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?




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Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
WayoGuy posted on 02-03-2008, 15:56:43 PM

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?





..Read the full article
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Ochi Dabari posted on 02-03-2008, 16:46:15 PM
Interesting thoughts, WayoGuy. It does not stop at the relegation of novels written in African languages. These days, children are not even encouraged to understand and speak their African languages. I am not referring to those overseas alone. Accost a child on the street of Lagos, Makurdi, Jos, Enugu, Ibadan, etc and speak the local language to him/her - the likelihood is that there will be no response, b/c they all speak only English language. It is worse if the child is from a well-to-do family. Not being able to speak one's language is equated to intelligence, in the eyes of the African. The Asians are rocking the world but the children all still speak Asian languages, whether they are in Europe, America or Australia. Our languages will die out, if it continues this way. Children learn languages very fast, so it does them no harm to speak your language to them, while they keep on with English in school. I do that with my children, to the applause of a majority of people whose children don't speak any Nigerian language, but there have been challenges from some oyibo Africans who think that I am confusing my children. They certainly do very well in school, not just trying but at the very top. So, I don't know what confusion I have caused. Only last October, a girl from my place in her 20s, who grew up overseas, asked me to bring back books in Igede, so that she could understand the language. I pitied her, and did bring in some books but I know it is going to be mighty difficult for her to learn now, particularly as her parents persist with speaking in English to them. If only they had kept up with the language at home while she grew!

BTW, the first Achebe novel I read in Form One was Chike and the River. In it, Achebe referred to one Peter Nwana, a very miserly trader that resided at Onitsha. Was that just coincidental or did Achebe have any issues with Pita Nwana, the author of Omenuko? And BTW again, I am just hearing of Omenuko and its author today. I read The Palmwine Drinkard but none of the other local language novels. The reason is obvious - I do not speak or read of the 3 major languages well enough.

I think academics amongst us should look at the local books and try to translate or revive them. I brought back some of my old books last October, and among them is a gem on animal science, written by a prof at UI in the 50s. I have been wondering if I should update it. He is long retired and may actually be dead. I know it may be difficult linking up with his family and publisher.

ochi
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Willy posted on 02-03-2008, 17:50:00 PM
WG,

Good one as usual, actually, this is more serious than many.

My thoughts -

First, I think The Concubine is Elechi Amadi's work, not that it matters much here, just a little housekeeping.

Then the serious issue of acclaim - you may want to reconsider your position if you reflect that there are scholarly pursuits and there are roadside readers like you and me.

You are an attorney (at least on this board) , and I..., well not to worry, but suffices it to say that neither of us belong to the U.S. Modern Languages Association (MLA), Society for the Promotion of Igbo Language and Culture (SPILC) or literary associations in Nigeria or elsewhere.

Point is that Omenuko is accorded more importance than you know, going from your writing, even Ekwensi's earliest writing is accorded precedence over TFA going by publication date and ground breaking steps it was.

All said, I must commend you for pursuing this language revival in more ways than one, but is it exactly that noble?

The Jews may have lost their earlier language, but are they not better off today than 2000 years ago when they spoke their original Aramaic?

I ask not to dissuade you from your pursuit or snigger at your crusade, but just to get you thinking on the value of language over and beyond the emotional.

Be well brother.
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Truthsayer33 posted on 02-03-2008, 18:52:49 PM
when I ring my folks in Nigeria the only Igbo they want to speak is 'wesertan union'
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Dimaanu posted on 02-03-2008, 19:06:12 PM
QUOTE:
when I ring my folks in Nigeria the only Igbo they want to speak is 'wesertan union'



To think that I actually tried to figure out "wesartan union" before the meaning finally hit me.
You are very funny!
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Akunne posted on 02-03-2008, 21:42:56 PM
What a coincidence! Only last month, I found the translation of Omenuko online. For a book that I read (in Igbo) donkey years ago to pass an examination, it was such a thrilling read this time around. In agreeing with the author that more needs to be done to encourage the study of not only Igbo language, but other African languages, I would like to invite him and others to share an idea that I have about such a project. And to begin to work on it. I had the good fortune of sharing accommodation with Korean students while in college. What I learned from them beyond a smattering of their language, is the script, Hankul. It is not only elegant, it is easy to learn and is considered the most sophisticated, and scientific of the calligraphies of the east.
Ndigbo have a saying that we speak in dialects, but when we cough, it all sounds alike. There is something to be said about a unified written Igbo that accommodates all dialects without diluting the essence and meaning of words, idioms etc. This has been my dream for about twenty years. Let's do this!
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Chief Kalu posted on 02-04-2008, 04:51:46 AM
QUOTE:
var sbtitle2294=encodeURIComponent(The Proverb...[URL=http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8456/55]Read the full article.[/URL]


Wayo Guy,
Your write-up gave a strong feeling inside.I quote Kofi Ayidoho in the song of a twin brother.
"And Dada is full of Nyayito songs,
Sorrowing songs sung in a voice whose echoes float into the mourning chambers of your soul,
Dada says,
the tasty things of life are good,
but
do not chase fortune beyond the point
where old sky bends down to have a word with Earth,
do not bury your arm in a fortune hole.
Armattoe went away,
came and went again,
and then he never came again."
The particular portion of your write-up that brought this poem to my mind is where you wrote' For us in the diaspora, the story of omenuko's exile and his nostalgic yearning for a return........."
My friend worked for a company at home, he worked long hours, seven days a week with little pay. He got a better job and the company sent him abroad, the feeling of insecurity made him change job. And now he is living " permanently" in the diaspora. The wife studied law but is practicing nursing.This one breaks my heart.
He spoke to me in unadultrated igbo the last toime we talked. As we talked I had this feeling that my brother is gone. The white man has captured him. He visits, but he is gone.
Igbo bu Igbo is a stranger in any strange land. Our roots is too wholesome to be abandoned. May all in the diaspora think of home, think of return, think of a better and secure home, built by the help of all.
"I sit under this oak, where you and I once sat
and cast cowrie in the sand.
I close my eyes and give your names to the winds.
They will roam and roam and find your ears".

There is surely no place like home! Believe!
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Ozion ozumba posted on 02-04-2008, 08:04:11 AM
WG Nwunem,
Udo diri gi, ekene kwam gi maka ezigbo edemede nkea. N'uchem nkem, onwere etu ozo onye edemede ga esi dee okwi Igbo, ma obughi na asusu Igbo.

For interested villagers, my take on this is simple: There is no better way to communicate the Igbo story than Igbo language. Simple
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Lionking posted on 02-04-2008, 08:48:22 AM
Re: The Proverbs of Omenuko, the First Igbo Language Novel
Myne Whitman posted on 02-04-2008, 09:15:04 AM
Wayoguy,

Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

It is unfortunate the downward trend in the use of our local languages but I do not see any notable upswing soon. I was priviledged to study Igbo up to senior secondary level and remember enjoying the books you mentioned among others. I read 'Ukwa rue oge ya' the last xmas I spent at home, pretty enjoyable again but more difficult. It's good to hear some are being translated and maybe that will widen their audience and maybe encourage those who can to find the original Igbo language texts.

I think that anything more than is being done by Igbo authors telling Igbo stories in English will have to be spearheaded by the language specialists. It would also help if parents speak Igbo at home and encourage their children to learn it in school. But that is for those in Nigeria, for those abroad, there may not be much hope. I saw a programme the other day and one of the comments made by the featured educator is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many. Still I congratulate your efforts and look forward to the outcome...
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