings

The added connotation of umuntu (the second meaning) is that of an African person, which means that the proverb used above can also mean:

an African person is an African person because of African people

That seems all fine and good, until you start to consider where people like myself (a White male) fit into this idea. The simple answer is that we don’t.

Now, in order to see if this idea has shifted since the end of Apartheid, let’s also have a look at the entry in Isichazimazwi of Mbatha (2010), written ngesiZulu, for umuntu:

  1. isidalwa sikaNkulunkulu esinenkumbulo futhi esikwaziyo ukukhuluma; isidalwa sikaNkulunkulu esengamele yonke indalo; isothamlilo

the creation of God that has memory and furthermore has the ability to speak; the          creation of God that presides over all nature; ‘the one who warms himself at the fire’

  1. owomdabu onsundu wase-Afrika

an person of the brown race of Africa

Before judging whether the idea has shifted, there is one expression deserving a bit more examination – isothamlilo. Directly translated, it means ‘the one who is characterised by the fact that s/he warms her/himself at the fire’. However, its figurative meaning is the same as the second definition – an indigenous brown-skinned person of Africa. So now we can judge and say that, in fact, the idea of umuntu as ‘African person’ is more entrenched in modern times than it was before, and not as rosy as the rainbow nation would have us believe.

Which brings me back to ubuntu. Far from it being an inclusive expression of the common humanity of all members of the species, it actually means ‘the essence of being an African person’ – by contradistinction with ubulungu (whiteness) or ubundiya (Indian-ness) or other possible essential concepts of different races.

And that is why, again and again, after many conversations ngesiZulu around my background and why I speak the language, I have often been greeted with what may seem to be a strange sentence:

ungumuntu wangempela, wena!

you-are-a-human for-real, you!

you are a real human, you

The meaning of this is that I am no longer classed as Other, and am now regarded not just as umlungu, but as umuntu (an African person, living by ubuntu).

“Unwele olude!”

Unwele olude, more usually heard as nwel’olude, is an expression of a wish for prosperity, and I’ve always understood it as directly relating to a wish for the person to experience a sustained period of happiness. It’s most often said on the occasion of someone’s birthday, along with other lovely phrases such as ‘khul’ukhokhobe’.

But why is it hair? Why not say ‘long life’ or ‘long may you be blessed’?

When grief strikes, the hair is cut. It is usually shaved off completely. The resultant change in a person’s appearance is part of a complex interaction between behaviour and speech which makes clear to anyone that they are bereaved.

That last word leads me to the same conclusion – you have experienced the harvesting or reaping of a person close to you, and as such you cut off your hair, abstain from smiling or laughing or the playing of music, and deny yourself many basic daily joys.

A person who does not observe the obligatory period of grief, and so breaks taboo (e.g by engaging in sex, by eating something they shouldn’t, or by behaving in a raucous manner) is described thus:

udlala ngegeja kuziliwe



the-situation-experiencing- abstention

“He plays with the hoe in a time of grief”

Agriculture was not permitted during the time of abstention due to grief. However, it’s quite clear that the sexual association of the hand-plough and the penis is intended (for the most part). But I digress.

So… if you wish someone ‘long hair’, you’re wishing that they have an unbroken period of joy, long enough for their hair to grow long.

My uncle (who was also my godfather) passed away at the end of last year – and a few weeks later my wife’s great-aunt (the oldest and only surviving member of her generation) also passed. And coincidentally, somewhere in the middle there, I cut off almost all my hair.

It was a shock – mostly because of the profusion of pure white hair a few millimetres long at the temples. Age comes for us all, I thought. It felt like a reaving, of some kind. Like a harvest of joy. And just like that harvest, My hope is that new things will grow from the harrowed fields.

When I popped in to work in the strange vacuum between Christmas and New Year, I was met by Noel – the long-suffering person on whom I practise my chiChewa – who pronounced the following sentence:

You have been transfigured. Transfiguration has occurred.

Given all the talk about hair last year, it’s interesting how much it can change the way people perceive you. I was marked by the visible change.

So, when someone’s birthday comes round, wish for them to have no more haircuts!


There’s been a lot of this lately, in various different forms. Asinavalo. Abanavalo. Uvalo. For those of you needing clarification, here’s a short dissertation on the word.

Firstly, it comes from a verb – uku-vala. The verb means the following things:

  1. close or shut
  2. suppress or deceive; bribe; bluff; cheat
  3. protect against evil or use protective charms

So we’re already off to a good start – the example sentence for meaning 2 is “umntwana bamvale ngemali angakhulumi” (“they bribed the child/prince with money to say nothing”).

The noun itself means the following:

  1. the cartilage at the lower end of the breast-bone or sternum; the pit of the stomach
  2. chronic palpitation of the heart
  3. anxiety, fear or nervous apprehension; remorse; pricks of conscience or feeling of guilt.

Which adds a whole other layer of meaning. Uvalo is a complex fluid, meaning that it is constantly shifting and roiling inside a person in ways that are not immediately apparent to the naked eye. It doesn’t just mean the abstract English concept of ‘fear’ – it is a localised physical experience, encompassing a range of emotions. One feels uvalo in the pit of the stomach, a feeling of conscience and remorse, guilt and apprehension.

Basically uvalo is “Oh my god, what have we done?” accompanied by palpitations of the heart and a rising feeling of nauseous anxiety.

