Stereotypes only tell half the story, proverbs the other half


Recently a social media influencer who loves to post in Dholuo made a post about Luo police officers. He warned Luos against friendships with Luo police officers because they will never help you when you are in need.

They might even go ahead and make sure you pay a lot of money for any favours that they will make you believe they organised for you. That is typical of stereotypes.

I know you have heard many stereotypes, and even confirmed some for yourself through a painful experience. However, does that make stereotypes true? Especially the ethnic based ones like; Kikuyus are thieves, Luos are violent and Kamba are promiscuous?

By now I know you have heard about Gen-Z this Gen-X that. These identity pastes are not entirely true and the person who helped us process this is the ever-fresh Igbo lady and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

In her now famous speech The Danger of a Single Story, Adichie tells us how stereotypes are not entirely untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Stereotypes are single stories that emphasize our differences rather than our similarities. If stereotypes tell half the story, then I believe proverbs tell the other half that we gloss over to justify our biases.

Proverbs are short sentence of wisdom with literal meaning used to give advice and enlighten the listener. Idioms on the other hand do not have literal meanings and are often used in poetry to express and idea or thought.

Every community has common proverbs that are known to almost every adult and usually there is no need to expound or explain.

The general acceptability of a proverb means that it resonates with the social context of the people using it. The context will keep presenting itself in the daily lives of the people which will keep the proverb fresh and relevant over time.

What is important to a community will be summarized in a capsule like proverb and passed down generations. I believe that to understand people well and circumvent the danger of a single story, look at their proverbs.

Most African languages are oral and did not have written codes so proverbs helped to make it easy to remember stories and events. Ever asked why Swahilis say: utaona cha mtema kuni? To mean you will get into trouble. Apparently there is a Swahili folklore of a man who went to fetch firewood in the forest but fell asleep due to exhaustion. You do not want to know what happened to him. Proverbs summarise the stories of a community.

Talking of firewood. The Agikuyu have a common proverb that translates to  — the day for fetching firewood is the day for firewood. Back in the day people went to fetch firewood in the forest. To mitigate the potential dangers, they went in a large group.

If the villagers agreed that they will go to fetch firewood on a certain day, you dropped everything so as to join the group going to fetch firewood. Hence, the day for firewood is the day for firewood and nothing else.

People will say Kikuyus are thieves but this proverbs reveals their focus and purposefulness in life. People were encouraged to concentrate on what was to be done at that moment. That is also how you will hear of “Karume wa Makara” and “Mwangi wa Iria”. There is pride in being known for doing one thing well. Trying to do everything on a single day will leave you tired without achieving much.

The Luo are said to be arrogant, loud and may be violent. However, they will always quote  — the river of blood relations must be stepped into gently. There is an ohangla artist who used the proverb in a song but the song got a different lurid title despite the positive message he tried to convey. The proverb urges Luos to tread carefully whenever a matter involves a relative. There is a high chance of being misquoted, misunderstood and things getting blown out of proportion.

The Luhya who have been christened cooks and watchmen are definitely more than that. They have a common proverb that translates to; a stench requires its owners. It is related to the Luo proverb above. It reminds people that when things get difficult, it is only your close family who will bear with it. Relatives especially family will sometimes get a bad rap but will always be the last point of call. Luos and Luhyas are thus family oriented people despite the negative stereotypes around them.

Nothing is as bad as a one sided half story that has been believed by people. Before you believe the half story of a stereotype, take time to learn what is really important to the person concerned.

The best place to begin with if it is a community is in their proverbs. Chinua Achebe told us that proverbs are the ''palm oil with which words are eaten".


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