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02.07.2019 Feature Article

Kofi Asare Opoku, An Intellectual With His Feet Planted Firmly On The Ground (2)

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 about by academics on 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.

Asare Opoku realises that all Africans are relatively aware of African cultural and religious practices and so he does not talk down to Africans when he analyses these subjects (which are his specialty).

At the same time, aware as he is (through his exposure to the many prestigious foreign institutions at which he has lectured) that Africans in the Diaspora who may not have a fundamental understanding of African religion and culture nevertheless do harbour a tremendous thirst for the subjects treated in his work, he does not hesitate to explain, in detail, African philosophical and quasi-religious notions that might be too complex for the uninitiated to comprehend.

Such a synthesis of teaching methodology is, of course, very difficult to achieve. Asare Opoku’s forte is that he is able to bring this off relatively easily.

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 do lose about 70% of their meaning in translation. They are best appreciated by the people whose ancestors created them out of the circumstances under which they lived and the environment around them: the plants; the animals; natural occurrences; and, of course, the people, their numerous foibles, triumphs and failures. Nevertheless, African proverbs are so strong in the truth they convey that even the 30% that is conveyed in translation is more than adequate to drive home illustrate the wisdom they seek to impart.

Asare Opoku criticizes one of the early 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.” (Oxford University Press 1916).

In fairness to Rattray, who later became quite an advocate and interpreter of Asante culture, his book was published in 1916, when he had not yet had the opportunity of living with Asantes and studying them closely at first-hand. And for all we know, the title of the book might well have been chosen by the publishers. In any case, anthropological studies of the period almost uniformly placed the study of all African societies under the general rubric of "primitive and savage!"!

[My view that Rattray fell into the trap which European anthropological studies had laid for students of African societies and that he did not himself consider the Asante as either “primitive” or “savage” (as the subtitle to the book, Asante Proverbs suggests) is supported by the ethnologist, Owusu Brempong (a former colleague of Asare Opoku’s at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon) in a paper entitled Language as a factor in Ethnographic Research.

Brempong writes:
QUOTE: Rattray took a bold stand on this matter; he recognized that his position on the issue of the so-called "primitive mentality'' was contrary to the notions his colleagues had about Africans. This is because Rattray understood the [Twi] language and did not have to depend on dubious interpreters who, as insiders with acquired western vocabularies, were often misleading. The "old regime" [of anthropologists] as Rattray identified them, tended to dehumanize the African; whatever their intentions, they can often be charged with inculcating and prolonging false and prejudicial ideas about Africans.

“These attempts to investigate African cultures and communities did justice to neither the scientific community nor the people being studied. Why was Rattray different? For one thing, not only did he know and speak the Twi language, he also gained the fullest confidence, and… inspired the people's trust and affection. In addition, he also approached the people as a seeker after truths, the key to which they alone possessed.

“With such confidence, the Asante even took Rattray to deities' rooms, places where outsiders were forbidden to go. The following proverb explains the reasons why certain customs and rituals are hidden from the outsiders: Obi nhata ne ntoma abontenso, literally meaning "No one dries his worn-out cloth on the streets". This means that no one should reveal his background to the public. Thus people refuse to talk to outsiders about their lives, especially matters concerning their religion [or]supernatural belief systems. In this case, even a native scholar who is not a member of the family, is considered an outsider and therefore intruder (RESEARCH REVIEW (NS) VOL 8, NOS I & 2,1992) ENDQUOTE

In my view, Asare Opoku, in calling out Rattray, should have considered the strenuous efforts made by Rattray to present Asante culture in a fair manner to the world, in later works of his, such as Ashanti (Oxford 1923), Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford 1927) and Ashanti Law and Constitution (Oxford 1929). But Asare Opoku is right in feeling outraged by the terms used in the title of the book – whatever their origin. They are particularly offensive given the fact that Rattray is recognized by many scholars as an authority on Asante culture and their view of Asante could be permanently damaged by such words attributed to such a respected researcher as Rattray.

But back to Asare Opoku on proverbs. He 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, say 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 declaring his passion to the girl herself, he tries to communicate his love for her through her friends or relatives. How can they possibly convey the true depth of his feelings for her? Just imagine what would have been lost to the world if Romeo had been too timorous to declaim the words:

…What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!—
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
(William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet)

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)

Cameron Duodu
Cameron Duodu, © 2019

Martin Cameron Duodu is a United Kingdom-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a career as a journalist and editorialist. Author column: CameronDuodu

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