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Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.1A, 218-221
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojpp) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2013.31A036
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Philosophy in Indigenous Igbo Proverbs: Cross-Cultural
Media for Education in the Era of Globalization
Department of Philosophy and Religions, Faculty of Arts, University of Abuja, Abuja, Nigeria
Received October 2nd, 2012; revised November 5 th, 2012; accepted Nov e mber 18th, 2012
It is common knowledge among people of Igbo descent that indigenous Igbo proverbs play vital roles in
speech, communication and exchange of knowledge and ideas among them. However, what may be un-
common knowledge is the fact that philosophy is the basic ingredient that savours Igbo proverbs with the
taste for fertilizing ideas across cultural divides. With philosophy inherent in them, indigenous Igbo prov-
erbs readily present itself as a cross-cultural media for educating people of African and non-African de-
scents on the events, achievements, myths and realities of especially the people of Igbo descent. This pa-
per examines the philosophy of some indigenous Igbo proverbs. The paper concludes that indigenous
Igbo proverbs, rich in philosophy, is the surest way of educating people of other descents about the reali-
ties of the Igbo people. They are better ways of countering fallacies and rumors emanating from foreign
historians and foreign media about Igbo land in particular and Africa in general. Hence, they are veritable
cross-cultural media with inexhaustible resources which need to be further explored.
Keywords: Philosophy; Proverbs; Education; Globalization
Igbo proverbs are like storehouses or archives through which
one can dig into Igbo philosophy, culture, economics, technol-
ogy and general worldview. Whatever can be sought for about
the Igbo even if it is beyond the scope of Igbo philosophy can
only be recovered in Igbo proverbs. The values of proverbs to
the traditional Igbo man could be likened to the values of the
Holy book to the religious leader, or to a value of books to the
serious scholar. Proverbs are a body of institution as they rep-
resent the only avenues through which the Igbo man stores and
retrieves his philosophy and civilization. Furthermore, Igbo
proverbs represent the bed rock under which the social, meta-
physical, epistemological, moral, economical and even the reli-
gious worldviews of the Igbo’s are buried and could be easily
excavated and retrieved at will; this is achieved only by know-
ing and using the proverbs. Hence, for the Igbo man, reality in
itself is proverbial. Whatever does not exist in proverbs does
not exist in reality and as such cannot be said to be known. If it
is known, then it is real and it is contained in Igbo proverbs.
Commenting on the inherent nature of philosophy in African
proverbs (Igbo proverbs inclusive) and the means of identifying
them, Momoh (2000: p. 362) writes that “there are at least three
options open to a philosopher who wants to demonstrate that
there is philosophy in African proverbs.” The first option ac-
cording to him is to “collect a handful of African proverbs and
discuss how philosophical or not each proverb is”. Secondly, he
recommends that “a handful of proverbs should be examined
for their metaphysical, logical, moral and epistemological val-
ues”, and the last option is “to consider proverbs that could
stand as metaphysical principles”. On this basis, we shall adopt
the second recommendation, and examine some collections of
Igbo proverbs for “their metaphysical, logical, moral and epis-
An Analysis of Some Philosophical
Proverbs of Igbo Extraction
Igbo proverbs, otherwise known as (Ilu Igbo) in Igbo lan-
guage and culture have been described as “Mmanu ndi Igbo ji
eri okwu”—“Oil with which words are eaten”. The Igbos gen-
erally associate them with mature minds. In the words of Oka-
for (2001: p. 2), “they are the elders’ ways of giving expression
to their wisdom”, and as a result of their vast richness in wis-
dom, Igbo proverbs are said to be highly philosophical. We
shall examine some of these proverbs to underscore their phi-
Igbo proverb: Nkita nwere ndidi n’eri okpukpu buru ibu.
Meaning: A patient dog eats the fattest bone.
Igbo proverb: Onye Kpara nku ahuhu di na ya siri ka ngwere
biara ya oriri.
Meaning: He who fetches ant infested firewood has only ex-
tended an invitation to the lizards.
Igbo proverb: Egbe bere ka Ugo bere, nke siri ibe ya ebela ka
nku kwaa ya.
Meaning: May the Kite perch and may the eagle perch,
whichever does not want its neighbor to perch, may its wings
Igbo proverb: Mkpuru onye kuru ka o ga aghota.
Meaning: Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.
Igbo proverb: Onye nwanne ya no n’alaeze anaghi eje oku
Meaning: He whose brother is in heaven does not go to hell.
Igbo proverb: Mmadu adighi nma ilo aso mmiri maka na
ochoro ka akpo ya onye oma.
Meaning: One should not swallow phlegm in the name of
Igbo proverb: Onye wetara oji wetara ndu.
