RESOURCES FOR PEACE IN AFRICAN PROVERBS AND MYTHS

 

By J. Obi Oguejiofor

 

  1. Introduction

 

Africa is one continent of the world which has acquired the image of a conflict zone. With the numerous colonial and post-colonial wars, political instability, oppression, economic stagnation, farming, crop failures and other natural disasters, pandemics of malaria, HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases one may be pardoned if he were to doubt the possibility of peace under such condition. But those who really know Africa know that there are other sides to the continent. They know the bad news catch the eye and the interest of all more easily, and these are very often deliberately highlighted to reinforce an already negative image. Such a scenario has the natural tendency to hide very positive aspects of the life of the continent, a continent with rich traditions. Among such traditions must be counted the tradition of peace that is connatural with the African world. This short presentation explores the significance of peace in traditional African world, and how this is manifested and reinforced by African proverbs and myths.

 

  1. Peace and the African World

 

On a very general level, peace is very often taken as the absence of open war or conflict. In political discussions peace is taken to be present where there is no visible or ongoing warfare between states or organized groups. This is perhaps because war is arguably the most antithetical condition to peace of any kind. The African world values and cherishes the absence of war, even in the presence of many tribal conflicts, but still, it is very far from limiting the meaning of peace to the absence of war. Traditional African world cherishes harmony, and harmony means living in accord with various spheres or levels of reality. Thus for genuine peace, one must live in accordance with right principles in relation with the supernatural, the deities and spirits, ancestors and one’s fellow human beings. Even the lower creatures, animals, plants and other parts of physical nature are not just subjected to man’s whims and caprices. This is so because they are not to be abused as mere material nature, they are given a certain level of deference, and in some case deified or taken as the receptacle of the divine. It is in this regard that Leopold Senghor speaks of the African who, “does not begin by distinguishing himself from the object, the tree or stone, man or animal or social events. He does not keep it at a distance.”[1] Traditional Africa has a strongly unitary conception of the world or reality. He does not erect a strict dichotomy between heaven and earth, the world of the ancestors and the world of man. There is constant traffic between the different levels of reality with each level supporting and being interested in what happens in the others. Kwame Nkrumah calls the dichotomy of different levels of reality “the dialectical contradiction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside,” and remarked that in Africa this division was reduced “by making the visible world continuous with the invisible world. For them heaven was not outside the world but inside it.”[2] The spirit world is the guarantor of earthly existence, and human beings have a host of duties to their forebears. Infringement of any of these obligations is believed to set off a chain-reaction of disorder in earthly affairs – personal, familial, communal, national, etc. Such chaos is viewed as the foundation of the absence of peace. Thus they are very often not seen as having mere natural causes. Conversely, peace is not independent and isolated from the African reality, and John Ferguson writes that “a number of African tribes, including the Embu, Shona and Nyanja, see war as a national calamity sent by God in punishment or retribution for some offence committed by the community or its representatives.”[3]

            On account of the unitary conception of the African universe, the world acquires a special importance. One cannot be at peace and live a fulfilled life without adequate material means, long and morally upright life blessed with offspring, good death and befitting burial. African Traditional Religion differs from some religions in which the faithful can live evidently miserably life here on earth to enjoy eternal bliss in the hereafter. It has no conception of pie in the sky when you die. On the contrary part of the pie of good life must extend to earthly life since there is no dichotomy between the worldly and the otherworldly. Such conceptions go against understanding peace merely as the absence of internecine organized wars. Without such wars, life is viewed as precarious[4] and harmony must be sought with the natural and supernatural forces, which impinge on human life. The evil spirits must be warded off and infringement of spiritual/temporal order must be expiated. A peaceful harmonious existence must thus include adequate material means to live noble and worthy life and to die a dignified death in order to live in peace with the ancestors and be qualified to await reincarnation and live out another cycle of life. In fact the eternal calamity is to be excluded from this cycle.[5]

 

  1. Proverbs and Myths in African Tradition

 

Such conception of peace that is both multivalent and embraces all levels of existence will naturally filter into African proverbs and myths. A proverb is defined by Iver Ker as “anonymous traditional sayings about human life.” For Nigel Barley it is “a standard statement of moral or categorical imperatives in fixed metaphorical paradigmatic form. It deals with fundamental logical relationships.” According to Mulyumbu Wa Mamba, a proverb is “a proposition or group of proositions deriving from the experiences of the wise men of the society, affirming clearly or metaphorically popular indisputable truths.”[6] How proverbs originate and how they are disseminated in oral traditions and cultures can only be a matter of conjecture. Whatever their origin however, the meaning of proverbs is often linked to the context of their use, but what is capital is the recurrence of the event or experience which gives rise to the proverb. This recurrence gives a proverb its abstract character or universal intent. For though proverbs may refer to specific contexts or even historic persons or movements, their assertions have universal applicability. Proverbs often contradict one another, depending on the context; the authoritative truth they tend to portray is often not as authoritative as it is presented. Still, if as Willam Penn told his children, “The Wisdom of a nation lies in their proverbs,”[7] one can rightly say that it is eminently so in traditional Africa.

