The Gīkūyū have a proverb, Kūngū Maitū na Hunyū Wake. It means literally, Hail Mother with all her warts and dirt. The first and one of the best compilations of Gīkūyū proverbs was by the Consolata Missionaries in Nyeri and was published under the title 1000 Kikuyu proverbs – with translations and English equivalents. Due to their being translated by foreigners to the culture, although diligent scholars, the translations were sometimes not very accurate. This is not a big disadvantage for each proverb is like a cut diamond, with very many facets and ways of interpretation. No Gīkūyū proverb has a single interpretation and the best have many hidden nuances and layers of meaning. They comprise what Professor Wanjohi G. J. in his book, The wisdom and philosophy of African proverbs: The Gikuyu world-view calls the “wisdom”, “logic” or “World View” of the Gīkūyū. The 1000 Kikuyu Proverbs by G. Barra of the Italian Instituto Missionario Consolata, Nyeri, was published in 1939 by the Kenya Literature Bureau. An online copy is provided here as a PDF for readers of this blog. Barra’s foreword penned on 9th December 1939 is a worthwhile read.
I am glad to offer this selection of Kikuyu proverbs to the young Akikuyu, makers of the future of the tribe. The proverbs are the quintessence of Kikuyu eloquence, and represented for centuries the code of tribal laws used for lack of written books. They are full of wisdom and embody the maxims of natural law “written by God in the heart of all men”’. Therefore they are for the Akikuyu a precious inheritance, which must not be lost in the changes now taking place.
At the same time I trust that this book will be welcomed by the Europeans living in contact with or working for the welfare of this tribe. They will find in the book the key for understanding the point of view and psychology of the Akikuyu.
Kikuyu proverbs are endless. These were selected from collections made by several Consolata Fathers since the early years of the Mission and from lists supplied by Kikuyu teachers in response to a competition launched by the Mission’s monthly magazine Wathiomo Mukinyu.
For each proverb there is given first the literal translation followed when necessary by a short explanation of its meaning and application, and finally the English equivalent where one could be found.
Although it might be found that certain proverbs are used in different ways and with different meanings. I have made certain that the commonest use has been given.
I am greatly indebted to Mrs. D. Plum, B.Sc., for the revision of the translation and for checking the English equivalents.
G. BARRA. I.M.C.
Consolata Catholic Mission.
9 Dea:mber 1939.
Out of the One Thousand proverbs, we have taken the liberty of picking just one in order to illustrate the interesting complexities and beauty of these diamonds. These constitute diamonds in the rough and they emerge as finely polished gems through usage.
In Gīkūyū language, Maitū is Mother. Maitū is actually Ma iitū, or “Our Truth”. When the Gīkūyū then say, “Hail Mother”, they refer to the act of getting back to the Origin, the Essence or Truth of any Matter. When the Gikuyu talk of “returning the river back to its course”, “Gucokia rui mukaro”, this is what they mean. The Original Gīkūyū Mother, the source of all Truth, is MŪMBI, the goddess of Gīkūyū creation. Mūmbi in Gīkūyū means Creator. The question then becomes “Who are we and how are we created?” “How are we meant to live?” It is then a question of understanding the complexity of BEING rather than a literal return to a utopian paradise lost. Paradise, that is if we take it not as static place but a continuous BECOMING.
Because of the difficulties of this conceptual thinking let us use an illustration of a real down to earth problem and its relationship to “Our Truth”. Today, the problem of the so-called Diseases of Civilization are to say the least at the top of anybody interested in “returning the river to its course”. One would like a return to the time when cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and high blood pressure were unknown. To understand this problem one has to go back to OUR Truth. It is a fact that this unfolding medical apocalypse hits haddest, the black race and is more forgiving to the white races. Are we living other people’s Truths and forgetting our own?
In Africa, the heat demands that the metabolism of a body be as gentle as it possibly can. That is, if you were to draw a graph of the uptake of sugar and its conversion into heat it would have to be quite gentle. The man in the cold region of the earth would require a higher metabolic rate than you and therefore is more tolerant to sugars. If he takes a Coke for instance, that may not be as harmful as for you in the heat of the Equator. Someone in Africa must manage sugar differently and while Europe could manage with a staple food like wheat, Africa had to manage with foods with a much much lower glycemic index, like Cassava, yam, arrow roots etc. We will do a post on this issue of sugar management in Africa soon, but for now let us put it in the strongest possible manner that Africa cannot afford to continue with its current relationship with sugar. “Returning the river back to its course” is not simply presenting Western soap operas with Gīkūyū voiceovers or putting on a leopard skin overcoat, Gīthii, much less putting a black girl’s face to a Coke advert. We must return the river to its true course. We must return to the Mother for answers, It calls for much much more. A depth of understanding as to what constitutes OUR TRUTH, MA IITU, MAITU, MUMBI.
Thai, Thathaiya Ngai Thai!!!