Meaning: He who brings kola brings life.
Igbo proverb: Onye biri ibe ya biri.
Meaning: Live and let live.
Igbo proverb: Agwo hapu ita aru umu nwanyi ewere ya kee
Meaning: If the snake fails to bite, the women will use it in
Igbo proverb: Nwoke o bula na ere mkpuru aja dika unu ek-
wesighi inwe mwuta ma O buru na enyere ya mpempe osisi
Meaning: The man who sells sand as salt should not com-
plain when he receives pebbles as money (Igwe, 1986: pp. 8-9).
The implications of these and many other proverbs of Igbo
origin are one of rich philosophical and cultural traditions that
help to define the true meaning and essence of the Igbo man.
The beauty of proverbs is that the proverbs represent his total
make up. In proverbs are embedded his ethics or aesthetics,
metaphysics, epistemology, logic and culture. A cursory look at
the above listed proverbs of Igbo extraction would reveal that
while some are metaphysical in nature, some are ethical or
moral, epistemological or even social in nature. Each of the
above proverbs carries a particular message and has a particular
purpose it is meant to achieve. In other words, there is no prov-
erb without a reason, a message and a purpose. That is, Igbo
proverbs are full of wisdom, and philosophy even in the west-
ern intellectual tradition is defined as “the love of wisdom”. So,
Igbo proverbs, in line with this thought, could be seen as “the
guardian, the soul and the nucleus of Igbo philosophy” (Igwe,
1986: p. 6).
At this juncture, let us consider the proverb which says,
“Mkpuru onye kuru ka o ga aghota”, (meaning), whatever a
man sows, that shall he also reap. This proverb is both meta-
physical and ethical. It is metaphysical because every action is
believed to be an invitation to a particular reaction from the (chi)
personal god of the doer, as well as the gods of the land.
Thus, to the Igbo man every action attracts an equal and op-
posite reaction. That is, there is repayment for both good and
evil done by anyone. We see this proverb as serving a note of
warning with regards to the “law of karma” of scholastic phi-
losophy. This law holds that “there is repayment for everything
done by anyone whether good or evil”. The proverb serves a
note of warning to anyone living a lifestyle that is inimical to
societal values and orientation, thus, reminding an evil doer that
he would pay a regrettable price for doing evil. In this way,
wrong doing is discouraged and restrained, and this brings
about law and order in human society.
Secondly, this proverb is ethical or moral. This is because it
reminds anyone that “whatever one sow, that shall he also reap”.
It goes a long way in encouraging the morally conscious person
that living a good life pays at the long run. Hence, he makes
very conscious effort in doing what is right so as to attract same
to him and others. The proverb, in a way, encourages obedience
and patriotism. It serves as an instrument for restraint and a
messenger of moderation. Its implication is such that one can
always weave it “in any situation to be wise, believe it always
to be safe and practice it always to be holy” (Gideon’s, 1899: p.
I). A proverb such as this contains “light for direction, food for
support and comfort to cheer”. It represents “the traveler’s map,
the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword”,
(Gideon’s, 1899: p. II), and one would also add, the Igbo man’s
philosophy. What else could one say about a proverb that
represents a tool for good governance? It is tool for good gov-
ernance because anything that is useful in maintaining law and
order in society is a veritable tool for good governance. Hence,
we can see from the foregoing example that the strength, power,
technology, science, art, culture and philosophy of the Igbo
man are inherent in his proverb.
More so, the foregoing proverbs become more philosophical
and meaningful when they are woven in Igbo language. This is
true, as a matter of emphasis, because the meaning and message
of a proverb is sometimes twisted or even distorted in a bid to
interpret it into a foreign language. Oluwole’s view (1999: p. 84)
lends credence to this:
Analyzing a people’s philosophy (proverbs) in a foreign
language involves explaining their ideas of reality in an-
other medium which presumably expresses a totally dif-
ferent view of reality.
As such, one should be very careful in the bid to translate
Igbo proverbs into any foreign language to avoid a destruction
of its true meaning and relevance. Furthermore, we consider
another proverb which is epistemological in nature. The Igbo’s
wove a proverb which is that, “agwo hapu ita aru umu nwanyi
ewere ya kee nku”. Translated literally, it means, “If the snake
fails to bite, the women will use it in tying firewood”. This
proverb is considered to be epistemological because of the be-
lief that women are too difficult to be understood, and control.