            Because African societies have most oral, non-literary traditions, these societies succeeded in developing complicated and beautiful webs of proverbs for all conceivable circumstances. In Africa proverbs are embellishment of speech. They are symbols of communication, and in many cases they form sub-languages of their own. The language of proverbs gives vent to a whole perspective on the world, and thus constitute a means of tapping into societies’ view of reality. Proverbs are spurs to knowledge, to wisdom and morality. They can be prognostic and can challenge to further reflection. They serve as warning in human activities or relations.[8] They criticize and praise, advice and teach. In Africa proverbs cover every department of human endeavor and human relation, and thus there is hardly any African imbued to any measure with the culture of his people who has not a good stock of proverbs for ready application, though, like in all things expertise and refinement in their use vary widely.

            Like proverbs myths are symbolical. Like them they have the character of universality. For Waarenburg “myth is a symbolic construction of reality or a construction of reality by means of symbols.” As such it carries a density of meaning that one can attain only by interpretation or hermeneutics. Myths are usually coded in forms and events that are very distant from day to day reality. This gives them a sense of unreality, the air of the fairy tale. But myth is much more serious than the fairy tale and impacts more on the life of humans.

Mercantante defines myth as “an anonymous traditional story, orally passed on from one generation to the next, believed to be literally true by the culture that produced it, about gods and goddesses, heroines, and other real and fantastic creatures, taking place in primeval or remote times.” E. Bolaji Idowu defines myth as “a vehicle conveying a certain fact or a certain basic truth about man’s experiences in his encounter with the created order and with regard to man’s relation to the supra-sensible world.” Still mythical narrations are not judged according to historical or factual exactness. What is much more important is the symbolic meaning they try to convey and which makes them trans-contextual or universal. Myth has much to do with the context of man’s adaptation to his environment. For William Abraham, the invention of myth, especially cosmogonic myths is linked to man’s primordial natural instinct to survive the chagrin that arises from the initial primeval realization that nature is not subject to his whims. In order to mould and overcome nature at all cost, he erects a programme that is made up of practice and theory aimed at situating man safely in the world, and in order to guide plan and action, mankind fashions ritual and myth. Myth seeks to explains what brought about the present uncomfortable order and to indicate that man is destined to overcome the present discomfort.[9] In providing explanation of how it was ab initio and what intervened in illo tempore, it draws consequences from the present order, and consciously gives prescriptions about practical action to symbolically take man to the beginning by means of rites. It is only with improvement of scientific and technological situation that man develops the confidence to tag myth with a sense of unreality.

Structurally myth is timeless, peopled by extra-ordinary figures and enjoys general acceptance in the culture it originates. It has also the feature of sacrality. In traditional Africa, these characters, except perhaps the last, are shared by proverbs. In both proverbs and myths there are rich indices of the quest for peace, as well as events whose implications can give rise to peaceful coexistence and harmony in the world. What is this impetus to peace in proverbs and myths?

 

4. Peace in African Proverbs

 

As we have noted above, traditional African world sees peace as fundamental for happy and fulfilled life, and in a special way, for general progress in the human society. This may appear contradictory given the existence of many proverbs that also justify vengeance. The Igbo say that vengeance is no cause for trouble (Embolu anaghi eso okwu). Even when the cause of an injury is a toddler there are proverbs that tend to support retaliation. Thus if a little child crawls up to me and burns me with a tongue of fire, I too will crawl up to him to burn him with a tongue of fire (Nwata gbelu igbe so mu onoko oku, munwa egbelu igbe soo ya onoko okus). The quest for vengeance appears so absolute that one would think that it would create chaos in daily living. A Yoruba proverb has it that as the chicken pours away my medicine, I will go and break its egg (Adiye da mi oni Ogun nu Mo ma fo ni eyin). The presence of this contradiction is why proverbs require interpretation. Thus in spite of this vengeful streak, it is a desideratum that the society goes forward, and peace must be the foundation of the progress of the society. And therefore conflict can be seen as inevitable but resoluble on the stronger foundation which is peace. Basotho proverbs link peace with prosperity: Peace, rain, prosperity (Khotso, pula, nala); Peace is prosperity (Khotso ke nala).[10] These proverbs underline the desire of all for progress and improvement, and the awareness that it is only when peace is reigning that the efforts of the society to improve its lot will yield good fruit. Only then can people plant and harvest the yields of their crops. They can manufacture and sell the fruit of their efforts. They can store the yield of their crops and come back to find it the next day. The contrary will set one person against another, and the society will be the eventual looser. A Hausa proverb says that peace is the seed ground for healthy co-existence in the society (Salama maganin zaman duniya).

