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Lumasaba Riddles and Proverbs. Characteristics, Ideology, and Classification

Akademische Arbeit 2019 20 Seiten

Afrikawissenschaften - Linguistik


Table of Contents


Riddling Context amongst the Bamasaba

Structure and Categories of the Lumasaba Riddles

Classification and Structure of Lumasaba Proverbs

Context of Proverbial Usage

Allusions and Analogies

Similes, Metaphors, Symbolism

Parallelism, Repetition, and Rhetorical Questions



In this chapter, I explore the salient features of Lumasaba short forms of traditional wisdom in terms of structure and context of performance. I acknowledge Khamalwa (2008:63) in his submission that: “elders were perceived as custodians of knowledge and composers of new proverbs, riddles, and other forms of knowledge”. Every time a dramatic event happened, the elders philosophized about it and created knowledge to be used by generations to come. I also explain the ideologies ensconced in the riddles and proverbs of the Bamasaba. In attempting a classification of Lumasaba riddles and proverbs, I contend with Ben-Amos who argues that oral forms “need to be conceived and perceived as distinct verbal entities; such recognition has to be linguistically expressed, and validated both by the text itself and the social context of its performance” (Ben-Amos 1977:2). I employ ethnomethodology tenet of centrality of language in understanding social life because “the situated nature of language use is by considering how descriptions are constructed” (Hester & Francis 2004:13). For this reason, I consider the literary features of Masaba riddles and proverbs in order to show their similarities.

Riddling Context amongst the Bamasaba

Among the Bamasaba, riddling sessions take place especially in the evening around a fire or during the time when children are playing games or play role-making games. However, riddling during day time is not encouraged because the riddlers and riddlees are supposed to be working, and could only relax in the evening after work. Riddles dispense values of discipline and industry. The ideological leaning of a riddling session is suggestive of an avenue through which the beliefs of the people are expressed. Eagleton (1991: 2), defines ideology as “[a] body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group or class.” When we examine a riddling session we realize it implicitly represents the aspects of real life experiences. For instance, ideas of democracy, dialogue, morality, industry and hard work intersperse these verbal trajectories. Like other orate societies, Lumasaba riddling sessions take on the same formula or coda. Mushengyezi (2007:58) contends:

The riddling session in these Ugandan cultures thus follows a defined formula with audience and poser changing roles in the process. The process through which the poser and audience exchange is not necessarily defined, however, the poser may simply hand over to another once he/she has run out of riddles.

What we deduce from the above is that a riddling session is a word game that gives participants the opportunity to appreciate the ecology, physiognomy, fauna and flora; it is about various realities of life. Through this activity, interpersonal relationships are enhanced. Self- discipline, emotional intelligence and lessons in logic are unconsciously passed on to the younger generation. There is a harmonious competition among riddlers and riddlees. For instance, we can assert that a riddling session in its own right represents democratic skills in which the young realize that one does not have to ‘rule’ forever. Both the young and the old participate equally without the order of hierarchy. In so doing, the democratic ideology is passed on to the young generation as early as possible. The participant is obliged to give other performers the platform to carry on with the mantle of riddling. The riddling session is a symbolic action that represents various situations that happen in everyday life of the people. For example, eloquent speech is a quality admired by members of society.

The Bamasaba the riddling formula is as follows: Namunayi [Riddle], khupa kwitsye [Let it come]. If the audience gets it wrong, the supremacy of the poser is established and is rewarded with an imaginary bull, heifer, or cock, which items can be refused depending on what the poser deems appropriate, this is done deliberately to sustain the interest of the audience, actively involved in the word game. When the poser finally accepts the gift, s/he may hypothetically slaughter it, eat all the tender meat and pour the bones and entrails onto those who have failed the riddle. The riddler then repeats the riddle and gives the answer. Sometimes the answer can be refuted and the poser explains the answer inviting participants to see the logic in the riddle. The reference to these items in their environment is a constant reminder to the participants that bulls can be a worthwhile business venture by rearing and slaughtering them. Therefore, what is taken as a game mirrors the economic realities of the Masaba society. In this regard, the economic ideology is subconsciously propagated and transmitted to the young when the riddler alludes to the economic activity of slaughtering a cow.

