I've started reading the Igbo short novel Night has Fallen in the Afternoon (freely available online both in the original Igbo language and in English translation). As the translator notes, "[t]his little story is so packed with so many obscure proverbs". Many of those are explained in the English version with parenthetical notes by the translator, but sometimes their relevance to the story is still left to the reader's deduction. The following passage is from near the start of Chapter 1:

All widows tried, like it or not, to give themselves and their children to wealthy people and their spirits and their kith and kin, because one who wants to fully harvest the topmost fruits of his oil bean tree cannot climb down at the same place where he climbed up.

Those people oversaw them the way a chicken guards its chicks so that hawks might not carry them off, and they were barely able to breathe [worked to death like slaves], and the elders said that one who performed in-law duties in the lizard's house must surely hear running, because see-it-and-hold-it-for-me is a spear aimed at the stomach.

In context, it seems that widows and their children were considered weak and exploitable by the society of that place and time, so they tried to attach themselves to wealthy people as a sort of protection. Some of the proverbial references in these paragraphs are clear enough, but others are harder to puzzle out.

  • What is the relevance of the "harvest the topmost fruits of his oil bean tree" proverb to this situation?
  • What does it mean to "perform in-law duties in the lizard's house"? What is "see-it-and-hold-it-for-me", and how does this connect with weapons and running?

1 Answer 1


I can't puzzle through the second proverb, and this is just my best guess on the first:

The oil-bean tree looks to be fairly large and spread out. If you wanted to get all the fruit, you'd have to travel quite a bit around in its branches. Climbing up would thus be a metaphor for your impoverished birth family. You can't get much fruit (resources) from staying in that same spot. You've got to climb down at a different place (in a different family) to get all the available fruit.

Traditionally, much African literature is built heavily on proverbs and allusions. You can also see this in music of the African diaspora --there are rap and reggae dancehall songs that are essentially long series of popular culture allusions.

  • I'm learning that about African literature being built heavily on proverbs and allusions :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 18, 2020 at 20:40

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