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Proverbs in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God

Proverbs in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God
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Proverbs are short witty statements that give a position or an opinion a sharp focus and vivid understanding and comprehension. Usually, it expresses timeless truths. In Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, there is an extensive usage of proverbs. The proverbs are not just engaged; rather, they are creatively injected into the narrative to domesticate the English language in African form, to project the African (narrative) culture and to bring to focus the thematic concerns of the novel.

The significance of proverbs in the narrative of Arrow of God is powerful; Proverbs are used to capture the central thematic essence of the story—internal disunity as a catalyst for the devastating incursion of the colonial masters. Some examples are appropriate to cite here:

  • When brothers fight to death a stranger inherits the father’s estate.
  • If one finger brought oil it messed up the others.
  • He is a fool who treats his brother worse than a stranger
  • No man however great was greater than his people.

This piece attempts an inclusive list of the proverbs and other proverbial/witty expressions used in Arrow of God. The essence is to make the proverbs easily accessible to researchers working on the novel and serves as a resourceful piece for African literature students and general proverbs enthusiasts.

Note: Some of the proverbs are a bit altered (in terms of structure and tense) to fit in as whole sentences.

List of the proverbs and other proverbial expressions in Arrow of God

  • Do you blame a vulture for perching over a carcass? (9)
  • It is praiseworthy to be brave and fearless but sometimes, it is better to be a coward. (11)
  • We often stand in the compound of a coward to point at the ruins where a brave man used to live. (11)
  • The man who has never submitted to anything will soon submit to the burial mat. (11)
  • A man does not go to his in-law with wisdom. (12)
  • When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing. (13)
  • Wisdom is like a goatskin bag; every man carries his own. (16)
  • If the lizard of the homestead should neglect to do the things for which its kind is known, it will be mistaken for the lizard of the farmland. (17)
  • When an adult is in the house, the she-goat is not left to suffer the pains of parturition on its tether. (18)
  • When we hear a house has fallen do we ask if the ceiling fell with it? (18)
  • When a man of cunning dies, a man of cunning buries him. (20)
  • A toad does not run in the day unless something is after it. (21)
  • The fly that has no one to advise it follows the corpse into the grave. (27)
  • Let the slave who sees another cast into a shallow grave know that he will be buried in the same way when his day comes. (27)
  • The fly that has no one to advise it follows the corpse into the grave. (27)
  • If a man says yes, his chi also says yes. (28)
  • A man might have Ngwu and still be killed by Ojukwu. (39)
  • When we see a little bird dancing in the middle of the pathway, we must know that its drummer is in the near-by bush. (40)
  • The inquisitive monkey gets a bullet in the face. (44)
  • Men of today have learnt to shoot without missing and so I have learnt to fly without perching. (45)
  • Whatever music you beat on your drum there is somebody who can dance to it. (46)
  • A coward may cover the ground with its words but when the time comes to fight he runs away. (50)
  • When I cut grass and you cut, what’s your right to call me names? (55)
  • Unless the wind blows, we do not see the fowl’s rump. (59)
  • A man who brings home ant-infested faggots should not complain if he is visited by lizards. (59)
  • The very thing which kills mother rat prevents the little ones from opening their eyes. (61)
  • A man’s debt to his father-in-law can never be fully discharged. (62)
  • A man who has no gift for speaking says his kinsmen have said all there is to say. (63)
  • An old woman is never old when it comes to the dance she knows. (69)
  • What the leopard sires cannot be different from Leopard. (74)
  • When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool. (84)
  • When the roof and walls of a house fall in, the ceiling is not left standing. (85)
  • What a man does not know is greater than he. (85)
  • Only a foolish man can go after a leopard with his bare hands. (85)
  • A hot soup must be taken slowly-slowly from the edges of the bowl. (85)
  • A man may refuse to do what is asked of him but may not refuse to be asked. (86)
