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The Place of Women in the Proverbs of Finland and Ovamboland
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The Place of Women in the Proverbs of Finland and Ovamboland

Turning the pages of some exotic collection of proverbs, for example the south-west African Ovambo Proverbs (Kuusi 1970b), one's first impression is of otherness.

It is an otherness of language: for us mother, mummy, mom, ma are 8 synonyms, with the same meaning but different stylistic significances; in Ovamboland, meme is my mother, nyoko your mother and yina his or their mother.

It is partially an otherness of stylistic features and structures: the commonest Finnish Wellerisms are absent in Ovamboland, and Finland is lacking in the world-aphorism type of the Bantu peoples:

The world is a process of becoming-homeless, the world is a process of becoming orphaned; if you have a goat-kid, eat it, and if you have a chicken, wring its neck!

The world is a baby frog: it goes to sleep, it dies, and in the morning its stomach is swollen.

The otherness of Ovamboland is at its most striking in the otherness of its environmental imagery. 'An ass's foal has long ears' in Africa means the same as Pienillä padoilla on korvat (Small saucepans have ears; one should not speak in front of the children) in Finland. With us, there is no room for two cockerels on the same dung-heap, while in Ovamboland two elephants cannot fit into the same bush's shadow.

Considerably more problematic is the otherness of modes of seeing attitudes and norms that the European encounters in some south-west African proverbs. Kalunga kee shi yinakulu ya gumwe (God is not only one person's grandmother) or Omualikadi uakalunga oje ohengana (God also had a wife who ran away) - such proverbs would not, in their ideas or images, be unnatural in a Finnish context, but it is puzzling to find God characterised on the one hand as a grandmother, on the other as the husband of a runaway wife. We see a logical conflict here; the Ovambo do not.

In my search for black African equivalents to Ovambo proverbs, I came across the proverbs of the Fulani of Senegal. It was as if I had crossed an ocean. The following aphorisms and precepts published by Henri Gaden would he completely incomprehensible in Ovamboland.

What a man earns, a woman spends.

A woman is fire: it you have to have some, take as little as possible.

A woman is glue: if she loves you, she will glue herself to you, and if she hates you, she will glue on to you things that you have not said or done.

A woman is cold water that kills, a woman is shallow water that harms.

If you follow a woman's advice, you will say: if only I had known!

If your mother offers you food, eat! If your mother offers you a plan, refuse!

You should not entrust a woman with anything precious.

The Fulani are orthodox Muslims, the advance guard of the Arab-Islamic culture. To the Finn, their point of view is familiar: Mitä mies hevosellaan kotiin ajaa, sen akka esiliinassaan kylälle vie (Whatever a man brings home with his horse, his wife takes to the village in her apron); Niin vähän pahaa kuin mahdollista, sanoi Kleinmanni kun pienen akan otti (As little harm as possible, said Kleimanni when he took a small wife).

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

A. The value of a daughter

+ Onnen tytär ensimmäinen: kaikki kankahat kutovi, kaikki lapset liekuttavi (Fortunate the oldest daughter: weaves all the clothes, looks after all the children). 1785/6.
Tyttölöistä saadaan ämmiä ja imelistä mämmiä (Old women are made of little girls and Easter pudding of sweetened malt). 1785/10.
Tyttäret on tyyrihiä (Girls are precious). 1922/2.
Tottavissi flikan tissi on parempi kuin pojan pussi (Sure as sure, a girl's tit is better than a boy's balls). 1892/2.

+- Flikkalapset ja poikalapset on parahia lapsia (Girl children and boy children are fine children). l922/5.
Kala se on kiiskikin (ahvenkin) , lapsi se on tytärkin ( Even a ruff [perch] is a fish, even a daughter is a child). 1844/15.
A girl is an olive tree, a boy is a frog. [Meaning: a girl grows faster.] OP 1253/2.