If the woman is not carefully understood and checked, she
could turn a man into a “robot” even in his own house. Hence,
the man acquires wisdom from another proverb that says: “He
who has been bitten by a snake has a morbid fear of an earth-
worm” As such, he learns that the knowledge and understand-
ing of the woman is the beginning of wisdom and strength. In
order to control the woman well, he learns to exhibit his male
dominance and masculinity before the woman. He tries to prove
that he is the man so as to gain respect and honor from the
woman. This explains why the man would always exhibit his
masculinity before the opposite sex. The man does this because
of his experiences in the hand of the woman and experience,
they say, is the best teacher. In all, this proverb goes a long way
in explaining the psychological, epistemological, social and
cultural make-up of man. It tells us why a man would behave in
a particular way before a woman, the need for such behavior,
the extent to which he could go and many other things that
could enhance his well-being and that of the community at
Let us again examine another proverb of Igbo extraction
which is ethical. The proverb says, “Mmadu a dighi mma ilo
aso mmri maka iza onye oma” That means, “One should not
swallow phlegm in the name of decorum” This proverb is used
by the Igbo’s to teach the youths the ideals of morality. Liter-
ally, this proverb is telling everyone, particularly the younger
generation that no one should do or is expected to do what is
wrong in order to be praised or called a good boy. In other
words, there is no excuse for wrong doing. The proverb is used
to encourage the youth to shun all vices and seek to do only
what is good. Shun evil and do good is the watchword. Evil
itself in Igbo philosophy and culture is seen as an aspect of
reality but the fact of its destructive tendencies to both the per-
petrator and the victim makes everyone afraid of it. The very
fact that evil contains the seed of its own destruction and the
forces of destruction of both the perpetrator and the victim ne-
cessitated the weaving of the proverb that “one should not
swallow phlegm in the name of decorum”.
Finally, we will reflect on the proverb which says, “Egbe
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 219
bere ka ugo bere, nke siri ibe ya ebela, ka nku kwaa ya” This
means, “May the kite perch and may the eagle perch, whichever
does not want its neighbor to perch, may its wings be broken”
This proverb is social as well as ethical or moral. The proverb
is both social and ethical because it emphasizes communality,
freedom, unity, peace, progress, order and strength. It encour-
ages unity in diversity and shows that everyone as a member of
the community is very important and has a particular role he
must play for the collective good of all people. This proverb
could be likened to the Chinese doctrine of rectification of
names where it is said that every name in social relationship has
a duty assigned to it. To be able to live up to expectation, eve-
ryone must live up to the duties or responsibilities assigned to
his name. In like manner, this proverb is used to encourage the
people that everyone in the community is quite important and
very significant. Hence, no one must be oppressed or pressur-
ized by another person. Everyone must learn to live up to the
responsibilities assigned to them. The proverb is used to tell a
guest or stranger that there is dignity in labor, especially when
that labor is meant for the collective good. It also teaches us
that there is virtue in hard work and that everyone must enjoy
the freedom to work very hard. Equality before the law is an-
other phase we can see in this proverb. No one should harm the
other person in order to attain personal peace, order, and pro-
gress. Rather, there should be tolerance, harmony, tranquility in
order to enhance the development and growth of everyone in
the scheme of things. Thus, when the elders say, “may the kite
perch, and may the eagle perch, whichever does not want its
neighbor to perch, may its wings be broken”, we can easily
notice the principle underlying this proverb. It is the principle
of collective peace and unity of a people. It forbids anyone
from doing injury or injustice of any kind to one’s neighbor
irrespective of the situation. It teaches one to be law abiding,
non-violent and respectful to both friends and foes. It helps to
scare away the sense of insecurity in people.
Whether a proverb is metaphysical, social, ethical or even
epistemological in nature, it has a purpose to fulfill and often
carries vital messages that are pertinent for educating and de-
veloping the mind of people for many generations. We can
observe from our discussion so far that proverbs come in dif-
ferent forms and styles depending on the purpose it is meant to
achieve. For instance, some are for consolation, others may be
for warning, encouragement or discouragement while others
may still act as “checks and balances” to restrain people from
certain kinds of behavior which have been considered inimical
to society. Also, proverbs could serve as an instrument for em-
phasizing moderation or communality in the culture where they
are found and used. They may also emphasize individuality
depending on the circumstances. With respect to the teaching
and knowledge of science, technology, music or culture of the
Igbo, the proverb serves as a reminder to the inquisitive mind
that these things have been taught, learnt and documented in the
nature and lifestyle of the Igbo people.
Just as Igbo proverbs have contributed immensely to the de-
velopment and emancipation of the Igbo man, because in it you
find his philosophy, culture, technology or science, it has
equally contributed to the evil of corruption or other social or
societal maladies bedeviling the Igbo society. For instance,
when we analyze a proverb like; (onye nwanne ya no n’alaeze
anaghi eje oku ala mmuo) meaning “He whose brother is in
heaven does not go to hell”, an Igbo person will understand it to
emphasize or encourage corruption. It implies that when some-
one has a brother, sister, friend, cousin, uncle or at least any
relation who is highly placed in public office, he has no need to
worry because his “highly placed” relation will always ensure
his protection at all cost, even if it is not genuine. Such prov-
erbs should be obliterated, rejected and cancelled from our
collective psyche for the benefit of everyone.
