Swahili proverb: Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba

Words of the week: Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba (proverb)

Language: Kiswahili

Meaning (literal): Little by little, the container/pot gets filled.

  • Background

This hugely popular Swahili proverb was recently popularised by Kenyan artist Stella Mwangi  in her song ‘Haba Haba’ which all but propelled her to fame after it won the Eurovision Song Contest.

In spite of the missing ‘na’ supposed to connect ‘haba na haba’ in the original saying, the song conveys the meaning of the proverb quite faithfully and has the merit of creating an international buzz around the Swahili language.

  • Meaning

The literal translation of ‘haba na haba, hujaza kibaba‘ could be ‘Little by little, the container gets filled’. Simple in appearance and made pleasant to the ear by the use of alliteration, consonance and assonance, this proverb carries a deep significance.

While we may overlook small changes, they are the ones which, put together over time, eventually make a difference. Just like the pot becomes full if you keep pouring a few drops of water in it, learning a few words a day can lead you to acquiring proficiency in a language, saving a small amount of money every month may build you a fortune and smiling to strangers day after day can make the world a better place. This, to me, is a metaphor of hope.

Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba also highlights the value of patience and hard work in attaining one’s goals in life. One of the messages that I see as embedded in these wise words is that one should not expect to change a situation overnight but rather work towards the desired end in small, prudent but determined steps.

  • Brief Linguistic Analysis

The prefix hu-, denoting the habitual tense, expresses the time dimension contained in the phrase. It is used to conjugate the verb ‘kujaza‘ (to fill, to fill out), causative form of ‘kujaa‘ (to be full, to become full).

Kibaba designates a small pot or a container.

As a side note, it is interesting to remark that the word ‘haba not only means ‘little’ or ‘few’ but can sometimes be used to refer to affection, friendship or love. I like to contemplate this double meaning as really touching down to the essence of love, which has the power to bring little things together and make them great.

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