Being and Becoming African as a Permanent Work in Progress:Inspiration from Chinua Achebe’s Proverbs

By Francis B. Nyamnjoh*

Prof Francis Nyamnjoh
Prof Francis Nyamnjoh


This lecture explores what we could learn about being and becoming African as a permanent work in progress from how Chinua Achebe adopts and adapts Igbo proverbs in his writings. Being African is often claimed and denied with expediency. While all claims and denials may be founded, not every claim is informed by the same considerations. If being and becoming African were compared to shopping at a supermarket, one could argue that some are flexible in what they put into their shopping baskets while others are picky, even when invited to take a lot by attractive offers, sales and discounts. And some have products thrust down their consumer palates through the power of aggressive advertisement or for lack of purchasing power. I am particularly interested in how being African is claimed and denied in history, socio-anthropologically, and politically. In this connection, I have found much inspiration in Chinua Achebe’s use of proverbs as words of salience and significance in crafting the stories and essays that have made him a household name on the continent and globally. Achebe has found in proverbs a powerful resource of complicated repertoires from which he has drawn repeatedly to nourish his characters and oil their experiences and relationships, depicting their multifacetedness and celebrating their humanity.

Proverbs, as condensed wisdom drawn from human experience, provide a rich resource for understanding, inter alia, how African communities have through the ages, negotiated and navigated questions of being and belonging through a myriad of encounters with one another, as well as with people from elsewhere and those they have come to know and relate with through their own mobility. Proverbs are cherished repertoires of humans as dynamic and creative innovators in conversation with the geographies and environments that continually feed their individual and collective selves and appetite for the nuanced complexities of being human.

Like Achebe, I find it compelling to think with proverbs, which, far from being confined to so-called nonliterate or preponderantly oral societies as some have had the habit of insisting erroneously, are “condiments of speech”[1] in every society, regardless of the degree of modernity claimed by the society in question. Let me share a proverb with which many of you are already familiar, from Chinua Achebe’s novel Arrow of God: “The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.”[2] The proverb in the novel is slightly adapted from that in circulation in everyday Igbo language: “Ada-akwu ofu ebe enene mmuo, ‘You do not stand in one place to watch a masquerade.’”[3] Commenting on this proverb, Achebe notes: “The Igbo believe that art, religion, everything, the whole of life are embodied in the art of the masquerade. It is dynamic. It is not allowed to remain stationary.”[4] I would like to adapt the proverb slightly as follows: “Africa and being African are like a mask dancing. If you want to see them well, you do not stand in one place.” To buttress the point with a proverb common among the populations of the Cameroon Grassfields – a proverb about which I have written – “a child is one person’s only in the womb.”[5] As products of culture in its dynamism, proverbs and language cannot but live up to the dancing mask image of that which has parented them. Nimble-footed realities, flexible identities and belonging require nimble-footed and nimble-minded spectators. And nimble-footed and nimble-minded students of Africa and Africans need to bring historical ethnography into conversation with the ethnographic present.

The ideas that hold this lecture together are: Incompleteness, Mobility/Motion, Encounters, Compositeness, Debt and Indebtedness, and Conviviality.

Proverbs in Motion and their Mobilization by Chinua Achebe

If one applies the Achebe proverb referenced above – “The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place” [6] – to the meaning of a proverb, one could argue that the proverb is like a mask dancing, and one does not understand it in its fullness by standing in one place and sticking to a frozen idea of what a proverb is.

Not only are proverbs universal in their use to express emotions, thoughts, experiences and challenges, they are also universal in the very fact of the mobility of humans, ideas and language across geographies. The power of the proverb lies in its eternal incompleteness of meaning, that constantly opens itself up to improvisation and creative innovation in usage with and across cultural communities.

There is an Akan proverb to the effect that “when the rain beats the leopard, its fur becomes wet, but its spots do not wash away”[7]. If colonialism was the rain, and African languages the leopard, what in African languages has proven to be the spots? Central to a language are the figures of speech and idioms, of which proverbs are integral. If Africa’s unequal encounters with European colonialism meant the imposition of colonial European languages, any meaningful claims to independence and decolonisation entailed, at the very least, a reinvestment in and prioritisation of linguistic repertoires endangered by colonialism as a zero-sum pursuit.[8] Chinua Achebe understood this very well, and his novels are exemplary on just how to go about achieving that in creative writing. Achebe maintains that the use of proverbs helped him make words more palatable, likening proverbs to the palm-oil with which words are eaten: “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”[9]

