Kamba Proverbs from Eastern Kenya
JEREMIAH M. KITUNDA
Thank you, Professor Kitunda, for taking the time to answer some questions about your new book Kamba Proverbs from Eastern Kenya. Can you please begin by providing a brief overview of your book?
Kamba Proverbs from Eastern Kenya contains a selection of 2000 proverbs out of 7000 proverbs that I collected over a long period of time. The proverbs touch on many subjects ranging from environmental history to cultural history of the Kamba people of East Africa. Beyond a mere assemblage of 2000 proverbs, the book examines the history of each proverb within its initial cultural and environmental settings. Centrally the book argues that history of proverbs can be recovered using content analysis or phraseology of a given proverb. Moreover, proverbs are windows into the past, for they unveil information about the past that documented sources cannot.
Another important argument in the book is that proverbs are not relics of the past. As the book demonstrates, some proverbs are older than others. Like the people who create them, proverbs are born, grow into popular catchphrases, and with dramatic changes in technology and society itself, some die to be replaced by new ones emerging out of the new social, political, environmental, and technological circumstances of each generation. This observation runs contrary to the Western view that proverb-creation dies with urbanization and modernity. The book demonstrates that proverb-creation is an on-going process. Modernity tends to promote the creation of new proverbs instead of killing the process.
Why are proverbs important?
Proverbs are functionally and structurally important to society, science, history, and politics as devices for conflict management, research, pedagogy, and more. They are source materials of the same calibre as the written note, archaeological artefacts, and chemical compounds in a laboratory experiment. The book demonstrates, for instance, how legends, myths, poetry and proverbs have inspired archaeological research across East Africa. I believe they can be useful in any field of study.
You analyse 2,000 proverbs and trace their origins and explore their meaning, did any of your findings especially surprise you?
Yes. I was surprised in many occasions. Some proverbs turned out to be older than I thought and others turned out to be younger than expected. Interviewees were able to trace some with certainty to specific individuals who coined them. Such claims were verified through interviews in other parts of the study area. I was also surprised to find out that proverbs are not mere inventories of Ũkamba animals, plants, natural and material cultural objects. Some of these things did not appear in the proverbs. This left me with an intriguing question: how did the sages select what fitted as material for the creation of proverbs? Why did they leave out of proverbial lore some animals, plants, objects, and natural phenomena?
‘only a few hundred Kamba proverbs have ever appeared in print’ why is that?
This is a good question. My research started with this question. As Richard Trench said in his monumental work, Proverbs and Their Lessons (1861:3), “proverbs have never attracted from us the notice they deserve; and thus, it may easily come to pass that, when invited to bestow even a brief attention on them, we are in doubt whether they will repay our pains.” I thank James Currey and the British Institute in Eastern African for being bold enough to publish a book on African proverbs. Most scholars and publishers have yet to fully recognize the multifaceted value of proverbs.
As argued in the book, scholars, particularly historians, have never before recognized that oral art of any kind can be a subject of historical inquiry.
Historians have not recognized the value of proverbs as source material of the same calibre as recorded archives. Publishers have their doubt whether a book on African proverbs and other oral arts are worthy publishing. Can such a book sell? I think and hope this book will provide an affirmative answer to that question and thus inspire other researchers to probe African proverbs for what they hold secretly for all interests—public, scholars, politicians, and artists who use proverbs to embellish their arts and so forth.
What would you recommend to someone who is looking to find out more about Kamba Proverbs? How did you go about your research? Has this always been of interest to you?
Certainly, read my book first. Second, I recommend the use of social media, where young Kamba are trying to educate one another about their ancestral proverbial lore. Third, if one has the language skills (Kĩkamba), I recommend listening to Kamba conversation, music, poetry, political and other public speeches. These are colourless without proverbs. I pulled considerable numbers of proverbs from these sources. My journey to writing this book began from my childhood through different levels of education, before launching formal research a few years ago. All along the way I was subjected to proverbial wisdom at home among my family and community, in schools, and in public speeches. The Kamba speak in proverbs, and rarely otherwise. I may say that it has been my goal to publish all Kamba proverbs in a single volume. I felt this would be an important compendium for every one to dip again and again to their varied tastes and objectives. Musicians would pick proverbs from such a compendium and weave them into their songs. Politicians and other public speakers would use such a volume to prepare their speeches before they address the public. Researchers in social sciences could use some of the proverbs from such a compendium to embellish their works.
Teachers can draw from such a compendium for their pedagogical needs. In teaching I have found that students paid more attention whenever I used illustrative proverbs. As explained in the introduction of the book, I began with collections of proverbs that I knew as a child long before my formal research. I drew my collections from published and tertiary sources and the bulk of proverbs from interviews. I visited all parts of Ũkamba and identified people who were known to be savvy in proverbial wisdom. Towards the end of my research, I began to comb social media: Facebook, twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. In these channels I met many Kamba speakers who were interested in my project and gave substantial assistance in all areas of my interest and focus.
