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A festival of proverbs



Today I am going to set up what I shall call a festival of proverbs from across the motherland – Africa. I feel very proverbial and wise! I have also heard that the study of proverbs is called paremiology and that a person who studies proverbs is called a paremiologist.

The study of proverbs has been built by a number of notable scholars and contributors. Earlier scholars were more concerned with collecting than analysing proverbs. Desiderius Erasmus was a Latin scholar (1466 – 1536), whose collection of Latin proverbs, known as Adagia, spread Latin proverbs across Europe. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the Anglican bishop in Nigeria, published a collection of Yoruba proverbs.

But, what is a proverb? It is said that proverbs a the Latin word – proverbium which means a simple and insightful, traditional saying that expresses a perceived truth based on common sense or experience.

In his book of 1659 called Paroimiografa, James Howell writes that chief ingredients which go to make a true proverb are sense, shortness and salt.

Proverbs are also referred to as “the wit of one and the wisdom of many.” This means that although each proverb belongs to a specific community, there must be an individual who may have arranged it in the specific words through which a proverb has been known.

It means that “the author may only have clothed in happier form what others had already felt and uttered.” Proverbs are therefore communal property.

That proverbs are handed down over generations, make them qualify as part of folklore. That is why Wofgang Mieder proposed in 1993 that: “A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed, and memorisable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.”

There are various types of proverbs depending on how they function. There is a synonymous proverb, where both lines of the proverb say the same things only in different ways. Example:

“Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.”

There is the antithetical proverb whereby the teaching is presented in the first line, and the negative of the teaching or opposite is presented in the second line. A lot of the antithetical proverbs inform the reader in the first line that if you do this, you will be blessed; but if you don’t, this is what will happen. For example “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”

You will usually find the word “but” in an antithetical proverb because two different ideas are being contrasted.

There is the synthetic proverb, which is defined as a composition or combination of parts, elements that form the whole. In a synthetic proverb, both lines seem to express a totally different thought — even opposites — yet they have one common theme. Example: “The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.”

The first line is concerned with lying or falsehood, and the second line talks about slander or malicious talk. Although the actions are opposites—one conceals while the other expresses true feelings…the results are the same…harm and injury.

There is the integral proverb in which the second line of the proverb completes the first line. The thought often flows so well that it looks like one continuous thought. Example: “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” The second line emphasizes the result of applying the first line.

There is the parabolic proverb where the first line illustrates the second line. The teaching is found in the second line while the first line is an analogy. The word analogy means similarity. Example:

“A gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”

There is the comparative proverb which compares one thing with another to illustrate a common trait or theme. Example: “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike.”

In some comparative proverbs, the first line expresses something which is better or more desirable than what is listed in the second line.

Somebody has actually indicated that in Africa, we even have proverbs about proverbs and these are called metaproverbs! The Afar of Ethiopia say: “Proverbs are the cream of language.” This may mean that in the Afar community, a great and entertaining speaker ought to fill up his speech with proverbs.

Another metaproverb is from the Yoruba of Nigeria which goes, “Proverbs are the horses of speech, if communication is lost we use proverbs to find it.” From that you may discern that the horse occupies a position of pride in the Yoruba society.

The Arabic in Cairo actually say, “A proverb does not lie.” This tells you that proverbs are considered to be wise sayings that are coming from a long period of constant observation and experience and that through time, such observation have been proven true.

There are proverbs about virtually every subject in all communities. There are many exciting and insightful Moroccan proverbs about travellers and travelling to new lands. One of them goes: “A country should be entered by the aid of its owners.”

This means that the traveller should respect the customs of the country that he visits and even put up with things that he would not tolerate in his own home country in order to remain safe and tolerable.

In line with the above, another Moroccan proverb of travel goes, “If you find them worshipping a donkey, bring it grass.” It means that you may not survive in foreign countries if you go about loudly attacking the way they worship, the way they live or the way they marry.

Another Moroccan proverb actually says more about the traveller, “When you travel with him, you get to know the traveler.” This means that sometimes people really display fully who they are when they are far away from home.

It is because when one is far away from home, one feels that he is far away from the inhibiting eyes of family. With all that new found freedom, the traveller starts to do what he has always wanted

to do.
The people of Morocco also say that a man who has moved from his village because he disliked the people there, but finds that the inhabitants of the new place are just as bad, may make the following proverbial remark, “The whole sea is salt.”