Achebe’s creative rendition of Igbo proverbs in the English language enriches both languages, and demonstrates that a true measure of a living language is in its capacity to reach out and embrace the new figures of speech, idioms or proverbs that come with new encounters with and experience of difference. For, while proverbs “represent the wisdom of the past used in a new situation to justify current behaviour, condition or thinking”, this by no means should imply that the past is an insensitive dictator of the present. The teachings, warnings, console, satire and advise of existing proverbs make sense only to the extent that these proverbs and those who employ them are sufficiently flexible and accommodating of the listeners creative and discerning beings.[10] Providing for change and continuity in proverbs is the humility needed through a constant alertness to the fact that “One who does not travel assumes that only his/her mother cooks the most delicious dinner”.[11] This celebration of Achebe through a conversation with how he marshals proverbs to make good bedfellows of change and continuity, is also a tribute to his domestication of a colonial language, through his “ingenuous use of the English language” that has come to serve as “a model for creative writers in situations where English is a second or foreign language”.[12]

Proverbially, Achebe has shown the way to contemporary African writers on how to embellish their art “with oral resources such as folktales, proverbs, sayings, festivals, songs, riddles and myths”, whether or not they write in a colonial European language or in an endogenous African language.[13] To stress that African writers must dance the dance prevalent in their time in a nimblefooted world of myriad encounters and influences by no means should be mistaken as the wholesale embrace of colonialism or the ambitions of dominance of some over others, nor should it surprise anyone – in the manner that it appears to have done Bruce Gilley[14] – that Achebe should find something positive to say about the legacies of British colonialism in Nigeria, even as he was highly critical of the hierarchies of humanity that underpinned colonial encounters and served to excuse the systematic devaluation of Africans – body, mind and soul.

Proverbs as Palm-Oil

Proverbs lend themselves to be used by all and sundry – regardless of gender, class, status, age and location. A socially lowly ranked person is just as able to draw on proverbs in driving home their message, as would a person who is hierarchically superior. This would explain why in Achebe’s novels proverbs come in handy to characters of different social categories and across the broad spectrum of society. In a patriarchal context that is sensitive to hierarchies of various forms, women, the young, the enslaved, the outcaste and the underachievers among men may be reprimanded for using proverbs daringly, but seldom for using them. In recognition of an individual’s freedom to speak democratically, the Igbo invite anyone present at a gathering to “speak his own mouth”.[15] Proverbs afford otherwise passive and voiceless victims of the status quo in a patriarchal society and related contexts of inequalities and injustices to reassert themselves and reclaim the voice otherwise denied them in the spaces and places of formal enactment of power and privilege. In Home and Exile, Achebe calls on us always to remember what proverbs are meant to achieve in a communicative act with these words: “the extravagant attire which a metaphor wears to catch our eye is merely a ploy to engage our hearts and minds.” [16] Proverbs encourage persuasive communication by laying emphasis on the force of argument and not the argument of force. For, as an Igbo proverb goes, “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.”[17] The “belief that one man is as good as another, that no condition is permanent” engenders “self-confidence”, highly “competitive individualism”, and an “open society” that make the Igbo “receptive to change”, adventurous, inventive and dynamic.[18]

Gluing Change and Continuity with Proverbs

The invitation by Achebe to flexibility and humility in how we claim, and articulate identities speaks of a writer who used his Igbo identity more as a vantage point for understanding the universal, than as a fixation or a birthmark. [19] To Achebe and thanks to his proverbs, Igbo identity is open-ended and inclusive. His use of proverbs demonstrates that communication is a process in which meaning is multiple, layered and infinite, and where context is cardinal to understanding. Proverbs in Achebe’s works also demonstrate that there is no essentialised Igbo identity as social and political encounters and transformations fashion different ways of knowing and being Igbo, a point superbly buttressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her remarkable short story, “The Headstrong Historian”[20], which I have analysed elsewhere.[21] Being Igbo in an interconnected world of ever increasing possibilities of encounters with other people from other places and spaces, and with other ways of seeing and doing, far from being a hardback book with a definite introduction, body and conclusion (thank goodness Achebe published in paperback!!!), is always a process of becoming, best understood as flexible, fluid and full of ellipses – an unfinished and unfinishable story. Being Igbo or claiming whatever identity is all about disabusing oneself of fixations with a single story, however compelling and imposing its appeal might appear. This speaks to the potential in proverbs to contribute significantly as epistemologies of decolonisation, especially in Africa where European colonialism and its zero-sum cultural logic tended to impose silences and to whip alternative worldviews and ideologies of personhood into ridiculous defensiveness with infantalising menus of mimickry and one dimensionalism.[22]

