Preserve dying culture for generations to come

Book title: Tongues of the Forecourt: A Collection of Yoruba Proverbs and Aphorisms

Author: Olawale Obadeyi 

Editor: Leke Akinrowo 

Pages: 129 

Book reviewer: Dr. Tunji Azeez




ongues 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 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, Professor 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 abo 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 Professor 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 nyenu’ (back and forth does the hand visit the mouth} is neither proverb nor aphorism in the strict sense of the words; it isan 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 yokoluko a tan bi, iyawo gboko 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 kolo nise, 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, he 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 yogege 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 achieve 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 nteni, akisa ni taatan (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 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.

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