Another category of riddles is in form of rhetorical questions, jokey and anecdotal in nature and do not require answers. This riddling has no specific time, but is interwoven with daily speech whether formal or informal situations. They may be used to warn, advise and inculcate cultural values of sharing and co-existence. They are riddles because they are highly cryptic and are used by specifically adults. They may possess sexual innuendos, condemn certain unbecoming dispositions and use highly layered language. Accordingly, in analyzing the traditional codes of existence, we are delving into the ideologies, which in the words of Eagleton, “must make at least some minimal sense of people's experience, must conform to some degree with what they know of social reality from their practical interaction with it” (Eagleton 1991:14). It is imperative to reiterate that riddling is a common activity among the Bamasaba especially in the evenings amongst children themselves and with a mother or grandmother. Riddles are also common during public gatherings like marriage ceremonies where the master of ceremony teases the guests, with the intent of dramatizing the occasion.

Structure and Categories of the Lumasaba Riddles

Research into Masaba riddles reveal that they are short questions and statements or declarative sentences. Before the riddle is uttered, there is a prelude to a riddling session. According to Wambi (2013:140), in Lusoga riddles, the antecedent is the forerunner or the opening structure that gives an audience the indication that a riddle is being performed and they are being invited to participate. Many riddles are analogous because they tell a kind of story. This is what George and Dundes cited in Harries (1971:384) call the ‘descriptive element’ occurring in the precedent and portray the semantic relationship between the descriptive elements and referent. Thus, Harries (1971:384) observes that “the structure of the riddle is a two-part one, consisting of the expression represented here as precedent and sequent”. The opening formula has binary construction and a semantic relationship between the precedent and the sequent. It considers the elements of analogy, metaphor, onomatopoeia, rhetorical question, among other structures. Lumasaba riddles make use of these structural formulae in constructing realities that reflect the cultural milieu of society.

Despite the assertion presented by Harries about riddles in Africa that they have a precedent and sequent structure, the Bamasaba riddles are characterized by the question structure, which interrogates the other party. This is in consonance with the assertion that riddles are a “social discourse” (Wambi 2016:1). The riddles in this category are short, yet culturally loaded questions; they have fixed answers. The table below provides examples of this kind.

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The riddle in the above table is a question of rhetorical quality. Semantically, it an interrogative sentence that provokes thought about different phenomena.“What in this world has wealth?” and whose sequent is “land”, reflects the attachment of the Bamasaba to land because it is the source of food, water, shelter and money, among other benefits that accrue from it. In addition, riddling about land is a constant reminder to Bamasaba about the economic activity of farming. The survival of Bamasaba is through dependence on the land.

The other element of structure is reliance on tone and onomatopoeia; this category of riddles reflects a keen observation of the environment. This entails nonsensical sounds and imitation of phenomena. The test here is to enhance memory and learning of the surrounding environment. These riddles make use of sound imagery so that in finding meaning, sound is related to the phenomena in the environment. They employ repetition which is rhythmic and musical.. They are also characterized by deliberate puns purposed to bring out the wit involved in their creativity. As a result, they are enjoyable because of the aesthetic beauty they possess.

To begin with, the riddle salendekwa – kametsi khumutolotolo [Water on cocoyam leaves], is peculiar in that it is well known, yet it cannot be translated into another language. However, the association emanates from the way water runs off the cocoyam leaves. Onomatopoeically, the word relates to fast falling of something off a surface. In this, when water is poured on cocoyam leaves, the leaves are left dry. It enables the participants in a riddling situation to understand these enigmas in the environment. This may prompt an inquiry into explanations why cocoyam leaves remain dry after it has rained.

Innes (1985:89) explains: “Riddling is not a test of wits, but of memory; one remembers the answer, one does not work it out. Indeed many riddles are not solvable by the exercise of thought”. For instance, in Lumasaba riddle, untranslatable words such as “Kungu Mwiboya; ‘ SalendekwaNatsya putuputu nakobala patapata, [I went putuputu came back patapata ] , Pikiti walya pokoto [ Pikiti ate pokoto ] , among other riddles test the ability to memorize occurrences in the environment. Such riddles work as mnemonics of the fundamental aspects of society. I went putuputu came back patapata, for instance , elicits the response [I went when there was dew and came back when it had dried]. Pikiti eats pokoto is an onomatopoeic rendition of the work of termites, when they are pecking at wood.

Alliteration as technique finds a place in the riddle, Khalosi Khamile Ikenya Khakumbula Igita [An old woman came from Kenya playing guitar], has its sequent as Namufeli [Clouds]. What stands out about this riddle is the idea that the words are highly alliterative with ` kha ’ coming at the beginning of most words, which sounds are lost in the English translation. This riddle captures the movement of nimbus clouds that bring rain. Its intensity of sound imagery rests in Lumasaba word ` khukumbula ’ which is associated with rain. The sound gives a semblance of drums being prepared to be filled with rainy water.

