African Proverbs in African Literature

A Critical Resourcebase


This Web site is about African proverbs and their significance to the continent’s oral and written literature. Africa abounds in proverbs that its writers tap into to advance its brand of “wisdom literature”. As they write to convey the experiences of Africans in their literary works, they definitely rely on these proverbs to portray their own Africanness and the cultural nuances behind those experiences.

No reading of a literary work by an African author can be successfully done without a clear understanding of the place and role of proverbs in the work. Having read much of what African authors have produced, I am certain that their recourse to proverbs is not for its own sake. It is a conscious effort to portray African wisdom literature through language.

In their use of foreign languages (English, French, Portuguese, especially), they have found very creative means to use African proverbs to advantage. A cursory reading of their works should not leave anybody in doubt about their reverence for “wisdom literature” as driven by the proverbs.

Of course, using foreign languages has its own constraints that these authors have struggled to negotiate, manouevre, and attempt to either circumvent or tackle. The late Nigerian literary giant, Chinua Achebe has cleverly presented his struggles, making it clear that although he was using English to convey his African experiences, he would ensure that the language did not take away his Africanness.

Thus, it was imperative to nativize the English language and give it the burden of conveying his African experiences. Nothing would be given to chance or ceded to English to make him lose his Africanness. Using African proverbs in English means bending English to suit the writer’s purposes. But anybody not conversant with the “bending process” cannot grasp the true meaning and implications of the proverbs so invested in the language.

Other African writers have used the rich resources of African proverbs to advantage. It is to their credit that a project of the sort that I have done should be given.

Of particular interest is the most celebrated African epic, Sundiata that is a regular item on the menu in the United States curriculum. This literary work is so woven in proverbs that no clear meaning can be gleaned from it by anybody who doesn’t know the value of African proverbs.

Many other texts have numerous proverbs in them that can make it difficult for those not familiar with the “African experience” to lose track of the real import of what the authors seek to convey.

To help such readers know how to engage those texts, I decide to do a project of this sort to tease out the relevance of African proverbs to oral and written literature emanating from Africa.

The project is all-encompassing and will focus on some of the major African literary works that have gone beyond the shores of Africa and attracted patronage in the wider global sphere.

The project involves a careful identification of the various authors of importance, their works, and the kinds of proverbs that run through their works. These proverbs are compiled and presented according to their worth and explanations given so their meaning could be worked into an understanding of the message being conveyed by the author. It’s quite intricate but understandable for what the proverbs may have to offer the reader.

I decided to do this project on “Proverbs from Africa” because of my keen interest in exploring the significant contributions of proverbs to oral literature on the continent. I reiterate that Africa abounds in rich proverbs whose contributions to the oral literature of the continent are remarkable. From the East to the West, North, Central, and South, all the thousands of the continent’s ethnic groups have proverbs that make them socio-culturally unique.

The proverbs are attributes that the people cherish because they do not only portray the world views of the people but they also show what the people do sociolinguistically as they communicate on issues of mutual interest. Do you know that it takes very little for the user of an African proverb to convey much information?

Evidence shows that the courts of the traditional rulers (chiefs or kings) are revered because of the manner in which the traditional spokesmen or linguists manipulate proverbs to convey wisdom. What will be your reaction if you were told:

“Two rams cannot drink from the same bucket at the same time. They will lock horns”?

Imagine the significance of these proverbs to African oral literature and how African folklore depends on proverbs and you will not be far from getting to know why there is need for a project of the sort I have done, which brings together proverbs from different parts of Africa for your reading pleasure and appreciation.

The collections here are authentic African proverbs that speak volumes for the diverse linguistic, social, and cultural resources that Africa has. Here is an opportunity for you to entertain your brains.


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