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Review of Yoruba Proverbs


By Femi Osofisan

Yoruba Proverbs. Oyekan Owomoyela. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2005. 840pp. ISBN 0-8032-3576-3. £38.

‘Resort to proverbs’, writes Professor Owomoyela in his Introduction to this impressive book, ‘is the most important and most effective strategy the Yoruba have devised to optimize the efficaciousness of speech. The culture’s richness in them… bears out the Yoruba insistence that bereft of proverbs, speech flounders and falls short of its mark, whereas aided by them, communication is fleet and unerring’. (p 12) And to prove the veracity of this statement, he immediately quotes the apposite Yoruba proverb: ‘Owe lesin oro/ Bi oro ba sonu, owe la fi nwa a’, [which he also translates as; ‘The proverb is the horse of speech/ When speech is lost, the proverb is the means we use to hunt for it’.]

The implication therefore is that, in order to have a full comprehension of Yoruba dialogue, as encountered both in ordinary conversation as well as in the written literature, one must understand not only the role that proverbs play in speech, but first and foremost, the proper meaning of such proverbs. Without a prior knowledge of this strategic weapon of oral communication, and of the proper contexts for deploying it, strangers to Yorubaland will obviously need a guide for them to deal successfully with the people. Owomoyela’s book is that kind of guide.

Nevertheless, as any one familiar with contemporary life in Yorubaland must know, this peculiar rhetorical tradition is already dying out. Not only have many Yoruba, and especially the educated elite, lost their competence in the use of proverbs, of the very resources that make the language unique; they have even stopped speaking the language altogether. English being the adopted national language, and hence the medium of transaction on formal occasions - in the houses of parliament, the law courts, the higher institutions, the major newspapers, the electronic media, and so on - most Yoruba nowadays are content to limit their communication to that language alone, even in their domestic life, where they forbid their children to use what, like the erstwhile colonial masters, they call the ‘vernacular’. There is a palpable danger therefore that, if we are not careful, a robust language like Yoruba may soon become extinct. This is why, in my opinion, the value of works like Owomoyela’s cannot be overestimated. And in reviewing the book it is this imminent danger to the culture that shall be my guide.

Over forty long years of painstaking labour, the scholar, who is Yoruba himself, has gathered in one single volume, and translated into English, some 5,235 proverbs! The achievement is staggering. There have been other books on the subject of proverbs in Africa, and especially on Yoruba proverbs. But Owomoyela’s is not only the most recent, but also the most comprehensive that I know, with translations that are extremely lucid.

The introductory chapter is the best place to start one’s excursion into the book. Here the author displays his total mastery of the subject-matter. Citing a range of references that includes the works of some thirty-odd scholars, both African and Euro-American - names like William Bascom, Rowland Abiodun, Jan Brunvand, Roland Hallgren, Ryszard Pachocinski, Achille Mbembe, Kwasi Wiredu, Kwesi Yankah, S.A. Babalola, and so on - Owomoyela constructs a most informative essay which covers all the salient aspects of the Yoruba proverb. He tells us of the distinctions between it and its English equivalent, of its aesthetic qualities (metre, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, personification, paradox, parallelism, and so on), of its ‘truth value’ and moral didacticism and seeming self-contradictions, and whether its use can be considered a ‘nativist recidivism’. He also explains to us his ‘considered omissions’, particularly his refusal to include sources and historical markers, which he says are not relevant, since the proverb is not a ‘performative’ genre. Finally he informs us of his choice of categories in classifying the proverbs and of the orthography he has adopted, which sometimes varies from the orthography in general use currently. Owomoyela’s style in this Introduction is admirably fluent and easy, rich in information, without being pedantic. It seems deliberately written for both the general reader as well as the scholar.

Not surprisingly, for a work of forty years, the collection is all-inclusive and rich, although, as he himself predicts in the Introduction, one is sometimes dissatisfied with the category in which one example or other has been included, I have to confess that I have not yet been able to find a proverb that is not included in the book. The translations will help, not only the non-Yoruba, but indeed we Yoruba too.

In conclusion I must come back to this theme of cultural loss and erasure of memory. I am not only a speaker of Yoruba, but also a scholar in Yoruba. I speak Yoruba almost every minute of my life, yet I confess that the proverbs I have heard recently, or that I am familiar with, are not more than ten percent of this collection!

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 83-85]

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