Your cover is great! Can you please explain what it represents?
Great question. The cover is an illustration of one of the proverbs #425, Nguthu ya mũthwa yĩ ngwatanĩo ĩvalũkasya nzou nima nthĩ, “A cooperative group of ants brings down a whole elephant.” This proverb stresses the value of teamwork and unity of purpose. If ants pile on an elephant, the behemoth will eventually come down. In other words, coordinated efforts can easily wear down a challenging task.
What do you have planned next? Will you continue your research on Kamba Proverbs or are you moving in a different direction?
I think I have exhausted my research on Kamba proverbs. The only shortcoming, is only 2000 out of 7000 in my collections will be published in the current book. My plan is to publish the remaining proverbs in journal articles. I plan to prioritize publishing a cluster of proverbs on “folly and wisdom” as well as on “vulgar proverbs”. These are important for what they reveal about the precolonial and postcolonial Kamba views about the world around them.
Beyond the proverb project, I have moved in a different direction. I am currently working on a new book project with the working title: Kamba Diaspora in East Africa from Pre-Islamic era to the postcolonial period. This project will employ Kamba proverbs as source material to make a case in the new study, that proverbs encode the history of East Africa. The manuscript takes the clan as the basic unit of study as opposed to previous scholarship that lay emphasis on the tribe and centralized polities. The Kamba Diaspora in East Africa is an in-depth study of Kamba settlements scattered outside their “traditional” homeland, Ũkamba. The study of “Diaspora” within Africa is not a popular subject of historical inquiry for now. Yet, we have so many “ethnic groups” bound by language, culture and common origins whose stories have never been told well. The Nubians who came to East Africa as British imperial mercenary families from Northern Sudan during the late nineteenth century presents a good case in point. These have been covered in an important article by Professor Timothy Parsons.
However, other dispersed ethnic settlements such as those of the Nyamwezi whose dispersion predates the Islamic period, Nandi whose dispersion dates back to precolonial times, Kikuyu and Luo whose Diasporas are functions of the colonial era have been left unexamined. Can these units of study tell more nuanced historical narratives about themselves and East Africa in general than we know so far? I believe Kamba Diaspora will unveil such narratives of the Kamba at home and abroad as well as the histories of all other cultural groups with whom they interacted in the past.
The manuscript focuses on the Kamba who since pre-Islamic times have left their homeland and settled around Mount Kenya; around Mount Kilimanjaro; along the East African Coast; Mainland Tanzanian region of the East Arc Mountains; and Mainland Tanzania around the Great Lakes Region. The value of this study lies not merely in its account of the experience of a single ethnic group, but in relating Kamba historical experience to East African history as a whole. The manuscriptis designed as a wide-ranging study of Kamba dispersed settlements outside Ũkamba and their historical relationship to the surrounding communities. It offers a general revision of the chronological framework for East African history through cross-examination of written and oral sources, archaeological and linguistic studies, and fresh oral interviews in Kenya and Tanzania.
The study points beforehand that the term diaspora is a colonial framework that implies a centre. There are other terms that do not imply a centre. The term tribe, which has the same notion as nation ignores heterogeneity and devalues diversity. The study challenges the continuing use of tribal narratives for African history and the use of tribes or its variant terminologies as the basic unit of study. As a messy and composite metaphor—and as a largely colonial residue—I argue, ‘tribe’ and its variant terms tends to get lost in its own back yard. In its place, I propose a micro-historical framework that begins with family and clan genealogies, oral art, proverbs, and other ethnographic (and ethnophonic) material. I also propose to treat as Kamba whoever considers themselves as such: this allows me to treat the Kamba in global terms. In short, I argue that the Kamba has never been a single-composite tribal group. The conglomerate that we call Kamba today brought together diverse linguistic and cultural groups that were merged for diverse reasons and forced by circumstances to abandon their original languages and customs. To the north lodged in Mumoni Mountains on the triangular border with Tharaka, Mbere and Meru are Akituu people who have been absorbed into the Kamba conglomerate, but who have kept some customs and dialects that are unintelligible to most other Kamba speakers. To the southern Ukamba are Angulya sections of the Kamba who recently demanded their recognition as a separate ethnic identity. This demand is part of a newly emergence themes of identity across Kenya. Since the early 2000s, the Kenya government has intensified at least four new cultural groups as independent ethnic groups. The Shona community was recently recognized as the 45th ethnic group in Kenya. They arrived in Kenya in the 1960s from Zimbabwe and Botswana driven by economic needs and unsettled political conditions of decolonization. These types of “floating” identities need their own history to stand on.
Jeremiah M. Kitunda is Professor of History, Appalachian State University; he was previously Lecturer, University of Nairobi, Kenya and a visiting scholar, University of Oregon (Eugene).