WHAT is a proverb? One dictionary defines a proverb as “a short sentence that people often quote, which gives advice or tells you something about life.” The Yoruba of Nigeria define a proverb more colourfully, calling it “a horse which can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas.”
The importance of proverbs, or proverbial sayings, is captured in this proverb, well-known to the Akan people of Ghana: “A wise person is spoken to in proverbs, not in prose.” The point is that a wise person does not always need a lecture in order to be convinced of the right thing to do. A fitting proverb stimulates thinking, imparts understanding, and can motivate one to do what is right.
In Ghana, proverbs are used profusely during marriage ceremonies and funerals and are featured in folkloric music. They are also indispensable in diplomatic parleys. A spokesman or an emissary often resorts to the skillful use of proverbs.
In Akan society, skill in the use of proverbs is a hallmark of wisdom. Interestingly, in the Bible, King Solomon—a man famed for his wisdom, learning, and diplomacy—was credited with knowing 3,000 proverbs. Of course, the Bible’s proverbs were divinely inspired and are consistently true, unlike proverbs based on human experience and insight. Human proverbs, no matter how wise, should never be put on a par with the Bible. But let us take a look at some Akan proverbs.
Concept of God
In Ghana, proverbial sayings often acknowledge the existence of God, and this is reflected in many Akan proverbs. Atheistic ideas have no place in Akan philosophy. For example, one proverb states: “No one shows God to a child.” God’s existence is all too obvious even to a child. This proverb is often used in reference to something a child will automatically learn with little instruction.
Another Akan proverb states: “If you run away from God, you are still under him.” Thus, it is an exercise in self-delusion for anyone to attempt to ignore God. Long ago, the Bible made a similar point, saying that God’s eyes “are in every place, keeping watch upon the bad ones and the good ones.” (Proverbs 15:3) We are all accountable to the Almighty.
Expression of Social Norms and Values
As is true of proverbs from other cultures, Akan proverbs are a repository of social norms and values. For instance, the power of the spoken word is well highlighted in this example: “A slip of the tongue is worse than a slip of foot.” An unruly tongue can indeed do great damage and may actually make a difference between life and death.—Proverbs 18:21
However, when held in check, the tongue can be a real peacemaker, as testified to by the adage, “In the presence of the tongue, the teeth do not litigate.” The point here is that matters can be amicably settled between contending parties—say, a man and his wife—through calm discussion. And even when this does not work, the skillful use of the tongue in arbitration can stem the tide of conflict.
The value of discernment and forethought is vividly expressed in a number of proverbial sayings that emphasize practical wisdom. An impulsive, foolhardy person who fails to consider the consequences of his actions could take advice from this maxim, “You first find an escape route before taunting the cobra.”
A parent noticing some bad traits in a child would want to heed this proverb, “If you notice a growing stalk that can pierce your eye, you uproot it, you don’t sharpen it.” Yes, any bad trait should be uprooted—or nipped in the bud—before it blooms into real trouble.
Allusion to Mores and Cultural Practices
Sometimes it is necessary to understand a culture to get the sense of its proverbs. For example, among the Akan it is considered bad manners to gesture with the left hand before others, especially older ones. This rule of etiquette is alluded to in the proverb, “You don’t use the left hand to point the way to your hometown.” In other words, one should appreciate what he has, including his origins.
A proverb alluding to the traditional dining practice in a typical Akan home states: “A child who learns to wash his hands eats with his elders.” At mealtimes, members of the household are grouped on the basis of age. However, a child who conducts himself well, especially in the areas of physical cleanliness and etiquette, may be elevated to join his father and other adults at their table. The proverb underscores the point that one’s respectability is determined more by his conduct than by his age.
Are you contemplating marriage? Then consider this Akan proverb, “Marriage is not palm wine to be tasted.” Sellers of palm wine, a fermented beverage tapped from the palm tree, generally allow prospective buyers to have a taste before deciding how much to buy or even whether to buy at all. Marriage, however, cannot be so tasted. This proverb highlights the permanence of the marital bond and the unacceptable status of trial marriages.
Critical Observation of Things
A host of proverbial sayings testify to the keen observations that Akan ancestors made of people and animals. A close examination of a hen with her chicks, for example, gave rise to this proverb, “A chick that stands by its mother gets the thigh of the grasshopper.” The meaning? If a person isolates himself, he is easily forgotten when it comes to sharing good things.
Anyone observing a dead frog can hardly fail to understand the truth of the saying, “The full length of the frog is seen upon its death.” This proverb is often cited when a person is unappreciated. In a situation like this, the unappreciated one takes solace in the fact that his or her absence might provide the opportunity for people to see in full measure his or her good qualities.
Proverbs in “Shorthand”
Though Akan proverbs have been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, many sayings have been preserved in symbolic art. Such art is seen in wood carvings, staffs, gold weights, and traditional cloths as well as in modern textile designs. Visitors to Ghanaian art galleries may see depictions of a man climbing a tree while another man gives a helping hand. That is the visual equivalent of this proverb, “If you climb a good tree, you may be given a push.” The underlying message is obvious—if you pursue worthwhile goals, you may be given support.
Funerals especially provide the occasion for what one writer calls “textile rhetoric.” The mournful atmosphere of the occasion actually calls for meditative reflection on life. Consequently, the designs seen in funeral cloths convey messages with philosophical underpinnings. For example, a cloth depicting a ladder or a staircase recalls the proverb, “One person alone does not climb the ladder of death.”* This alerts all to take a humble view of themselves and not to live life as though they were immune to death.—Ecclesiastes 7:2
In Akan society, emissaries or spokesmen for traditional rulers are well versed in the eloquent use of proverbs, and they also carry a staff of office with motifs espousing some cherished value of the people. For instance, a bird clawing the head of a snake is “shorthand” for the saying, “If you get hold of the head of a snake, the rest of it is mere rope.” The implied message? Deal with problems resolutely—head-on.
As with any illustration, when and how a proverb should be used depends on both the argument and the audience. The beauty of an argument can be marred by the incorrect use of proverbs. And since in some cultures the use of proverbs forms an important part of communicative etiquette, any misuse can influence people’s perception of the speaker in a negative way.
In Ghana, elders of society are regarded as authors and custodians of proverbs. Thus, proverbial sayings are often preceded by the phrase, “Our elders say . . .” And in a situation where a speaker is talking to a much older audience, it is polite to precede the use of a proverb with the expression, “It is you elders who say . . .” Out of respect, a younger speaker does not want to be seen as teaching his elders the words of wisdom embodied in the proverb.
Some Noteworthy Observations
Proverbs can either precede an argument or follow it. Also, they can be so cleverly woven into the fabric of an argument that one might need insight to detect the allusion. Concerning a humble and peace-loving person, for example, an Akan might say: “If it depended on So-and-so alone, there would be no gunshot in this village.” This recalls the proverb, “If it were left to only the snail and the tortoise, there would be no gunshot in the bush.” Both creatures are seen as meek and unobtrusive and not inclined to fight. People who possess these qualities make for peace.
However, if you want an Akan to recite a string of proverbs, you might succeed in getting only one, “There cannot be a dream where there is no sleep.” In other words, one cannot use proverbs in a vacuum any more than one can dream while awake. Circumstances determine their use.
It is worth mentioning that this motif is found in cloths of varying colors and is not restricted to the dark ones normally used for funerals.