The quest for peace makes reconciliation and forgiveness necessary. There is a realization that if peace is to reign, human beings must engage one another in mutual attempt to make peace a reality. Forgiveness and reconciliation is viewed not only as beneficial to one party in a dispute, but to all concerned, and in fact to the whole community. The Yoruba say that if we do not forget yesterday’s quarrels, we will not have somebody to play with tomorrow (Ti a ka ba gbage oro). It means that forbearance is an element in the effort towards peace. One may not insists on all his points if he is to gain peaceful relationship with his neighbours. The Oromo of Ethiopia concur to this idea: by saying “let it be” people remain together in peace. The Igbo of Nigeria say that malu ghalu bu uto (knowing and forbearing is the meaning of friendship). One who wants peace must sometimes ignore the foibles of the other people in order to go forward. A Yoruba proverb says ki a ri aye he Osan mu kalu, which is translated by another proverb in Igbo which says kalu mpoto kpuchie nsi k’anyi nwe ike gholu oloma lachaa (cover the excrement with a broad leave so that we can pluck and eat the orange.)

Still there is no illusion that forbearance is not always the best option in disputes, and may not be the most standard way of arriving at a lasting peace. Dialogue and negotiation are thus very essential. The traditional African is adept at negotiation. No dispute or rancor is so ingrained that talking and arriving at a compromise cannot settle it. This seems to be an imperative given the inevitability of conflict. But its imperative tone underlines the fact that no matter how deep a conflict is; the natural state of existence should be a peaceful one. The Oromo once again say that the one who does not fight is an ass; the one who fought and would not reconcile is a devilish person (Kan lilolle haree dha/kan hinaraaramne jinni oha). There is more wickedness in refusing to reconcile than in fighting. In negotiating the focal points of quarrel is brought to light and effort is made to douse the situation of conflict by give and take. It is as though the cake that people are struggling over is split so that each person takes a part. To represent this the Oromo say: after an injury to heart, an animal is killed and shared to make peace (Warana garaa jiru buusa hinqualani.) The act of sharing as a way to peace is evocative of African communal lifestyle. People eat together under the foundation of peace and good will. The Igbo of Nigeria receive their guest by offering him a Kola nut which is prayed over and shared among those present. With this communion, the guest knows he is wholly welcome in the house of his host. Due to this sense of communion, traditional Africans often refuse to eat together when there is serious point of dispute between individuals. At the point of reconciliation, something is often shared, food or drink to show that the time of rancor is over.

            Such state of negotiated reconciliation is beneficial to all. No party in a quarrel should think that he has any advantage in continuing the state of hostility because very often the outcome of such hostility is not certain. For the Basotho war is a cow milked on the thorns (Ntoa ke khomo khameloa-mentloeng). This means that no one knows which side will win in advance. Those who negotiate are therefore following the wisdom prescribed by the unpredictability of human conflicts. It is they who gain ultimately since, the house of a person who negotiates survives (Motse ho aha oa morapeli), and stubbornness does not build a village.

            All these imply that peace is a difficult task to be worked on. In fact only those who work on it can hope to reap its fruits. Onye choro udo ka udo gadiri (he who wants peace is the one who find it) say the Igbo, and for the Swahili speaking people of Kenya, he who sows peace reaps peace (Ukipenda amani utavuna amani). Thus one who desires peace must not pose acts that are antithetical to peace or acts of evil or discord. The Basotho capture this conception by saying: (A person) who plants devil’s thorn cannot reap sorghum ( Ea lemang ts’ehlo a k eke a kotula enabele).

