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Site Last Update: 11 Dec, 2019
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Proverbs and The Religious Consciousness Of Africans
By Brother Okeke Onyeka Augustine, SDB

Among the philosophical questions that could be asked to an African is the question regarding the source of the religious consciousness of Africans before the advent of Christianity? In different parts of Africa the local people's traditional concept of the Divine or the Sacred has different sources. One source is an a posteriori knowledge drawn from divination in nature. Another source is the anthropomorphic attributes of the Sacred as deeply expressed in proverbs. Proverbs in the linguistic world are unique and rich in meaning. It is very different from the logical structures of language or spoken discourse. It is not a rational approach to the Sacred or the Divine but rather intuitive. In the philosophy of religion, considering religious language, we ask how better and more meaningfully can we speak about the Sacred due to the limiting fact of human language.

Scholars, like John Macquarrie in the book God Talk, present three possible ways of speaking of the Sacred: language of silence, language of paradox and language of analogy. In the African context of religious talk or "God Talk", proverbs can be analyzed as one of the ways of speaking deeply about the Sacred or the Divine. Many proverbs in different African languages serve the purpose of bringing forth the mysterious, incomprehensible and transcendent nature of the Sacred. They do not approach the Sacred in a rational way. An example is the Akan proverb of Ghana OtomfoÉ Nyane a, É nnte ntesuo ngu famm na É de ne tekyere fa bio. It says that the Supreme Being does not spit to the ground and take it back again with his tongue. It is an attribute of the Sacred who ordains forever. Another Akan proverb says birekyihuade a wohu ade nyinaa preko. It means God who sees everywhere and everything at same time. There are proverbs that show the undeniable fact of an existing reality whose knowledge is almost instinctual, for example, the Ashanti proverb of Ghana that says that a child is not taught about God.

To some African ethnic groups proverbs are not explained but rather they are self-explanatory. Their meaning is straightforward. In fact, proverbs in a nutshell communicate truth. Truth is sometimes bitter and can be corrupted by logical grammatical usage in language. Nevertheless proverbs spare the corruption of truth. Transcendental truth is not left out when talking about Truth.

One of the philosophical insights about language is its evolutionary development that is difficult to identify in the history of human consciousness. Therefore the use of proverbs in relation to "God Talk" could reflect the traditional religious consciousness of Africans even in their traditional animistic religions.

Today's challenge is to use African proverbs in the task of inculturation and the development of an African Narrative Theology. This process has been started in books such as Towards an African Narrative Theology (Nairobi: Pauline Publications Africa, 3rd Reprint 2000) by Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz. See especially the use of African proverbs in Chapter Eight on mission theology that is called "To Be Called Is to Be Sent." In my home language Igbo in Nigeria there is a mission related proverb that says onye agabeghi Njem na-eche na ofe nne ya kasi uto. Its translation is He or she who has not traveled thinks his or her mother's soup is the best. It can be used in creating mission awareness, the value of pastoral inculturation and apostolic outreach. Also traveling widens our horizons and helps us to learn the values and riches of other cultures.


Brother Okeke Onyeka Augustine, SDB
Don Bosco College of Philosophy and Youth Studies.
P.O. Box 8895
Moshi, Tanzania
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