Achebe acknowledges change as a permanent feature of being human in a world of continual struggle and motion.[23] He is inspired by the Igbo concept of existence at the heart of which are motion and agility, a cosmology best embodied by the dancing masquerade in Achebe’s opinion: “No condition is permanent”.[24] While it is important to master and respect customs and traditions if one is to participate in and evaluate them effectively, it is just as important to understand that in the course of human mobility and encounters, new questions arise to which old answers are not quite suited. For, one must bear in mind that “A disease that has never been seen before cannot be cured with everyday herbs”[25]. This might require making things up as one goes along, but an old broom, however experienced and thorough, cannot sweep with quite the same effectiveness as a new broom in a new context. Far from being an invitation to abandon the past for the present, it is rather a call to creatively blend the past with the present in the interest of the future. In his writings, Achebe invites his readers to contemplate the intricacies of being and belonging, through the characters he creates, for whom these are not matters with easy choices. If his public pronouncements on his own life are anything to go by, being and belonging to Achebe as an individual are no easy matters either. He recognises that his “life has been full of changes” that have shaped the way he looks at the world, and that renders complex “the meaning of existence and everything we value”.[26]The challenge of being and becoming African or anything else, is not so much identifying with people, places and spaces one is familiar with, but especially with spaces, places and people one is yet to encounter or to become familiar with. In other word, it is about embracing and celebrating incompleteness, and the humility and open-mindedness that calls for.

Achebe the Dancing Mask Humbles Death

Achebe was a consummate composite being, who “was positioned at the crossroads of history, the intersection between the Igbo tradition and the colonial structure”, and who was propelled “by the desire to tell the story of Africa ‘from the inside’ as opposed to the misrepresentations of European writers”.[27] There was always room in him to open up and take the outside in, bring it into conversation with what he had internalised and come to consider almost as a natural or traditional part of his being, and in his intellectual, creative and physical nimble-footedness take the outcome of such conversations along with him for further encounters with and enrichments by composite beings in other places and spaces, local, distant and global.

Achebe – true to the dancing mask that he was – died on March 21, 2013 in Boston at the age of 82 following a brief illness. “He had been living in the US since 1990 after a car crash left him partially paralysed and in a wheelchair, returning to Nigeria infrequently.”[28] Here, just like elsewhere, Achebe had a proverb handy: “When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.”[29] Achebe was buried on May 23, 2013, in his home village of Ogidi, almost as if to prove that a son had returned to assume his final resting place in the soil where his umbilical cord was buried. He had danced the world over, been of service in many capacities, including as professor of English at the Universities of Massachusetts, Amherst, and at the University of Connecticut, Storrs in the USA, and received many distinguished awards, including over 30 honorary doctorates from universities in Nigeria, South Africa, England, Scotland, USA, Canada and beyond.[30] Achebe authored five novels, namely: Things Fall Apart (1958); No Longer at Ease (1960); Arrow of God (1964); A Man of the People (1966); and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), short stories, poetry and many essays. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, published on 17 June 1958, translated into fifty languages, sold over twelve million copies, and in 2007, won the coveted Man Booker International Prize.[31] His life, works, deeds and nimble-footedness[32] made him an exemplary personification of the proverb: “a child is one person’s only in the womb.”[33]

Critical of a contrived universalism narrowly informed by Eurocentric indicators of what qualifies as good storytelling, Achebe was without relent in urging Africans to write back to the West as a way “to reshape the dialogue between the colonized and the colonizer.”[34] The story and achievements of the Heinemann African Writers Series of which Achebe was a pioneer,[35] and of similar initiatives to promote African literature in Francophone Africa[36], provide a window into how far Africa has come in writing back.[37] He insisted that such narrowly informed universalism could only begin to make sense to the colonized by disabusing itself of extravagant claims of superiority with the humility to take seriously traditions of storytelling that such blinkered universalism had silenced with conquering impunity. As he put it: “My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, ‘Now we’ve heard it all’.” [38]

Now that Achebe has metamorphosed into an ancestor of inclusive storytelling, storytellers across Africa and the world beyond, can, like the little bird in one of Achebe’s proverbs, dance daringly in the middle of the road, knowing that they have a worthy drummer in the nearby bush of ancestors. For, to quote Achebe, in the Igbo concept of existence characterised by motion, agility and humility, “No condition is permanent”, not even death.[39] Achebe wrote:

So potent is motion stylized into dance that the Igbo have sought to defeat with its power even the final immobility of death by contriving a funeral rite in which the bearers of the corpse perform the abia dance with their burden, transforming by their motion the body’s imminent commitment to earth into an active rite of passage.

This body, appropriately transfigured, will return on festival or ritual occasions or during an enhanced presence and authority in the affairs of the community, speaking an esoteric dialect in which people are referred to as bodies: “The body of so-and-so, I salute you!” [40]

And so shall it be. We expect Chinua Achebe in his eternal nimble-footedness as a dancing masquerade to continue to make himself available at academic and cultural arts festivals, scholarly conferences, seminars, workshops, lecture halls, publications and palavers on social media, as well as effect related enhanced presences and authority in the affairs of Igboland, Nigeria, Africa and the world, speaking an esoteric language, addressing and encouraging those who appeal to him for wisdom and guidance in negotiating and navigating being and becoming.

