Tsumo| 6 things I have learned through analysing over 200 Shona proverbs

Over the past few months, I have taken time to analyse over 200 Shona proverbs, just out of interest. Some of them have motivated me to gain an understanding of the context from which they were constructed, be it a cultural practice or natural phenomenon. Others I have had to first understand literally, while others I have found to be pretty much straightforward. I have grown to learn a lot about certain things I had never paid attention to relating to behaviors of animals, history, traditions, and cultural practices.

Below are things I have learned, some of which might help answer questions that you might have.

1. Different people, even experts, sometimes come up with different interpretations, making proverbs even more engrossing.

Different kinds of people, academics and laymen alike, seem to have an interest in proverbs. These include linguists, historians, religious scholars, and advertisers. One can imagine how this could result in as many viewpoints. Additionally, even those in the same grouping sometimes come up with different conclusions. Then speaking of the layman’s viewpoint, others feel that because they have some level of understanding of the basis of a proverb, then they have the full and only correct interpretation of the proverb. Sometimes, however, these interpretations differ from meanings assigned by academics who make various analyses and apply all sorts of logic

While doing my research, I have come across proverbs with widely, or should I say wildly varying interpretations presented by different reliable sources. Failing to reconcile such differences has been frustrating, given the limitations around the availability of suitable written literature to make reference to.

It seems that differences in interpretations sometimes occur when a proverb is considered in different situations. It is likely though, that such interpretations will be somehow aligned. In some of the cases I have encountered, however, there has been no alignment. I read somewhere that a proverb is like a cat with nine lives; it continually pops up with another life in different contexts. This quality also results in what seems to be inconsistencies, and this is what I discuss next.

2. Some proverbs seem to contradict each other, yet they actually don’t.

Some proverbs, when presented side by side, seem to contradict each other. In truth, however, they make sense when applied in specific situations. I also read somewhere that proverbs are used to point one to look at a particular situation in a certain way. For example, one might want to encourage promptness in one situation, but seek to dissuade acting hastily, in another situation. So with some context, the concern around inconsistency goes away.


” The wisdom of nations lies in their proverbs, which are brief and pithy. Collect and learn them; they are notable measures of directions for human life; you have much in little; they save time in speaking; and upon occasion may be the fullest and safest answer.”
William Penn


3. Committing proverbs to memory isn’t always easy, no matter how many times you encounter them.

Proverbs, I have heard, are a short form of preaching. They contain moral truths and wisdom passed down through generations. Because of this and their brevity, they are generally expected to be easy to commit to memory. It is also assumed that most proverbs are familiar to a large number of people. From the proverbs I looked at, it seems I wasn’t familiar with the majority of them. I suppose that would make me part of the minority who aren’t familiar with the majority of proverbs. Some were difficult to commit to memory, while for others I didn’t find compelling the context from which they were constructed. In such cases, it took a great deal of effort to relate the basis of the proverb to its application. Then for some, I struggled with unfamiliar words.

4. The structure of some proverbs allows for flexibility and creativity

A number of proverbs have some interesting variations and overlaps which seem to allow for flexibility and creativity. Consider the following two proverbs:

  1. Chisiri chako/ masimba mashoma. (You have little control over what is not yours.)
  2. Chisiri chako/ pembera wadya. (When something is not yours, then you should only rejoice after eating.)

Other people will only cite the first part of the proverb. With the extension, however, the proverb is adaptable to different situations with little room for ambiguity.

Then again consider the following two proverbs:

  1. Manenji/ kuona ingwe ichitamba nembudzi. (The sight of a leopard playing with a dog is baffling.)
  2. Manenji/ kuona mukadzi ane mhanza. (It is strange for a woman to have a bald head.)

The two proverbs have a similar beginning and different second parts, yet can be applied in the same situation. The possibility to imagine one’s own ending presents an opportunity to be creative and make the proverbs memorable.

5. Proverbs are a very rich repository of valuable indigenous knowledge.

Proverbs are intended to be familiar and relatable and hence will speak a lot to the way of life of a people. As I have done my research and analysis, I have learned a great deal about traditional society. The proverbs I have come across relate to various aspects of the life of the Shona. They relate to customs, habits, family, the human body, domestic items, nature, agriculture, food, animals, love, and a lot more. Given this wide scope, it is not surprising that I have encountered instances where it has been difficult to find anyone with knowledge of certain practices or vocabulary presented in a proverb. It also seems that long-forgotten practices sometimes result in related proverbs being wrongly deciphered. This is related to the point below.

6. I would not rule out the possibility that some proverbs have lost their original form over time.

Proverbs were passed down orally from generation to generation and so it is possible that some changes might have occurred in the process. I have come across some proverbs that have had me wondering whether they could have lost their original form. It is possible that some words or meanings were difficult to relate to and ended up being replaced or misinterpreted.

The discussion above makes it clear that I am no expert on the subject of proverbs. Despite my lack of expertise, however, the basis of one proverb – Mubayi wetsumo anowana zvaanoda (One who is good with proverbs gets what he wants), couldn’t be any more clearer!