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The Good Person: Excerpts from the Yoruba Proverb Treasury


The Yoruba, we, is a speech form that likens one thing or situation to another, highlighting the essential similarities that the two share. In the culture a great deal of importance attaches to the spoken word and speech generally. Believing that it carries great psychic properties, the Yoruba approach speech with deliberate care, taking great pains to avoid careless, casual, or thoughtless statements whose damage might outlast lifetimes. The proverb Eyin lr; B b bal, ff n f (Speech is an egg; if it drops on the floor what it does is shatter) bears witness to this concern. In addition the Yoruba speaker strives to ensure that the idea he/she wishes to communicate reaches its target ungarbled and in as unmistakable a form as possible. If an explanation for such care was necessary one need only remember the importance of relationality in close-living communalism, especially when speech also happens to be the most available (and therefore most common) transactional medium. In such a context, to paraphrase another proverb, the judicious, not simply correct, application of speech causes the kolanut to emerge from the pocket, whereas its careless use calls out the sword from its scabbard.

Resort to proverbs is the most important and most effective strategy the Yoruba have devised to optimize the efficaciousness of speech. The culture's richness in them, of which this collection provides some evidence, bears out the Yoruba insistence that bereft of proverbs speech flounders and falls short of its mark, while aided by them communication is fleet, and unerring. The Yoruba assert accordingly, we lin r; b r- b sn, we la fi w a (Proverb is the horse of speech; when speech is lost, proverb is the means we use to hunt for it).

Proverbs are often incisive in their propositions and terse in their formulation. They are deduced from close observation of life, life forms and their characteristics and habits, the environment and natural phenomena, and sober reflection on these. Because they are held to express unexceptionable truths, albeit with some qualification, their use in a discussion or argument is tantamount to appeal to established and incontrovertible authority. This is one reason for their virtual indispensability in formal and informal verbal interactions in Yoruba society. They accordingly pervade all other (major) forms of verbal texts, in which their presence enhances the effectiveness of those texts.

Students of proverbs agree on the functions they perform in society. One such scholar, William Bascom, groups the functions into four types, passive and active, and all positive: mirroring the culture; affording members of the society a means of psychological and emotional release through the venting otherwise prohibited expressions; aiding in education and socialization; and maintaining conformity to accepted patterns, while also validating institutions, attitudes and beliefs (279-98).

Western folklore scholarship has characteristically acknowledged the aesthetic aspects of the proverb. Roger Abrahams, for example, describes them as "among the shortest forms of traditional expression that call attention to themselves as formal artistic entities." He goes on to cite their use of "all of the devices we commonly associate with poetry in English: meter, binary construction and balanced phrasing, rhyme, assonance and alliteration, conciseness, metaphor, and occasional inverted word order and unusual construction" (119). The statements are equally applicable to the Yoruba proverb, whose main features the Yoruba scholar Olatunde Olatunji lists as the following: a prescriptive function (meaning the outlining of rules of conduct); a characteristic sentence form (which might be simple, complex, sequential, or parallel); a high incidence of lexical repetition and contrast; and terseness (175). In addition, he cites "tonal counterpoint," that is, contrast in the tones of lexical items which occur in identical locations in parallel sentences.

Archer Taylor quotes Lord John Russell as defining the proverb as "One man's wit and all men's wisdom" (Taylor: 1986). The description is true of the proverbs of all traditional, especially oral, cultures. Notwithstanding the consensus implied in the attribution of the wisdom to "all men" (these days one would rather say "all people"), though, one needs no more than a casual knowledge of a culture's proverbs to discover that they are not always consistent with one another, that for every one that asserts a "truth" there will be others that contradict it. An important fact that we must bear in mind is that African societies are not as simple, and the African mentality and world view not as jejune, as some people might suppose. For that reason if one looked for simple, uncomplicated concepts of truth and morality among them one would go astray. With regard to "good" and "bad" in Yoruba thought, for example, one might go so far as to contend that a significant Nietschean strain exists in it, something consistent with what that controversial speaker remarked about Hebert Spencer, "who considers the concept good qualitatively the same as the concepts useful or practical; so that in the judgments good and bad, humanity is said to have summed up and sanctioned precisely its unforgotten and unforgettable experiences of the useful practical and the harmful impractical" (161).

