African Oral Literature: Proverbs (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart)

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe mixes Western linguistic forms and literary traditions with Igbo words and phrases, proverbs, fables, tales, and other elements of African oral and communal storytelling traditions in order to record and preserve African oral traditions as well as to subvert the colonialist language and culture. I’ll be identifying the proverbs used in “Things Fall Apart” and attempt to question the relationship of oral elements to the meanings and messages of the novel.

Plot Synopsis:

Okonkwo is a leader and wrestling champion in his village. He is known to be hard working and shows no weakness — emotional or otherwise — to anyone. Although brusque with his family and neighbors, he is wealthy, courageous, and powerful among the people of his village. He is a leader of his village, and his place in that society is what he has striven for his entire life.

Because of his great esteem in the village, Okonkwo is selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken prisoner by the village as a peace settlement between two villages after his father killed an Umuofian woman. Ikemefuna is to stay with Okonkwo until the Oracle instructs the elders on what to do with the boy. For three years the boy lives with Okonkwo’s family and Okonkwo grows fond of him. The boy looks up to Okonkwo and considers him a second father. Then the elders decide that the boy must be killed. The oldest man in the village warns Okonkwo, telling him to have nothing to do with the murder because it would be like killing his own child. Rather than seem weak and feminine to the other men of the village, Okonkwo participates in the murder of the boy despite the warning from the old man. In fact, Okonkwo himself strikes the killing blow as Ikemefuna begs him for protection.

Shortly after Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. When he accidentally kills someone at a ritual funeral ceremony when his gun explodes, he and his family are sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods he has offended. While Okonkwo is away in exile, white men begin coming to Umuofia and they peacefully introduce their religion. As the number of converts increases, the foothold of the white people grows beyond their religion and a new government is introduced.

Okonkwo returns to his village after his exile to find it a changed place because of the presence of the white man. He and other tribal leaders try to reclaim their hold on their native land by destroying a local Christian church. In return, the leader of the white government takes them prisoner and holds them for ransom for a short while, further humiliating and insulting the native leaders. As a result, the people of Umuofia finally gather for what could be a great uprising. Okonkwo, adamant over following Umuofian custom and tradition, despises any form of cowardice and advocates for war against the white men. When messengers of the white government try to stop the meeting, Okonkwo kills one of them. He realizes with despair that the people of Umuofia are not going to fight to protect themselves because they let the other messengers escape and so all is lost for the village.

When the local leader of the white government comes to Okonkwo’s house to take him to court, he finds that Okonkwo has hanged himself, ruining his great reputation as it is strictly against the custom of the Igbo to commit suicide.


“The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them”
Type: Denotative/Connotative
Analysis: The proverb makes reference to a cosmic body, the sun, claiming that those who strive and work (by remaining standing)will benefit from the fruit of their work before those who depend on them (by kneeling or deriving succor from them). While the inference of discouraging dependency can be made, the message is mainly that those who do not face the challenges of life and work assiduously defying sunshine should satisfy themselves with the crumbs that fall from the table of the hardworking ones.The proverb discourages laziness and implies the need for everyone to be hardworking.
Questions: How does this relate to Okonkyo’s life? How about his personality?
“If a child washed his hands, he could eat with kings.”
Types: Denotative
Analysis: The proverb portrays the honor and dignity attributed to cleanliness and responsibility. It thematizes hands washing, a good character training and hygienic way of eating as indispensable to honor. We can infer that if a person does the right thing at the right time, as the proverb entails, good fortune, honor, reverence, esteem and credit will be his, just like eating together with kings.
“When the moon is shining, the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.”

Types: Collocative, Stylistic
Analysis: Reference is made to another cosmic body, the moon, in this proverb, as “shining” collocates with “the moon” and “cripple” collocates metaphorically with “walk”. The sense of the proverb lies in the cause-effect theory that if motivation is given, action arises. In essence, night is conventionally taken as a period of rest but in a situation where there is moon-light, not only the able-bodied feels the need to walk or work in the night buteven the cripple does. Night is implied and not stated for stylistic purposes while “hungry”, a marked word that ordinarily does not apply to “walk”, is alsoused for stylistic effect. The underlining message is that a good cause or motivation occasions a good effect or line of action.
“A man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness.”
Types: Denotative, Affective
Analysis: This piece of advice almost coincides with the English proverb,“one good turn deserves another” . If a person accords honor or reverence to the successful ones, it is likely that he is also going to besuccessful. In other words, the proverb means that a person who helps another man helps himself indirectly as he becomes familiar with what that man engages in – and this will ultimately lead him to greatness, directlyor indirectly.

Prompt: Okonkwo explaining why he has come to Nwakibie. How does this sound in retrospect to Okonkwo’s downfall?

“A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing.”
Analysis: The toad is a nocturnal animal. If such an animal therefore does “run” (alexical item preferred by the author for metaphorical or stylistic effect, against the normal collocative word, “jump”) in the day, there must be something amiss. The sense of the proverb is that there is a cause for anything strange that happens; there must be a reason, at least “no smoke without fire”. A toad running in daytime is probably pursuing something or certainly something is pursuing it. It has to do with the “cause-effect” relationship.
“An old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb.”
Analysis: This proverb also exhibits a “cause-effect” relationship as it thematises the old woman. It means that people who have negative features feel disturbed when such features are being highlighted. There is the effect or response of uneasiness with reference to the dry bones because an old woman whose dry bones are signs of impending death is always scared of death. The sense of the proverb, essentially, is that conscience worries people of negative attributes even when they are not addressed but their excesses (so to say) are being condemned.
Prompt: Okonkwo remembering his own father. In context of a joke about someone who refused to honor his fathers shrine with a fowl. Is there any fear in Okonkwo? Does he ignore his own proverbs?

“The lizard that jumped from the high Iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did.”

Analysis: The proverb elicits the self-contentment and joy of good work. Good work, we can infer, is in itself commendable whether people appreciate it or not. Reference is made to the lizard which nods after any activity it engages in, implicating its self-praise. The animal is personified for poetic effect. The English equivalent of “if you don’t blow your trumpet, nobody will blow it for you” may further illustrate the sense of the proverb – that if you donot appreciate your worth and dignify yourself, people may not bother to do it for you.
Prompt: Said by Okonkwo, explaining his capacity for hard work before Nwakibie, his sons and neighbors. What is the role of honor and praise in this novel? Is this a good or bad feature of a culture?
“Eneke the bird says since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.”
Analysis:Like the previous proverb, this proverb derives its message from folklore, in which human attributes are given to animals/non-human creatures.The meaning is both literal and figurative as well as multi-dimensional in scope. Changing situations give birth to innovations. If students, for example,develop novel means of cheating in the examinations, referentially, the authorities also devise new strategies of apprehending or detecting the cheats.
Prompt: How does this relate ot Okonkwo’s life? Is there any problematic assumptions in this proverb?
“If one finger brought oil, it soiled the others.”
Analysis: The proverb underlines the concept of collective responsibility: what one does implicates the involvement of the others. With tact reference to our knowledge or ideas of the world, if a finger is dipped into the oil, other fingers get smeared alongside since they are together. In other words, a shameful act by a person brings shame, odium and opprobrium to him and by extension, tohis family and community. Stylistic considerations impinge on the choice of

“brought” and “soiled” from the existing alternatives – which could further communicate the same idea.
Prompt: Okonkwo’s exile, but his rationale that one could not ignore offenses against the earth. How does this relate to Okonkwo’s own family situation? To Africa and Europe as a whole?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: