Once a scholar quipped: “What is great about proverbs? Anybody can utter them.” Somebody retorted “OK, tell one!” “Eh” and then he ponders. It is very hard indeed to condense so much wisdom in so few words.
Proverbs has been and remains a most powerful and effective instrument for the transmission of culture, social morality, manners and ideas of a people from one generation to another. The reason behind the efficacy of the proverb is that it is an aphorism, a wise saying based upon people’s experience, and is a reflection of the social values and sensibility of the people.
A collection of the proverbs of a community or nation is in a real sense an ethnography of the people, which if systematized can give a penetrating picture of the people’s way of life, their philosophy, their criticism of life, moral truths and social values.
At the level of individual units of aphorisms, proverbs fits into the syntax of speech as a figurative expression, and a stylistic device with the desired semantic force. Even poets nowadays do use it.
Collectively and in an important general sense, African proverbs are literary forms which offer the traditional artist, speaker, philosopher and priest a veritable medium for the projection and fulfilment of a variety of socially desired goals.
Whenever there is doubt about an accepted pattern of behaviour, whenever there is doubt about a stipulated line of action, whenever traditional norms are threatened, there are always proverbs and indeed tales or myths to vouch, illuminate and buttress the wisdom of the traditional code of conduct.
The value of the corpus of societal proverbs lies not only in the way they strengthen tradition, but in the variety of ways in which they may and do contribute to the life continuity of the given society, and the individual who lives in it.
In terms of form, the proverb is a graphic statement that expresses a truth of experience. Its beauty and source of delight is that what it says is readily perceived and accepted as an incontrovertible truth. The truth presented in the proverb is not a logical, a priori or intuitive truth; it is often an empirical fact based upon and derived from the people’s experience of life, human relationship and interaction with the world of nature.
The proverb, as a short popular saying in form, expresses its truth of experience or observation in a strikingly figurative language. It is marked by its epigrammatic terseness and by the readily acceptance of its truth.
We as writers can effectively spice up our stories, plays and poems with proverbs, and do as much as convey traditionally accustomed wisdom as we pass across our message and varying themes that centres on our unique African environment. And while we deliberate more on its usage, we should place our minds on the works of Chinua Achebe, the great novelist, and Wole Soyinka, the talented playwright, and salute the richness of their works occasionally spiced up with proverbs both from the Igbo and Yoruba cultures, particularly as seen in “Things Fall Apart” and “Arrow of God” by Achebe, and “Death and the King’s Horseman” by Soyinka.
So it is now a wake up call for we writers to dialogue with our grandparents and dig out as many rich proverbs we could get. For with old age comes wisdom. And like they say ‘what an old man has seen sitting down, a child can never see it, standing up.’ And we can even go further to interview our parents and wise uncles that have many a tale to tell on history and cultural ideals, from which we can fetch enough wisdom from. For “Half of a Yellow Sun” wouldn’t have been so real if Chimamanda had not done such enlightening interviews that could broaden a writer’s horizon, and make his or her work not limited by scanty none relatable detail. So I urge everyone to look into that creative mind, and harvest as many proverbs you can get, that you probably must have taken for granted.