  • The death that will kill a man begins as an appetite. (89)
  • Utterance has power to change fear into a living truth. (90)
  • If a man seeks for a companion who acts entirely like himself he will live in solitude. (92)
  • A man does not speak a lie to his son. (93)
  • To say My father told me is to swear the greatest oath. (93)
  • He is a fool who treats his brother worse than a stranger. (94)
  • One should not expect to be provided the snuff and also the walking around, to be given a wife and a mat to sleep on. (96)
  • The greatest liar among men speaks the truth to his own son. (98)
  • A man can swear before the most dreaded deity on what his father told him. (98)
  • Let us first chase away the wild cat, afterwards we blame the hen. (99)
  • A woman who began cooking before another must have more broken utensils. (100)
  • When we see an old woman stop in her dance to point again and again in the same direction we can be sure that somewhere there something happened long ago which touched the roots of her life. (100)
  • Whatever tune you play in the compound of a great man, there is always someone to dance to it. (100)
  • We do not by-pass a man and enter his compound. (111)
  • A man cannot be too busy to break the first kolanut of the day in his own house. (111)
  • The time a man wakes up is his morning. (111)
  • We do not apply an ear-pick to the eye. (111)
  • Greeting in the cold harmattan is taken from the fireside. (113)
  • A man who visits a craftsman at work finds a sullen host. (113)
  • The lizard who fell down from the high Iroko tree felt entitled to praise himself if nobody else did. (115)
  • The flute player must sometimes stop to wipe his nose. (120)
  • The smallest child in a man’s compound knows its mother’s hut from others. (122)
  • The lizard who threw confusion into his mother’s funeral rite, did he expect outsiders to carry the burden of honouring his dead? (125)
  • One should bale before it rises above the ankle. (126)
  • A ripe maize can be told by merely looking at it. (126)
  • The offspring of a hawk cannot fail to devour chicks. (128)
  • A man does not talk when masked spirits speak. (129)
  • The fly that perches on a mound of dung may strut around as it likes, it cannot move the mound. (130)
  • When two brothers fight, a stranger reaps the harvest. (131)
  • The man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit. (132)
  • A disease that has never been seen before cannot be cured with everyday herbs. (133)
  • When we want to make a charm, we look for the animal whose blood can match its power, if a chicken cannot do it we look for a goat or a ram; if that is sufficient we send for a bull. (134)
  • A man who has nowhere else to put his hand for support puts it on his own knees. (134)
  • No matter how many spirits plotted a man’s death, it would come to nothing unless his personal god took a hand on the deliberation. (136)
  • A snake is never as long as the stick to which we liken its strength. (137)
  • Strangers talk through the nose. (138)
  • A toad does not run in the daytime unless something is after it. (138)
  • If you thank a man for what he has done, he will have strength to do more. (142)
  • When a man sees a snake all by himself, he may wonder whether it is an ordinary snake or the untouchable python. (142)
  • Unless the penis dies young, it will surely eat bearded meat. (142)
  • When hunting day comes, we shall hunt in the backyard of the grass-cutter. (142)
  • As soon as we shake hands with a leper, he will want an embrace. (143)
  • A man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should expect the visit of lizards. (144)
  • The evil charm brought in at the end of a pole is not too difficult to take outside again. (144)
  • Sometimes when we have given a piece of yam to a child, we beg him to give us a little from it, not because we really want to eat it but because we want to test our child. (145)
  • It is not our custom to show our neighbour’s creditors the way to his hut. (152)
  • When a masked spirit visits you, you have to appease its footprints with presents. (154)
  • A fowl does not eat into the belly of a goat. (157)
  • Every land has its own sky. (159)
  • We must bale the water while it is still only ankle-deep. (159)
  • Until a man wrestles with one of those who make a path across his homestead, the others will not stop. (160)
  • A hostile clansman is a friend in a strange country. (162)
  • It is the fear of causing offence that makes men swallow poison. (165)
  • A woman cannot place more than the length of her leg on her husband. (168)
  • The young he-goat said that but for his sojourn in his mother’s clan, he would not have learnt to stick up his upper lip. (168)
  • A traveller to distant places should make no enemies. (168)
