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Kaffir (Xhosa) Folk-Lore, by George McCall Theal, [1886], at


THE language of a Kaffir is adorned with figurative expressions, some of which are readily understood by an Englishman, but others, when literally interpreted, are to us meaningless. Such expressions, however, are found upon inquiry to refer to some circumstance in their mode of living, or some event in their traditional history, which makes the meaning very clear. A few of their commonest proverbs and figurative expressions are here given:-

Isikuni sinyuka nomkwezeli.

A brand burns him who stirs it up.

This proverb is an exact equivalent to our English one, Let sleeping dogs lie.

Njengo mdudo ka Mapassa.

Like the marriage feast of Mapassa.

This saying is used to denote anything unusually grand. The marriage festivities of one of the ancients, Mapassa by name, are said to have been carried on for a whole year.

Ishwa lomhluzi wamanqina.

Misfortune of soup made of shanks and feet.

Applied to any person who never does well, but is always getting into scrapes. The kind of soup spoken of is very lightly esteemed by the Kaffirs.

Akuko mpukane inqakulela enye.

One fly does not provide for another.

A saying of the industrious to the idle, meaning that each should work for himself as the flies do.

Kude e-Bakuba, akuyiwanga mntu.

Bakuba is far away, no person ever reached it.

Bakuba is an ideal country. This proverb is used as a warning against undue ambition, or as advice to be content with that which is within reach. It is equivalent to our English saying, It is no use building castles in the air.

Kuxeliwe e-Xukwane apo kumaqasho makulu.

They have slaughtered at Kukwane where much meat is obtainable.

According to tradition, there was once a very rich chief who lived at Kukwane (near King William's Town), and who was in the habit of entertaining strangers in a more liberal manner than any who went before or who came after him. This proverb is used to such as ask too much from others, as if to say, It was only at Kukwane that such expectations were realized.

Qabu Unoqolomba efile.

I rejoice that Kolomba's mother is dead.

The mother of Kolomba was, according to tradition, a very disagreeable person. This saying is used when anything that one dreads or dislikes has passed away.

Izinto azimntaka Ngqika zonke.

It is not every one who is a son of Gaika.

Gaika was at the beginning of this century the most powerful chief west of the Kei. This proverb signifies that all are not equally fortunate.

Uyakulila ngasonye uxele inkawu.

You will shed tears with one eye like a monkey.

A warning used to deter any one from being led into a snare of any kind. It is said that when a monkey is caught in a trap he cries, but that tears come out of one eye only.

Lukozo lomya.

It is the seed of the umya (a species of wild hemp).

This saying is applied to any thing or person considered very beautiful. The seed referred to is like a small jet black bead.

Udhle incholo.

He has drunk the juice of the flower of the wild aloe.

Said of a dull, sleepy person. This juice when drunk has a stupefying effect, and benumbs the limbs so as to make them powerless for a time.

Indonga ziwelene.

The walls have come into collision.

Said of any dispute between persons of consequence.

Uvutelwe pakati nje nge vatala.

He is ripe inside, like a water-melon.

Said of any one who has come to a resolution without yet expressing it. From its appearance it cannot be said with certainty whether a watermelon is ripe or not.

Isala kutyelwa siva noolopu.

A person who will not take advice gets knowledge when trouble overtakes him.

Uyakuva into embi eyaviwa ngu Hili wase Mambalwini.

You will find out what Hili of the Amambalu experienced.

Hili, or Tikoloshe, is, according to the belief of the Kaffirs, a mischievous being who usually lives in the water, but who goes about as a human dwarf playing tricks upon people. He milks the cows when no one is watching them. He causes women to fall in love with him, for he is of a very amorous disposition towards the female sex. The uncivilized Kaffirs, even at the present day, do not doubt the existence of such a being. It is said that a long time ago there was a man of the Amambalu who had good reason to suspect that his wife had fallen in love with Hili. He accordingly pretended to go upon a journey, but returned in the middle of the night and fastened his dogs at the door of his hut. He then went inside and kindled a fire, when, as he anticipated, he found Hili there. The man called his neighbours, who came with sticks and beat Hili till he was unable to move. They then tied him up in a bundle, fastened him to the back of the woman, and sent her away to wander wherever she liked.

This saying is applied as a warning to people to avoid doing wrong, lest the punishment of Hili overtake them.

Ulahla imbo yako ngopoyiyana.

