Proverbs as an African Literary Form

Proverbs as an African Literary Form

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.

34 thoughts on “Proverbs as an African Literary Form” by Dowell Oba (@dowell)

  1. I agree. I love proverbs so much.

    The yoruba ones sound so smart…but then, so do every other one I’ve heard.

    I mean, Africa is the home of proverbs because as far as I’m concerned we’re the centre for morals in the world.

    Interesting one, Dowell. Significant food for thought.

    If you ever read an issue of Dark Edge (a Nigerian drawn, written and printed comic), you would appreciate the guys. Every page has a proverb.

    Again…nice one.

    1. I’ll sure look out for that “Dark Edge” @Seun! I sure love any write-up packed full with proverbs. It has that country man down to earth feel. Appreciate your lovely comment and input. Thanks!

      1. @Dowell: I think we should create a fora whereby an individual can post in proverbs with the meaning(s)…hausa, igbo, yoruba. other languages not excluded….

        You dig?…….

        1. Such a forum will sure make sense @greatness4life! Thumbs up for the idea!

  2. But some proverbs are rather stupid, especially when you put them on spot light.

    “What the old man can see sitting down, a child can never see standing up.”


    Big Lie

    1. What do these old people know anyway?
      I know a lot of things that my parents and grandparents can never know, evven when they stand on mountains. But they will never believe it when I tell them.
      My point is this, proverbs mostly just sound nice and make the speaker look wise. Proverbs are no authority on anything.
      Gimme any proverb and I will show you just how silly it is.

      1. what the dog saw and barked and disturbed the neighbourhood was the same thing the caw saw and sighted and looked away nonchalantly. @kaycee is it not ignorance that made nwanza to challenge his chi on a wrestling match. he that had said there is no wisdom in the Gray hair might not grow one.

        1. What a proverb! Thanks for that tight one @adams

        2. @adams, hahahahha
          What the dog saw and what the caw saw..bla bla bla…..arrant nonsense.
          Dogs will bark and disturb the neighbours for any reason at all.
          If there’s so much wisdom in gray hairs how come old men dye the thing.

          Who is Nwanza anyway?

    2. Lol, Kaycee, that’s why I mentioned above that proverbs are not usually interpreted logically.

      I guess what they mean by that proverb you cited is that an old man has a better sense of judgement from his warehouse of experience, having seen, appreciated and lived life more.

      Take for instance a young man filled with much anger and trying to divorce his wife for a little hear say from one or two jealous friends. His old father can call him to order, and advice him not to be too hasty in sending this woman away. For he will forever live to regret it and live miserably if he loses such a good wife and blessing due to false accusations of adultery.

      The old man is quick to know this because he has come to see and understand the evil that resides in people’s hearts, to the extent that friends cannot be 100 percent trusted.

      1. Don’t bother explaining stuff to @kaycee. He most likely agrees with you – but ‘courtesy’ demands he plays the devil’s advocate.

        1. @seun, coutesy ke?
          Philosophy demands that I see everything from the “other” POV.

  3. Tell him Dowell..When I read the comments, @kaycee seemed like the young man to me..Impulsive,headstrong guy who knows almost everything.
    @kaycee, Dowell is the grandpa, listen to

    Dowell..very enlightening piece..put it in the papers, if you can, so our parents and grandparents will feel happy that some people actually get where they are coming from…
    One more thing thing, why do you want to crack open my head with grammer ehn?..
    Well done…

    1. Hehe! @Bubbllinna… The grammar won’t crack your head at all. Thanks for that suggestion. I’ll share it with my friend in the nations newspaper. Happy cheers!

  4. @dowell, I know what the proverb means.
    I just don’t believe old men always know better.
    @bublinna, hush!

    1. Aha….Yes Sir!..for the moment

    2. @kaycee: you might be wrong ooooo……..

  5. I love the piece you put together..

    I must admit like Seun Odukoya that I love words/sentences when its well constructed with proper “Nigerian-Yoruba-proverb”. It always bring out simplicity,understanding and beyond that, it “goes” a long way in driving home your points to the listener who are vast in knowledge of proverb.

    By it also, you can sell out your listeners who have no understanding of proverb.
    “Charity begins at home” is an old proverb which still have its untainted meaning till date…

    Consider this Yoruba proverb
    “Patapata la n foju, kumokumo la n dete; oju afoifotan ija ni ma n dale..”…..
    who can interpret, please?….


    Nice work Dowell

    1. @greatness4life that your proverb kunk no be small! Abeg help us interpret am. Thanks a lot for the wonderful comment.

