The literal translation is A fearful/ cowardly crow died of old age.
One common translation of this proverb is that if you are afraid of action, of coming out of your comfort zones, you will die of old age. You will age quickly.
As a young boy growing up in Malawi, my older sisters used to tell this proverb using an imaginative scenario whereby the cowardly crow was hiding in a disused nest atop a large tree, when fellow crows would beckon to it to get out, and go with them to enjoy the sunshine. But alas it always refused to leave the sheltered, and relative safety of the disused nest.
‘There are hunters out there’ it would respond ‘Hawks with talons as big as knives who will kill me if I go out’
To which the others would laugh, scoffing at the incredulity in the response of the coward.
‘I’m telling you there’s trouble out there. I’m safe here’, the scorned crow would shoot back.
And so without the sunshine, without the plentiful supply of leftovers the other crows enjoyed daily, without fresh air and feeding only on insects that got trapped in the droppings filled, unclean nest, the coward got old quickly, and died shortly after.
It was a good tale to stimulate imagination in a young boy, and walking past the forests near my home, there were many days when I’d look up at the large trees, wondering whether this was the domain of the cowardly crow. But thinking about it now, the holes in the tale were big and wide. For a start, how did the cowardly crow know about a world he had never ventured into?
A second translation of this proverb runs thus; that if you are ever fearful, you won’t die of the consequences of rash bravado, or as a result of your own impassive behaviour, but likely of old age; that a passive nature will spare you many troubles.
Whichever translation of these two you prefer, I have serious problems with the second translation. Because it seems to me that when I talk with Malawians, I find too many a Khwangwala a mantha passively looking on. There are many who can see problems facing Malawi ever so clearly. Some of these people are able to suggest what sound like workable, or at least not impractical solutions. Solutions which with some tinkering, time and a measure of patience could rectify some of the challenges, but comparatively there appears to be far too few people who are willing to face the problems head-on.
They moan about the failures of the Malawi economy and what’s happening with the free-falling currency, they moan about mismanagement, about bad governance, and the ways in which political party honchos siphon public funds; they moan about the decrepit machinery used to generate electricity at Nkula, but if you ask them, what is the solution, let alone what they are planning on doing about it, they turn around, or look the other way – as if you haven’t said anything??
Part of the problem is lack of knowledge. Another part is lack of resources in that there are many well-intentioned people who do not have the finances to start something that can work against the problems. But these are not the only reasons.
Mwina tachuluka ambiri anthu a mantha. Maybe we need to move from being, borrowing the biblical saying ‘hearers of the word’ to being ‘doers of the word’ in respect of the various challenges Malawi, and Africa in general faces.