But it’s not all doom and gloom – there is a lovely proverb about uvalo:

Kusinda abakwaluvadlwana, kufe abakusibinjana

The ones from Little-Fear’s kraal escape, while those from Little-Courage’s place die.

He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.

And one more thing – tomorrow is usuku lomvalo (a day of the cross-bar, closing off work – a public holiday). Enjoy.

umbhikisho / protest

I just read that the SABC will no longer show footage of violent protests. I almost have no words. I understand that there might be issues around showing violence in general, but there is also the imperative to report accurately on what is happening in South Africa every day.

It happens in many many parts of the country – so many that on some days the people I work with can’t even get to the schools they’re working in, as a result of roads being blocked and black plumes rising into the air – and it happens every day, and has been happening every day for years.


It’s in the simple solid noun class, along with the words for noise (umsindo), fire (umlilo) and spirit (umoya). It is a basic element, and has the same shape every time it is repeated. The plural is imibhikisho. This word and its root-verb do not appear in Doke’s dictionary of 1958 – which is in itself historically interesting. Both do occur in Mbatha (2010), as one would expect:

ukubhikisha (isenzo) [-el-; -is-; -w-] – ukwenza isenzo esikhombisa ukungeneliswa okuthile. Abasebenzi kade bebhikisha befuna ukukhushulelwa amaholo.

ukubhikisha (verb) [applied; causative; passive] – to do a deed which shows dissatisfaction with something. The workers were protesting for a long time, wanting an increase in their pay.


umbhikisho (ibizo) – isenzo esikhombisa ukungeneliswa okuthile.

umbhikisho (noun) – a deed which shows dissatisfaction with something.

I think that, if you cast your eyes over those definitions, you will see why this is the word used when talking about protest, at least when speaking directly. It’s frequently paired up with descriptive phrases:

umbhikisho onodlame – a violent protest

umbhikisho wabafundi basenyuvesi – a university students’ protest

umbhikisho wezidingongqangi – a basic-service-delivery protest

It’s also used as a verb-phrase:

abafundi basenyuvesi babhikishela imfundo yamahhala – the university students are protesting for free education

amalungu omphakathi ayabhikisha – the community members are protesting.

But, as I’m sure you’ve realised, isiZulu is rather fond of both euphemism and idiomatic expression. Let’s start hysteron proteron – idiomatic expression. The main one here is ukuvuka umbhejazane – literally “to awaken a tendency to vicious inclination”. Let’s unpack:

ukuvuka: as seen in Treason Season, the word has 5 different non-idiomatic meanings. Briefly: wake up, awake from sleep; be resurrected; get up, rise; blow vigorously like the wind, rage like a storm, get into a rage or temper; attack something continually.

umbhejazane: a tendency to evil, passion, or vicious inclination (compare with ugovana)

The word umbhejazane in the idiom is probably being used adverbially, as ukuvuka is usually intransitive. For the transitive version (wake something up), isiZulu uses ukuvusa. What that means is that the community is the thing doing the ukuvuka, and the character of that action is umbhejazane. In terms of the origin of the word, it seems to come originally from one of my favourite izenzukuthi – bhee (9-9), which is the sound:

of flaring up of fire, of roaring of fire in grass; of raging temper; of the spreading of an epidemic; of the burning sensation of condiments in the mouth.

It is linked to many different nouns and verbs, and one in particular has several nouns in different izigaba which are very like umbhejazane –

isibhekazane: a raging, impetuous activity (as of a raging epidemic of disease or passion), a wild uncontrollable mental impulse to evil. uvuke isibhekazane sokweba = he is overcome with an uncontrollable impulse for stealing.

u(lu)bhekazane: an ungovernable impulse to evil

umbhekazane: an ungovernable impulse to evil.

So, overall, when someone uses the phrase “ukuvuka umbhejazane”, the images of ungovernable fires spreading across SA’s communities is not far off the idiomatic expression.

Which brings us to the euphemism, apropos of the SABC’s decision. You see, there are some ways in which it is impossible NOT to report on protests in South Africa – particularly when it comes to traffic. In the days when I still used to listen to uKhozi FM, I particularly liked the traffic reports (closely followed by the weather, in terms of linguistic interest), as they were full of idiom and euphemism and proverbs. These I will deal with in another post, but for now let’s look at how the SABC’s traffic reports used to refer to protests:

ngaseMbumbulu, kunesimo semfuno lapho – hlab’udlule njengenalidi.

near Mbumbulu, there is a situation of need there – stab and pass through it like a needle.

You see, even though the newsreader didn’t (or was ordered not to) say the word for protest, whether directly or idiomatically, they still managed it – isimo semfuno.

isimo: a form, shape, nature, character, situation.

imfuno: {not in Vilakazi 1958} the seasonal thing which is desired or wanted or looked for or needed.

Which ends up meaning something like “there are people burning tyres (and other, more permanent things), blocking roads, stoning cars and generally behaving in an ungovernable fashion as a result of the fact that what they want is not being given to them”.

And that pretty accurately describes SA’s culture of protest.

So, SABC, rather than adopting the “I’m not going to give these attention-seekers any airplay” approach, perhaps consider that NOT broadcasting the protests is an undemocratic act. That accountability to ALL of South Africa’s citizens, including those who are violently and openly dissatisfied with the government, is a basic principle of a national broadcaster.

You, and the president who has you on a short leash, are deaf to the cries of the citizens who put you in power. And the protests will get louder and louder until you can hear them clearly.

Cunning Neighbours

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.

Pecking at the Sun

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.