As many of you may know, much of Africa’s history, as well at the history of other melanated peoples has been passed on through the generations orally. Wisdom about the sciences of self and the Universe were also passed on this way, usually in the form of stories or mythologies.
Before we get to the proverbs, let’s cover a little bit of History about the Zulu people to put things in a more accurate perspective. According to South African History Online:
“Long ago, before the Zulu were forged as a nation, they lived as isolated family groups and partly nomadic northern Nguni groups. These groups moved about within their loosely defined territories in search of game and good grazing for their cattle. As they accumulated livestock, and supporters family leaders divided and dispersed in different directions, while still retaining family networks.
The Zulu homestead (imizi) consisted of an extended family and others attached to the household through social obligations. This social unit was largely self-sufficient, with responsibilities divided according to gender. Men were generally responsible for defending the homestead, caring for cattle, manufacturing and maintaining weapons and farm implements, and building dwellings. Women had domestic responsibilities and raised crops, usually grains, on land near the household.
By the late eighteenth century, a process of political consolidation among the groups was beginning to take place. A number of powerful chiefdoms began to emerge and a transformation from a pastoral society to a more organised statehood occurred. This enabled leaders to wield more authority over their own supporters and to compel allegiance from conquered chiefdoms. Changes took place in the nature of political, social, and economic links between chiefs of these emerging power blocs and their subjects. Zulu chiefs demanded steadily increasing tribute or taxes from their subjects, acquired great wealth, commanded large armies, and, in many cases, subjugated neighbouring chiefdoms.
Military conquest allowed men to achieve status distinctions that had become increasingly important. This culminated early in the nineteenth century with the warrior-king Shaka conquering all the groups in Zululand and uniting them into a single powerful Zulu nation, that made its influence felt over southern and central Africa. Shaka ruled from 1816 to 1828, when he was assassinated by his brothers.
Shaka recruited young men from all over the kingdom and trained them in his own novel warrior tactics. His military campaign resulted in widespread violence and displacement, and after defeating competing armies and assimilating their people, Shaka established his Zulu nation. Within twelve years, he had forged one of the mightiest empires the African continent has ever known. The Zulu empire weakened after Shaka’s death in 1828.
One of the most significant events in Zulu history was the arrival of Europeans in Natal. By the late 1800s, British troops had invaded Zulu territory and divided Zulu land into different chiefdoms. The Zulu never regained their independence (see Anglo-Zulu Wars).
Natal received “Colonial government” in 1893, and the Zulu people were dissatisfied about being governed by the Colony. A plague of locusts devastated crops in Zululand and Natal in 1894 and 1895, and their cattle were dying of rinderpest, lung sickness and east coast fever. These natural disasters impoverished them and forced more men to seek employment as railway construction workers in northern Natal and on the mines in the Witwatersrand.
The last Zulu uprising, led by Chief Bambatha in 1906, was a response to harsh and unjust laws and unimaginable actions by the Natal Government. It was sparked off by the imposition of the 1905 poll tax of £1 per head, introduced to increase revenue and to force more Zulus to start working for wages. The uprising was ruthlessly suppressed (see Bambatha Rebellion).”
Now that we’ve touched on the History, here is a collection of proverbs attributed to the Zulu of South Africa.
- You can learn wisdom at your grandfather’s feet, or at the end of a stick. – Meaning: If you pay attention to what your elders are telling you and follow their advice, you won’t have to learn things the hard way through experience. If you don’t absorb what they have to say, you will have to learn your lessons by making mistakes and accepting the often-painful consequences.
- A walking man builds no kraal. – Meaning: A kraal is a homestead. If you keep moving, you won’t settle down or be forced to settle down.
- You can not know the good within yourself if you can not see it in others. – Meaning: If you want to build self-esteem, you need to practice looking for good qualities in others and appreciating them. This in itself is a virtue, which will build goodness in you.
- When you bite indiscriminately, you end up eating your own tail. – Meaning: Think before you act, especially when acting out of anger or fear. Plan your actions carefully so you don’t make things worse.
- The lion is a beautiful animal when seen at a distance. – Meaning: Things aren’t always as they seem at first glance, so be careful what you wish for; it may not be what is best for you.
- The bones must be thrown in three different places before the message must be accepted. – Meaning: This refers to a divination ritual; you should consider a question multiple times in multiple ways before reaching a decision.
- Guessing breeds suspicion. – Meaning: When you don’t have all of the facts, you may come to false conclusions or experience paranoia. It’s better to wait for solid evidence.
- Even immortals are not immune to fate. – Meaning: Nobody is too big to take a fall. Your wealth, intelligence, and success won’t protect you from random negative events.
- You cannot fight an evil disease with sweet medicine. – Meaning: Fight fire with fire rather than turning the other cheek. This proverb advises war over diplomacy and not showing mercy to an enemy.
- Old age doesn’t announce itself at the gate of the kraal. – Meaning: Old age sneaks up on you; it doesn’t simply arrive one day when you are expecting it.
- Almost doesn’t fill a bowl. – Meaning: You don’t get partial credit for a failure; you will still suffer the consequences of the failure. You must complete a task and carry through to enjoy success. Don’t bother to use the excuse that you tried and you almost succeeded. This is similar to Yoda’s, “Do. There is no try.”
- Even the most beautiful flower withers in time. – Meaning: Nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it.
- The sun never sets that there has not been fresh news. – Meaning: Change is the one constant.