The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel

Did you know that our distinguished Professor Chinua Achebe was only 3 years old when the very first Igbo novel, Omenuko, was published in 1933? Did you know that Pita Nwana is the father of the Igbo novel?

Some of us who were privileged to have been forced, yes forced, to study Igbo in primary schools were even luckier to have been made to read Omenuko. If you read Omenuko, in its Igbo language original, as I did, you will smell, feel, see, with all your senses, not just the authenticity of the narrator's style, but also the labyrinthine richness of the culture and traditions within which the story takes place.

Pita Nwana, the father of the Igbo language novel, tells a simple story of Omenuko, a young man who concludes his apprenticeship with his master, in the business of trading, and found himself upwardly mobile to great things. But, in line with the proverbial spirit that kills a man when his life is sweetest, the protagonist experiences an unexpected mishap that suddenly grounded his progress.

What he does next, to salvage his business, an abomination of unspeakable proportions, forms the material and tragedy that takes the reader and Omenuko through exile from his village, regeneration while in exile, soul searching, atonement, and eventual redemption. All through the story, the reader is taken through authentic, though fictionalized, snapshots of early missionary and court interactions in Igboland.

For us in the diaspora, this story of Omenuko's exile, though exiled internally in Igboland, and his nostalgic yearning for a return to his village, strikes a resonant chord. But that's a topic for another day.

You will find, in this book, evidence that the proverbs of Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, both written decades later, are all in Omenuko. You will find that our own fathers and mothers who have applied proverbs in their stories, including John Munonye (The Only Son), Flora Nwapa (The Concubine), Cyprian Ekwensi, Tony Ubesie (Isi Akwu Dara N'Ala; Ukwa Ruo Oge Ya O Daa), and numerous others must have read Omenuko.

Let's hear from Pita Nwana himself on these timeless proverbs:

1.                  Awo anaghi agba oso ehihie n'efu (a toad does not run in the afternoon without a reason).

2.                  Oji oso agbakwuru ogu amaghi na ogu bu onwu (one who runs to join a war does not realize that war is death).

3.                  Uka akpara akpa bu isi k'eji ekwe ya (further discussion of an issue already settled is done with the nodding of the head).

4.                  Egbe bere ugo bere, nke si ibe ya ebena nku kwaa ya (may both the eagle and the kite perch but if one does not want the other to perch, may his wings break).

5.                  Onye no n'ulo ya n'eche mmadu, ukwu anaghi eji ya (one who is in his house waiting for a visitor does not get tired or develop waist pain).

6.                  Onye nwe ozu n'ebu ya n'isi (the relative of the dead person is the person who carries the corpse at the head).

7.                  Onye a na agbara ama ya na anuri, onye eboro ohi okwere la (while you rejoice at the news from an informer remember that the accused has not admitted it).

8.                  Emee nwata ka emere ibe ya obi adi ya nma (treat a child as his peers were treated and he will be happy).

9.                  Kama m ga erijuo afo dachie uzo ka m buru onu (I will rather remain hungry than  eat so much that I collapse on the roadside). 

10.              Nwata ruru ima akwa ma n'anu ara nne ya, gini ka anyi g'eme ya? (what should we do to a child old enough to tie loin clothes if he continues to suck on his mother's breasts?).

11.              Oko kowa mmadu o gakwuru ibe ya, ma na oko kowa anu ohia o gaa n'akuku osisi (when a human itches, he goes to another human to scratch it, but when an animal itches, it goes to a tree).

You may have noticed that when these and other proverbs from Omenuko have found their ways into other books written in English about the Igbo culture, readers have invariably credited and praised the authors. But Omenuko does not have the same worldly acclaim and publicity as those other "Igbo" novels only because it is written in the Igbo language. Do you, an Igbo man or woman, not see something wrong here?

A white woman, Frances W. Pritchett, took the time to translate the book into English just four years ago. Do you see the irony here? Do you? Well, I don't really need an answer because, as Pita Nwana wrote in Omenuko, uka akpara akpa bu isi k'eji ekwe ya (further discussion on an issue already settled is done with the nodding of the head). While my preference is that you read the book in the Igbo language original, I am happy that there is an English version now.

To give you an idea of the seriousness of the problem of which I write, consider that Things Fall Apart has been translated into over fifty world languages and Omenuko just one or maybe two.  How then can we write about our culture in Igbo language without limiting the readership? Must we all write about our culture in the English language?

There is a solution to this serious chasm between the readership of Igbo language novels (such as Omenuko and Ije Odumodu Jere) and those of books about the Igbos written in English (such as Things Fall Apart and The Only Son).

Can any person introduce a style of writing that will bring a lasting marriage between English and Igbo by preserving these idioms and proverbs in novels and short stories, while still presenting the Igbo/African stories through the English language?