            From the above it is clear that in traditional Africa peace is not just an isolated state of man. It goes with many other positive inclinations without which it becomes impossible. One who desires peace must work towards it, he may not avoid all conflicts, but must be ready to forbear, and more to negotiate and reconcile with his enemies. Above all he must not trample on justice and on the rights of others. The Igbo encapsulate the fundamental role of justice in a widely known proverb: Egbe bere ugo bere, nke si ibe ya ebela nku kwaa ya (let the kite perch and let the Eagle perch, which ever says the other should not perch should have its wings broken.) This saying encapsulates the emphasis on justice among the Igbo and other African people. A selfish, predatory, rapacious and discriminatory tendency cannot bring about peace in the human society. A host of other Igbo proverbs reinforce this spirit of fairness: onye anwula ma ibe ya efula (let a person not die, and let his neighbor not go missing); ya bara onye bara ibe ya (let there be gain for one person and let there also be gain for the other person); eme nwayi etu emere ibe ya obi adi ya mma (if a woman is treated as other women were treated, she will be happy). Commenting on these sayings which link justice and peace, Theophilus Okere made the following statement:

 

These sayings espouse a philosophy of total fairness “To each one his due,” “Live and let live.” “Do to others as you want them to do to you.” “To everyone his share, to every woman her due.” The rhetorical balance in these expressions, with their frequent nods to alliteration and repetition reflects the will to use balance, equity, and fair measure to guage and order human relations, to have them reconciled, balanced and fair, to base them on justice. Only in this way can peace be guaranteed and sustained; indeed only so can peace arise in the first place… So it it justice that creates peace or perhaps better, peace is not something that happens but rather a situation that arises when justice happens. It is happy state of things that happen when the state is just.[11]

 

5. Peace and African Myths

 

The nexus between justice and peace indicates that on the practical level the reasons for breach of peace is injustice and similar vices including greed, rapaciousness, envy, nepotism and other types of sectional interest. Like above proverbs, there abound myths in traditional Africa the implications of which should countervail these anti-peace tendencies. But unlike proverb, the nature of myth does not readily give an abundance of common sayings directly relative to peace. One reason for this is that myth is highly symbolic and its comprehension is eminently hermeneutical. Through the analysis of the structure of African myths we can arrive at some implications for peace. In the first place, African myths, like other myths have the character of universality. A myth seeks to explain on the universal level. Cosmogonic myths, for instance, attempts to provide a theoretical base for the origin, the current situation and the destiny of man and the world. The events in which it is cloaked may be particularized in a given environment, but its lessons are meant to apply to mankind in general. This point when appreciated will deepen the awareness of common origin and destiny for all. The universal structure of African myths teaches that all men are children of the same father-creator. The implication of this lesson can be far-reaching when carefully explored and made to be a guide for action. Similar lessons can be gleaned from myths of invention and first knowledge. Their aim is to explain why things are how they are and how human beings came to be privy to useful knowledge on earth. Among the Ga of Ghana God sent the crow to bring grains to the first man and woman. It is when the woman hid part of the grain that it germinated that humans acquired the knowledge of agriculture. A myth of the Ila people of Zambia narrate that it was through the accident of a man’s food being blown into the fire that human beings discovered the art of cooking.[12] Such myths tend to say that inventions and human progress in general are not strictly speaking due to the ingenuity of those who may be enjoying them now, and thus no single human beings or groups of human beings can justly claim the monopoly of earth’s goods and resources. Myths about suffering and death affirm a primordial order that was chattered by acts of commission either by man himself or by animals, but one of the underlying intention is the obligation to work together to restore the original position of peace, of harmony and of immortality. These characteristics which carry portent lessons for peace are found in Nri myth of origin among the Igbo of Nigeria.

 

Nri Myth

 

The father of all Nri was Eri. No one knows where he came from. Tradition (odinaani) says he came from God (Chukwu). He was a great man sent by God to rule all the people of the Anambra. Before he came to the Anambra the people were living in scattered huts. They had no king.

    It is said that the earth was not firm, as it is today, when he was on earth. He got Awka smiths to use bellows to dry the flooded land. The Anambra at times floods its banks.

    When he came there was no food for the people. He prayed to God to send food to his people. God demanded that he should sacrifice his first son and daughter to him. He did the sacrifice and buried his children. Yam and a palm tree grew out of the spot where he buried his son and vegetables and cocoyam grew out of the spot where he buried his daughter. This is why the first son and daughter of Eze Nri after his coronation have ichi marks made on their faces seven days after birth. This is also why all male children of Nri must take the ichi title. Eri brought yam and all the food. The earth produces it. The ‘earth force’ is great.

