The above is a proverb of African origin, though I don’t know where exactly it’s from.
I’m writing this at 4AM after much wrestling with no, that’s an unnecessary aside. I will probably get lost while writing this, and that’s… okay.
When I began reading Things Fall Apart, what immediately struck me was the prevalence of proverbs. There were proverbs in the narrative, in the dialogue, everywhere. There’s even a passage that addresses their importance!
Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. (Things Fall Apart, p. 7)
The bolded part could be argued to be a proverb in itself. You’ve gotta really love proverbs to write a proverb about proverbs.
The word “proverb” is going to stop looking like a word by the end of this post. So what could this meta-proverb be talking about?
Well, for one, we’re looking at a metaphorical proverb, and it’s relating speech to eating…. I’m not really familiar with the culinary uses of palm oil, so why don’t we replace it with peanut butter, and words with bread. We eat bread all the time, many different kinds of bread depending on whatever factors. While we may have a variety of bread to eat, bread on its own can get pretty boring. So we add peanut butter to the bread, to make it more interesting, and because life without peanut butter is meaningless.
Likewise, proverbs make language more interesting, because they attempt to explain concepts in a creative way. Kids won’t eat their celery sticks? Slap some peanut butter on them! (The celery, not the kids…) If we take my hyperbole from earlier, this creativity adds meaning to language that may not have been there before, makes it more… edible? comprehensible?
Then again, while enriching language, proverbs can lead to redundancy.
“There must be a reason for it. A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing.” (Things Fall Apart, p. 20)
What could have been said in once sentence has been said twice. This is especially irritating in real life, when you hit that point where you’ve heard enough of those damn proverbs and could live without hearing them again. Because of this, I happen to like these Ibo proverbs since they’re so different from what I grew up with. Perhaps the repetition isn’t that bad, though… Things Fall Apart is quite cyclical after all, so it only makes sense for the characters to speak with repetition. In the above quote, the proverb is not only a repetition, but a repetition with difference, since the proverb serves to emphasize the former point. And what could make the point clearer than the somewhat silly image of a toad running in daytime? It’s funny, it stays in your mind, and the meaning will be easier to understand.
All these proverbs give the impression of this whole book being a big folk tale, the kind of tale you hear your mother tell you before bed. (Though this tale would probably ruin their night, 0/10, would not recommend.)
Considering Achebe wrote this book as a response to Conrad, I see it as Achebe’s way of saying “Hey! We Africans are people just like you are, and here’s our culture!” For all of Conrad’s lovely prose, he doesn’t make the Africans of his novella seem really human. Since proverbs can say a lot about a culture and its values, they are an easy way to communicate said values. (Though proverbs can often contradict each other, just like cultural values.)