Igbo Proverbs as a Medium for Education
in the Era of Globalisation
There is the general belief among African philosophers that
in African thought, “nothing is absolute” (Asouzu, 2007: p.
203). This belief becomes more significant when we make ref-
erence to Igbo philosophy which is an integral part of African
philosophy. Igbo proverbs as we have argued above are rich in
philosophy and the quantum of knowledge gained from these
proverbs can serve as a medium for education in this era of
globalization. For instance, the era of globalization is one of
cultural diffusion and exchange of ideas which has some posi-
tive and negative aspects. On the positive side, the diffusion
and transfer of culture from one point to the other helps in
building bridges of global relationship among the different
peoples of the world. On the negative side, however, the prob-
lem of “subject-object dichotomy”, ethnic and multi-cultural
differences, among others, tend to make globalization a burden.
Here, Igbo proverbs readily offer herself as medium for new
orientation, new values and knowledge that transcends the
problems of globalization. If we analyze the Igbo proverb that
says; Egbe bere, ugo bere nke siri ibe ya ebela ka nku kwaa ya”
meaning: “May the kite perch and may the Eagle perch,
whichever does not want its neighbor to perch, may its wings
be broken”, we will see some invaluable solution to the prob-
lems of globalization inherent in it. First, the proverb will teach
us that the problem of “subject-object” dichotomy which is a
serious burden on globalization is irrelevant. We will realize
that among men, there are no irreconcilable differences as “the
so-called differences among men are more artificial than real”
(Olu-Owolabi, 2007: p. 23). In fact, “egbe bere, ugo bere”, is a
lesson on complementary reflection. It unites rather than di-
vides us. “It helps to bring the world still nearer to all stake-
holders in very significant and insightful ways” (Asouzu, 2007:
p. 313). It emphasizes the need for a deeper knowledge among
men that will result to a closer understanding of one another.
Hence, the need for moderation, communalism and comple-
mentary reflection. The proverb is a tool for cultivating the
intellect and for liquidating ignorance among men. As part of
Igbo heritage, therefore, Igbo proverbs in general are relevant
instruments and media for education and inculcation of knowl-
edge across cultures in this era of globalization.
Furthermore, in the context of globalization and freedom for
the African (Igbo people inclusive), Dukor (2010: p. 24) ob-
serves that, “all fields of study which are hitherto sine-qua-non
to the development and maximum utilization of human capaci-
ties and resources like technology, engineering, medicine, arts,
philosophy, religion and law are conceptualized and laid out
within western language and education”. The implication of
this is that Africans must perpetually and eternally depend on
the west for education and development. But the question again
is, how can Africans dismantle these obstacles against their
collective freedom and progress as a people? The first answer is
that Africans must go back to their proverbs to find their heri-
tage which when properly utilized can give them emancipation
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 221
and freedom. The proverb is a complete reservoir of meanings
and values that are original to all Africans including the Igbo’s.
The concept of umunna (family hood) in Igbo philosophy and
culture has been emphasized by Dukor (ibid, 43) as a virtue
capable of transporting the Igbo’s out of underdevelopment by
constantly making meaning out of this proverb of co-operation
which says that; “a man cannot sit down alone to plan for pros-
perity”. The implication of this is that people must co-operate
and come together to articulate how to overcome their burden
and make collective progress.
Summary and Conclusion
The values of what can be termed “the philosophical” that is
contained in Igbo proverbs cannot be under estimated. Hence,
the position that “there is philosophy in Igbo proverbs”, to our
mind, is incontestable. It is incontestable not because it cannot
be criticized by those who think differently, but because any
attempt at condemning or denying the existence of philosophy
in Igbo proverb, amounts to a further affirmation of same posi-
tion. Even a critical exposition of any kind into the realm of
Igbo proverbs cannot rule out the existence of meaning, order,
beauty, knowledge, wisdom, power and above all metaphysics
and ethics as basic ingredients of Igbo proverbs. In the presence
of all these basic ingredients, confirming and affirming the
existence as well as the content of philosophy in Igbo proverb,
we realize it could also be a medium and potent force for edu-
cation in this era of globalization. This is so because globaliza-
tion is all about cultural diffusion or exchange of ideas from
one part of the globe to another. The diffusion of cultures
serves both positive and negative consequences. The negative
consequence is where Igbo proverbs readily offer solutions in
terms of new knowledge and education.
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