|Bwotuula ku ssiga towanvuwa. (Ganda)
Ukikaa juu mawe ya mafiga hautakua mrefu. (Swahili)
Quand tu t’assoies sur les trois pieces du foyer tu risques de ne pas grandir. (French)
If you sit on a hearthstone, you do not grow tall. (English)
Ganda (Uganda) Proverb
Background, Meaning and Everyday Use
The Baganda people in Uganda, like many other ethnic groups, construct traditional fireplaces, using masiga, (siga, singular) a set of three short, sturdy hearthstones/cooking stones. The bigger stones could average 30 inches in circumference but rarely exceed 15 inches in height. Their function is to support the cooking pots and allow room for kindling or firewood underneath.
Hearthstones/cooking stones retain heat long after exposure to the intense heat of the cooking process. They can, therefore, cause serious burns to unsuspecting children who may be tempted to sit on them during play around the kitchen. The stones also pose serious burn danger for children tempted to use them as stepping tools to reach for food or meat being smoked on racks above the fireplace. Elders thus combined this real danger with the fact that stones do not grow to create this terrifying prohibition. Another wording in English is The person who sits on a stone that supports the cooking pot will never grow taller. This proverb is found in different African languages including Nyarwanda (ntukicare ku mashyiga utazanga gukura). There are other variations on the cooking stones such as Sukuma (mashiga nili, nulu, mahiga nili) and Swahili (mafiga baridi).
The prohibition Bwotuula ku ssiga towanvuwa falls into the category of indigenous taboos — mizizo, (muzizo, singular) — that do not have fixed utterance forms. It can therefore, take various forms such as: Bw’otuula ku masiga (pl), towanvuwa (if you sit on hearthstones, you do not grow tall); or atuula ku ssiga tawanvuwa (a person who sits on a cooking stone does not grow tall). Multi-language scholar Austin Bukenya shares yet another version that expands the prohibition: Bwolinnya ku ssiga, okundugga, towanvuwa (if you stand or step on a hearthstone, you get stunted, you do not grow tall). Interestingly, this taboo also exists in other Bantu language cultures. Scholar, poet and children’’ story writer, Danson S. Kahyana, recalls the Luhkonzo version that presents even more devastating consequences: Wamikalha okwihigha, Mukaka waghu akaholha. (If you sit on the hearthstone, your grandmother dies). Or: Wamikalha okwihigha, Sukulhu waghu akaholha (If you sit on the hearthstone, your grandfather dies).
Clearly, all these prudence instructions are veiled in very powerful deterrent imagery. Instead of explicitly stating that stepping up on a hearthstone exposes one to falling into the fire, or that the often invisibly hot hearthstones can be deadly to the kids’ rear end, the taboo ties the act to that which the young person desires most: growing into adulthood or preserving the longevity of beloved grandparents. Since the wisdom of elders rarely walks naked in the streets, our challenge in contemporary times is to decode embedded meanings to reflect complex timeless truths.
Ephesians 6: 1: “Children obey your parents.”
One can take a two-pronged approach in identifying parallels: equating the mizizo to the threats of punishment for unacceptable behavior in the Bible: The Prophet Elisha cursed the youth who made fun of his baldness (2 Kings 2:23-24).
OR: Draw attention to how Jesus taught in parables that continuously need to be explained.
Matthew 13: 52: “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
Matthew 13: 1-9 “Parable of the Sower.”
Matthew 13: 1-14: The exhortation to use parables or stories in teaching spiritual and cultural values.
Contemporary Use and Religious Application
In Matthew 13:10-14 the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke to the crowds in parables. His answer was “because knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted” …”they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Similarly, any message should be tailored to the audiences’ comprehension levels. Children, for instance, in the absence of adult supervision, are more likely to obey prescriptions that threaten their personal wellbeing.
The relevance of the fireplace taboo here might be questioned under the scientific microscope or in the era of gas and electrical stoves. Nevertheless, the underlying prescription is one of love. Love yourself and others enough not to engage in reckless behavior. Given the high death toll of the Covid-19 epidemic, for instance, not getting vaccinated or not wearing a mask falls under the category of reckless behavior. Many other social situations dealing with alcohol, drugs, speeding when driving a car or motorcycle (boda-boda), as well as sexual interactions can benefit from serious contemplation of the power of this apparently remote Ugandan taboo.
Elias Bushiri Elie
Cellphone: +254 741 497 556