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Igbo Idioms

Igbo proverbs, opines one of Igbo prominent sons Chinua Achebe, are the salt with which words are eaten. Igbo proverbs are not only central to the propagation of Igbo culture in all its ramifications they are in fact the foremost factor in formal and familiar speeches and in other forms of popular communication. The almost compulsory use of Igbo idioms (akpaalaokwu), proverbs (ilu) and parables (ukabuilu), has elevated the language to the status of a living art of popular communication.

A good Igbo idiomatic expression, either proverb or parable, is devised to enliven and enchant. The listeners not only smile or laugh and show appreciation they are compelled to think. Rarely do the Igbo bother to explain proverbs, except of course to kids and social nymphets who ask. An adult who asks for the explanation of a proverb is telling his peers that the dowry paid on his mother was a waste! Listeners are expected to figure out proverbs for themselves, draw their own conclusions, and follow the gist of the talk. A mature listener comes out with the message, but interpretations may somewhat vary. The uninitiated could easily get lost in a maze of otherwise familiar clichés knotted with idioms that are designed to impress and or to false-front different agenda.

Posting twenty translated Igbo proverbs on the Internet, Chinyeaka Okoli (1996) wrote:
"Igbo people of Nigeria use proverbs so frequently that it has become part of their day-to-day
speech. There are not less than a million powerful Igbo proverbs that are known. What some
scholars do these days  is to group them under categories according to what they mean, or what
is figuratively used."

Great idea, but this presentation is not about Igbo proverbs; rather, it is a brief introduction to the tools of the trade of effective communication in Igbo, especially in kolanut communions (igo oji), the most solemn component of the kolanut communion.

No one really knows who first used an Igbo idiom, spoke a particular proverb, or applied a parable. Dialectical variations are sometimes attributed to a person, clan, a village, or a people. Only when folks want to venture into the realm of risqué adult talk do they coin proverbs that bother on pornographic expressions. Which is not a problem with Ndiigbo, as long as one knows when and where to use such peculiar proverbs. Since the language is replete with euphemisms and idioms that educate and entertain, a learned person will not use words that cut off minors.

In general, proverbs are coined around some poor animal. In an attempt by our ancestors to be politically correct, many of the proverbs were attributed to anu uno (domestic animals) and anu ofia (wild animals) both big and small, beautiful and ugly, and powerful and meek: agu (leopard), agwo (snake), egbé (kite), ené (antelope), ewu (goat), mbe (tortoise), nchi (grasscutter) nkita (dog) odum (lion), okuko (fowl), osa (squirrel), ugo (eagle) udene (vulture), usu (bat), etc.

It is funny to read about "Nigerian proverbs" in some Western publications. There is absolutely nothing like Nigerian proverbs yet. It must have traveled from some household in a remote clan and ended up in the anything-goes city culture. Besides, the term "Nigeria," as applied to one of the British colonial contraptions in Africa, is yet to mean the nation-state it set out to accomplish in 1900. Until then, centuries of cultural evolution cannot be swept under a blanket of colonial legacy in our neck of the global wood.

Probably to avoid countries, or to further obscure origin, sayings are now classed "African." Take the now worldwide example: "It takes a village to raise a child." When Bob Dole tried to knock it during the 1996 US presidential election, the maxim still came from the Igbo people's saying: "Ora na-azu nwa." The saying does mean that "it takes a village..."; it says "the community raises the child." It is not a request, it is a requirement.

In discussing the nuances of Igbo language, the term "Igbo idioms" primarily is used to describe all the idiosyncrasies of the language. This includes all accepted and acceptable idiomatic phrases, popular patterns of figurative speech, and oblique everyday expressions. As I have explained earlier, idiomatic expressions, proverbs and parables are so ingrained in the Igbo language there is no avoiding them, except one does not want to speak the language, which the Igbo traditionally do not find offensive: They will rather speak yours before you learn a few phrases of theirs. I guess the Igbo realize that their language is not structured in such a way that anyone can learn and use it effectively.