You have cast away your own for that which you are not sure of.

This proverb is equivalent to the English one, A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Yimbabala yolwantunge.

He is a buck of an endless forest.

A saying applied to a shiftless person, one who never continues long in any occupation.

Uzipembela emoyeni.

You are lighting a fire in the wind.

Said to any one who favours strangers in preference to relatives, or to their disadvantage.

Yintlolela yombini.

A spy for both.

Said of a talebearer.

Akuko ranincwa lingagqimiyo kowalo umxuma.

There is no beast that does not roar in its den.

This proverb means that a man recognises no superior in his own establishment. It is the Kaffir equivalent for, Every cock crows on his own dunghill.

Inja yomoya.

A dog of the wind.

A saying applied to any one who has no settled plan of living.

Ukaka kampetu.

The shield turned the wrong way.

This saying is applied to any one who goes over from one party to another. It is a common expression for one who turns evidence against accomplices in crime.

Ngumpa wezala.

It is a cob stripped of maize in an ashpit.

Said of a worthless character.

Isinama ndokunamatela.

I, the adhesive grass, will stick fast to you.

The isinama is a kind of grass that sticks to one's clothing when it is touched, and can hardly be brushed off afterwards. This proverb is used as a warning to any one to avoid a bad habit or an unworthy companion that cannot easily be got rid of.

Alitshonanga lingenandaba.

The sun never sets without fresh news.

Amaqotyazana angalaliyo emzini.

They are people of experience who do not sleep at a strange place.

This proverb is used in praise of one who is smart in going a message, or who performs any duty at a distance quickly.

Wokolwa yeyokosa.

You will prefer roasted meat.

This saying is applied to any one who is boasting immoderately, as a warning that if he does not take care he will get into trouble, when he will be glad to take whatever comes to hand. He will prefer roast meat because it is easily cooked, and he will have neither time nor means to boil it. This saying is also used as a threat, as if one said, I will punish you thoroughly.

Kuhla ngamqalamnye.

Throats are all alike in swallowing

This proverb is used when one asks another for anything, and implies, If you do not give to me now, I will not give to you when I have anything that you would like a share of.

Omasiza mbulala.

The people who rescue and kill.

This saying is applied to Europeans. It first arose from the heavy demands made by Lord Charles Somerset upon the Gaikas in return for English protection, but the Kaffirs maintain that we have acted up to the description ever since. It is sometimes put in this form, The people who protect with one hand and kill with the other.

Kukuza kuka Nxele.

The coming of Nkele.

Nkele (the lefthanded), or Makana, one of the most remarkable men that Kaffirland has produced, rose by his own merits from a private station to be the leader of the Ndlambe clans in the second decade of this century. It was he who united them against the English after Lord Charles Somerset invaded their country with a view of compelling them to recognise a chief whom they detested. He led in person the attack upon Grahamstown, and only retreated after the flower of his forces was swept away. To obtain peace for his people, he voluntarily surrendered to the English troops, and was sent as a prisoner of state to Robben Island. In attempting to make his escape from the island in a boat, he was drowned. But the Kaffirs would not believe that Makana was dead, for they deemed him immortal. All through the wars Of 1835, 1846-7, and 1851-2, they looked for his reappearance to lead them to victory. Ten years ago his personal ornaments were still in preservation at a village near King William's Town, but about that date the hope of his return was generally abandoned. Injunctions which Alakana laid upon his countrymen are still implicitly obeyed. Before his time the corpses of common people were not usually interred, but by his orders it has been done ever since.

The saying implies anything long expected, but which never occurs. It is now in general use, though it is only of a few years' standing.

Ilizwe lifile.

The land is dead.

A saying which implies that war has commenced.

Ubukulu abubangwa.

One does not become great by claiming greatness.

This proverb is used to incite any one to the performance of noble deeds. It means, a man's actions, not his talk and boasting, are what people judge of his greatness by.

Kuhlangene isanga nenkohla.

The wonderful and the impossible have come into collision.

A saying applied to any intricate question.

Yinkungu nelanga.

The mist and the sun are together.

A saying denoting a very great number.

Lunyawo lwemfene.

It is the foot of a baboon.

A saying denoting a treacherous person.

Sova singasemoyeni.

We shall hear, we are on the side towards which the wind blows.

The saying denotes, we shall soon know all that is going on.

Umke namangabangaba aselwandhle.

