African Proverbs in African Literature

A Critical Resourcebase

Introduction, 2

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AFRICAN PROVERBS TO THE CONTINENT’S ORAL LITERATURE

During the performance of traditional religious ceremonmies – rituals and pouring of libation, one will not be surprised to hear strings of proverbs in the incantations of speakers who offer prayers as part of the ceremonies in the ancestral worship rituals for which Africa is well known.

Ceremonies such as marriage rites also provide room for proverbs to be used. At others such as the telling of riddles and signing of songs, the use of proverbs deepens the profundity of messages. It is no over-exaggeration, then, to say that proverbs feature in almost every aspect of traditional African life.

African authors (Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kofi Anyidoho, Ama Ata Aidoo, Afua Sutherland, Camara Laryea, Mariama Ba, etc.) use African proverbs to enrich their works. And they are proud to do so because their works derive their strengths from their cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Using proverbs in written work is an extension of their oral literature. The proverbs are regarded as the core of “traditional” knowledge because the metaphoric representations conveyed through them become useful sources of lessons that have to be learned.

B. Constitutents of the Proverbs

A careful analysis of these African proverbs shows that they are based on human observations of the things of Nature. The main figures in these proverbs are human beings, animals, Nature itself, and the spirit world. It is interesting to observe that these proverbs relate mostly to abstract issues (death, laziness, envy, love, power, wealth, poverty, strength, weakness, mood, etc.) that constitute the foundation of the mindset of the people.

The proverbs are intended to teach lessons – either to praise, to condemn, to exhort,to persuade or to dissuade action. Some are meant to serve as a warning, advice, admonition, curse, or blessing.

C. Some Common Themes of the Proverbs

Usually, the themes that these proverbs have are the attributes that the societies cherish or condemn. Valour, power, wealth, and altruism are some of the attributes that are cherished and stressed through proverbs. For instance, a proverb such as “Children are the reward of life” is intended to teach the society how to do things to sustain life. Posterity sustains itself on children and not the aged.

Another one such as “No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come” is meant to teach people to be patient and tolerant so that they don’t create problems.

Proverbs that admonish are regarded as useful because they warn the people about the dangers inherent in their conscionable or unconscionable acts: “You are beautiful; but learn to work for, you cannot eat your beauty” (is a piece of advice to women, especially, who may be deceived by their beauty to think that all will be well with them.

The warning is that if you depend on your beauty for survival, you will fail because beauty fades with age and is transient). And then, “The bitter heart eats its owner.” Learn to forgive and to forget any harm done you by others.

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