Zulu/Xhosa proverbs

Updated: Jul 6

 If you by chance have come across the fictional work of H. Rider Haggard (1956-1925) the classic King Solomons Mines (1885), you may have wondered about the rather mystical character of the long lost king, Umbopa, who later becomes Ingosi (Inkosi, king). If you have not, you might have seen movies depicting this epic tale or just seen borrowings the narrative itself, depicted by Hollywood stars with intervals of 10-15 years in between each revival of the story. Although most of these movies (off course) have been completely misrepresented and have not focused on what H. Rider Haggard in his best efforts was trying to convey. That ancient King Solomons Mines was in Southern Africa, meaning, Israel was in Southern Africa and that the heritage of its people (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Shona, Venda etc...) are in all aspects that of the ancient Hebrews themselves.

"....A thousand miles from Durban....", so the story goes, as the typical and larger than life character of Allan Quartermain, even larger still the heroic figure of Sir Henry Curtis, sidekicked by Captain Good, with the ever present and masterful company of Umbopa, set out to find fabled Mines and treasures of King Solomon of ancient Israel. We shall not go to much into the details of the story of the book itself, as it reads as a hunters diary, setting the tone for the seeming main character and apparent hero, Allan Quartermain. It reads as a movie script really, of any Indiana Jones flick - jam-packed with one liners, but filled to the brim with hidden wisdom. If you know what to look for. Quite action filled it turns the page, with its hunter stories from real life people such as the character of Frederick Selous (1851-1917) and adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham (1861-1947). And it was from sources such as these where Haggard drew his many stories from. Things that happened in real life, as this is what should fascinate any good writer. Raw, uncut, real life. It is and should be a challenge.


Umbopa (Ignosi)

The story though has a hidden main character, in the name Umbopa, which is from Bopa (fear) or Bopha (bind together), and mean several things depending on the context. Think of the word in terms of something like `you binding` or `you creating bonds`. Now, our seeming protagonist Quatermain quickly learns that Umbopa turns out to be Ignosi, son of the rightful king of the Kukuanas (the people in the land beyond the desert), displaced from his throne through the machinations of Gagool (local witchdoctor) and Twala (the stereotypical one eyed evil king).

 Ignosi is repeatedly and from the very outset described as dignified, of noble bearing, and loyal to his friends. Now, what we shall examine here, is the rhetorical form of language, so elegantly written by Haggard, and used by King Umbopa. The way it flows and turns, but most importantly how easily relatable it is to the wisdom books found in the Bible. Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon and other apocryphal works such as Ben Sirach. The style of how and when to preform a proverb, is masterfully portrayed by Haggard through the Zulu Umbopa. You will also get a sense of Quatermains apparent racism, put on trial as he makes remarks of the Zulus as a primitive people, not actually being so primitive at all. To his astonishment, there are other ways of thinking and relating to life. Now these segments when Umbopa speaks are just as eloquent and rhetorical as Cicero or any of the ancient Greeks giving a discourse at high noon in ancient Greece. If you read your way into these two, rather lengthy segments, one found early in the and another later on, as they (the whole party) struggle to get through the burning hot desert without much water, their personalities begin to shine on right through (Haggard, 1885:59):


`Umbopa understood English, though he rarely spoke it.


"It is a far journey, Incubu," he put in, and I translated his remark.


"Yes," answered Sir Henry (Incubu, which means Elephant, the man was huge), "it is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross, save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hands counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven above may order." (Sir Henry was a Christian)


I translated (Quatermain)


"Great words, my father," answered the Zulu—I always called him a Zulu, though he was not really one—"great swelling words fit to fill the mouth of a man.

Thou art right, my father Incubu. Listen! what is life? It is a feather, it is the seed of the grass, blown hither and thither, sometimes multiplying itself and dying in the act, sometimes carried away into the heavens. But if that seed be good and heavy it may perchance travel a little way on the road it wills. It is well to try and journey one's road and to fight with the air. Man must die. At the worst he can but die a little sooner. I will go with thee across the desert and over the mountains, unless perchance I fall to the ground on the way, my father." (Umbopa)


He paused awhile, and then went on with one of those strange bursts of rhetorical eloquence that Zulus sometimes indulge in, which to my mind, full though they are of vain repetitions, show that the race is by no means devoid of poetic instinct and of intellectual power.


"What is life? Tell me, O white men, who are wise, who know the secrets of the world, and of the world of stars, and the world that lies above and around the stars; who flash your words from afar without a voice; tell me, white men, the secret of our life—whither it goes and whence it comes!


"You cannot answer me; you know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go.


Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the Hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset." (Umbopa)


"You are a strange man," said Sir Henry, when he had ceased.


Umbopa laughed. "It seems to me that we are much alike, Incubu. Perhaps I seek a brother over the mountains."


