Proverb and Folklore in the Novels of Chinua Achbe

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

Achebe, who believes that cultures use folklore to pass on great cultural richness, thinks such folklore can provide solutions to a people's questions and problems. Hence folklore, which is an important feature of the Ibo culture, finds ample and appropriate place in the novels of Achebe. By the time we come to Ibo society in Nigeria in No Longer at Ease, most traditional values have disappeared but some of the proverbs that explicate moral and spiritual wisdom remain with the people. Here are three examples: (1) "Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it" (145); (2) "He who has people is richer than he who has money" (72). (3) The impatience and the foolhardiness of the Obi Okonkwo's are compared to that of "the young antelope who danced herself lame when the main dance was yet to come" (10).

A Man of the People, Achebe's fourth novel, has a number of proverbs that clearly trace the decay of cultural values in Nigerian society. Selfishness, greed, and desire for power characterize of political leaders like chief Nanga. The general motto of the people's leaders is, "Ours is ours but mine is mine." Achebe's characters make use of folklore to make their arguments forcefully and effectively illustrate moral values.

The story of the little bird Nza occurs both in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. It brings home the fact that a man should never provoke his fate. He should know where to draw a line of limit in his pursuit of power. The same wisdom is evident in the story of the bird Eneke-nti-Oba (TFA, 38) and the story of the wrestler (AOG, 26).

Among the Ibos an excellent wrestler is one who wins not only in the human world but also in the world of spirits. Thus Okonkwo's ability at wrestling is aptly compared to that of "the founder of the town" who according to folktale, "engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights." (TFA, 3).

The Didactic Animal Tale

The didactic animal tale appears in almost all Achebe's novels. In Things Fall Apart. The tales of the wily tortoise (38, 67) expose the wicked nature of beingsm, and the story of the mother kite shows the folly of the people of Abame (98). Such tales also point out indifference and inconsiderateness of human beings in No Longer at Ease (149), and in the same novel the story of the leopardess illustrates the ill effects of greed (53).

Men's and women's stories illustrate male and female values. While Okonkwo's stories exemplify warfare and violence in order to inculcate courage in children (TFA, 53, 37), Ekwefi's stories of the mosquito (TFA, 53), Obiageli's unending chain tale (AOG, 65) are meant for entertainment.


Legend is one of the many elements that lend fascination to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Several of them concern the origin of Ulu (AOG, 157), the legend of Idemili (AOG, 41), the legends of Egwugwu (TFA, 63; AOG, 199). These are a few of the many legends mentioned. Since market is important in the Ibo society, market legends are also mentioned (AOG, 19, 1). The popularity of the legends shows that the traditions of the clan are kept alive.


The elaborate description of various ceremonies gives us a chance to have a closer look at the well-developed symbolic view of religion in ancient societies. They also lend charm to the narrative as do the stars to the night sky. Some interesting ceremonies include the appearance and proceedings of the Egwugwu (TFA, 63, 84; AOG, 199), the first coming of Ulu (AOG, 71), the Idemili festival (AOG, 39). The ceremony of Akwunro (AOG, 94) and the ceremony of Ogbazulubodo (AOG, 23).

Proverbial Wisdom and Achebe's Style

Another element that contributes to the success of Achebe's fictional art is his subtle use of English to suit the African sensibility. Ezeulu's speech to Oduche has a distinct African style.

I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying �had we known' tomorrow." (AOG, 45-46).

The same speech if written in formal English as shown by Achebe is not half as effective.

I am sending you as my representative among these people --- just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight."


An example of Achebe's use of customs appears in the description of the treatment given to a guest. Upon entering a friend's Obi, a guest is seated either on a goatskin mat or on an earthen stool. Then he is given a piece of chalk with which he draws his emblem on the floor and paints his toe or face. The bond of goodwill is complete with the passing of the kola around, and sharing its contents (AOG, 61, 94, 191; TFA, 5; NLE, 47).

The description of Okonkwo's obi and shrine (TFA, 10), Ezeulu's shrine (AOG, 209) tells us of their architecture. Simultaneously there are human sacrifices (TFA, 43), mutilation of a diseased Ogbanje child (TFA, 55), the Osu practice (TFA, 111), the belief in juju medicine (TFA, 79; AOG, 147; AMP, 85), the belief in reincarnation (NLE, 48), the spirit possession (TFA, 70, 72; AOG, 225), the belief in the divinity of a python (TFA, 112; AOG, 48), the belief of running over a dog for good luck and the taboo of running over a duck (NLE, 14), cast a shadow on the culture of the society.

Salutation Names

Closely aligned to oratory are the salutation names. The naming system is important to the Ibos. Its importance is especially evident in Ekwefi's attempts to save the children by the name she gives. Nine die before one daughter Ezinma survives. She names the children in such a way as to break the cycle of Ogbanje children. A few were Onwumbiko, Death, I implore you," Ozoemena, May it not happen again," and finally Onwumna, Death may please himself" (TFA, 70). The naming system is shown to have importance in No Longer at Ease also. The respect shown to women is implied in calling a man Son of Our Daughter" (AOG, 22). Name calling such as ant-hill nose," long throat," descriptive phrases such as the tongue with which to tell the story" (TFA, 125), looking with the tail of his eye" (AOG, 158), or the sensitiveness of a snail's horn" (AOG, 191) in addition to curses, prayers, blessings and traditional taboos as the custom of forbidding titled elders tapping palm wine, forbidding outsiders into the meetings of elders (AOG, 141) all contribute to give the reader a new experience of reading the same language.

The use of idioms lends Achebe's language and style a native flavour and force. Besides giving us a close and convincing picture of a society in transition, this technique helps his characters sound natural while speaking an alien tongue. A few such idioms deserve our attention.

References to Nature

Frequent references to flora and fauna imply the proximity of the Ibos to nature. Here are examples from Things Fall Apart: Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan" (3), and he "drank palm wine from morning till night and his eyes were red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it was caught by the tail and dashed against the floor" (44). "He felt like a drunken giant walking with the limbs of a mosquito" (44). "Okonkwo felt as if he had been cast out of his clan like a fish onto a dry sandy beach, panting" (92). "Obierika's house is as busy as an ant hill." "The earth burned like hot coals." (17).

Yam is also used as a metaphor for manliness, as in "Yam the king of crops was a man's crop" (16), and "yam stood for manliness, and he could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed" (23). "Ikemefuna grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season" (37). Similarly, kola symbolizes prosperity: "He who brings kola brings life" (5).

Imagery of fire is used for a greater effect. Okonkwo is called Roaring Flame" and a flaming fire" (108), while his son is cold, impotent ash" (109).

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