African Proverbs in African Literature

A Critical Resourcebase

Introduction, 3

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

D. Some Peculiarities of the Proverbs

There are some peculiarities that are unique to these proverbs, some of which are explained below:

1. Patriarchy and Male Chauvinism:

The proverbs show certain peculiarities that are worth discussing. The obvious reference to the power of men over women and how men place themselves above women in these proverbs brings to mind a socio-cultural pattern in Africa—patriarchy or male chauvinism. In most of the proverbs that relate to human behavior, the attributes verging on power and accomplishments are reserved for men.

2. Gendering of the Proverbs:

I have identified an extension of the male chauvinism that these proverbs portend to the level where the proverbs are even “gendered.” What we have is a situation in which females are regarded with little respect when it comes to assigning negative traits.

The gender issues (demeaning females) are represented by the following proverbs: “Woman without man is like a field without seed” (Why not a man?); “A silly daughter teaches her mother how to bear children,” “Saying that it’s for her child, she gets herself a loaf of bread,” and “A home without a woman is like a barn without cattle” (Ethiopia). The last proverb is especially symptomatic of how belittling of women takes place even in proverbs!

Other instances of gendering occur in other cultures apart from the one cited above. For example, we have: “Mothers-in-law are hard of hearing (Democratic Republic of Congo); “When a woman is hungry, she says: ‘Roast something for the children that they may eat.'” (Akans of Ghana); “If you marry a woman at a pub, you will divorce her at a pub” (Ewes of Ghana); and “A bad son gives a bad name to his mother” (Why not his father?) (Ivory Coast).

It is not difficult for one to establish the mindset of the African male here. The origin of most of these proverbs could be traced to male characters – either kings, chiefs, the rich or notable males in the various communities, traditional healers, fetish priests, or linguistis at the chiefs’ courts.

These originators put their observations together in these proverbs to convey certain viewpoints. That the male originators sought to belittle their female counterparts should not be surprising because in the traditional African society, the male has always been on top of things. The woman’s place is the kitchen. This mindset is exposed by the gendering that occurs in these proverbs.

E. African Proverbs and Biblical Connections

It is interesting to note that some of the African proverbs have direct references to some sayings in the Christian Bible. There are clear references to issues that connect their meanings to the use of parables by Jesus Christ to teach lessons.

For example, “One who recovers from sickness forgets about God,” “Unless you call out, who will open the door?” (Reference to Jesus admonition: “Seek and ye shall find; knock and the door will be opened unto you; ask and ye shall be given”); “When the heart overflows, it comes out through the mouth” (Another direct reference to Jesus’ “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks”); “If you offend, ask for pardon; if offended, forgive” (“If a man slaps your left cheek, turn the right one to him”)—all from Ethiopia.

There are indications that these references to Biblical sayings are not adventitious, especially coming from Ethiopia, which to some people is the Lion of Judah that the Bible mentions. Can we begin to see how expansive these African proverbs can be?

They involve the use of commonplace issues and known substances as points of reference but couched in a “coded language” that must be broken down before comprehension is assured. To reach the kernel, one has to crack the nut first. Such is the potency of the African proverbs.

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