Yebo Baba (Yes father indeed) - Now this first segment is chalk-filled with references to pondering biblical books such as Wisdom of Solomon, Proverbs and Ben Sirach. But also Ecclesiasticus, a dark set of prose know to many scholars as a less encouraging book. Though it sometimes hits truth so hard, one can only read a small portion of it before the heart runs off with a saying. Now many of these misunderstood pieces of writing, you will not find unless you have a Bible that includes the apocrypha, books these days not deemed worthy of peoples attention. No person should tell you which books are from So NiNi and which are not. This can only be figured out through diligent study and prayer, not from a minister telling/selling you a story. That being said, Umbopas words are very much comparable to the likes of the below:


John 3,8:

`The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don't know where it comes from and where it is going...` (Msindisi)


On his Deathbed Solomon went on a song, that flows as a river of the purest wisdom, though dark at many turns, it is like hearing Umbopas and Msindisi words being mirrored:


Ecclesiasticus - The Preacher 11,15:

As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of So NiNi, the Maker of all things.


Ben Sira, son of Sirach as the writer called himself, probably collected these sayings from several sources, including Egyptian and quite possibly Persian and Syrian (the `African` ancient ones):


Ben Sira 1,2-6:

2 The sand of the sea, the drops of rain, and the days of eternity—who can count them?

3 The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth, the abyss, and wisdom —who can search them out?

4 Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity.

6 The root of wisdom—to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties—who knows them?

 The answer being, off course. So NiNi. He knows, because He created. Also compare this segment, where Quatermain refers to the ancient Greek poets, Homer and the likes. Here you see the Zulus obvious eloquence and rhetorical genius, which far surpasses those of Quartemains memories of The Ingoldsby Legends (1840) or Sir Henry Curtis pious remarks (also found in the book).


Ignosi bound the diadem upon his brows. Then advancing, he placed his foot upon the broad chest of his headless foe and broke out into a chant, or rather a pæan of triumph, so beautiful, and yet so utterly savage, that I despair of being able to give an adequate version of his words. Once I heard a scholar with a fine voice read aloud from the Greek poet Homer, and I remember that the sound of the rolling lines seemed to make my blood stand still. Ignosi's chant, uttered as it was in a language as beautiful and sonorous as the old Greek, produced exactly the same effect on me, although I was exhausted with toil and many emotions. (Quatermain)


"Now," he began, "now our rebellion is swallowed up in victory, and our evil-doing is justified by strength.

"In the morning the oppressors arose and stretched themselves; they bound on their harness and made them ready to war.

"They rose up and tossed their spears: the soldiers called to the captains, 'Come, lead us'—and the captains cried to the king, 'Direct thou the battle.'

"They laughed in their pride, twenty thousand men, and yet a twenty thousand.

"Their plumes covered the valleys as the plumes of a bird cover her nest; they shook their shields and shouted, yea, they shook their shields in the sunlight; they lusted for battle and were glad.

"They came up against me; their strong ones ran swiftly to slay me; they cried, 'Ha! ha! he is as one already dead.'

"Then breathed I on them, and my breath was as the breath of a wind, and lo! they were not.

"My lightnings pierced them; I licked up their strength with the lightning of my spears; I shook them to the ground with the thunder of my shoutings.

"They broke—they scattered—they were gone as the mists of the morning.

"They are food for the kites and the foxes, and the place of battle is fat with their blood.

"Where are the mighty ones who rose up in the morning?

"Where are the proud ones who tossed their spears and cried, 'He is as a man already dead'?

"They bow their heads, but not in sleep; they are stretched out, but not in sleep.

"They are forgotten; they have gone into the blackness; they dwell in the dead moons; yea, others shall lead away their wives, and their children shall remember them no more.

"And I—! the king—like an eagle I have found my eyrie.

"Behold! far have I flown in the night season, yet have I returned to my young at the daybreak.

"Shelter ye under the shadow of my wings, O people, and I will comfort you, and ye shall not be dismayed.

"Now is the good time, the time of spoil.

"Mine are the cattle on the mountains, mine are the virgins in the kraals.

"The winter is overpast with storms, the summer is come with flowers.

"Now Evil shall cover up her face, now Mercy and Gladness shall dwell in the land.

"Rejoice, rejoice, my people!

"Let all the stars rejoice in that this tyranny is trodden down, in that I am the king."


Ignosi ceased his song, and out of the gathering gloom came back the deep reply— "Thou art the king!"


Makes he hairs of my neck stand up, and this smells Solomon and David, Homer and Ingoldsby Legends from miles away. I`ll let the reader be the judge if this comparison and if the proof of evidence is sufficient, or rather, as when compared to the quotes below - overwhelming. What follows is a cross section of shorter Zulu proverbs (only english, as I would hurt myself even trying to render Zulu at this point). In closing a few famous Xhosa ones has been included, and respectfully translated, then follows a small explanation in English. Now get familiar with the exercise, try comparing these ones to Scripture, ponder upon their inherent wisdom, their relation to nature and how observational and true many of these ring. But also, how some of these belong to a dying worldview indeed.


