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March, 1927

Madagascar Proverbs

by Margaret McIntosh Linton

There is no one who loves a proverb better than does the native of Madagascar. From the thousands in use he is always sure to be able to select one appropriate for the moment, whether he be sending his friends to ask the hand of his bride-to-be, or gathering his relatives around his deathbed, or merely bargaining for his piece of beef in the market place. Above all, when he becomes a Christian and speaks in church or prayer meeting, his proverbs come to his aid so easily and aptly that the young missionary is often ashamed to follow him with the most carefully prepared of sermons. Many of these proverbs have been handed down from the days when all life in Madagascar was very primitive. Some of them depend for their meaning upon beliefs and customs that no longer exist. Yet in comparing a collection of them with our own proverbs one is as surprised at the likenesses as at the differences.

The Malagasy have a 'Don't be a crowing hen' proverb, but they say nothing about whistling girls. They have also 'Don't kick a sleeping dog' and 'Don't take another mouthful until you have swallowed what is in your mouth,' which have a familiar ring. The rolling stone, in Madagascar, is famed not for gathering no moss, but because 'it never stops till it reaches the bottom.' This saying is used when a native is shaking his head in sad doubt as to the conduct of another. The pot that calls the kettle black is there only a dangerous companion: 'Those who are near the pot get black.' A dog's bark may be worse than his bite, but the native is wise enough to remark of it, 'The dog's bark, it is n't might, but fright.' In Madagascar the love of money is not called the root of all evil; it is 'the tail of witchcraft'! There is a 'fish that got away' proverb, but it goes further: 'An eel not caught is as big as your thigh; a hill not seen is like calamity.' 'In union there is strength' appears there, most fittingly, in the form, 'Cross in a crowd and the crocodile won't eat you,' and in 'Men are like the rim of a pot and one all round,' and the more homely but very characteristic saying, 'One finger can't catch a louse.'

On the other hand there are many which we can appreciate, but which have no English or American cousins: 'Cleansing others, but wasting away in the process, like soap'; 'Poverty won't allow him to lift up his head; dignity won't allow him to bow it down'; 'To be two things like a bat: flying it's a bird, resting it's a mouse'; 'Not knowing what to do, like the stepchild: if he does n't wash his hands he is called dirty, if he does he is wasting the water'; 'Guilt repented of becomes righteousness, but righteousness boasted of becomes the grandfather of guilt'; 'The end of an ox is beef, and the end of a lie is exposure.'

Long before Madagascar natives came into contact with Christian missionaries they had a number of what we should call good Christian proverbs. 'Don't think yourself hidden in the silent valley, for God is overhead' employs the term Andriamanitra, literally 'the fragrant sovereign,' a name which in the old days meant a supernatural ruler, or a deceased king who had come to be regarded as divine. Andriamanitra is now used by the Christian natives as one of the names for our God. Before the arrival of missionaries the Malagasy did not worship Andriamanitra, but one can have no doubt, after becoming familiar with their proverbs, that they attributed to him many qualities which show him to be the same omniscient Judge. 'Better be guilty with man than guilty with God'; 'God hates evil'; 'An axe with a notched edge: if the people don't notice it the tree will'; 'One is blessed by man and the other is blessed by God.' Our 'Don't count your chickens before they are hatched' has been said by the Malagasy: 'Don't decide before God, like the hatcher of fowls.'

Others could not be transplanted so easily into our own soil. There is one which says, 'The earth is God's chief wife; she maintains the living and guards the dead.' This refers to the days when polygamy was practised more generally in Madagascar than it is to-day. The first, or chief, wife had the care of the property and added to it as often as she could. Another says, 'The dead are not buried on Thursdays or Sundays, because the living are considered.' That is because Thursday and Sunday are unlucky days, and it is believed even yet in some parts of the island that a funeral on either of those days will soon be followed by many more funerals. The custom of wearing a lamba or sort of shawl has given rise to 'When God has made a plain face, covering the head won't make it handsome.' Another, which might well be remembered, but is n't always, when they are dealing with unsuspecting foreigners, is 'The simple are not cheated, because God is feared.' Perhaps the foreigner is not regarded as simple, but as fair game, no matter how little he may know of the island and of its scale of prices. Another, which should have more general application than it has, is 'when the day is dark a light can be used; when the water is deep a canoe can be used; when the moat is deep a ladder can be used; but there is nothing that can be done for an evil deed.' The little American boy might say that in his Sunday school!

They speak lightly of the diviner, who, nevertheless, still makes his living in all parts of Madagascar. 'Mr. Headshaker's prediction: if it is n't a boy it will be a girl' is reminiscent of an American doctor who made his position equally sure by finding out in advance which the parents wanted and then prophesying that it would be the other. If he was right they did not complain, and if they got what they wanted they did not complain.

'Sorrow I can bear, but not the professional mourner' has more sophistication than we should expect from the gentle savage. So also has 'A hard old woman who is not made compassionate by the past.' 'A cow is ill, and a bull is the doctor's fee' sounds like a bitter jest that might have been applied to an American lawyer. To be philosophical does not necessarily mean to have had a formal education. The Malagasy says, 'A wife to be divorced has many faults, a lass not married looks excellent, a woman not yet made a mother-in-law seems easy to get along with.' The poor mother-in-law gets the worst of it in whatever civilization she may find herself! There must be universal truth in 'A tall tree is hated by the wind, and a rich man by his neighbors,' but one would dislike having to live next to the man who says, 'When there is a rice field to be dug I call in others; when there is salted eel for dinner I have no friends but the dead,' or to be engaged to the one who says, 'Marriage is not a fast knot, but a slip knot.'

Here is a new way of saying 'David and Jonathan': 'Let your friendship be that of the mouth and the hand: if the hand is hurt the mouth blows it, if the mouth is hurt the hand strokes it.' Then there are 'Don't love me as you do a door, liked, but pushed to and fro,' and 'Don't be so much in love that you can't tell when the rain is coming,' which latter could easily be listed among our own proverbs, if it is not already one of them.

Studying the proverbs of a people, the common sayings of their everyday life, and the philosophy of their more serious moments, one comes to a close understanding of that people. The Malagasy show depths of feeling, as in 'Sorrow is like a precious treasure: shown only to friends,' and 'I am deserted by you when I am not yet recovered, and yearning for you is two thirds of my malady,' and true nicety in 'Let your love be like the misty rain, coming softly, but flooding the river'; but in the long run the spirit of the tropics wins out and 'Love is like young rice: transplanted, still it grows' and as for life, 'Life is a shadow and a mist; it passes quickly by and is no more.'


Copyright © 1927 by Margaret McIntosh Linton. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1927; "Madagascar Proverbs"; Volume 139, No. 3; pages 352-354.

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