Proverbs are short popular saying intended to teach, motivate and advice. Dictionary.com describes it as a wise saying or precept; a didactic sentence. They are very common in the day to day speech of Africans and are passed on from generation to generation. African proverb expresses a belief that is true and it always has a greater meaning than seen on the surface. They can also be used by one to express one’s situation or experience in life
Chinua Achebe, a renowned Nigerian author in his novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’, describes Proverbs as ‘the Palm Oil with which words are eaten’. Some obvious questions to be asked include; what is the meaning of this? what has Palm Oil got to do with words? How can you eat Palm Oil and words? Well in order for this interesting proverb to be quite lucid to us, we have to dive into the root of this proverb. A popular delicacy in many regions of Africa especially west Africa is roasted Cassava. This meal is best enjoyed with Palm Oil. I am most certain that eating the roasted Cassava alone will not taste as good as combining with Palm Oil. The addition of palm oil makes it more enjoyable and nourishing as well. This is the role proverbs play in African speech. We can infer from the renowned author’s statement that it is impossible to make a speech without a proverb. Proverbs in this case, is the palm oil with which we eat our roasted cassava. It forms an integral part of the African culture.
I grew up hearing and learning some of these sayings and I always found it to be intriguing. My maternal grandmother of blessed memory was my teacher in Proverbs. I always ran to her with a proverb asking for the meaning. I fell in love more with African Proverbs when I was in High School. One of the African works I studied was ‘The Gods Are Not To Blame’ by Ola Rotimi (an adaptation of the Greek classic Oedipus Rex). A beautiful play by all standards and the book was full of exciting Proverbs.
There are numerous African Proverbs and it is impossible to list them all here. Most of these proverbs are in one African dialect or the other. I must point out that these proverbs are best appreciated in it original form (in the local dialect). Not being able to translate it in the literal form makes them lose their significance. One proverb my grandmother taught me which i cherish most is ‘no condition is permanent’-(promprom ntse ho daa-Fante dialect, Ghana) and nothing last forever (aky3r aky3r wo na fe-Fante dialect, Ghana). These Proverbs motivate and admonish as well depending on the situation at hand. For insance, if you are going through challenges in life, it is used to motivate you to carry on and not to give up because your breakthrough will surely come someday. However if you happen to be successful, wealthy or find yourself in a high position and you are arrogant and have no regard for anyone, it is used to admonish you and inform you that your success now is not guaranteed, tables can turn anytime. In order for you all to appreciate these proverbs, I will try as much as possible to translate them literally into english and thereafter explain to you the significance of these proverb. As you read through them, I hope you will appreciate them and find them useful as well. So have fun and let’s learn something new.
- PROVERB: A strand of broom is easily broken but not the whole broom.
- Significance: Strength in unity is the moral in this. It emphasizes the power of team work and the synergy effect. Ecclestiasis 4:12 put it better this way ‘Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’.
- PROVERB: The stairway for death is not climbed by one person.
Significance: This talks about the common mortality of all human beings. It is used to reprimand someone found to ruthless or found with a questionable character. It advices such people to be modest in all their dealings with people; to put on a cloak of modesty instead of arrogance.
- PROVERB: A leopard cannot change it spot.Significance: we can’t change our identity.
- PROVERB: Character is like a woman pregnant; no matter how hard she tries to cover it up, the stomach will grow and be evident to all. Significance: If you have a bad character, no matter the level you climb to in life, this unpleasant character will be revealed and it will mess you up. I will explain this further with John Wooden’s quote ‘talent will take you to the door but character will keep you in the room’.
- PROVERB: When you are about to embark on the journey of marriage, ‘ask’.
PROVERB: The journey of marriage is a long one.
Significance: The first Proverb encourages people especially young ones who about to embark on that journey to find out more about that journey. Know more about your partner, whether you are compactible or not, know more about the family of your partner and if the results of your search is what you both desire because it is one decision that can change your life forever.
The second proverb reiterates the fact that marriage is a lifelong journey and in spite of the good times, you will face challenges as well. So how prepared are you, both mentally emotionally and physically.
- PROVERB: No one takes a medication for a sick person.
Significance: This is talking about taking ownership of your mistakes and accepting responsibility for your actions. If you want to change the course of your life, then you have to make the changes needed. No one can do that for you.
- PROVERB: If a naked person promises you a cloth as a gift, find out more. Significance: This is about trust. Always find out more and get to know if the person is worth your trust otherwise you will be heartbroken. Chris Butler puts it this way ‘trust is earned when actions meet words’.
- PROVERB: It’s only those closest to you who can hurt you most.
Significance: This touches on trust and betrayal. The fact is those who are close to you know your weaknesses and frailties and they can use them to hurt you badly when you least expect it or even these people can be exploited by others to hurt you. Have you wondered why in most movies when people are targeted by their enemies, they often use their loved ones to get them?
- PROVERB: If you throw a stone at a wall, it bounces back to you.
Significance : In your quest to hurt someone, you will inadvertently hurt yourself in the process. Be mindful of your actions when you are hurt. It could be further explained with a quote attributed to Confucius ‘when you embark on revenge, dig two graves; one for your enemy and one for yourself.
- PROVERB: When you hear a lots of noise coming from someone’s kitchen, don’t be envious.
Significance: Thiis teaches people to be content with what they have because not all that glitters is gold and the grass always looks green from the other side. ( or the grass always looks greener on social media😀) For all you know, the noise you heard could be the result of filling empty pots with water and not as you thought that there’s merry making.
- PROVERB: If one lacks direction in anything, one can fall on another to help.
Significance: No person is repository of all knowledge explains this better. We should learn to ask or accept help from others because God placed them in our lives for a reason.
- PROVERB: A heart is like a tree; it grows wherever it wants.
Significance: we don’t choose who we fall in love with.
- PROVERB: When you get attacked by the army ant, you don’t stand in their midst to clear them off you. Significance: Teaches us to have patience and calm down in moments of crises or emergencies. Think through your options to make the right decision.
- PROVERB: The Crab doesn’t give birth to a bird.
Significance: Two idioms an apple doesn’t fall far from a tree and a chip of the old block can better explain this. It is used to illustrate how a child shares similar attributes or talent with his or her parent. Remember this proverb can be used in both a positive and a negative way.
- PROVERB: In order to catch a fish, you need to use a fish.
Significance: Those of us who love fishing, we all know in order to entice a fish you need a bait. Usually baits are impaled on one or more hooks attached to a line. The Proverb above merely emphasizes the fact that in anything you do, if you expect a great return or result then you have to invest in it. Invest time, money, and energy. You can’t be in limbo and expect that result but rather work hard to achieve that goal.
From the above, it obvious proverbs form an integral part of the African culture. It teaches on various aspects of life (patience, love, unity, wealth etc), advices, influences the lifestyle of the people and enriches the African culture as a whole.
If you have any proverb you want me to add, send it to me and i will gladly do that.