African proverbs (Writer)


Proverbs distinguish themselves from other forms of oral literature by their brevity, consistency (their word order rarely changes over time), and widespread acceptance within a community. Some African cultures, such as that of the Bushmen, have few proverbs, while others have hundreds. one recent collection contains approximately 3,000 proverbs from 64 Nigerian peoples. Researchers have recorded 4,000 proverbs in the Rundi language alone, and the Chaga people claim they “have four big possessions: land, cattle, water and proverbs.”

In many African cultures, speakers use proverbs as a way to catch their audience’s attention, display intelligence and learning, lend authority to their words, settle legal disputes, provide entertainment, and resolve moral or ethical dilemmas. As one Igbo puts it, “The proverb makes somebody think twice. If you use a proverb people might be more likely to take your advice.”

The writer Ruth Finnegan points out that African maxims use rhythm, striking imagery (many involving comparisons with animals or household objects), and exaggeration to make their points clear.

Proverbs appear in stories, poems, art, and songs. The Ashanti even make brass weights depicting figures from proverbs. In addition, proverbs are usually short (from a few words to a sentence), allowing the speaker to wittily communicate complicated ideas or concepts. This, in turn, makes the ideas easier to learn.

The themes of African proverbs include power, death, marriage, wealth, foolishness, fate, and the importance of community. A particular culture’s choice of proverbs tells something about that culture. Americans and Europeans know that the term sour grapes refers to one of aesop’s fables; similarly, the Yoruba and other African peoples believe that “Half a word will do for an intelligent boy.” And the proverbs of Bantu-speaking peoples reveal that they raise livestock. Their saying, “Don’t throw away the milk pails,” is their way of saying people should keep hope.

Because some proverbs are often incomprehensible to listeners unfamiliar with African cultures, they are sometimes used as a secretive type of language to keep “outsiders” from understanding. As one Igbo saying goes, “Proverbs are used to confuse stupid people.” In addition, because some proverbs are indirect, they can be used in situations when more direct speech might be insulting. For instance, one might speak the Yoruba proverb “Children are a man’s clothes” in the presence of a father with misbehaving young children. The children would not understand the reference, but their father would. The phrasing of the proverb would allow him the chance to curb his children’s actions without taking offense. This is similar to proverbs that encourage appropriate behavior. “Those who eat together shouldn’t eat each other,” say the Igbo, reminding friends and family to respect each other. The Longuda emphasize the importance of keeping promises by saying, “A promise is not just a knot which you can simply untie with your hands.” Finally, a Tswanan saying, “To give is to put away for yourself,” encourages generosity by implying it will someday be returned.

There are also numerous ambiguous proverbs that can be used in different situations. For example, the Boko saying, “A sheep does not give birth to a goat” (or the Ga’s “A crab does not beget a bird”) can humiliate a thief’s child, but it can also reassure a woman that her child will be as healthy and intelligent as she is.

Such lessons, advice, and compliments were passed down for centuries in African cultures. They are part of the same oral tradition that created and preserved stories like the epic of son-jara. It has been only in recent centuries that Europeans and Africans themselves have written down these sayings. The explorer Richard Burton’s collection Wit and Wisdom from West Africa (1865) was one of the first of its kind. This and other works reveal the proverbs’ archaic words and grammatical constructions, but this seems almost irrelevant when compared to the African proverbs’ versatility, authority, rhythm, and imagery, for it is these elements that give the proverbs their universal and lasting appeal.

English Collections of African Proverbs

Ibekwe, Patrick, ed. Wit & Wisdom of Africa: Proverbs from Africa & the Caribbean. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1999.

Pachocinski, Ryszard. Proverbs of Africa: Human Nature in the Nigerian Oral Tradition. St. Paul, Minn.: Professors World Peace Academy, 1996.

Zona, Guy, ed. The House of the Heart Is Never Full and Other Proverbs of Africa. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

A Work about African Proverbs

Finnegan, Ruth. “Proverbs in Africa.” In The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb. Edited by Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, 10-42. New York: Garland, 1981.

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