Proverbs! Proverbs are one of the rich traditions that build the fabric of a life in Kumasi. They are wise sayings that are used to season our language to make it more beautiful. As our elders say, Ba nyansafoɔ yebu no bɛ, yɛnnka no asɛm (to wit, the wise child is spoken to in proverb, not in mere words). It’s no secret though, that many of us have forgotten a chunk of this artful practice. So consider this a delightful reintroduction into the world of Asante Twi proverbs.
But there’s a twist. We’ve perused English wise sayings also, and we’ve been able to match proverbs from Ghana with those from the West. They are so thematically similar that some of them seem to have been written by the same person, but in different languages. Seems we’re not so different after all. Who knew?
For your cultural pleasure, Life in Kumasi presents, Twi and English proverbs matched at last.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #1
Abaa a wɔde bɔɔ Takyi , ɛno ara na wɔde bɔ Baah // What’s good for the goose, is also good for the gander
The Akan proverb translates, the rod that was used to punish Takyi is very same one that will be used to strike Baah. You can see the two proverbs are somewhat different, but the thematic similarities are also easily seen. They both talk about equality of circumstance. If Takyi and Baah are peers then clearly they’ll be punished the same. In the same way, the goose and the gander are peers only separated by gender, and thus what applies to one applies to the other.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #2
Tikoro nkɔ agyina // Two heads are better than one
This match is almost verbatim. Ditto ditto. The Twi means ‘One head does not go into council’. Obviously the implication here is that when there are decisions to be made, it’s far better to have two people in council over the matter, than one. No wonder committees (‘kɔ-nom-teas’) are so popular in Ghana.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #3
Panyin a ɔtena fie ma mmɔfra we nanka no, yebu nankawefoɔ a ɔka ho // A man is known by the company he keeps.
The elder who looks on as the young people he lives with feast on a snake, is considered a snake eater himself. Eating a snake isn’t exactly held in the highest esteem in Akan culture. Thus an elder is expected to discourage the younger people from doing so, if he sees them trying to eat snake meat. If he doesn’t stop them or even try, he is found guilty of the ‘crime’ of snake eating. A man is indeed judged by the company he keeps, and not only what he actually does.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #4
Berɛ te sɛ anomaa, woankyere no na otu a, wonhu no bio // Time flies
You’ve heard ‘Time flies’ so many times, and used it a lot yourself. But it not only the proverbial white man who made the comparison between time and flight. The proverb translates, Time is like a bird; if you don’t catch it and it flies away you’ll never see it again. Indeed time flies, especially when you’re having fun.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #5
Oyere te sɛ kuntu: wode kata wo so a wo ho keka wo; wuyi gu hɔ nso a, awɔ de wo // Women. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them
Oh, the paradox that is women! Just check out how clueless guys can be if you haven’t already. A wife is like a woollen blanket, as the proverb translates. If you cover yourself with it, it irritates you and yet if you take it off you feel cold. That pretty much sums it up for me. Ladies, we love you, but man! That’s why Akwasi Buroni also sighs in exasperation and says, Women; can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Boys abrɛ.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #6
Hwimhwim adeɛ kɔ srɔsrɔ // Easy come, easy go
I clearly remember the By The Fireside episode I first heard that proverb. The song went something like, “Hwimhwim ade kɔ srɔsrɔ, wohwim a ɛbehwim”, and you repeat that on and on till your bones grow weary. This one is kind of tricky to translate, and the best translation is its English wise saying match, Easy come easy go. Hwimhwim is like the onomatopoeia for snatching, and srɔsrɔ is also the sound something makes as it quickly slips out of your grasp. I guess we all agree all over the world, that ill-gotten goods quickly amassed, are just as quickly lost.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #7
You don’t put your finger in someone’s mouth and hit them on the top of their head. That’s just crazy, don’t do it. Don’t ask me why you’d put your finger in someone’s mouth in the first place, no that’s not the point. The point is if you do that and hit the person on the head, the person will automatically bite you. And that relates, in a transverse way, to the English wise saying Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Basically both proverbs say that if you’re at someone’s mercy, it’s foolish to try and hurt them. You’ll end up the loser.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #8
Biribi anka papa anka angye grada // There is no smoke without fire
Translation: If nothing rustled the dry palm fronds, it wouldn’t have made a sound. Unrelated thought – if a tree falls down in the middle of the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Chew on that. Back to our wise sayings, once you see smoke you know there must have been a fire or there will be fire at some point. In the same way once you hear palm leaves making that ‘grada’ sound, you know something touched them. These proverbs talk about cause and effect.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #9
When the pestle roams about in the mortar, it eventually finds palm nuts to pound. This is a wise saying right out of the kitchen, and the meaning is apparent. No matter how elusive the palm nut is, as long as it is in the mortar, the pestle will find it. This is an encouragement to get started on whatever you want to achieve. As long as it is achievable under the sun, you will succeed if you start and keep at it. If you don’t venture out there and start something, you don’t gain a thing.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #10
The cripple says he’s spiting his mother, failing to realize he’s wearing away his own backside. No matter how angry the paraplegic gets at his mother, he shouldn’t get angry and try to get back at her. In the end he’s causing the greater harm to himself. The English proverb illustrates the same sentiment in a more graphic way. Cutting off your own nose just to punish your face is without question the dumbest thing you could do.
WISE SAYINGS MATCH #11
To wit, if you prevent your friend from harvesting nine, you’ll also fail to harvest ten. Simple as that. Your efforts to hinder the progress of another will indubitably stunt your own growth. Seriously, why you hatin’? Stop the hating, hater. Live and let live, because what goes around will definitely meet you at the corner.
…AND FINALLY, MATCH NUMERO 12
Akɔkono de bεtεbεtε na εwe abε // Slow and steady wins the race
I love that not only do these wise sayings match, they both refer to slow members of Kingdom Animalia. The English proverb is a reference to Aesop’s famous fable about the tortoise and the hare. Ah, that one too you don’t know? Oh ho. Please Google it, wai. The Twi says, The bagworm, in its weak and vulnerable state, slowly eats away the oil palm tree. So these last wise sayings are trying to tell you it does matter how hard, daunting or insurmountable the task is. If the squishy little akɔkono can chew its way through a whole palm, surely you can do better? I thought so.
Hope you loved this brief reintroduction to the fascinating world of proverbs. There’ll be more, real soon. But for now, as usual share and share alike, and let’s start a conversation about proverbs. Tɔntɔnte tɔntɔnte.