Tongues of the Forecourt: A Collection of Yoruba Proverbs and Aphorisms
Author: Olawale Obadeyi, Editor: Leke Akinrowo, Foreword: Gbemisola Remi Adeoti, 129 pages, ISBN, 978-978-977-180-6, Type: Hardcover, Cover Design and page layout: Kunle Ajose, Book reviewer: Dr. Tunji Azeez
Tongues of the Forecourt is Wale Obadeyi’s offering to a people whose rich cultural values and mores are being fast eroded in the face of Euro-American and Asian dominated world. Based entirely on the cosmological and epistemological fount of the Yoruba people, the book is an ambitious and daunting attempt by a culture activist to draw attention to two of the vehicles of self-preservation, growth and development-proverb and aphorism. The Yoruba people pride themselves as people of high intellect and depth. This claim is embedded in their proverbs and aphorisms as well as in their religion, rites of passage, ceremonies and even jokes. No aspect of the Yoruba life is without one or more proverbs or aphorisms to serve as guide, warning, or encouragement in the face of adversity; a reminder of their relationship with God and nature; an ethical guide in their relationship with fellow travelers in the journey of life; an anchor for their traditional leaders and political office holders; a compass to guide family and marriage institutions etc.
It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that Wale Obadeyi’s quest to preserve these proverbs and aphorisms for generations to come began on the very platform that is today being used by dominant world cultures to cripple and ultimately wipe out weaker or better put, less aggressive cultures out of existence – the internet and social media. Today, the internet, with its many addictive offerings like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, IMO, LinkeIn and so on is the home of teenagers and youths and it is fast becoming home to even the older generations who were raised and weaned on the values, truths and beliefs set out in Tongues of the Forecourt.
In the opening pages of the book, the editor informs the reader that the idea of the book was shared with him in November 2017 and that he didn’t have access to the book until March 2018. Two things come out strikingly here that one of the proverbs captured in this book confirms; on Page 15 under the section on Destiny and Inevitability, one of the proverbs says, “Riro ni teniyan, sise ni ti olorun oba’ that is, that is, “To contemplate is the lot of man; the prerogative of accomplishment belongs to God’. So, Wale had what he called a “brainwave’ while alive, but as it pleases his maker, his dream came true when he’s already with his maker. Interestingly, to confirm the binary nature of the Yoruba worldview as embedded in their proverbs and aphorisms, the publication of this book counters one of the proverbs in the book which says, ‘ore ko si mo, ka reni barin lo kun’ or ‘True friends don’t exist anymore, what we have are acquaintances’. This book is possible because of true friends who knew about the dream of their friend and who, despite his change of place, still decided to ensure that his dream became a reality. So, another Yoruba aphorism comes to mind here, ‘ko ni buru titi ko ma kun enikan moni, eni ti a ku wa kun la o mo’ (no matter how terrible our situation is there will always be one true companion; however, that one companions we don’t know).
I have made this comments to draw attention to the depth of the author’s mind; here was a man who lived in the age of the internet and who, indeed, was a regular presence on Facebook; here was a man who realised that the internet generally, and Facebook particularly, can be used for positive ends if one connects with the right set of people. He states this very clearly in his authors note that, ‘
“For all the opprobrium that social media has attracted, in recent times, I report- with such responsibility, forthrightness- that those who guard their mind jealously, like me, can only attract their kind. Not all social media users are fraudsters. There are men and women with fecund minds- cerebral, feisty and ever willing to engage and contribute meaningfully to any creative effort or discourse. This collection, I can testify, has thus benefitted to a reasonable extent from such a handy sounding board as my legion of Facebook friends.”
It is, therefore, not a coincidence, as I mentioned earlier, that the author saw the values of his society being swept away and he decided to arrest the situation by compiling, translating and giving these ancient sources of knowledge to his generation and those that will come after him.
The book contains 250 carefully selected proverbs and aphorisms that cover diverse aspects of the life and cosmology of the Yoruba people. While this number may seem meager as mentioned by the writer of the foreword, Prof. Adeoti, they open vistas into the rich and unique culture and mind of the Yoruba people across time and space.
The editor, too, is a true friend also added something fundamental to the book; he edited the work for grammatical and typographical mistakes, ensured that all the proverbs are properly tonal marked to prevent ambiguity and also arranged the proverbs and aphorisms into thematic sections. All of these efforts make the collection a good read as readers can turn to sections for appropriate proverbs and aphorisms to suit specific occasions. Therefore, we have five sections or chapters namely; Destiny and Inevitability, Human Relations, Conflict and Dialectics, Morality, Community and Human Relations, Profundity, Nature and Wildlife and Miscellany. Each of the sections contains 50 proverbs and aphorisms. This seems very balanced. However, one noticed that a few of the proverbs appear in more than one section.
