restricted access Yoruba Proverbs (review)
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Yoruba Proverbs, by Oyekan Owomoyela, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2005. 502pp.

This gigantic collection contains 5,235 yorùbá proverbs, their English translations, excellent brief annotations on usage and contexts, and a 38-page introduction! The tome also comes with a companion website ( of even more proverbs. Readers will find in the book, preceded by two earlier proverb collections and one trickster tales compilation, a truly majestic culmination of Oyekan Owomoyela’s four-decade-long labor at constructing a formidable textual archive of yorùbá oral literatures.

In West African etiquette, the proper place to begin unwrapping a delicious serving of corn meal is the flat end, or, as a Yorùbá proverb recommends, ibi pêlêbê lati ńmú õlålå jê. It is proper that an appreciation of this book should start with the long introduction in which Owomoyela declares that the Yorùbá òwe is not exactly what English-language speakers and writers refer to as the proverb. The òwe, for instance, need not be “an ancient and popularly accepted encapsulation of wisdom.” No modern yorùbá person can claim not to know that “‘Dì Ẹ̀ndì’ lòpin sinimá” (“‘The End” is the end of a cinema show”). The òwe is not always “‘a remnant of the ancient philosophy preserved […] on account of its brevity and fitness for use.” The ancients probably have little, if anything at all, invested in the prolix saying [End Page 202] that follows: “õsán pön, o ò şàn åkô; oòrùn kan àtàrí o ò jê àmàlà; àlejò-ó wá bá ô ní ìyåtàrí oòrùn o ò rí nkan fún un; o ní ‘Njç n ò níí tç löwö å báyìí’? O ò tíì tç löwö ara ê, ká tó şå şå wá wipe êlòmíràn tàbí o ò níí t? (The sun rises and you do not eat corn meal; the sun moves directly overhead and you do not eat yam-flour meal; a visitor arrives for you when the sun is just past the overhead and you have nothing to entertain him with; and you ask, ‘Am I not in danger of being disgraced in his eyes’? Aren’t you already disgraced in your own eyes? Never mind whether you may be disgraced in others’ eyes or not”) (85).

Since the book does not call for the substitution of òwe for the proverb, we can infer that this is because the two entities are similar in some respect. How is the òwe like the proverb, and vice-versa? Both are known sayings whose motivated quotation induces hearers to compare the situation at hand to the one articulated in the citation; a “speech form that likens, or compares one thing or situation to another, highlighting the essential similarities that the two share” (3). In conversations, proverbs and òwe offer “material model[s]” in grammatical forms that depict them as claims whose validity have been settled beyond dispute. Against the anterior model so presented, the subject at hand has to either acquit itself and gain the high ground or fail to measure up and fail miserably As Owomoyela argues it, Yorùbá proverb usage recalls for conversations elements of the culture’s main model of existence, namely “the desire to have a good life” (34). That standard of comparison constitutes one ultimate destination the route to which proverb laden conversations help individuals navigate through directives, goal setting, adjusting for missteps, condemning for wrong-headedness, etc. According to Owomoyela, “proverbs, being designed in one or another to aid people in negotiating the sometimes tricky path through life, would then presumably be concerned also in one way or another with the conditions for the enjoyment of a good life” (34).

The good life, to the yorùbá, consists of three elements: “One must be a good person, or be considered a good person. One must be fortunate. One must have good relationships” (35). Following these principles, the volume classifies proverbs according to how they model: (i) “qualities that make a good person” [2,711 entries]; (ii) factors that...