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the Complete Review
the complete review - proverbs

Yoruba Proverbs

Oyekan Owomoyela

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To purchase Yoruba Proverbs

Title: Yoruba Proverbs
Author: Oyekan Owomoyela
Genre: Proverbs
Written: (2005)
Length: 500 pages
Original in: Yoruba
Availability: Yoruba Proverbs - US
Yoruba Proverbs - UK
Yoruba Proverbs - Canada
  • Collected and translated by Oyekan Owomoyela
  • This is a bilingual edition, including both the original Yoruba proverbs, literal translations, and then a brief commentary
  • Collects 5235 proverbs
  • With an Introduction by Oyekan Owomoyela

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Our Assessment:

(--) : exhaustive collection, interesting and overwhelming

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Yoruba Proverbs is a mammoth collection of Yoruba òwe (the English idea of a 'proverb' apparently being a fair approximation of that concept). With 5235 of them, presented according to subject-matter and each section then arranged alphabetically, it is an encyclopaedic collection -- a reference work more than anything else.
       Oyekan Owomoyela offers a nearly forty-page introduction, covering a lot of ground, from various types of proverbs (in English as well as Yoruba) to a dense summary-survey of òwe. The idea is simple enough, on some level -- like English proverbs -- but it's a lot of material for readers not familiar with Yoruba culture to digest, and Owomoyela takes a fairly academic approach: this is a scholarly text, and in the introduction, especially, he doesn't let you forget that.
       In the introduction Owomoyela also explains the choices he made in selection and presentation, on everything from orthography ("I have departed from some current practices") to the use of dialects (he balked) and citing sources (attribution seemed both unrealistic and antithetical to the project). Of some interest to the lay reader, most of this is clearly addressed to his professional audience: Yoruba Proverbs will be the standard òwe-reference work for the foreseeable future, and Owomoyela wants to set out and explain his methods and choices for any critics.
       The bulk of the book is the proverb-collection. It is divided into six sections, each dealing with a different category of òwe:

  1. The Good Person
  2. The Fortunate Person (or the Good Life)
  3. Relationships
  4. Human Nature
  5. Rights and Responsibilities
  6. Truisms
       Each section (except the last) is further sub-divided into more specific categories; Human Nature, for example, is divided into sections:
  • On fate (and reciprocity)
  • On human vulnerability and limitations
  • On mortality
  • On inscrutability
  • On inequality
       Within each of these sections the proverbs are arranged alphabetically (in Yoruba). They are also numbered, making for easy cross-referencing or citation. There is no index (and a comprehensive one would likely have taken up an enormous amount of space), and so finding an appropriate or relevant proverb can require considerable browsing. Nevertheless, Owomoyela's method seems about as efficient as is possible.
       Each proverb is then presented in the original Yoruba, in a more or less literal English translation, and then with the implied meaning. Occasionally there are also explanatory notes, or references to other òwe.
       There are an incredible variety of òwe among the more than five thousand collected here. Many are very similar to proverbs familiar in the English-speaking world, many others obviously the product of the Yoruba culture, and others simply ... different. (A generous sampling, The Good Person, is available online.)
       Examples include:
490. A one-eyed person does not attempt standing somersaults.
(One should limit one's ambitions to one's capability.)

985. The bird of the forest does not know how to fly in grassland.
(In a strange environment, one becomes a dunce.)

1612. Excessive envy of others causes one to take on witching and makes one become a wizard.
(Too much envy leads to antisocial behavior.)

1615. Fire is not something one conceals under one's clothing.
(One should not hide one's pressing problems but seek help.)

3036. It is he-who-is-guilty-but-refuses-to-accept-the-guilt that brings warfare into a town.
(Refusal to accept one's guilt ruins communal harmony.)

3675. The seller of corn-meal loaves does not wish buyers to be full.
(Self-interest is paramount.)

4528. Whoever see Aláké and wrinkles his or her nose in a sneer has got a worm in his or her nose.
(It is futile to sneer at an illustrious person.)

4815. Possession of charms is more efficacious than carrying a Koran.
(A sure medicine is preferable to faith in religion.)
       One can debate Owomoyela's glosses -- and in many instances might wish for more detailed explanations -- but in succinctly summing up each òwe (and thus preventing the volume from getting completely out of hand) he has done quite well.
       The full richness of the volume can only be appreciated by browsing or reading it. The variations on themes, and the different òwe addressing the various subject-matters makes for an impressive (if somewhat misleading) tapestry. The òwe should be seen in context, so some cultural and historic (and, preferably, also linguistic) background is of great help, but even without these it is a fascinating collection.
       Yoruba Proverbs is hardly a book to be read beginning to end; it is a reference work -- but it does lend itself to piecemeal reading and leisurely browsing. Obviously aimed at the specialist (and it is hard to imagine any (West) African university department not getting a copy), it nevertheless also offers the casual reader considerable rewards. It's not an inexpensive volume, but it's a bargain for what is, in many respects, a monumental achievement.

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Yoruba Proverbs: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Oyekan Owomoyela teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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