Igbo Language will always remain an art that must be lived to be understood, experienced to be applied, and continuously nurtured to follow the evolution of allusions and aphorisms. Hence, an "Igbo idiom" represents an unfamiliar expression (to the non-native speaker), legends, myths, metaphor, proverbs, parable, simile, etc. that most people will most definitely have to analyze and interpret within the context of the conversation. Igbo idioms are further complicated by the fact that each one must be analyzed within the context in which it was used. Any attempt to apply an idiom used in one context to a supposedly related situation may backfire on the user. Often, you notice the audience shift uncomfortably, scratch their heads, or exhale with a background bass; these say a million words.

An Igbo Idiom is called "akpaalaokwu": the bras with which words are propped up and presented to the titillating ears of eventual consumers. It is a literary lingerie; the proverb, a literary condiment: "nnu e ji-eri okwu," the salt of communication. In translations, therefore, especially into an unrelated language, many Igbo expressions lose something of their meaning. Nonetheless, as our great ancestors enjoined us: anaghi eji mgbagbu ghalu ogu. [You do not flee from a fight for fear that someone might get shot.]

Igbo language belongs to the African Kwa group of languages; English is an Anglo-Saxon, European language. In translating, we encounter leaks in transmission. Therefore, in attempting to transmit these ancestral sayings.

Since Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, other African authors have emerged to write about their societies for a worldwide, English-speaking audience. Idioms and proverbs have crept into English with what may be termed "known translations." Many of them convey the original meaning, but they definitely do not expose all that the sayings are designed to convey to listeners, who reserve the ultimate right to assimilate the saying as deemed necessary and or appropriate.

The Igbo language is a living art of communication; it must not be constrained by a person's peculiarity. No one has a monopoly on the nuances of any language. Words that mean one thing today may evolve tomorrow into a meaning completely different from the original intent.

In communicating these words of wisdom, it is important that we adhere to the rules of modern Igbo linguistics. The liberal use of extended vowels avoids the obscuring of the etymological root of words, especially when concatenated. For example: niine (every, all), omumaatu (example), esereese (drawing), iduuazi (novel), ndeewo (welcome, greetings), deeme (well done), Maazi (Mister), nwaanyi (woman), etc.

Examples given below are few of the popular idiomatic expressions and proverbs. I stress this because many popular proverbs have since acquired the garb of cliché -- overused, common, and too flat for the serious rites of kolanut communion. There are many dialectical differences and various versions of these idiomatic expressions, and they can be changed as a speaker deems appropriate. However, knowing an Igbo idiom is one small step for an Igbo speaker; the main crunch is an appropriate application of the proverb to suit a particular trend of thought or a line of argument. Reciting proverbs is as effective as not using them. One must know at what point to inject a specific saying so as to maximize its effect for the enlightenment and entertainment of a critical but appreciative audience.

Popular Idioms

Agwo noro ibe ya na-enwe odu abuo.

The snake that swallows another will have two tails.

Ihe di be evu di be añu

What is in the hornet's nest is in the bee's hive.

Nwaanyi mara mma ma nwee ajo omume, a ga-alu ya alu; nwaanyi joro njo ma nwee ezi omume, a ga-alukwa ya alu; nwunye mmadu ka ha ga-abu; ma nwaanyi joro njo nwe ajo omume anaghi ebi be di.

A beautiful woman with bad character is marriageable; an ugly woman with good character
is also  marriageable -- they will both be wives; but an ugly woman with bad character does
not live in a husband's house. 

Okorobia onu-ntu na-egbunye n'akpa ndi ozo.

A chronic bachelor is working for other people.

Akpataghi aku na-akpata ntukwuba onu.

Destitution breeds disdain.

Ike ka e ji-añu ogwu.

It takes some strength to swallow drugs.

Udene na egbe anaghi azo nri: udene na-eri ozu; egbe na-ebu na nkike.

The vulture and the kite do not scramble for food: the vulture is a scavenger; the kite, a

Kama mmanya ga-esere ogo na ogo okwu, ya waa n'uzo

Instead a pot of wine will breed animosity among in-laws, let it break on the way.