  6. Nice one. Really nice. But I mustn’t quote my fore-fathers’ proverbs. I can decide to create mine, isn’t it?

    1. Of course @babyada you can always create yours and become a standard authority, so long as it conveys true wisdom when considered carefully.

      Thanks for enjoying!

  7. @ Eletricity-i ditto ur tot.Meanwhile i’m laughing @ oga kaycee’s comments.But I think that proverbs are instructive that adds flair and content to creative works such as you have highlighted above.Well done.

    1. Glad you catch my point, @Sambright. Thanks!

  8. The interpretation dey too long o. Here you go:
    Half blindness and half leprosy always causes whala, in such that the person that suffering from half blindness will be angry at the person complaining of to much starring from blindman whereas the blind-man isn’t looking at his direction.

    Have u ever been a place where you thought someone was starring at you because of so called half-blindness whereas he was not looking at your direction.
    That’s the literal mean.
    Simply put; half bread is not better than none, half truth is as bad as poison to him that’s taking it and from him that is giving it out, both will share in the palaba at the end of the day

    Sorry for long comment……… Can’t find a way to properly break it down in english because, sometimes this English is inadequate to interpret ijinle Yoruba.

    1. Lol! Appreciate your interpretation @greatness4life. Ah! Don’t mention. The comment was adequate for the occasion.

      Half truth, half poison… Hehehe!
      So so true!

  9. Tell us…again!
    This should get an A for challenging writers to dig deeper so that few can still say more to many generations to come..

    Tell me though…why were your paragraphs one/ two / three lines? I saw others though.

    1. Thanks @adaobiokwy. Appreciate the A. I wanted to drop the essence of proverbs one at a time. That’s why I placed them in bits of few line paragraphs.

  10. It’s a nice piece Dowell.
    But for me proverb is like technology. Some needs to be jettisoned for they’ve waned with time, especially the one you used, like Kaycee pointed out is no longer effective.
    The children seems to be wiser this days.
    If I can’t I apply Logic to them, of what use is it then, cuz the world has changed in every perspective. Majority of these proverbs are written in another era that can’t be applied in this era. I personally believe in logic and also apply them cuz it’s the only thing that guarantees good decision and judgement. @Adam Gray hair does not come with wisdom, just like I can refute the rest…

    1. @ablyguy. I truly appreciate your views. Indeed with modernity comes change, modification and improvement. That’s why we can always create our own wise sayings if we prefer. Paradox in poetry do the function of proverbs, in that they share wisdom that may somehow sound silly but on a second look make sense, like “The ripest fruit was saddest”.

      Proverbs are figurative expressions, just like irony. If you always interpret them logically they will lose their unique quality. Paradox which is a close substitute for proverbs somewhat accept logic and you can as well use it to attain your stylistic effect.. Sorry for my long essay. lol. Thanks once again.

  11. Why is it that there have been no new proverbs since independence?

    If our forefathers could manage to come up with proverbs, then I’m sure that we can, too.

    At the very least, we could update old proverbs so that they are relevant to our present-day realities.

    For example, instead of that old proverb that goes “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”, we could have “When two politicians embezzle money to outspend each other in an electoral contest, it is the people that suffer.”

    OK, maybe not as elegant, but you get the point…

    1. I get your point @Tola. It’s high time we update our large stock of outdated proverbs, and form new ones that’ll meet the times. And I believe we definitely can. After all our generation is up to the task. Just read the poem by @laworemike, and men I’m impressed we are already doing that.

      Thanks for the vital input.

  12. Heheheheehehehehe. Proverbs. I like the bible proverbs more than the traditional ones sha but I don’t dig proverbs most times. I prefer to apply reasoning. It is true that wisdom grows with age but it is not always the case. Afterall, solomon wasn’t the oldest man in his time when he became wise.

    Good writeup. I really like proverbs in african works. *thinking* what will Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame have been like without proverbs….

    1. Thanks @gooseberry our dear Mona Lisa. I had to crack on your long laugh myself. Guess you read the comments. Wisdom is out there for everyone willing to grab it and be guided by it. But then we can once in a while consult the old to add to our stock of wisdom and learn from their experiences. After all, experience is the best teacher.

      Understood and appreciate your input. Indeed, literature, especially in the genre of plays back in the days and even now wouldn’t be rightly felt if not for the presence of proverbs to make us feel it more dramatically. Hehehe!

  13. Proverbs are truly African and can constitute a genre…………. the Giant Titan of THINGS FALL APART deployed in his work and works………….. God Rest His Soul………..

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