African Proverbs in African Literature

A Critical Resourcebase



  • “Are you not a Yoruba? Why must proverbs be explained to you after they are said? (Nigeria)”;
  • “A proverb is the horse of conversation: when the conversation lags, a proverb will revive it. (Yoruba, Nigeria)”;
  • “A wise man who knows proverbs reconciles difficulties (Yoruba, Nigeria)”; and
  • “Proverbs are the daughters of experience (Sierra Leone).”

A. Introduction

A peculiar feature of the linguistic repertoire of Africa is the prevalence of proverbs. It is a truism to say that Africa has more diverse societies than any other continent in the world. The 54 countries constituting the continent have numerous ethnic groups, each with its own language and cultural traits despite some similarities that one could identify.

Despite the artificial boundaries created by the western European colonizers and the negative implications on the cultural pattersn of the continent, the diverse ethnic groups and multilingual communities can claim to share one thing in common, which is the body of proverbs that pervade their linguistic repertoire. There is no single community on the continent that doesn’t boast of a repertoire of proverbs.

The significance of these proverbs manifests in the oral literature of the continent. These proverbs constitute the most profound linguistic feature that encapsulates aphorisms, most of which are founded on either the experiences of people or their observations about happenings in this mundane life or even the spiritual world.

Interpreting these proverbs to bring out their meaning becomes an interesting activity for one to indulge in. It is my contention that Africa’s oral literature derives its strength largely from the preponderance of proverbs and that these proverbs contribute much towards establishing the linguistic character of the continent.

The title of my discussion speaks volumes about what these proverbs can do. It is not uncommon to hear an African child being rebuked for not making meaning out of proverbs said to him/her. As is the case, Nigeria provides an example: “Are you not a Yoruba? Why must proverbs be explained to you after they are said?” T

his question is not misplaced because of the commonly-held belief that an African must understand a proverb when said because it is a common feature in every community. No one needs to go to school to learn an African proverb. Everyday usages contain them and the child must get to know them as a matter of course.

Thus, if one fails to understand what the proverb conveys, the saying is: “When the fool is told a proverb, its meaning has to be explained to him.”

The relevance of these proverbs is demonstrated by such sayings as “A proverb is the horse of conversation: when the conversation lags, a proverb will revive it” ; “A wise man who knows proverbs reconciles difficulties (Yoruba, Nigeria); and “Proverbs are the daughters of experience” (Sierra Leone).

There are certain instances when these proverbs reveal their worth. The significance of the art of public speaking (oratory) and influence on the society creates room for proverbs to be used to enrich one’s utterances. For instance, the traditional linguists at the courts of the kings/chiefs are known for their rhetorical powers as they use these proverbs glibly to give substance to their utterances. And they are applauded for such feats.

Another occasion when proverbs become relevant is in the narration of folk tales. Here, we experience the power of the proverbs in narration as they become the vehicles through which morals are conveyed for the informal education of the society, especially children.

The art of story telling is learned by the children as they listen to these narratives and it becomes an occasion for communal activity as a form of entertainment and enactment of historical events, drama, poetry (funeral dirges, honorific appellations, etc.).



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