Onye riri osisi oji kpaa ya nku ka o nwere ike: anaghi ari enu oke oji kwa daa.

While on top of iroko tree, gather all the firewood you can: it is not every day that one
scales the great iroko.

Anaghi eje akwa onye kwulu udo

No one attends the funeral of a suicide

Atulu na-acho ipu mpi jee jua ebune ka ekwo di ya.

A sheep that will grow horns should ask the ram how its neck feels.

Anaghi eji na aguu na-agu noo ukwara.

No one swallows phlegm to appease the pangs of hunger

Akpara akwu bu akpara-akwu; ibulu ishi akwu bu ohi.

To extract a palm nut is exactly that --to extract a palm nut; to take the entire head of palm
nut is stealing 

Ishi kote evu: evu agbaa ya.

If the head that disturbs the hornet's nest: it pays.

Ekwughiekwu mere onu; anughianu mere nti.

Unspoken, blame the mouth; unheard, blame the ear.

O'u onye ga-aka nwaanyi ajo mmuo gburu nwa mara maka amuosu.

Who will know better the evils of witchcraft than the woman who lost a child to evil spirits.

Onye vu ozu enyi anaghi eji ukwu akpa mpuzu.

He who carries the carcass of an elephant does not search for crickets with his legs.

Anaghi acho ihe na-akpa onye na-acho ihe?

You don't look for something in the pocket of someone who is looking for something.

Ura ga-eju onye nwuru anwu afo.

A dead person shall have all the sleep necessary.

Onye ite abughi onye ahia

A clay-pot retailer is not really in business.

Okuko na-aboputa mma na-egbu ya.

The fowl digs out the blade that kills it.

Ukpala gbabara n'ikpo okuko na-ala ala mmuo.

The grasshopper that runs into the mist of fowls ends up in the land of spirits.

Onye a kporo apari, o na-ehi n'ama nna ya, abughi apari.

A presumed fool who sleeps in his father's house is not a fool.

Ndi na-eje mposi abali na-ahu ukpana ndi mmuo.

Those who defecate at night see the ghost grasshopper.

Nwata bunie nna ya enu, akpaamu ya ayochie ya anya.

If a child lifts his father, his scrotum will blindfold him.

Onye hapu onu ya, uguru arachaa ya.

If one fails to lick his lips, the harmattan will do it.

Okuko si na ihe ya ji-ele anya n'enu ma ya na añu mmiri bu na ihe na-egbu si n'igwe abia.

The chicken says it looks up when drinking water because what kills it comes from the sky.

Ijiji na-enweghi onye ndumodu na-eso ozu ala n'inyi.

A fly that has no counselor follows the corpse to the grave.

"Nwunye anyi, nwunye anyi": ka ndeli bia ka anyi mara onye o bu nwunye ya.

"Our wife, our wife": come midnight and we will know whose wife she really is.

Ula towa uto, ekwowe ya ekwowe.

When sleep becomes enjoyable, we snore.

"Nwa anwuna, nwa anwuna": nwa nwuo ka anyi mara ma chi agaghi efo.

May the child not die, may the child not die": Let it die, and let's see if the day will not

O bialu be onye abiagbuna ya, mgbe o ga-ala mkpumkpu apukwana ya n'azu.

May one's visitor not constitute a problem, so that on his departure he will not leave with a

Nwa ovu na-eto, o di ka o ga-aka nne ya.

When the baby wren is growing, it looks like it would be bigger than its mother.

Okuko na-arogoro ite onu, chetekwe mma gburu ya.

The chicken frowns at the cooking pot, ignoring the knife that killed it.

Ihe ka-nte bata n'onu nte, nte etefu.

When something greater than the pigmy cricket enters its hole, it takes off.

A gbara aka na-azo ana, onye nwe ji a na-ako ji.

If you dispute land ownership empty-handed, the person who has yams will be planting them.

Onye bulu ihe isi, ijiji esoro ya.

The fly follows the person who is carrying a smelly stuff.

Uzu na-amaghi akpu ogene lee egbe anya n'odu.