They show that even untranslatable or nonsensical words give an insight into understanding the surrounding environment of the Bamasaba. Themes of life, ecological relationships and rain are pertinent aspects of Bamasaba’s world contained in riddles. Riddles are significant because they provide a basis upon which children and adults are able to remember aspects that can help them in real life situations. Riddles provide an avenue through which things that take place in one’s life are taken into consideration in making an individual a complete person. It is noteworthy that Lumasaba sound riddles are characterized by symbols that necessitate interpretation. The sound riddles implicitly inculcate in the Masaba riddler and riddlee the value of remembering what is apparent in the environment.

In terms of categorization, many scholars have emphasized oral texts should be categorized basing on the culture from which they stem. Not even the similarities amongst the Bantu riddles can cater for the categorization in Lumasaba riddles. Mushengyezi (2007:38) rightly observes that “texts should be understood within a given performance context”. For instance, Bamasaba culture is characterized by riddles used by adults that require answers that are situation specific. From the analyses in chapter three Lumasaba riddles possess peculiar qualities and reflect the immediate environment. They transcend the contexts in which they are performed, as such they are repositories of knowledge and portray Bamasaba’s world view.

Riddles are categorized into food riddles, biological riddles, environmental riddles, social interaction riddles, modern riddles and logical riddles. However, the above riddle categories are interlinked because some riddles belong to more than one classification. This interconnectedness points to the fluidity of oral texts to an extent that no single context is sufficient to explain their meanings. Another type of riddles is the joke riddles. This particular type does not take on questions and answers, but rather the consideration of paradox, irony, and humor in testing the wits of children as a way of socializing them into responsible members of the community. Anecdotal riddles present yet another intriguing source of riddle imagery. Like joke riddles, they do not elicit responses; nevertheless, they are quotable quotes because of the wisdom they possess. They employ highly layered language that transmits societal values of perseverance, hard work, and co-existence among other elements.

The above discourse vivifies the notion that riddles can be classified basing on broad categories of questions and answers, which form the largest corpus of Masaba riddle literature. These include jokes and anecdotes which do not necessarily require answers; instead they elicit linguistically loaded expressions, whose meaning is understood by the specific speech community.

Classification and Structure of Lumasaba Proverbs

A proverb in Lumasaba is lukyelo while the plural form is tsingelo, which means a certain hidden wisdom that calls for an interpretation occasioned by a situation of performance. Since proverbs stem from the society where they originate, their meaning is socially assigned by that speech community.

Lumasaba shares characteristics of other Bantu languages. Considering this similarity, I adapt Wanjohi’s categorization of Gikuyu proverbs into two, namely literal-symbolic statements and philosophical proverbs. However, this categorization is not absolute because the classes are not mutually exclusive (Wanjohi 2008:39). A literal proverb is a statement that tells the truth. Some examples are important here to illustrate this point.

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These proverbs show that their meanings are denotative. The implication here is that literal proverbs are referents to the general truths about life. The proverb, “I wish I knew comes later,” denotes regret coming after making a mistake, but it is significant in making the one who has made the mistake learn from it; as a result, s/he can desist from repeating the same fault. The other proverbs: “what you eat is what is yours,” and “what is yours is what helps you,” emphasize pampering oneself for its own sake. It is only after an individual has gotten what s/he sweated for that they count it as belonging to him. When one is in trouble or indebted, he should sell what he possesses after all “What is yours is what bails you out”. Another general truth is realized in “a hoe never loses.” This proverb somewhat consoles a predominant agricultural community. No matter the weather, the ultimate reality is that a hoe never loses. Even if the crops dry up, the farmer learns to plan better and may turn the dried crops into manure for a better harvest in the next season. By talking about a hoe, it is apparent that the proverb alludes to agriculture, an economic activity practised by the Bamasaba. This implicitly conjures the value of industry and hard work. Lastly, in this category, “when you don’t have someone to tell you, you dine with the one who slandered you” means that the one close by is the one who denigrates you, but since you have no control over what people say, you cannot tell or even trust anyone. From this explanation, it becomes clear that the truths are explicitly stated. Through stating the truth, the centrality of language as postulated in the ethnomethodological theory in analyzing everyday situations, is vital in deducing meaning from these Masaba proverbs. Symbolic proverbs on the other hand make use of poetic techniques such as metaphor, metonymy, allegory, contrast, etc. They use imagery that conjures associations as exemplified in symbolic proverbs below.

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1 This word is a noun, which also means a music artist. Its usage is dependent entirely on the context.


ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
Makerere University – Faculty of Arts
lumasaba riddles proverbs characteristics ideology classification




Titel: Lumasaba Riddles and Proverbs. Characteristics, Ideology, and Classification