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African Proverb of the Month
September, 2005

Sade a bha gbe eban, eban di khien Edin. (Esan).
Provided no person stunts or destroys a sprouting palm kernel seedling, it will definitely grow into a palm tree. (English).


Esan (Nigeria) Proverb

Explanation, Meaning and Everyday Use

The Esan people inhabit the southwestern part of Nigeria. They form one of the minor ethnic groups in Nigeria. History has it that they originated from the Binis (the Edo-speaking people of the ancient Benin Kingdom). A schism in the distant past resulted in the migration and resettlement of the Esan people in their present geographical location. However, the tie with the Binis was not completely severed. To this day the chiefs and kings (Enogie is the Esan title for a king) of the Esan people are crowned by the Oba, the supreme head or king of the Benin Kingdom.

Eban is the Esan word for a sprouting kernel seedling. Edin is the name for the palm tree which produces palm fronts from which palm oil is produced. In most parts of Esan land, farms are situated in the forest. Thus when palm kernels are planted, the farmers rely heavily on nature to irrigate the field. The farmers ensure they constantly weed the outgrowths that compete for nutrients with the young kernel seedlings. At this early stage of growth, the young plant is susceptible to all sorts of environmental hazards such as drought, storm, and insect invasion. It is also liable to being trampled upon by animals or even eaten by them.

A palm kernel plant that is able to resist and survive the hostile environmental factors will develop into a matured palm tree. Once it is fully-grown it not only provides shade for the inhabitants, but also gives shelter to the birds of the air. This Esan proverb accentuates hope and the need for perseverance. This proverb is used in the event of an apparent predicament. Whenever a member of the community or a friend is confronted with the hardships inherent in life’s drama, this proverb is cited to remind the person of the importance of "hope" in this life. It serves to generate in the person a sense of perseverance amidst trials.

Biblical Parallels

The Old Testament presents us with some biblical figures whose lives are characterized by hope and perseverance. By possessing the aforementioned virtues, these individuals are able to stand against the torrent of hatred, jealousy, victimization, hostility, and lust.

The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis epitomizes the interplay between hope and perseverance. Joseph enjoys the preferential love of his father, Jacob. Also he recounts several of his dreams which foretell his imminent success and triumph over and above his siblings and other family members (New Jerusalem Bible or NJB, Genesis 37:6-7). Jacob’s immense love for Joseph coupled with Joseph’s dreams of success explains his brothers’ hostile attitude towards him (NJB, Genesis 37: 4, 4, 19, 23-25).

Joseph’s brothers’ hatred for Joseph culminates in their decision to sell him as a slave to the Midianite traders or Ishmaelites (NJB, Genesis 37: 28-29). While in the house of Potiphar his master, Joseph resists the seductive advances of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph's faithfulness to Yahweh (or YHWH) inspires his actions (NJB, Genesis 39:7-14). Joseph endures the stress of prison life believing in YHWH's hosed (faithful love) (NJB, Genesis 39:21-23). YHWH does show Joseph hosed through the benevolence of Pharaoh. Pharaoh, satisfied with Joseph’s inspired interpretation of his two dreams, appoints Joseph Governor of Egypt (NJB, Genesis 41:38-49).

Another biblical figure whose exemplary life of hope and perseverance is identifiable in the Old Testament is Susanna, daughter of Hilkiah and wife of Joachim (Deuteronomy 13). The elders’ demand that she satisfy their sexual urges enmeshes Susanna. In spite of her present predicament, she refuses to give yield to the lustful desires of the two elders. The accounts given by the elders compromise her innocence. Susanna believes and hopes in YHWH. Her hope in YHWH sustains her throughout her trial by the Judges of Israel. Finally, through Daniel, YHWH vindicates Susanna from the claws of the wicked judges (the two elders) (NJB, Deuteronomy 13:28-64).

Contemporary Use and Religious Application

Life’s drama is characterized by trials and difficulties. The presence of natural conditions and artificial factors that are capable of stunting or destroying us cannot be denied. Fatalism is one of the options that life presents us with in moments of crises. Some people are tempted to resort to defeatism by accepting fatalism as an option. In utter despair, they rule out all chances of success or any possibility of a breakthrough.

This Esan proverb reemphasizes the need to hope. The shackles of despair need not fetter us. Hope is the mother of perseverance. The existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, emphasizes the notion of a human as a being who must have "hope" (a hoping subject) amidst a world characterized by despair (Homo Viator, 36). Life’s sustenance is consequent upon the presence of hope. Hope equips us with the requisite strength to confront life’s demands and difficulties.

In our continent, Africa, the issue of justice is and will continue to be a subject of philosophical, socio-political, cultural, and religious debates. The pursuit of justice is bound to attract the hostile thorns of opposition and persecution. This Esan proverb urges and encourages those who champion the cause of justice to persevere in the fight against injustices.

List of Sources

The New Jerusalem Bible. General Edition. Henry Wansbrough. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1985.

Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator: An Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope. Translated by Emma Craufurd. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1965. p. 36.

Itua Egbor, S.J. (Nigerian student in Regency Program)
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