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Research in African Literatures 30.1 (1999) 83-115

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A Poetic Structure in Hausa Proverbs

Jang, Tae-Sang


It has often been pointed out that proverbs are a widespread and common feature of African languages and are often richly poetic. One of my informants once told me his favorite proverb: Duniya gwatson mage 'The world (is) the dancing hips of a cat.' As he explained it to me, the proverb expresses the idea that a person should always do good to others in adversity since he or she does not know when and how the situation will change against himself or herself and in favor of those others. A change of situation can make a master a slave and a slave a master. My informant said, "I love this proverb because I like the words gwatso and mage." Gwatso is the suggestive motion of women's hips in dancing. In the dance nobody knows when the speed and direction of the twisting hips will change. But the notion of this unexpectedness culminates in terms of the appearance of another term mage 'cat' in the proverb. Cats are often believed by the Hausa to be fussy animals. Imagine the dancing hips of a fussy cat. The erotic image of the rapidly twisting hips of a fussy cat involved in dancing refers metaphorically to the image of the world, i.e., unexpectedness.

Imagery is only one dimension of the "poetic"; aspects of form can be equally, if not more, salient in creating a sense of the poetic. Hausa proverbs are normally bipartite in form and many aesthetic connotations arise from this, as can be seen in the proverb "Allah ya gyara rimi // ceiya ta bar fushi (7//7)" 'God made the silk-cotton tree beautiful, so let the fig-tree cease being angry,' where the two sections on either side of the double slash "//" have the same number of syllables, with the final vowels of both sections being identical. The purpose of this article is to discuss the way in which many Hausa proverbs are poetically formed, focusing on the discussion of such features as balance and bipartite structure. Before proceeding to the main concern of this article, however, let me briefly discuss the role of proverbs in African societies first.

It may be impossible to define, in a single sentence or paragraph, the importance of proverbs in societies where orality predominates. But there are some generally held views. Proverbs, apart from their literary aspects, have always been a source of didacticism and education and more generally a medium for the expression of commonly held views and wisdom. "Proverbs enshrine much of the cultural heritage of a people, their traditions, their history, their wisdom and their ethics. More than this, in the absence of a vigorous written literature, they may serve as the guardian and the carrier of a nation's philosophy and genesis. They are an exponent of group culutre, Sapir's 'tradtitional body of social usage'" (Kirk-Greene, "Mutumin kirkii" ix-x).

A contrast is also made between proverbial usage in Africa and relative lack of such usage in the West: "In many European countries the skill of the proverb-soothsayer and the art of the story-teller are dying out. Indeed, the person who insists on producing a proverb to fit (or rather, as has been suggested, to misfit) every occasion is often considered both a bore and a [End Page 83] boor" (Kirk-Greene, "Mutumin kirkii" x). In contrast, many contemporary African societies still enjoy the wide use of proverbs in a variety of contexts.

Like stories and legends, proverbs have been a source of literary inspiration for modern African writers (Wauthier 63). It is well-known that Chinua Achebe, one of the most distinguished writers of black Africa, has drawn extensively on proverbs to the extent that without proper knowledge of Igo proverbs it is difficult to understand the metaphors frequently employed in his novels and thus the framework of ethics that he is deploying: "As a rhetorical aid and stylized verbal form, the Igbo...


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