  • A man of sense does not go on hunting little bush rodents when his age mates are after big game. (169)
  • If the rat could not run fast enough it must make way for the tortoise. (169)
  • Our eye sees something; we take a stone and aim at it. But the stone rarely succeeds like the eye in hitting the mark. (171)
  • Every lizard lies on its belly, so we cannot tell which has a bellyache. (171)
  • A woman who carries her head on a rigid neck as if she is carrying a pot of water will never live for long with any husband. (172)
  • A man is never wrong in his own house. (173)
  • There are more ways than one of killing a dog. (173)
  • When mother-cow is cropping giant grass her calves watch her mouth. (173)
  • It might be thought foolish for a man to spit out a morsel which fortune had placed in his mouth but in certain circumstances such a man compelled respect. (175)
  • The man to fear in action is the one who first submits to suffer to the limit. (184)
  • The toad lost the chance of growing a tail because of I am coming, I am coming. (185)
  • If one finger brought oil, it messed up the others. (187)
  • A man must dance the dance prevalent in his time. (189)
  • Why should a man be in a hurry to lock his fingers, was he going to put them away in the rafter? (191)
  • The noise even of the loudest events must begin to die down by the second market week. (192-193)
  • A man who asks questions does not lose his way. (203)
  • An adult does not sit and watch while the she-goat suffers the pain of childbirth tied to a post. (206)
  • The person who sets a child to catch a shrew should also find him water to wash the odour from his hand. (208)
  • The gods sometimes use us as a whip. (208)
  • Every offence has its sacrifice, from a few cowries to a cow or a human being. (209)
  • When brothers fight to death, a stranger inherits the father’s estate. (220)
  • Unless a man wrestled with those who walked behind his compound, the path never closed. (221)
  • He whose name is called again and again by those trying in vain to catch a wild bull has something he alone can do to bulls. (224)
  • The fly that struts around on a mound of excrement wastes his time; the mound will always be greater than the fly. (225)
  • The thing that beats the drum for ngwesi is inside the ground. (225)
  • He who builds a homestead before another can boast more broken pots. (225-226)
  • It is ofo that gives rain-water power to cut dry earth.
  • When the air is fouled by a man on top of a palm tree the fly is confused. (226)
  • An ill-fated man drinks water and it catches in his teeth. (226)
  • He who will swallow udala seeds must consider the size of his anus. (226)
  • The fly that has no one to advise him follows the corpse into the ground. (226)
  • When a handshake passes the elbow, it becomes another thing. (226)
  • The sleep that lasts from one market day to another has become death. (226)
  • The mighty tree falls and the little birds scatter in the bush. (226)
  • The little bird which hops off the ground and lands on an ant-hill may not know it but is still on the ground. (226)
  • A common snake which a man sees all alone may become a python in his eyes. (226)
  • The very thing which kills mother rat is always there to make sure that its young ones never open their eyes. (226)
  • The boy who persists in asking what happened to his father before he has enough strength to avenge him is asking for his father’s fate. (226)
  • The man who belittles the sickness which monkey has suffered should ask to see the eyes which his nurse got from blowing the sick fire. (226)
  • When death wants to take a little dog, it prevents it from smelling even excrement. (226)
  • Give me a sharp boy even though he breaks utensils in his haste. 227
  • A man is like a funeral ram which must take whatever beating comes to it without opening its mouth. (229)
  • When was it ever heard that a child was scalded by the piece of yam its own mother put in its palm? (229)
  • What man would send his son with a potsherd to bring fire from a neighbour’s hut and then unleash rain on him? (229)
  • Who ever sent his son up the palm to gather nuts and then took an axe and felled the tree? (229)
  • If the rat cannot flee fast enough, let him make way for the tortoise. (229)
  • No man however great was greater than his people; no one ever won judgment against his clan. (230)
READ ALSO:  A brief review of A Blessing in Disguise by Ifeanyi Ifoegbuna


Achebe, C. (1964). Arrow of God. London: Heinemann

Nurudeen Lawal

Nurudeen Lawal

I work as a Content Editor with a leading publishing company in Nigeria, Literamed Publications Nigeria Limited.View Author posts

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