One of the most attractive characteristics of Professor Kofi Asare Opoku is his simplicity. He is steeped in all the theories that have been bandied by academics about African culture in particular and African studies in general. But when one reads his works or listens to his lectures, it's as if he was just reminding one of things one knows already, but which have never been eloquently put together in one place before.
And because he is a very funny man, the information he disseminates is easily absorbed: for instance, he has meticulously researched African proverbs and distilled their meanings into everyday language that we can understand. He points out that proverbs lose about 70% of their meaning in translation. Nevertheless, they are so strong in the truth they portray that even the 30% that is left is more than adequate to illustrate the wisdom they seek to impart.
He criticizes one of the compilers of Asante proverbs, the anthropologist R S Rattray, for having subtitled his book of 'Asante Proverbs' as “The Primitive Ethics of a Savage People”.
In fairness to Rattray, who later became quite an advocate and interpreter of Asante culture, his book was published in 1918, when he had not yet had the opportunity of living with Asantes and studying them closely at first-hand.
Asare Opoku describes proverbs as the “water” that helps people to swallow the [bitter] “pill of wisdom”.
The Igbos of Nigeria go one better and specify that proverbs are “the palm oil” that makes yam easy to eat. The Yoruba, for their part, says that “When truth is lost, proverbs are the horses sent to chase it.” They also say that he who knows no proverbs does not know his ancestors.”
In Twi, we say that “Obanyansafo wobu no b3 na wonnka n'as3m!” (It is enough to speak to a wise person in proverbs without resorting to plain speech.)
The same idea is expressed by the saying: “Ckwasea na wobu no b3 a wokyer3 no ase3”. (It is only the fool who needs an explanation when spoken to in proverbs.)
According to Asare Opoku, his research demonstrates that “humour is the water with which the [bitter pill of proverbs and wisdom] is swallowed”.
The Zulus' propagate this idea with this saying: “Without proverbs, language is but a skeleton without flesh; a body without a soul.”
And the Igbos top that with “The child who knows proverbs has justified the dowry paid to his mother's parents!”
In Ghana, says Asare Opoku, we see representations of proverbs in the drums of our Asafo groups; on the umbrellas of chiefs; and the Akyeame Poma [Staffs of Office] of our chiefs' linguists.
Proverbs are also profusely used in gold weights and our traditional cloths, especially kente: On being admitted to the United Nations in 1957, Ghana presented a kente to the world body, whose name was “Tikrc nnkc agyina!” (one head does not hold counsel with itself!)
But what brings the house down whenever Asare Opoku lectures on African Proverbs is his compilation of the “humour” that is to be found in many of them.
For instance: “When the face of the drum [the part with the leather] is available, one does not play on the wooden side.” This might be said to someone who is too timid to do the right thing at the right time. Say — a young man wants to tell a young lady that he “likes” her, but instead of telling it to the girl herself, tries to communicate his love for her through her friends or relatives. How can they adequately convey the depth of his affection for her?
Another proverb reminds us that “The right hand washes the left while the left hand washes the left”. The lesson Asare Opoku provides from that is that every human being has a “limitation”, and the way to overcome that is to cooperate with other humans. For “no matter how long the right arm might be, it can never wash itself; neither can the left arm do likewise”.
“Misery has no footsteps, otherwise we would hear it coming and avoid it!”
“The tongue has no bone, but it can break bones!”
“He whose father's head was hit by a bullet, uses an iron pot as a hat!”
“If you want to hear news from the heart, ask the face!”
“The fact that anyone can lie where he/she likes, does not mean that a pregnant woman should lie on her stomach!”
“If a goat bites a stranger, it is a disgrace for the dog!”
“A lazy person doesn't know how lazy he is, until he chases a tortoise and the tortoise escapes!”
“No matter how drunk the mouse might be, he could never forget the path leading to the cat's house!”
“Goats do not attend a market established by hyenas!”
“Only people who have open sores know that flies have teeth!”
And finally, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, then you have never spent the night with a mosquito!”
(To be concluded)
By Cameron Duodu