The blacksmith who does know how to forge a metal gong should look at the tail of a kite.

Oke oshimmiri anokataghi rie onye obula nke o na-ahughi ukwu ya anya.

The ocean never swallows a person with whose leg it does not come in contact. 

Onye buru chi ya uzo, o gbagbue onwe ya n'oso.

He who walks before his godly guardian does the race of his life

Okuko nyuo ahu, ana achuwa ya oso

When the fowl farts, the ground becomes a nuisance.

Onye na-acho igba oso si na-aroro ya anya

A person who has plans to flee contends that someone made an evil eye at him.

Ulili si na-ejekete ije si tuo nkwa oso maka ihe oso e mee.

The ground squirrel says he who walks should sometimes break into a trot, in case the need to
run arises.

Okwulu anaghi amiri ote ofe.

A master chef is not blessed with a good harvest of okra.

Mmiri riri enyi ka mbe huru na-awa ogodo: o ga-efe mmiri a efe ka o ga-awu ya awu?

The tortoise gears up to besides a river that swallowed an elephant: is it going to fly over
this river or just jump over?

Ohia woro gi nku, sere gi onu

The forest that denies you firewood has massaged your neck.

O bia mgbe Alio Ene gburu atu, ya biakwa ma atu zogbuo Alio Ene.

He who calls whenever Elder Ene kills a deer, let him call if the deer kicks the living
daylight out of Elder Ene.

Obulu na i taa m aru n'ike, ma i zeghi nshi; mu taa gi aru n'isi, agaghi m ezere uvulu.

If you bite me on the butt, despite the danger of sinking your teeth into fecal matter, then
if I bite you on the head, I will disregard the danger of sinking my teeth into cerebral

A na-asi onye e ji ugwo na agaghi akwu ya ugwo e ji ya, onye e ji ugwo na-asi na e nye ya ewu

ojii na ya agaghi ewe.
A creditor is being told he won't be paid, and he is saying he won't accept a black goat!

Okuko mmanya na-egbu ahubeghi mmanwulu ara na-ayi.

A drunken fowl has not met a mad fox.

Bete anu, bete anu, o'u kwa n'ahu ehi?

Cut meat, cut meat, is it not from the body of a cow?

Obele mmanwu na-akpa ike maka na ijele anoghi nso.

A small masquerade is powerful  because a big masquerade is not around.

Nwaanyi anaghi-eji na nwunyedi ya kwere ya ekene nke oma kpowa ya ogo.

A woman does not regard her sister-wife as sister-in-law  just because she (her husband's
other wife) accepted her greeting gracefully.

A na-akwa akwa ndi oke tagbulu, ngwere ewere nnu na-eso eze ha.

While we mourn those who died from rat bites,  lizards sharpen their teeth with salt.

Okuko, rie ogugu: "Unu si m rie onwu?" Okuko, hapu ogugu: "Unu si aguu gbuo m?"

Fowl, eat praying mantis: "Do you want me to die?" Fowl, let praying mantis be: "Do you want
me to starve to death?" 

Onye si na ya anaghi ata anu nkita, ya arakwala miri ofe ya.

He who abhors dog meat should not eat dog-met soup.

A tuoro omara, o mara, a tuoro ofeke, o fenye ishi n'ohia.

If you tell a wise one, he understands; tell a dunce, he runs into the bush.

Ukpana na-ere n'oku si na ya na-asha mmanu.

A grasshopper roasting over fire claims it is emitting fat.

Were ire guo eze gi onu abughi na o nwere nke na-efu.

Count your teeth with your tongue does not mean you are losing any.

Nti na-anughi anu ihe, mgbe a ga-egburu ishi e gburu nti.

The ear that won't hear, when the head is cut off, it goes.

A furu nwata chete nna ya.

A child reminds folks of his father.

Nwata si na nne ya agaghi arahu ura: ngwanu, ya na ura buruzianu enyi! "

A child that won't allow its mother to sleep: okay, let sleep be its friend!

A na-ekwu ekwu, a na-eme eme.

Talk the talk, walk the walk.

Source: [1]