- Onnen poika ensimmäinen, (hyvä tyttökin tyhjiin käsiin) (Fortunate the first-born boy [a girl is good, too, if nothing else]). l904/5.
Vuohi vaivaisen eläin, likka lapsi onnettoman (The goat is a poor man's animal, a girl an unlucky man's child). 1785/20.
Huora tyttären tekee, piika pojan potkaisee (A whore gives birth to a daughter, a maid [respectable woman] to a boy). 1885/5.
Ei luulo ole tiedon väärtti eikä piika pojan väärtti (Belief is not as good as knowledge, or a girl as good as a boy). 1785/3.
Tytär ei ole lapsi eikä akka ihminen (A daughter is not a child nor a woman a person). 1908/3.
Tytär kun syntyy niin sata menee, poika kun syntyy niin tuhat tulee (When a daugher is born you lose a hundred, when a son is born you gain a thousand). 1935/3.
Poika syntyi, polvi muuttui, lapsi sai, laji paheni (A boy was born, the generation changed, a girl was born, the race worsened). 1844/4.
Tytär syntyi, tyhjä syntyi, poika syntyi, kaski kaatui (A daughter was born, nothing was born; a son was born, he will become a woodland clearer). l 844/5.
Tyhjä turva tyttärestä, vävystä vähän varaa (There is slight provision from a son-in-law, hollow insurance from a daughter FFC 236:87) 1702/50.
Tyttäret on talon varkaat (hävittäjät) (There is no thief like a family of five daughters. S 489:4). 1812/4.
Likkalapset ja hevoset ne hävittävät talon, mutta pojat ja härat ne nostaa talon (Girl-children and horses ruin a house, but boys and cattle they improve it). 1937/2.
Tyttären työ ja kanan sonta hyödyttävät yhtä paljon (There's as much use in chicken shit as in a daughter's work). l891/10.
(Finland 20-20-114. Ovamboland: 0-2-0.)

B . The value of the birth-giver

+ Praise your grandmother; if she did not exist, your mother would not have been born. OP 767/6.
The family does not come from the penis. OP 1600.
Giving birth is not like letting out a whistling fart; a whistling fart goes up in the air. OP 1497/4.
A dog does not bite a badger with young. (Children defend their parents.) OP 1209/4.
She who has given birth can free herself from wandering. (Her children will help her.) OP 2398/5.
There is no woman out of whom a councilman may not come. OP 175.
A palm bush gave birth to a palm tree. OP 2392/7.
A pumpkin seed turns into a calabash. (A shitila pumpkin gave birth to a ladle.) OP 1693, 2397/9.
A fly gives birth to a honey bee. OP 2393.
A honey bee gives birth to a queen bee. OP 2394/2.
The mother of a big mouse is a small mouse. OP 206.

+- Hepo (tamma) paljon varsoja tekee, vaan länkikaulaan kuolee (A horse [mare] gives birth to many foals but dies in harness). l8l2/75.
Yksi äiti ruokkii kymmenen lasta, mutta kymmenen lasta ei ruoki yhtä äitiä (One mother feeds ten children, but ten children do not feed one mother). 1702/20.

- I gave birth to hunger. (Children do not care for their mother.) OP 1635/ 2.
A honey bee gives birth to a fly. OP 2395/3.
(Finland: 0-95-0. Ovamboland: 41-0-5.)

C. The value of a mother to her children

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

F . Human value

+ Ihminen se piikakin on (Even a maid is a person). 1891/3.
Piikaparvi siikaparvi, poikaparvi koiraparvi (A group of maids is a shoal of fish, a group of boys is a pack of dogs). 1854/5.
Tytön virka on kuin papin virka (A girl's calling is like a priest's calling).1935/2.
Emäntä on perheen sielu (isäntä talon tuki) (A woman is the soul of the family [a man the support of the house]). 1883/3.
Vaimo on miehen kunnia (ja kodin kaunistus) [A wife is her husband's treasure [and an ornament to the home]). 1912/10.
A wife is a house. OP 94/3.
Your grandmother was before you, you will not reach her. OP 769.
Your grandmother is not placed ahead of another (is not treated impolitely). OP 768/2.
Do not argue with a pregnant woman. OP 1451.

