African Proverbs – The Precious oil of words

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Words in Africa have weight, there is strength in them: “They create and give you life”. Some words are as solid as the yam (roots) and as sweet as kola (nuts), especially those spoken by the ancestors, who have handed them down to their descendants for them …. to eat. And to make them tastier, they have flavoured them with the oil of proverbs. The proverbs are like the oil with which we eat the words (lgbo-Nigeria). Nothing reveals a people’s spiri t more than their proverbs. Thus, he who knows Kikuyus’ proverbs or Logbaras’ , knows their traditions. Proverbs are a mine of wisdom from which we can learn or reaffirm certain valuable realities such as peace, social harmony, love for life, respect for the person and for property.
Proverbs still offer irreplaceable elements able to give an insight into the reality in which we live, and especially in the human heart. Proverbs are an enormous deposit from which to draw enlightenment and confirmation or very relevant values of today, such as peace, social harmony, love of life, respect of the person and property. In the Haussa language, proverbs are called karin magana, which literally means “wrapped up words”. Those who know how to tell them, are as if they opened a little jewel box which contains the wisdom that throws a new light on events and moods. This without being an orace that claims to have the last word. 

A Malawian Catholic bishop Patrick Kalilombe wrote: “Proverbs are a mirror in which a community can look at itself and reveal itself to the others. They highlight the values, the aspirations, the worries, the behaviour of people and the angle from which they see and appreciate their reality, and their response. In the proverbs we see what we call mentality or living habits at their utmost”.
Reading, or listening to them, we become more and more convinced that not only African wisdom is rich and profound, but also that it is possible to collect and group it into great themes, highlighting the common points (and also the differences) with other cultures.
Many proverbs spring from an identical perception of reality, even though through different images. For example: The farmer who has never left his fields thinks that his farming system is the best (Haussa-Nigeria). He who has never left his village believes that no one can prepare porridge better than his mother (Ewé-Togo). The proverb is a way of looking at things. It is not the only way, but it has the merit of indicating a direction: One way only is no way (Malinké-doss2Mali). It offers no final solutions, it does not depend on technology. Technology has no soul, ignores culture, and claims total independence from values such as ethics, religion, art, poetry, tenderness, compassion, suffering and joy. The science behind this technology is blind. It doesn’t read the world, it strips it and, in the face of its nudity, is paralyzed by its blindness and gives in to concupiscence.
Ahmadou Kourouma, a famous Ivorian novelist, wrote in the preface to his book A giant book of African proverbs: “He who knows no proverb, knows nothing; he is like an inexistent person, a dead person. Let us be careful not to behave like dead people: let us live with the proverbs. It is difficult to appreciate the diversity and the richness of the proverbs, until we haven’t put our finger into what can be considered the wisdom of another world. What may at first seem naive because of their imaginative style, it may soon appear as a true realism on the part of the Africans when expressing feelings or behaviours, say, about love or hatred, envy or solidarity”.
This collection confirms the importance of proverbs in the African daily life, where problems and discords are often resolved in public discussions. The proverb intervenes, then, to vent an opinion on some delicate matter, to sum up public opinions, to clarify a point, to spur a debate and even to bring humour into serious matters. African wisdom has been handed down from generation to generation through the proverbs, retold by the griot, from individuals who have been defined “tellers of the truth”, “keepers of the ancient knowledge”, “people who awake the conscience”. (N.C.)


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