For the foregoing reason proverb use lends itself to some cynicism, and one cannot always be sure when a proverb is cynical and inconsistent with approved morality (and the user's true belief and intention), and when it is a reliable expression of a society's mores (and the user's true inclination). What that observation indicates is the need for some guide to understanding the proverbs and how they mean. Some of the confusion about them would disappear if, for instance, we were mindful that they are sensitive and responsive to the relativity of "truth" and ethics.

In addition to the acknowledged sharp wit that characterizes Yoruba we, and the cynicism just mentioned, we might also add the humor many of them display-humor that derives as in other texts and other cultures from a variety of devices: different forms of ironies (situational, verbal, and the like), hyperbole, understatement, deliberate shock (especially in vocabulary), and so forth. And added to those qualities is occasional facetiousness-the incorporation of some ironic twist that sometimes and somewhat undercuts what the proverb professes to assert.


In his introduction to The Yoruba: History, Culture and Language, the Yoruba historian and scholar J. Adebowale Atanda testifies that the basic motivating force for the Yoruba is the desire to have a good life. It is the reason why they worship r (divinities), and why if one rs fails to deliver the people turn away from that divinity. "Hence the saying," he says, "r, b o le gb m, se m b o ti b mi (r, if you cannot improve my lot, do not worsen it)." Bearing that in mind I arrived at my classification categories by posing the question: "What are the conditions for having a good life?" I came up with the answers:

1, One must be a good person, or be considered a good person; 2, One must be fortunate; and 3, One must have good relationships

Having determined those factors, I was faced with the reality that certain conditions in life fall outside the realm of possible human control, and are unaffected by human qualities, judgement, actions, or relationships. The human condition itself is an example. Such thinking led me eventually to devise six

Category 1: devoted to the qualities that make a good person. They include: caution; honesty; moderation; patience; perspicaciousness; prudence; reasonableness; reliability; resilience; sagacity/wisdom; savoire faire (worldly wisdom); self-control; self-knowledge; self-respect; and thoughtfulness.
Category 2: encompassing those things that conduce to the good life, material and otherwise: happiness; health; wealth; longevity; and good name (good repute).
Category 3: devoted to relational observations and prescriptions, those things that conduce to good relations, things to do, to mind, and so forth. These will be behavioral do's and don'ts, regarding: the divine and the supernatural; the community in general; the family; friends; other people and elders; strangers; the less fortunate; and Nature (flora and fauna)
Category 4: embracing statements (and observations) on Human Nature; existential, congenital, and the like (dependence on fate, for example; the finitude of human life; the opacity of the future).
Category 5: comprising facts of life-socially determined conditions (like subservience to kings); powerlessness before certain authorities; things incumbent on one because of one's position; rights to patrimony; etc.
Category 6: the catch-all home for the rest, or Miscellaneous. (General comments and truisms about life, the world, human behavior, and the like.)

The proverbs offered here comprise the ones in the first grouping-proverbs relating to the good person.


I have departed from some current practices not to be contrary but in order to live up to the expectation that tone marks will reliably guide the reader to the correct pronunciation of the written text. These and other issues relating to Yoruba proverbs are discussed at greater length in the introduction to the complete collection forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2005.


Abrahams, Roger. "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions." Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, ed. by Richard M Dorson. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 117-27.
Atanda, J. Adebowale. "The Yoruba People: Their Origin, Culture and Civilization." In The Yoruba: History, Culture and Language. J. F. Odunjo Memorial Lectures, Series 5. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1996, pp.3-34.
Bascom, William. "Four Functions of Folklore." In The Study of Folklore, ed. by Alan Dundes (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1965, 279-98.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Genealogy of Morals. In The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Francis Golffing. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1956.