Reflections: How language is enriched

When I see how internet has simplified life today, I sincerely wish my old man and his old lass had come into this world a few decades later than they did.

When I see how internet has simplified life today, I sincerely wish my old man and his old lass had come into this world a few decades later than they did.

But then, I remember that it’d have been the age of family planning. I being the 14th result of 15 births, you understand the implications of that for me!

Anyway, I say this because I myself wish I’d been born in later years. In the 1980s, as a teacher of Literature in English (as opposed to English Literature, a common source of confusion) in Kenya, I wouldn’t have encountered so many problems. Among which, that of explaining illogical English figures of speech.

Maybe you’ve encountered the idiomatic proverb: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”. As we know, the expression means “you can’t have it both ways” or “you can’t have the best of both worlds”.

Imagine my dilemma then, when one time a student asked me why it should not be the other way.

In all fairness, you have a cake until you eat it. The idiom, therefore, should’ve been “you can’t eat your cake and have it too.”

Well, to the student I explained that I could teach Literature, all right, but didn’t have the power to correct the idiosyncrasies of the English language.

To myself, of course, I knew there was a better explanation than dismissing it simply as an idiosyncrasy. However, I did not get that explanation, however (again!) widely I consulted.

And that is how internet comes in.
Today, for anything on earth (and maybe even in the heavens!), Google will take you to the appropriate source for explanation.

There are many other search engines, of course, but I’m sure they also would readily concede that they haven’t won an equal number of hearts.

So, if Google does not take you to Wikipedia, it will take you to discussion groups where a number of varied discussants will have given their laboured answers.

Personally, I am satisfied with the Wikipedia explanation: the confusion can be traced to the Latin didactic poetry origin of the idiom. 

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Kinyarwanda idiomatic expressions. In fact, you’d be well advised not to ask Google what kurya Karungu means, for instance. You’ll not only encounter more than you bargained for but also will visit sites that have nothing to do with explaining the expression.

That is why I like frequenting the company of Rwandan aficionados, my anchormen/women. Only that sometimes they are rubbed the wrong way by my clumsy handling of the intuitive wisdom they impart to me.

Thus, my current anchorman is hopping mad about my inaccuracies last week.

So, Tony, I am sorry that I placed Rwampara between Nyamirambo and Butamwa, instead of Nyamirambo and Gikondo. Hopefully, I’ll not repeat such oversights when I revisit origins of other expressions like kurara Rwantambi (sleeping in Rwantambi), said of someone who looks famished.

How was such an expression born? Rwantambi is the name of a small river in Burundi, near the border with Rwanda. The area across in Rwanda is known as Gaharanyonga, which is in Butare, in Southern Province.

One time, Barundi decided to raid Banyarwanda at that border point. It was a big force but, even then, they were unable to dislodge the Rwandan force even from their defence positions. Instead, Banyarwanda beat Barundi back over the border and into Burundi.

And, seeing the ease with which they had defeated Barundi, Banyarwanda were encouraged to pursue them deeper into Burundi.

Meanwhile, Rwandan fighters who felt they had pushed Barundi far enough continually dropped off and returned home. On the third day, however, Barundi decided they’d been humiliated enough.

Noticing also that the Rwandan force, called Imvejuru, had dwindled considerably, Barundi fighters decided to face them. And, this time, Barundi defeated the reduced Imvejuru force, killing many of them and scattering others.

The survivors either hid in bushes or sneaked back into Rwanda.

This, in turn, gave rise to another expression: Ubugabo butagaruka babwita ububwa (Transliterated: Excessive pursuance of anything is not a sign of courage but of witlessness.

A truism, if ever there was one!).
When one old mama looked at the disgraced fighters returning home, she asked about the whereabouts of her son, a renowned fighter of singular courage. One fighter reported having seen him running to a bush, to hide.

To the question whether her son had his bow when he went into hiding, the old lady was answered in the affirmative. She considered the answer and then quipped: “In that case, I will totally give him up for dead only if that bush is burnt down.”

And, indeed, after many days, her son, named Sekayange but with the praise title of Ingogo, finally surfaced. But for being his mother, the old woman wouldn’t have recognised her Ingogo, so weak and emaciated had he grown, for lack of food and drink.

“My son,” lamented she, “so those who sleep in Rwantambi look like this.” And thus was born the expression: Yaraye Rwantambi!