RESOURCES FOR PEACE IN AFRICAN PROVERBS AND MYTHS
By J. Obi Oguejiofor
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.”
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 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.
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.”
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,”
one can rightly say that it is eminently so in traditional
African societies have most oral, non-literary traditions, these societies
succeeded in developing complicated and beautiful webs of proverbs for all
conceivable circumstances. In
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. 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.
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). 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 (
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.
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
above it is clear that in traditional
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.
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
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.
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. 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.
In its proverbs and myths,
 L. S.
Senghor, “The African Apprehension of Reality,” in Prose and Poetry,
 Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism:
Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization, Panaf,
 John Freguson, War and Peace in World Religions,
 Cf. Ogbu
Kalu, African Cultural Development, Forth Dimension Publishers,
 Cf. J. Obi Oguejiofor, Exchatology, Immortality and Igbo Philosophy of Life, in Bigard Theological Studies, no. 1996, p.
 See R.
O. Madu, African Symbols, Proverbs and Myths: The
Hermeneutics of Destiny, Peter Lang,
Johnson, Common English Proverbs, Longmans,
 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.
 William Abraham, “Sources of African Identity,” in Alwin Diemer, Africa and the
Problems of it Identity, Peter Lang,
 Cf. Makali I. Mokitimi, The Voice of the People: Proverbs of the Basotho, Daystar Press,
 Theophilus Okere, Philosophy, Culture and Society in
 Cf. B. Abanuka, Myth and the
African Universe, Spiritan Publications,
Elizabeth Isichei, Igbo World, Macmillan,
 B. Abanuka, p. 79.
Bigard Memorial Seminary,