Zulu Proverbs

 Below comes a minute collection of proverbs, which can be attributed to the Zulus of South Africa and ending the post with some of the most beautiful Xhosa proverbs.


You can learn wisdom at your grandfather's feet, or at the end of a stick.

Now if you pay attention to what your elders are telling you, very often you won't have to learn things the hard way, which goes through painful and personal experience. If you don't absorb or take to heart what they have to say, you will learn the lessons by making mistakes and suffering painful consequences.


You can not know the good within yourself if you can not see it in others.

This one is truly beautiful. If you want to build self-esteem, you need to practice looking for good qualities in others and appreciating them.


When you bite indiscriminately, you end up eating your own tail.

Think before you act, especially when acting out of anger or acting in fear. Plan your actions carefully so you don't make things worse by having a knee jerk reaction to a situation which only needs grace.


The lion is a beautiful animal when seen at a distance.

This one is telling. Things rarely are as they seem at first glance. As with all things that look pretty from afar, be careful what you wish for, you might just get and it may not be what is best for you.


The bones must be thrown in three different places before the message must be accepted.

A witchdoctor quote, the ancient Hebrews stain (very old sin), which is referring to a divination ritual. Its meaning is admirable and a compelling way of approaching a matter, as you should consider a question multiple times in multiple ways before reaching a decision. Seeing things from different perspectives and off course you must approach So NiNi in prayer, as He knows best the way for you to continue in any matter.


Guessing breeds suspicion.

If you do not have as many facts as possible, you may come to false conclusions or experience paranoia. It's better to wait for solid evidence than to let the mind run in circles, building air-castles or chasing the wind for comfort or seek what is fleeting for wisdom.


Even immortals are not immune to fate.

Nobody is too big to take a fall, as So NiNi again and again reminds all that come to Him. Your wealth, intelligence, and success won't protect you from ` random` negative events.This world consists and are made up of opposites, if much of this than less of that, much pride gives little humbleness. Much talk, many sins.  


You cannot fight an evil disease with sweet medicine.

Fight fire with fire rather than turning the other cheek. This one smells of the old ways, eye for an eye. And this proverb actively advocates war over diplomacy and not showing any mercy to an enemy. This one is embedded in Zulu philosophy and goes very much against the Message of the Gospel, as sweet medicine, such as a humble or heart felt word answered to an angry and vengeful man, will dampen his anger. The Gospel will curb it.


Almost doesn't fill a bowl.

One should not get partial credit for a failure; you will still suffer the consequences of the failure.


You must complete a task and carry through to enjoy success.

Don't bother to use the excuse that you tried and you almost succeeded. Follow things through to the best of your abilities.  


Even the most beautiful flower withers in time.

Nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it.


The sun never sets that there has not been fresh news.

Things change, and that is a constant in this Creation.


Xhosa Proverbs


Umtathi uyawuzala umlotha. The umtathi tree begets ash.

Umtathi is regarded as a good tree, as it turns to ash when burnt. This one reminders that even a good person can have bad children.

Ungalibali intaka yobusi. Don't forget the honey bird.

Give the honey bird some of the honey it helped you to find. Help the person that helped you in your state of need.

Ithemba liyaphilisa. Hope causes one to live.

Ukuhamba kukufunda / yimfundo.

Travelling is learning / education.

Induku ayinamzi. A stick doesn't have a home.


Violence leads to violence, and very often a broken home. Children should be tested and taught with instruction until they start to think for themselves. Not beaten or hit over the head with a stick or using the element of fear in terms of an angry and violent parent.

Isiziba siviva ngodondolo. A hole in a river (isiziba) is felt with a long stick (udondolo).


Have a feel for the deep ditch or dark place. Probe before you go all in. Look before you leap.

Ingcibi yamanzi ifa ngamanzi. This one is difficult to explain in english, but goes very much in the same tone of Msindisi - You die doing what you do for a living. Like live by the sword, die by the sword.

Intaka yakha ngoboya benye. A bird builds (it's nest) with another's feathers.

Indlovu ayisindwa ngumboko wayo. An elephant's trunk does not weigh it down.

Everyone should carry their own burden(s).

Iqaqa aliziva kunuka. A skunk does not smell itself.


People are unaware of their shortcomings, as people never see their own sins. Only So NiNi can show them to you.

Ungalahl'imbo yakho ngopoyiyana. Do not throw away what is valuable for what is worthless.

Isiqhelo siyayoyisa ingqondo. A habit conquers the mind.

Umntu ngumtu ngabantu. A person is a person because of other people.


No man's an island, no man should be an island nor should he be alone.


That should be enough to ponder, for at least a couple of lifetimes. Remember Msindisi is the only one who can give understanding in a confused world. Seek His Spirit. None of the above should be read without knowing the love of So NiNi na NiNi. Always seek His face. Have you sinned, come to Him through the Son and ask forgiveness. Is there anyone out there that has not done wrong? We all sin and we all need forgiveness.


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