+- Miesväki ja vaimoväki on parasta väkeä (Menfolk and women folk are the best folk). 1886/10.
Poikaparvi koiraparvi, tyttöparvi harakkaparvi (A group of boys is a pack of dogs, a group of girls is a flock of magpies). 1888/2.
Akka ei ole kantele naulasa (A woman isn't a kantele to hang on the wall; FFC 236:719). 1909/5.

- Harakka ei ole lintu eikä piika ihminen (Tamma ei ole hevonen eikä akka ihminen) (A magpie is not a bird, or a maid a person [A mare is not a horse or a woman a person; FFC 236:60). 1785/150.
Nainen on sitkein eläin luomakunnassa (viisain kotieläimistä) (A woman is the stubbornest creature in creation [the cleverest domestic pet]). 1935/2.
Mies on Jumalan luoma (ämmät tehtiin koiran hännästä) (A man is God's creation [women were made from dogs' tails]). 1785/2.
Nainen miehetön, veräjä pieletön (A woman without husband, a gate without post). 1702/30.
Akka oletaan ja mies saadaan (A woman is taken, a man is got). 1944/2.
Susilla ja akoilla on maailma pilattu (The world is spoiled by wolves and women). 1883/5.
Likoilla ja ketuilla on yhdenlainen mieli (Girls and foxes think the same). 1888/3.
Vaimon kieli, käärmeen kieh (Wife's tongue, snake's tongue). 1907/2.
Ei tyttöjä saa uskoa kuin hampaisiin asti (Don't believe a girl further than her teeth). 1889/2.
Kolmea ei saa uskoa: hevosta, naista ja venettä (Don't believe these three: a horse, a woman and a boat). 1785/5.
Naisen mieli, koiran pieru (A woman's wits, a dog's fart). 1909/3.
Hevon paskaa naisen mieli: konsa miehelään, konsa miehelästä pois (Horseshit a woman's mind: whether getting married or leaving the house). 1935/10.
Navan alla naisten nauru (Under the belly a woman's laugh). 1775/5.
Vaiväki ja persläpi (Womenfolk and through-the-arse).1915/3.
Akan pää, lampaanpää (A woman's head, a sheep's head). 1885/5.
Naisilla on pitkä tukka ja lyhyt mieli (Long hair, short wit). 1785/30.
Lapsen tieto, vaimon muisti, ei urohon partasuisen (The knowledge of a child, the wit of a wife, not that of a bearded man). 1782/4.
Yksi älli ämmän päässä (äijän päässä yhdeksän) (One wit in a woman's head [nine in a man's]). 1785/l5.
Vaaksa vaimoa, peukalo urosta (Measure a woman by spans, a man by thumbs). 1702/25.
Ei niin huonoa pukinnahkaa, joka ei kilinnahkaa vastaa (No goatskin so bad that it is not the equal of kidskin). 1890/10.
Ei niin huonoja housuja, jottei hametta vastaa (No trousers so bad that they are not the equal of a skirt). 1844/20.
If you do not have a husband you are naked. OP 1812/3.
Pilework crosspiece, thank the binding bark. You, with a strong leather ribbon to your beaded skirt, thank your husband. (The bark is bound with a crosspiece as is a husband to his wives.) OP 967/10.
(Finland: 23-17-333. Ovamholand: 7-0-13.)

The publication of the criteria I have, with my advisers, used to classify the various proverbs would demand a great deal of space and would deny my readers half their fun. If humorous examples had been more rigorously weeded out, the Finnish + and +- material of, for example, the A, E and F categories would almost have disappeared; Finns hardly have the capacity to recognise Ovambo playfulness. An Ovambo expert would perhaps comment that 'Do not disparage your wife, she is your home' and 'If you do not have a husband your are naked' both emphasise the mutual dependence of the marriage partners and that only the contradictory world view of a European can make him see in them pro- and anti-feminine tendencies. Women are praised and disparaged on many different grounds and with different emphases, and in the proverbs classified as ambivalent, too, some are closer to the plus, some the minus, group. An important analytical problem is the frame of meaning of pejorative words meaning 'woman'. Piika ei ole ihminen (A maid is not a person), which has a frequential dominance, could be excluded from the material on the grounds that the modern meaning of 'maid' is serving girl. But if 'maid' is used to mean 'daughter', the proverb belongs in class A.