    Thus there is a covenant between earth and man. The earth produces the food that man eats. The earth becomes the greatest supernatural force (alusi). Eri controlled yam and other food and the earth that grows them. No one person should defile the earth by spilling human blood in violence on it. This is the covenant. It must be kept.[13]

 

From the Nri myth some lessons that are capital for peace in human co-existence can be drawn. The first lesson is that human beings, here represented by the Igbo, got yam from God, from Chukwu, and hence the invention and the presence of sustenance on earth is ultimately not due to any human being. It is another version of the teaching of the Catholic Church to the effect that the earth’s resources belong to all God’s children, all inhabitants of the earth. It means that all conceptions of what is due to a particular individuals or a particular community must be reconcilable with the tenet of the origin and intention of the goods of the earth.

The second lesson is that even though Chukwu brought this and other types of food through Eri, the archpatriarch and father of Nri people, they did not thereby establish any monopoly over the food that was brought by Chukwu.

Thirdly, in another version of the myth, Eri demurred to the command of Chukwu to spread food to all mankind, objecting that he brought yam by the sacrifice of his son. But Chukwu insisted on his command, and in return compensated Eri and his descendants by giving them certain rights among the Igbo, including the right of cleansing abominations in all Igbo towns.[14] This brings one back to the connection between justice and peace. To give Eri and his descendants absolute right over food would have putting the rest of mankind at their mercy. So they had to distribute it freely to all. But Chukwu did not leave Eri and his children without compensation for their role in facilitating the feeding of mankind. Peace implies justice which implies giving to each one his due, Egbe bere ugo bere (let the kite perch and let the eagle perch also).

The fourth point concerns the respect for life. Life is sacred among the Igbo, and the Nri myth links this to its sacred history. God commanded Ala to bring forth food for the sustenance of man. Man himself must be a partner in this project. Since he is a beneficiary of this largess he should in respect of the land (Ala) who provided his sustenance not destroy life. This is a covenant relation. The land provides food to sustain life, and man undertakes not to spill blood which defiles the land (Ala). Murder is about the most serious offence in traditional Igbo. Even when it occurs in the context of inter-village wars, it does not go without expiatory sacrifice. It is one offence among the Igbo where the lex talionis used to hold sway. One who takes human life was bound to make adequate compensation, even when it is not deliberate. Among the traditional Africans such stringent observance is necessary to maintain peace. And genuine peace must begin with respect for human life, for the human person.

 

6. Conclusion

 

In its proverbs and myths, traditional Africa has enormous resources for peace and harmony in the society. The foregoing has tried to give just a few indices of the predilection of this society for peace. It is arguable today what influence such deposits of the African culture still retain. Much has changed since the colonial time, and the potential influence of proverbs and myth is certainly far from what it used to be. But certainly not everything has been swept away. People still use proverbs as embellishment of speech and as a guide to action. Even though the influence of  Christianity and Islam has drastically reduced the density of meaning that was attached to myths, there still remains a residue of their influence on present day African. What is indisputable is that where such influences are positive, they should be encouraged and revived for the benefit of the wider community of human beings.

 

 

NOTES



[1] L. S. Senghor, “The African Apprehension of Reality,” in Prose and Poetry, Heinemann, London, 1967, p. 29.

[2] Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization, Panaf, London, 1974, pp. 12.

[3] John Freguson, War and Peace in World Religions, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, p. 16.

[4] Cf. Ogbu Kalu, African Cultural Development, Forth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, 1978, p. 110

[5] Cf. J. Obi Oguejiofor, Exchatology, Immortality and Igbo Philosophy of Life, in Bigard Theological Studies, no. 1996, p.

[6] See R. O. Madu, African Symbols, Proverbs and Myths: The Hermeneutics of Destiny, Peter Lang, Frankfurt a. M, 192, p. 198.

[7] A. Johnson, Common English Proverbs, Longmans, London,1954, p. iii.

[8] J. S. Mbiti, “Children Confer Glory on a Home,” in George Cotter, Ethiopian Wisdom: Proverbs and Sayings of the Oromo People, Daystar Press, Ibadan, 1996, pp. vii – x.

[9] William Abraham, “Sources of African Identity,” in Alwin Diemer, Africa and the Problems of it Identity, Peter Lang, Frankfurt a.M., 1985, pp.19 –21.

[10] Cf. Makali I. Mokitimi, The Voice of the People: Proverbs of the Basotho, Daystar Press, Ibadan, 1997.

[11] Theophilus Okere, Philosophy, Culture and Society in Africa: Essays, Enugu, 2005, p. 21-22.

[12] Cf. B. Abanuka, Myth and the African Universe, Spiritan Publications, Onitsha, 1999, p. 85-86, 89-90.

[13] Cf. Elizabeth Isichei, Igbo World, Macmillan, London, 1977, pp. 22-23

[14] B. Abanuka, p. 79.

 

 

 

Bigard Memorial Seminary,

Enugu, Nigeria