Don’t Insult The Crocodile

by Ejiro Osilama

Any time my dad gets angry, frustrated or simply wants to get a point across, he resorts to speaking in parables. Like this one which he used a lot when we were younger.

“It is the fly that has no one to advise it, that follows the corpse into the grave.” Not that we gave him a lot of problems, of course. There are a few others which speak of something along those lines as well, like this one:

“The river knows where the earth will not absorb it up and that is were it’s path flows.”

Proverbs are “the palm oil with which words are eaten” to quote that guy from Things Fall Apart and like many Nigerian or African adults, my dad uses them to explain himself, to advise his children and others, to warn, to encourage and strengthen like this one: “A child that washes his hands, can eat with kings.” In other words, they (proverbs) are used to teach.

These parables usually make me laugh, like one that my sister just reminded me of: “Weytin concern fish, concern raincoat?” which in proper English translates to: “What concern (business) does a fish have with a raincoat?” I have always taken that to be a not so polite way of saying, mind your own business.

They (parables) are usually designed to make you think and there are a million of them, used to decry every flaw and promote every virtue. Like these which address Greed:

“A man who carries an elephant on his head, should not stop to dig up crickets on his way home.” and “A bag which says it can not take in anymore and a man who will not leave anything behind are both sure to suffer.”

One of my favorite parables is this Yoruba one about Friendship: “Hold a good friend with both of your hands” there is also: “Instead of telling a lie to help a friend, it is better of you to help him when he is serving the punishment for the truth.” I remember a friend’s father saying that one to me once when as a younger and devoted friend; I had schemed with his daughter to wiggle out of a well-deserved punishment. As my misguided self and my wiggling friend both served out our punishment – cutting grass at school- I seriously doubted the logic in that statement. Seriously, what was the point of me helping her to serve punishment, if I could have found a way to get her out of it?As an adult though, I can appreciate the strength of character to be gained from facing up to the consequences of your actions and the bonds built from helping a friend to work and sweat.

This proverb about adjusting to change and surviving, was told to me by a man, much younger than my dad. I have never been a big adjuster to change and I had been pouting again about something new that had blown into my life when he had said simply, that:

“A tree that will not shed its old leaves in the dry season, will not survive the drought.”

I laughed at first, what did my life have to do with trees and the dry season? Suddenly though, it made perfect sense. Like that tree, no matter how reluctantly or how attached I was to my old leaves; I had to shed them in order to grow, to develop and to live. It is what is demanded of life and in nature.

Another funny one is one that friend just said to me a few days ago: “who no get money na im say stout bitter I think that points to the same fact that this one does: “It is the man who can not dance, that says the drummer can not play.” They both speak to the fact that criticism by others should never hinder you because their circumstances and point of view usually differs from yours.

One parable that I heard that concurred up funny pictures being chased by angry Crocodiles for me was: “Don’t insult the crocodile, until you have crossed the river” a parable that has another variation in: “Wait till you get to the other side of the river before you tell the crocodile that his teeth are not sharp.” It made me laugh like a lot of them do, but it speaks loudly about caution and precaution in actions, a lot like Look before you leap.” Another proverb that speaks just as loudly and serves as a warning of sorts is this one about exaggeration and lies:

“The small snake that only one man sees is later described as a boa constrictor.” This one easily translates into a ‘take it with a pinch of salt’ warning.

Anyways, I always thought that the whole talking in proverbs thing was something that only old people, but I was recently presented with an opportunity to use one. I was talking to a friend about the importance of traditional practices, even while living outside our cultural origins. The only way to clearly illustrate my point was to quote a parable I had once heard, probably from my father:

“When the root of a tree decays, it spreads death to the branches.”

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3 comments May 19, 2007 - 12:25 am

I hope you will continue to value words and the power they posses. Loved your article. Nothing beats being able to find the right words when they are needed. Proverbs add to eloquence. Wise men value words and read between the lines.

Anonymous May 14, 2007 - 2:15 pm

interesting article, I enjoyed reading it. brought to mind one that my mother would alwasy use when I imitated my older brother. "monkey see, monkey do"

Taiye Abu May 14, 2007 - 2:13 pm

interesting.we dey find ant wey we go chop we go see am inside oil.


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