Proverb and Culture in the Novels of Chinua Achbe

Jayalakshmi V. Rao, Mrs A.V.N.College, Visakhapatnam, India.

The crowning glory of Achebe's novels is undoubtedly his use of the language and aphorisms of oral culture. What sets him apart from other African writers is the fact that he is, by far, more successful than others in flawlessly translating he working of African psyche from one medium to another, from an indigenous oral tradition to an alien form of European origin without obliterating the freshness and vigour of the former, and despite the vast difference separating the two cultures. His characteristic mode of writing, in other words, fulfills Achebe's own idea that the "English of the African will have to be a new English, still in communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings." In his own fiction, he succeeds in creating an English that is not only, as critics have pointed out, "detached," "stately," and "impassive" but also singular in its ability to bring a whole range of human experience before our mind's eye by his consummate use of imagery drawn from both native and alien sources. He makes use of devices like proverbs, folktales, and religious tenets conveyed through prayer, speeches and song sequences.

His language a major component of his artistic strategy, which not only enriches the English language but gives the reader the experience of a whole culture. As Lloyd W. Brown aptly says Achebe's fiction

demonstrates his preoccupation with language, not simply as a communicative device, but as a total cultural experience. At this level, language is not merely technique. It is the embodiment of its civilization and therefore represents or dramatizes modes of perception within its cultural grouping.

The artistic interplay of form and content in his novels also contributes to our understanding of Ibo cultural ethic and aesthetics, creating delight. Achebe thus fulfills the writer's responsibility, whichm according to Samuel Johnson , is to instruct by pleasing. Achebe's novels provide an accurate picture of the African past and present -- of life with all its pains, pleasures, and puzzles. As he affirmed, Achebe wanted to convey through his novels that,

African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all they had dignity.

Besides trying to instill pride and self-respect among his fellow Africans, Achebe's novels also provide the world a way of perceiving Black Aesthetics. The wisdom and philosophy, the poetry and beauty, of traditional Africa are impressively subsumed in his fiction. For example, according to Ibo culture, a good speaker is he who uses traditional proverbs, with skill and wisdom. In deed, for the Ibos the core of conversation is the appropriate use of proverbs, and they believe: "Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten." In all his novels Achebe makes prolific use of proverbs and popular adages. They reflect the good and the lean times through which their societies pass.

The society of Umuofia holds achievement and success in high regard. This attitude is well expressed in many passages in Things Fall Apart, such as those that tell the reader: "You can tell a ripe corn by its look" (16), and "If a child washed his hands, he could eat with kings" (6).

A number of proverbs embody Ibo beliefs about spirtuality. For example, "When a man says yes, his 'chi' says yes also" (TFA, 19). The chi in Ibo cosmology is the guardian spirit granted to every individual at the time of birth and is part of the individual's supreme creative essence. According to Ibo belief, the chi is entirely responsible for the fortunes and misfortunes of individuals. Thus, when Okonkwo strived for prosperity, his chi agreed. But when he started becoming aggressive, his chi disagreed and precipitated his downfall.

Other proverbs, such as "mother is supreme" (94), communicate Ibo views of society. In traditional society mothers are accorded respect. When a man falls into misfortune, as in the case of Okonkwo, he seeks solace at his mother's place. Thus during his exile, Okonkwo takes refuge in Mbanta, his mother's village. A man's last rites of a man are performed by his mother's people.

A great many of Achebe's proverbs concern matters of power and politics, particularly where related to the effects of colonization. Thus, "If one finger brought oil, it soiled the others" (89) shows the effortless spreading of anarchy among the natives after the advent of the white man. In contrast, "You have the yam and you have the knife" is generally used with regard to a powerful deity. But leaders like Ezeulu and Nwaka are also hailed thus because they are rich and influential, and command the respect of the clansmen. Resentment at Ezeulu's positive attitude to the whites finds expression in some proverbs as, "If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and his God" (113), and, in Arrow of God we learn that "when a handshake goes beyond the elbow, we know it has turned to another thing" (13). When Ezeulu goes to the white man's prison, people's indifference to his predicament appears in citing the following proverbs: "The lizard who threw confusion into his mother's funeral rite, did he expect outsiders to carry the burden of honouring his dead" (125), and : "A man who brings home ant-infested faggots should not complain if he is visited by lizards" (59). When Ezeulu fails as the keeper of the clan's safety people give vent to their anger by quoting approptiate sayings

For their apparent arrogance both Ezeulu and Okonkwo are compared to, "the little bird Nza who so far forgot himself after a heavy meal that he challenged his chi" (TFA, 22).

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Nigeria OV Achebe OV