Embu & Mbeere - Riddles and Proverbs

The following is taken from Ciarunji Chesaina's outstanding book "Oral Literature of the Embu and Mbeere" (1997: East African Educational Publishers, PO Box 54314 Nairobi, Kenya). Copyright Ciarunji Chesaina 1997.
In this page:
Performance of Riddles

Performance of Riddles

Unlike the proverb which has no performance formula, the riddle has a strict mode of performance which must be adhered to even when the genre is interacting with the oral narrative. The following is the standard formula of the performance of Embu and Mbeere riddles:

Proposer: Take a riddle. Respondents: We have taken. Proposer: I too have taken. Respondents: A riddle.

At this point, there is usually laughter from everybody on account of the absurdity of this riddle. The above riddle is really for warming up the session and making the performers alert. The real riddling session then begins as follows.

Proposer: Take a riddle. Respondents: We have taken. Proposer: That which belongs to your grandmother and it is big.

The respondents try to solve the riddle one by one. Some respondents giggle with embarrassment because of the way in which poetic licence allows this riddle to have obscene implications. In the original language, the riddle implies that whatever belongs to the grandmother here is on her body. Some respondents might assume that it is a wound on the grandmother's leg. Many might think of her genitals, but feel too embarrassed to make such an obscene guess. After the respondents have given up, they request the proposer to tell them the answer and the session continues as follows:

Proposer: What will you give me?
Respondents: A house. Proposer: Oh! No!
Respondents: Cianvuko

(This is the name of a little girl who is among the respondents; she is offered as a bride to the proposer if he is a man. The idea here is to make the session as lively as possible, for instance by making offers which are funny or are likely to be rejected).

Proposer: Aai! Ika! Oh! No! By the time Cianvuko grows up to be a bride, I shall have become curved or broken into two with age! Nari! Ika! Never! Oh! No!
Respondents: We offer you cattle. Proposer: Whose cattle?

(Respondents will offer herds in the neighbourhood until the proposer accepts one).

Respondents: Kathambana's. Proposer: Keep your cattle! Do you think I am a beggar?
Respondents: The cattle of Nthiga Muruamwosa (Nthiga son of Mwosa). Proposer: Ayia! Ii! Let them come, so that I can be drinking milk and a little blood! Oh! What did I tell you? The big one belonging to your grandmother - a shaven head.

At this point the respondents laugh at their failure to guess such an obvious thing while others sigh with relief that it is not the obscene answer they feared it was. The riddling session continues with the participants taking turns as proposers until they get tired and they decide to stop, either through consensus or at the suggestion of the group leader.

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