|Apali kenga sumu ya ulimi. (Makonde)
Hakuna sumu kama ya ulimi. (Swahili)
Il n’y a pas du poison comme la langue. (French)
There is no venom such as that of the tongue. (English)
Background, Meaning and Everyday Use of the Proverb
A majority of Makonde people live in south-east Tanzania (the Mtwara and Lindi districts), and northern Mozambique (the Cabo Delgado district and on the Mueda Plateau). They have a small presence in Kenya estimated at 30,000 in 2004. They occupy the Coastal region of Kwale County in Makongeni area of Msambweni sub-county, and the Taita Taveta County near the Kenya-Tanzania border. They speak a Bantu language called Makonde, also known as ChiMakonde. Many speak other languages such as English and Swahili, Chidigo and Taita, which are spoken by the neighboring ethnic groups. In the early 1950s and after Kenya’s independence in 1964, a small group of the Makonde migrated to Kenya. They provided labor in the sisal and sugar estates established by the European colonialists. They inter-married with other ethnic groups, occupying the coastal region and adapted Kenya as their motherland.
The Makonde have two myths of creation. The first myth states that a man came out of a thick bush and he was unwashed and unshaven. He did not eat or drink very much. One day he carved a human figure from wood and set it upright in the bush. During the night, the image came to life and became a woman. The woman became the man’s wife. Together, the couple washed for the first time in the Ruvuma River. On the bank of the river, the woman delivered two stillborn children. Finally, they traveled to the plateau, where the woman gave birth to a third child, and many others who became the first ancestors of the Makonde. In the second myth, the father ordered his descendants to bury anyone who died in an upright position in memory of his wife. She had come alive when the wooden figure of her was set upright, and she had become the mother of all the Makonde. These myths carry great significance to the Makonde community living in Kenya, even though they consider Kenya as their motherland. Their original norms and cultures, myths and beliefs are greatly influenced by those of the original Makonde community.
The Makonde trace their family line through their mothers. Children and inheritance belong to the women. They practice both monogamy and polygamy. However, their culture has become increasingly male dominated as the men have become wage earners in towns and cities. During their social celebrations the Makonde dance to a special song called the “Sindimba.” They practice circumcision for both girls and boys. During the healing process the boys are taught by the men about their male roles and morals required by the community. Upon graduation they receive a new name and are recognized as adults. Young girls receive instructions on marriage, women’s duties and roles, and are considered to be of marriage age after this. Today the Makonde women are choosing education before early marriage.
Proverbs, wise sayings, riddles, folktales, songs and dance are used to pass knowledge and cultural norms to members of the community. These are used in ordinary daily conversation, and during their various ceremonies. As a result of living in a village setup, they live with members of their extended family and everyone is required to be careful about how they communicate with each other, and with those from other communities.
African culture is embedded in strong moral considerations. It has a system of various beliefs and customs which every individual ought to keep in order to live long and to avoid bringing curses on them and others. For example, when young people lack respect for the elderly or speak negatively to them, it leads to misfortunes. This proverb is used regularly to emphasize the need for respect and concern for one another in the community and family. As a result of the different age groups living together, different opinions and views can cause disagreements and negative expressions, which can hurt others. Everyone has to be careful about how they express their thoughts. Both the elderly and the young are taught to respect each other so that harmony is ensured. When used in ordinary conversation, the children and adults do not forget to show respect to all members of the community, regardless of their age, social or economic status. It is very important to be discreet and careful with speech, because it can make or break. Gossiping can be a terrible way of propagating false information about other peoples.
Proverbs 10:19: “When words are too many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.”
Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Contemporary Use and Religious Application
Most people want to be heard. If one can control their tongue then they will be able to controlthe rest of the body as well. The type of wisdom and speech that governs our life displays the work of God in our hearts. Where our speech and wisdom is characterized by purity and peace we see that something "from above" has taken root and is spreading through our lives. We have the power of words. The Bible says that no word that you or I speak is without significance (1 Corinthians 14:10). Our words might be a good or bad thing, depending on the words we choose. If the words said to you by a parent, sibling, teacher, or friend were pleasant, they may have given you a sense of self-worth. If the words were deprecating, you may have grown up feeling inadequate or defiant to prove them wrong. It takes more than good thoughts and deeds to build people up. The real creative power is in the words we use. This is what it takes to develop the people around us.
“Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can only be forgiven, not forgotten.” Lashing out, saying things in anger, yelling, name calling, demeaning, putting someone down, all of these things create wounds that are far slower to heal than a physical wound and they leave emotional scars behind that never quite go away. That is why it is so important to be mindful of the words we say to people. Titus 3:2: “To speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”
This is a universal behavior and all people do it. Our words can be the most powerful tool we have for good or they can be the most powerful tool of destruction. Our words are what people will listen to and watch out for, carefully examining your way of life and checking it against the words you release from your mouth. Just like what policemen say,"anything you say can be used against you." Our words impact how we feel about ourselves and they can impact how others think and feel. We share our fears, our sorrow, our joy, our love and our dreams with our words.
Our words create action, intimacy or separation. We can motivate ourselves to do things we never thought we could do, and we can also move others to step forward into their own personal power so they can be of service to their community. Words can actually change the direction of a nation. Pope Francis one time stressed on the importance of responsible journalism and respect for human dignity. What the press writes can make or break a society just by use of language. The Holy Father stated that “journalism should not become a ”weapon of destruction" of people and even nations.” For instance, legitimatecriticism must always be done respecting the other person, his or her life, his or her affections.
If we think positive thoughts and take positive actions toward our goals, our destiny can be joyful and uplifting. People will want to be around positive thinkers and speakers. Thus, by holding positive thoughts, habitually taking positive action, one creates a character destined for success.Respect for one another starts with really listening to each other, but let’s face it younger people rarely listen properly. But they can learn to listen and speak positively.
NOTE: This Makonde Proverb is No. 5 in A Collection of 100 Makonde Proverbs and Wise Sayings by Margaret Wambere, in collaboration with the African Proverbs Working Group (Nairobi: Privately Printed, 2017).
Margaret Wambere Ireri
Cellphone: +254 722 537 774
Photographs provided by:
Cephas Yao Agbemenu
Department of Fine Arts
P.O. Box 43844
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