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Site Last Update: 24 Aug, 2019

June 2019, An elephant is not overwhelmed by its trunk. Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverb

Mhuli idabhunagwa nkondo gwayo (Sukuma).
Tembo hazidiwi na mkonga wake (Swahili).
L’éléphant ne s’accable pas par sa trompe (French)
An elephant is not overwhelmed by its trunk (English).

Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverb

Background, Meaning and Everyday Use

The Sukuma Ethnic Group is the largest ethnic group (“8,130,000 increasing” according to the 2016 Ethnologue:  Languages of the World. ) in Tanzania in East Africa and live mainly in rural areas in the northwestern part of the country on or near the southern shores of Lake Victoria – mainly in the Mwanza and Shinyanga Regions. Sukuma means “north” and refers to “people of the north.” They are relatives of the Nyamwezi Ethnic Group and share a similar language of Bantu origin. Traditionally part of an oral culture, the Sukuma people use many types of oral literature such as proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories, myths and songs to communicate values and priorities.

A Sukuma story of The Mother With Ten Sons goes like this:

Once in Tanzania there was a Sukuma mother who had 10 sons who were a constant concern for her. Try as she may, she never was able to cook enough food to satisfy them. She would prepare a bowl of "ugali" (stiff, cooked corn meal) together with more than enough "mboga" (meat, fish, or vegetables in gravy). In no time the 10 boys would finish the mboga and say, "Mother, the mboga is finished. Give us some more to eat with our ugali." The same thing happened day after day until the mother was at a loss as to what to do. Then one day an elderly woman came to visit.

When the food was prepared, the guest was amazed how quickly the ten young men devoured the mboga and then said, "Mother, the mboga is finished. Give us some more." After the meal the elderly woman said to the mother of the ten boys: "My dear friend, I am amazed how quickly your sons eat the mboga. The mother replied, "What can I do? An elephant is not overly burdened by its trunk." The guest replied, "What you say is true. But let me tell you something. The next time you cook mboga don't give it to them all at once. Leave some of it in the pot on the stove until it becomes very hot."

The next day when the boys asked for more mboga, the mother gave it to them sizzling hot right from the fire. In fact, the mboga was so hot that they could eat the ugali with only a little bit of mboga for fear of burning their tongues. In this way the elderly guest was able to help the mother of the ten boys in her predicament. Truly an elephant is not overly burdened by its trunk.

The above story can be found on page 95 in the book entitled Kugundua Mbegu za Injili by the Bujora Cultural Research Committee (Kamati ya Utafiti wa Utamaduni, Bujora). It is edited by Father Donald Sybertz, MM and Father Joseph Healey, MM and published by Benedictine Publications Ndanda – Peramiho, 1993. It can also be found as Number 57 in our Sukuma Legacy Project Website www.sukumalegacy.org.

 

Biblical Parallels

1 Corinthians 10:13. “No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”
Psalms 55:22. “Softer than butter is his speech, but war is in his heart. Smoother than oil are his words, but they are unsheathed swords.”
Philippians 4:12-13. “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me. ”
Matthew 11:28. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Hebrew 12:1-3. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. ”

The above story of the Sukuma mother also has parallel ideas to what St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, Chapter 6:1-10 on the life in the community of Christ: He says:

Brothers and sisters, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he is deluding himself. Each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason to boast with regard to himself alone, and not with regard to someone else; for each will bear his own load.

One who is being instructed in the word should share all good things with his instructor. Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit.
Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up. So then, while we have the opportunity, let us do good to all, but especially to those who belong to the family of the faith.

Both examples have interesting parallel ideas. The African story of the Sukuma mother who had ten sons, like other African stories, has a theme on tolerance and fairness in community life. Such women bear the burdens of her sons. St. Paul too, has a theme on tolerance in the community life of Christ. He says “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2).

The story of the Sukuma mother has three characters namely: the mother, sons, and an old woman. Likewise, St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians 6:6-10 has: people who are spiritual, people who can be taught by others and can tolerate the burdens of others in the community life of Christ and the people who misbehave in their lives and have to be corrected.

The Sukuma mother of ten sons is parallel to the people who can be taught and are ready to tolerate burdens of others in the community. We can see examples in verses, 4, 5, 8b-10 of chapter 6 as follows: “Each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason to boast with regard to himself alone, and not with regard to someone else; for each will bear his own load.” (Galatians 6:4-5). “…but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up. So then, while we have the opportunity, let us do good to all, but especially to those who belong to the family of the faith.”

The people who are spiritual are parallel to an old woman who gave a lesson to the Sukuma mother on how to teach her 10 sons. “Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2). “One who is being instructed in the word should share all good things with his instructor.” (Galatians 6:6).

The 10 sons in the African story of the Sukuma mother, are parallel to the people who misbehave, in the teaching of St. Paul, as we can see in verses 3, 7 and 8a of chapter 6. “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he is deluding himself.” (Galatians 6:3).

“Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh…,” (6:7-8a).

Both, the story of the Sukuma mother and St. Paul’s teaching to the Galatians 6:6-10, have an idea of telling anyone to always carry his/her load in community life. That is why the mother who had 10 sons said, An elephant is not overwhelmed by its trunk.

Contemporary Use and Religious Application

Father Donald Sybertz, MM, and Father Joseph Healey, M.M., editors of the book entitled Kugundua Mbegu za Injili (Discovering Seeds of the Gospel) by the Bujora Cultural Research Committee (Kamati ya Utafiti wa Utamaduni Bujora) on page 96, said that the story of the Sukuma mother of 10 sons is used to encourage a person who is suffering from some difficulties in his/her life. God gives us the strength to carry our burdens on the earth without failing.

An elephant, even though its trunk is so heavy, can carry it all day without getting tired. Again in that story the mother who endured cooking vegetables for her sons was advised and educated by an old woman. At last her trouble was over.

It therefore teaches us that when we encounter a problem on earth we should not say that it is God's concern without doing anything to remove it. We need to find a way to remove those problems by using our mind and strength and listening to the advice of others. As another proverb says on page 97 of the same book, God helps those who help themselves.

 

NOTE: For more Sukuma proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories and songs (with their Swahili and English translations) go to the:

Sukuma Legacy Project
https://sukumalegacy.org

Nanetya Foundation: Ethnic Stories in Mother Tongues Website 
http://nanetya-foundation.org/sukuma-proverbs

 

Rev. Zakaria Kashinje, OSA
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
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Photographs provided by:

Cephas Yao Agbemenu 
Department of Fine Arts
Kenyatta University
P.O. Box 43844
Nairobi, Kenya
Cellphone: +254-723-307992
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Other Proverbs From The Same Ethnic Group


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