In his book Perinneaineiston kvantitatiivisesta tutkimuksesta (Quantitative analysis of the folk tradition), Matti Sarmela characterised the difficulties in which the folklorist finds himself in attempting to adapt quantitative content analysis to, for example, Ovambo-Finnish proverbs (Sarmela 1970). The anthology of quotations I have presented above, with its frequency statistics, is more 'real and comprehensive' material in the spirit of Kaarle Krohn than representative, trustworthy and valid in the sense demanded by content analysts: it includes a good deal of material that is open to interpretation and, from the point of view of the problem, perhaps irrelevant, but it is likely that few important proverbs are missing. In any case, there is good reason not to put too much trust in the percentages of the following summary:


Positional index

+100      0     -100





A (daughter)





B (birthgiver)





C (mother)





D (wife)





E (agent)





F (human)










c. 2,087

c. 166

The material base and classification structure could hardly be changed so radically that the following general observations would not be valid:

Finnish proverbs in general refer to women negatively, Ovambo proverbs positively.
The main objects of Finnish proverbs are the wife-social agent (DE 65.5%), while those of the Ovambo proverbs are the mother-birthgiver (BC 68.7% of the material as a whole).
Finnish and Ovambo proverbs agree in placing a positive value on a mother's importance to her children and a negative one on a 'crowing hen' (E).

The question of whether a boy or a girl is better is actual only in Finland, as is that of whether the man or woman decides. One of the basic motifs of Ovambo proverbs is he na yina, father and mother. In Finland, man contra woman is dominant.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.
Akan tekemä on pappikin (Even the priest was born of a woman). Pyhäjärvi, 1955.

After introducing the misogynist proverb tradition of Morocco, Edward Westermarck felt it necessary to warn his readers against the supposition that the men of Morocco had no tender feelings toward women: the proverbs were a question of the norms of the public use of language. It is undoubtedly best not to compare the value of women in Finland and Ovamboland through proverbs. But is the use of language merely the surface of culture? When the Bible was translated into the language of the Eskimos, the lamb of God became the sealpup of God, for there was nothing like a lamb in the experience of the Eskimos. I once asked a Finnish missionary if it was necessary to get the Ovambo to believe in God the Father, since from the perspective of the matriarchal Bantu tribes God was more likely to be a grandmother. My question was treated like a daring joke. I believe that the comparative success of the Roman Catholic church in black Africa can be partly explained by the inclusion of the great mother-god, the Virgin Mary, while the surprising halt of Islamic expansion before the Bantu jungle may derive, among other things, from its extreme patriarchalism. Africa is not a spiritual vacuum; its otherness is not mere primitiveness. The task of cultural anthropologists is not to place the norms and attitudes of other continents in an order of value, but even a cool knowledge of the primary differences in perspective and the pot-holes that bedevil communication may be of use to the max jacobsons of the end of the century.


1. These works include, in principle, all the proverb material collected or published in Ovamboland or Finland between 1544 and 1826; their weakness lies in the effect of the collectors' Christianity and moral attitudes on the frequency of selected proverbs. The half-million entries in the Folklore Archive gives a considerably more trustworthy general picture of Finnish proverbs after 1826. I shall omit special female categories that are usually compared with normal women (e.g. whore, old maid, widow, daughter-in-law, wicked woman, good hostess, the omundhike or runaway wife), as well as general observations of women's garrulousness, tendency to cry, over-praise their children, prefer their own relatives; hunger during pregnancy or breast-feeding, irritabiiity during periods of hard work, collecting of shiny objects etc. Similarly, I shall avoid proverbs that are generally used to evaluate subjects other than women (Ei kauha varretta kelpaa [A ladle is no good without a handle]) or whose positive or negative valuation is open to interpretation (Hauku minua mutta älä minun vaimoani [Criticise me but not my wife]).

Matti Kuusi


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