Dr. Louisa Uchum Egbunike is a lecturer at the Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, who presented her fascinating lecture at Bremen University in 2016. Her focus of research is African literature, specifically Nigerian literature and its authors. The lecture topic is representative of her PhD thesis topic ‘The Igbo Experience in the Igbo Nigerian Novel’, which proposes that African literature tends to utilize specific techniques to challenge the way in which Africa and Africans are seen and understood. One way in which this is achieved is proverbs, which Dr. Uchum Egbunike highlights in her lecture. She puts specific focus on Igbo proverbs from Nigeria.
Dr. Uchum Egbunike explains that, in West African oral tradition, proverbs are a commonly used form of artistic and philosophical expression. Usually highly metaphorical, proverbs are used to “illustrate ideas, reinforce arguments and deliver messages of inspiration, consolation, celebration and advice” (Uchum Egbunike: 2016), and often connected to philosophical concepts, which give the reader a specific insight into the world they represent by means of implicit conveyance. In this way, proverbs add something special to language, which specializes and focusses meaning to convey a sense of the environment they stem from.
To exemplify the use of proverbs in Nigerian literature, Dr. Uchum Egbunike introduces the audience to author Chinua Achebe, a prominent Nigerian author, poet, critic and professor. One such utilized proverb in Achebe’s work is “Onye ije isi awo ihe ama”, which Uchum Egbunike explains as being representative of an idea that, by far, exceeds the literal translation. She explains that the proverb supports multiple assumptions: Firstly, it details the Igbo experience of the traveller, who is commonly understood within the Igbo community as someone who has something very special to offer to his environment. Secondly, the proverb introduces the construction of a hierarchy which is based on the perceived wisdom and worldly knowledge of the traveller. And thirdly, it suggests the idea of a fixed homeland, portraying the Igbo people as homebound and showing patriotic sentiment. This is further detailed in Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease (1960), which Uchum Egbunike describes as representative of the described sentiment conveyed in the proverb. The novel tells the story of an Igbo man who leaves his home to study in Great Britain. While telling his story, the novel details the protagonist’s feeling of being pressured to perform, and the tensions created by the sense of distance. Uchum Egbunike describes that the protagonist comes to an understanding of himself as a Nigerian person, which is largely due to the distance from home offering him a new perspective.
Uchum Egbunike also details another novel which is exemplary of the idea portrayed by the proverb: Our Sister Killjoy (1977) by Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo. The novel tells the story of a young Ghanaian woman who studies in the UK. It strongly utilizes the idea of returning home, explicitly and implicitly, and is closely linked to Ghanaian history, while expressing strong sentiments against the historical disruptions caused to Ghana by the slave trade, with a specific focus on Ghanaian women. Uchum Egbunike theorizes that Aidoo makes use of symbolism such as the Sankofa, which symbolizes a return, and utilizes choppy typography to instil a feeling of “structural anarchy”, which is functional as a textual subversion of structural norms, to rebel against white male centred narratives, while constantly alluding to the idea of the travel strengthening the sense of home.
In brief, Dr. Uchum Egbunike illustrates clearly in her lecture that West-African proverbs are vast in meaning and are commonly used to convey philosophical concepts in a simplistic way.