Another major strength of the book is that the author went to great pains to let non-speakers of the Yoruba language benefit maximally from each proverb or aphorism by making additions to some of them in translation. For instance, ‘Eni a ngbe iyawo bo wa ba kii garun” is translated as, “the man for whom we’re bringing a bride does not crane his neck forward in excessive anxiety and childish anticipation’. Here we observe that ‘Excessive anxiety and childish anticipation’ are clearly not in the original proverb. This is because the expression or word “garun’ was expected to communicate anxiety clearly to the Yoruba speaker. However, in an age where parents can hardly speak the language, it becomes imperative to explain the essence of ‘garun’ or ‘craning the neck’ to the reader in a language that they will understand. While this is good for ease of understanding by someone who is not familiar with the culture, it clearly takes away from the brevity of the proverb. As the Yoruba will say, ‘soki l’obe oge’ or aabo oro laa so fun omoluabi, to ba de inu e, a di odidi or ‘brief is what is said to a well -trained child, the full import will be felt when he digests it’.
This confirms the fact as stated by a scholar that ‘when two languages meet, they kiss and quarrel’. This is particularly true of proverbs and aphorisms, verbal resources that thrive on sound and pun. This was noted by Prof. Adeoti in his foreword. To make up for this, however, the author attempted a sort of poetic translation.
The author also took the liberty to put several Yoruba oral traditions like ayajo, ogede, ofo, orin, owe, and isure into the broad heading of proverbs and aphorisms. For instance, ‘Ayunlo, ayunbo lowo nyun enu’ (back and forth does the hand visit the mouth} is neither proverb nor aphorism in the strict sense of the words; it is an affirmation or ayajo. The same can be said of ‘Adun ni gbehin ewuro, (sweetness is the aftermath of the bitter leaf plant), ‘Abere a lo, ki ona okun to di, (The needle must pass through before the path becomes impassable for the thread}. All these can be classified as ayajo or affirmation. They are used to affirm or bring to reality a desired state of mind.
Also in another section, we have “Yokolu yokolu ko a tan bi, iyawo gbe oko sanle, oko yoke, (Aha! Aha! Is it not over, the wife floors the husband in a fight and he has developed a hunch back’). Like the previously mentioned ones, this is neither a proverb nor an aphorism. This is merely a Yoruba song of mockery of a husband who was floored in a fight by his wife. It is used to mock the defeat of an expected stronger opponent in a fight who unexpectedly is defeated by the underdog. Also on page 39, Wale documents a popular saying that, ‘Ibere ko lonise, eni to ba se dopin la o gbala’, (Beginning a task is not the true test of a good worker, he who completes his work is the one who is truly saved). This popular saying is a Christianity-influenced translation of the original which is ‘Ibere ko lonise, eni to ba se dopin la o yin’ or (Beginning a task is not a good test of a true worker, he who completes his work it is that is truly praised).
Like most intellectuals who have attempted to translate Yoruba epistemological modes into English and other languages, the is confronted with the reality that the Yoruba, over the ages have made clear that, ‘Ede elede ko le salaye asa alasa’ or (No foreign tongue can satisfactorily capture another’s culture). It is therefore, interesting that on page 178, we have “Oun to se igunnugun to fi pa lori, oun lo se akalamagbo to fi yo gege l’orun’ (The fate which befell the vulture and made him bald, is the same that befell the phoenix that gave him a goiter hanging down his neck). Here, while the effort in translation is commendable, one notices that Akala or ground hornbill is translated as the phoenix, a bird in Greek mythology. The same is repeated on page 84. Also, we have instances where two proverbs are merged into one to acheive emphasis. For example, ‘ Omo eni kii se idi bebere ka fi ileke si idi omo elomiran, teni nteni”, (that a man’s daughter has a broad behind is not enough reason to go and adorn the backside of another’s daughter with waist beads; what we have is what is ours). This is a combination of two proverbs. The proverb that has been added to the original is (Teni ni teni, akisa ni ti aatan (One’s property is one’s property, a rag naturally belongs to the dumpsite). (page 94)
Despite some of these observations, we must commend Wale for several brilliant translations of and improvement on original proverbs and aphorisms to bring their essence closer to the people. One particular one deserves mention; on page 94, his translation gives a more vivid description of the nature of the cat than the original. The proverb here is ‘Ologbo to sun bi ole, oun to ma je lo nwa’ is translated as (A cat that lies lazily around, merely awaits its next prey). This gives a vivid description of the cat as a predator and not as an animal that waits to be fed as the original proverb suggests.
In conclusion, Tongues of the Forecourt is a brilliant work of genius and an effort to preserve a dying culture for generations to come. The book couldn’t have come at a better time when parents, even those without western education are making efforts to ensure that their children don’t speak their mother tongue. The book is a great contribution to the large body of work on Yoruba culture and values. Its simplicity and profundity will endear it to readers of all ages, cultures and class. It is a rare gift from a true public intellectual.
***The public presentation of this book came up on September 28, 2019 at Freedom Park Lagos, in memory if the author who passed away in June 2018