The Basotho people have very many exciting proverbs based on animals and birds. One of them goes: “Though it is four legged, the horse falls” (Pitsi e oa e le maoto-mane), meaning that errors can be performed by all, including by the seemingly stable and experienced. Such a proverb is clearly used to admonish those who think that they are too comfortable and experienced to err. One way or the other, failure or downfall visits all of us.

One other animal based proverb from the Basotho goes, “A cow which is threshing corn cannot be stopped from eating in the process” (E polang, ha e tlangoe molomo.) This may mean that those who work deserve to be paid or those who work should be expected to have certain obvious privileges within the territories where they work.

It is expected that those who grow a crop should have a more regular supply of it than all the other people.

A rather sad Sotho proverb goes, “The hen will die and the eggs will rot” (E ea shoa mahe a bole). Clearly this means that as soon as the protector dies, those who have been protected all along may actually die too or their fortunes may dwindle to very low levels.

The community, in all its wisdom realises that the individual does not live solely for himself. In all Africa, family comes first. When you see an individual in Africa, you must know that he could be responsible for many other people in his home and in the villages beyond.

I love beef and my favourite Sesotho proverb is “The grave of a cow is the mouth.” (Bitla la khomo ke molomo.) I sit here wondering how many cows got buried in my mouth ever since I started eating meat.

I came across Igbo proverbs that are also attributed to animals. The first one goes, “The female toad said that her husband is so sweet that when she got married, she carried her husband permanently on her back.”

This proverb is particularly attributed to a species of toad that carries the male counterpart on its back during a certain season. This proverb is apparently humorous and is used to push women into loving and providing for their husbands.

Another interesting Igbo proverb is attributed to the tortoise. It goes, “The tortoise who wants people to help it lift the earth unto its head, should show people where they will stand during this task.” This proverb appears to be a retort or a response to a person who makes impossible propositions in the community. There are limits to some of the things that we wish to do.

Another Igbo proverb is attributed to the dog: “The dog said that it barks for the benefit of its owner and the thief too.” This means that there is no single way of understanding somebody’s actions in the community. Some people’s intentions are not very clear whom they are meant to benefit and we need to be careful.

Another animal based Igbo proverb goes: “The sheep said that gazing is a big job.” This means that one should not underrate somebody else’s assignment even if it appears simple. The one undertaking the seemingly easy assignment may actually feel very engrossed in it.

The Ashanti proverbs based on relations are very intriguing. One of them goes; “When the Chief who will kill you has not come onto the throne, can you count how many chiefs you have served under?” This may mean that you may not exactly know your fate until the very end and your duty therefore is to be careful all the time.

Another Ashanti proverb goes: “When your mother dies, you have no kindred left.” This proverb shows that a mother’s love is irreplaceable. A mother is a very important person in the life of a child. This ties up well with a Swahili proverb which goes; “A hen’s kick does not hurt her chick. (Teke Ia kuku halimwumizi mwanawe.)

Another Ashanti proverb: “When you walk behind your father, you learn to walk like him.” It means that a son learns a lot about life through observing and listening to those before him and he is most likely going to behave and talk like his elders before him.

The Ashanti also say; “The enemy of a Chief is he who has grown up with him from childhood.” This may mean that the real threat to the individual comes from people who know him very intimately for a long time. Only they know full well the weaknesses of a man.

The Ashanti also say; “By the time the fool has learned to play the game, the players have dispersed.” This may mean that wisdom and knowledge tend to be a closely guarded secret and one does not become wise when his rivals are unwilling to share with him.

Another Ashanti proverb, “When you go to someone’s town and he kills a fowl for you to eat, it is not his fowl that you have eaten, but your own which is at home.” This may mean that for all the good done by others unto you, you are bound to pay back one day, in equal measure. There is not much gain in receiving good treatment because you are bound to repay it.

As you read Achebe’s novel, arrow of God, you notice that Umuaro (Africa) has beautiful and systematic thought patterns and knowledge systems. This is seen through the Ibgo people’s constant references to events in the past and the wisdom stored in the wide variety of proverbs and idioms like;

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool, When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing, The fly that has no one to advise it follows the corpse into the grave, When we see an old woman stop in her dance to point again and again in the same direction we can be sure that somewhere there something happened long ago which touched the roots of her life, He whose name is called again and again by those trying in vain to catch a wild bull has something he alone can do to bulls….”

Memory Chirere

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