[1] Ukwuaba, O.K. (2015). A Linguistic Study of Proverbs and Language Identity in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, MA thesis, Department of English, University of Lago. P.2

[2] Achebe, C. (1974[1964]). Arrow of God. Oxford: Heinemann (African Writers Series). P. 46.

[3] Achebe, C. (1988). Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor Books. P.65.

[4] Achebe, C. (2012). There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Allen Lane. P.59.

[5] Nyamnjoh, F.B. (2002). “‘A Child Is One Person’s Only in the Womb’: Domestication, Agency and Subjectivity in the Cameroonian Grassfields” in: Richard Werbner (ed.), Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa. Zed Books: London. pp.111-138.

[6] Achebe, C. (1974[1964]). P. 46

[7] Bhebe, N. and Viriri, A. (2012). Shona Proverbs: Palm Oil with which African Words Are Eaten. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Booklove Publishers, p. vii

[8] Nyamnjoh, F.B. (2020). “Amos Tutuola as a Quest Hero for Endogenous Africa: Actively Anglicizing the Yoruba Language and Yorubanising the English language,” Acta Academica. 52(1): 89-98

[9] Achebe, C. (1958). Things Fall Apart. Oxford: Heinemann (African Writers Series) P.6

[10] Ibid. p. xiii-xv

[11] Obiakor, F.E., Okoro, D., Mukuria, G.M. (2017), Life Lessons of African Proverbs. Milwaukee: Cissus World Press. P. 15

[12] Emenyonu, E.N. (2014). “Introduction,” in: Ernest N. Emenyonu & Charles E. Nnolim, Remembering a Legend: Chinua Achebe. New York: African Heritage Press. P.2

[13] Emenyonu, E.N. (2014). p.4

[14] Gilley, B. (2016). “Chinua Achebe on the Positive Legacies of Colonialism”, African Affairs, Vol.115(461): 646–663

[15] Achebe, C. (2000). Home and Exile. New York: Anchor Books. p.15

[16] Achebe, C. (2000). Home and Exile. New York: Anchor Books. pp.16-17

[17], accessed 11 August 2020

[18] Achebe, C. (1983[1977]). An Image of Africa and The Trouble with Nigeria. London: Penguin Books. pp.66-69

[19] Achebe, C. (2012). There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Allen Lane.

[20] Adichie, A.N. (2009). The Thing Around Your Neck. London: Fourth Estate

[21] Nyamnjoh, F.B. (2013b). “Fiction and Reality of Mobility in Africa,” Citizenship Studies Vol.17(6-7), pp.671-673

[22] Dei, G.J.S; Darko I.N., McDonnell, J., Demi, S.M., and Akanmori, H. (2018), African Proverbs as Epistemologies of Decolonization, New York: Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers.

[23] Achebe, C. (2000). Home and Exile. New York: Anchor Books. p.18

[24] Achebe, C. (1988). Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor Books. P.64-65

[25] Achebe, C. (1964). pp.233-234

[26], accessed July 23, 2013

[27] Okolo, M.S.C. (2007). African Literature as Political Philosophy, London/Dakar: CODESRIA/Zed Books. p.35

[28], accessed 21 August 2013

[29], accessed 21 July 2013

[30] “Chinua Achebe: Why Google honours him today,”, accessed 9 August 2020; Okolo, M.S.C. (2007). African Literature as Political Philosophy, London/Dakar: CODESRIA/Zed Books. pp.35-36

[31] Msiska, M.-H. (2008). “Introduction,” in: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. Oxford: Heinemann (African Writers Series). p i

[32] Achebe, C. (2012). There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Allen Lane

[33] Nyamnjoh, F.B. (2002). “‘A Child Is One Person’s Only in the Womb’: Domestication, Agency and Subjectivity in the Cameroonian Grassfields” in: Richard Werbner (ed.), Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa. Zed Books: London. pp.111-138

[34] Achebe, C. (2012). There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Allen Lane. P.55; see also, Achebe, C. (1988). Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor Books. Pp.93-99

[35] Currey, J. (2008). Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series & the Launch of African Literature. Oxford: James Currey.

[36] Fouet, F. and Renaudeau, R. (1976). Littérature Africaine: L’Engagement. Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines; Fouet, F. and Renaudeau, R. (1984). Littérature Africaine: Le Deracinement. Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines.

[37] Currey, J. (2008). Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series & the Launch of African Literature. Oxford: James Currey.

[38] Achebe, C. (2012). There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Allen Lane. P.55

[39] Achebe, C. (1988). Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor Books. P.64-65

[40] Achebe, C. (1988). Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor Books. P.66

*African Literature Association (ALA) Lecture,Cape Town, 6:00 PM, Saturday, January 23,

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