He has gone in pursuit of the (fabulous) birds of the sea.

A saying applied to one whose ambitious aspirations are not likely to be realized.

Umona wasemlungwini ubandeza icitywa ungaliqabi.

They prevent us from getting red clay from the pit, and they do not use it.

This saying is used of Europeans, to denote that they act as the dog in the manger towards the Kaffirs. It has unfortunately become a very common expression.

Usela ngendebe endala.

You drink out of the old cup.

The indebe is a drinking vessel made of rushes. The saying is used to a wealthy man, and means, You use a vessel handed down to you from your ancestors.

Ukasela eziko.

You are creeping on your knees to the fireplace.

This saying is used as a warning to any one who is following a course that must lead to ruin. It is as if one said, You are like an infant crawling towards the fire circle (in the middle of a Kaffir hut), who is sure to get burnt.

Ukuhlinza impuku.

To skin a mouse.

A saying which implies, to do anything secretly. A mouse can be skinned without any one seeing it, but an ox cannot.

Yeyele ngelomkono.

It has stuck fast by one of the front legs.

This saying is used when one has committed oneself to any matter of importance. An animal cannot extricate itself easily when fast by one of its front legs.

Ugqada mbekweni.

One who eats the remains of a meal without first obtaining permission.

This saying is used of an uncalled-for expression of opinion.

Ukaulela inkawu ziyakasela.

You disturb monkeys on their way to drink.

This saying is used to express uncalled-for interference.

Umafa evuka njengenyanga.

It dies and rises like the moon.

Said of any question that springs up again after it is supposed to be settled.

Akuko nkanga idubula ingeti.

There is no wormwood that comes into flower and does not wither.

A proverb descriptive of the life of man.

Unyawo alunampumlo.

The foot has no nose.

This proverb is an exhortation to be hospitable. It is as if one said, Give food to the traveller, because when you are on a journey your foot will not be able to smell out and avoid a man whom you have turned from your door, but to your shame it may carry you to his.

Uzicandele umgalagala.

You have exposed yourself.

This saying is applied as a warning not to give anything to an importunate person, as he would very likely be encouraged thereby to continue asking for more.

Inkala ixingetyeni.

The crab has stuck fast between the stones at the entrance of its hole.

Said of any one who is involved in difficulties of his own creation, or of one who raises an argument and is beaten in it.

Ubopelele inja enkangeni.

He has fastened a dog to a shrub.

This saying is used to denote a very greedy person, one who is so greedy as to fasten his dog to a shrub that the animal may not beg for food while he is eating. The shrub denoted is the very common one that is covered with yellow flowers at midsummer.

Yimbini yezolo yakwa Gxuluwe.

Guluwe's two of yesterday.

This is a saying of any one who goes away promising to return, and does not do so. It had its origin in an event which happened five generations back. Guluwe was a hunter of great renown, who crossed the Kei with Khakhabay, the great-grand father of the late Sandile. No man was ever so skilful and successful in the pursuit of game as he. But when Khakhabay took possession of the Amatolas, which he purchased from the Hottentot chieftainess Hoho, he found them infested by great numbers of bushmen. One day Guluwe, who had two young men with him, killed an eland, but while he was still shouting his cry of triumph: "Tsi! ha! ha! ha! ha! the weapons of Khakhabay!" he was surprised by a number of these inhuman abatwa. They said: "Look at the sun for the last time, you shall kill no more of our game." Guluwe offered them a large quantity of dacha (a species of wild hemp, used for smoking) for his ransom. One of the abatwa was unwilling to spare him, but all the rest agreed. They kept him with them while he pretended to send the two young men for the dacha, but privately he told them not to return. The bushmen then commenced to eat the eland. They ate that day, and all that night, never ceasing to watch Guluwe. The next morning they asked him when the young men would be back with the dacha, and he replied that he did not expect them before sunset. The abatwa, gorged with meat, then lay down to sleep, all except the one who advised that Guluwe should not be spared. That one watched a while longer, but at length he too was overcome by drowsiness. Guluwe then with his assagai put one after another to death, until, forgetting himself, he shouted his cry: "Tsi! ha! ha! ha! ha! Izikali zika Rarabe!" This awakened the bushman who had advised that he should be killed; he now sprang to his feet and escaped, calling out as he ran with the speed of the wind: "I said this Guluwe of the Khakhabays should be destroyed; you who are dead have perished through not following my advice."

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