Bekwarra Proverbs, Oral Literature, Indigenous Knowledge and Culture Sustenance

Scientific Essay, 2017

23 Pages, Grade: A.1




Conceptualising Proverb

The Extended Conceptual Base Theory of Proverb

Oral Literature and Culture Sustenance

The Bekwarra and Arts

Bekwarra Proverbs




The place of proverbs and oral literature in the sustenance of a culture cannot be over-emphasised. It is quite regrettable and disheartening that these aspects of culture are grossly ignored and abused these days across many cultures, for which most contemporary members of such cultures know little or nothing in/about these indigenous knowledge and cultures. Bekwarra is one of those cultures, with the contemporary Bekwarra acting negatively towards their culture in almost all phases. This paper is intended to rouse the interest and attention of such peoples, not only the Bekwarra, to their proverbs, oral literature and indigenous cultures towards their sustenance. It concludes that it is imperative to sustain cultures like Bekwarra through these aspects of culture, which involves constant/sustained interest in, teaching and learning cum transmission of these invaluable aspects of culture across generations. They should be constantly preserved, and taught both at home and school.

Keywords: Bekwarra, Proverbs, Oral, Literature, Culture, Sustenance


Proverbs and other aspects of Bekwarra oral tradition, culture, literature and knowledge have been preserving, transmitting and sustaining Bekwarra language and culture since antiquity. In recent times, most of the people have begun neglecting these invaluable aspects of their culture in pursue of the alien, thus going astray in several ways yet remaining seemingly obstinate to this trend. Oral literature refers to all forms of expressions that are first presented and transmitted verbally (orally). Ikiddeh (1987:134) explains that oral literature is an expression of man’s innermost being in words, an articulation of the changing mores and moods of communities and time in memorable verbal communication. This is the nature and preoccupation of proverbs and folktales, among other forms. Oral literature encompasses history, belief, culture/norms, values, customs, traditions, wisdom, knowledge and cosmology of a people. It is also regarded as orature. They are best ways of teaching and learning as well as of promoting and preserving culture and any established conventions.

Nwabueze (2004:6) aptly captures the attribution or negligence of oral literature, in form of warning, viz:

Indifference to literature is the bane of societies like Nigeria [Bekwarra]. Any society that abhors literature is incapable of humanistic thinking and cultural behaviours. There is no better literature to use in inculcating proper cultural behaviour than our oral literature such as folktales [proverbs, idioms, songs, dance, etc.]. It [they] can be utilised to orientate the society, especially the young ones on viable cultural behaviours that contribute to nation building.

Oral composition and their expression and performance are a living tradition… the thoughts that inform them, the characters that people…them, including animals, their natural and borrowed artefacts, their language of expression, all undergo an imperceptible change through time (Ikiddeh, 1987:141). Mgbemena (2006:189) lends credence to the above that these changes are more evinced in the themes of cultural songs, dances, as well as proverbs. These changes can also be realised in folktales, with both human and animal characters. Elements like characterisation, setting, language and plot can be created to reflect the contemporary society. Mgbemena (2006:186) urges the contemporary generations viz:

Leaders in traditional societies recognised and utilised the wisdom of the traditional artists. The present Nigeria society cannot afford to relegate those who know our past and the record of the past as enshrined in folk narratives, proverbs, idioms, songs, dances, etc. Therefore, in this age of globalisation where we import and imitate foreign cultures, where leaders have lost their sense of responsibility and the populace abjure patriotism, there is need to look into our traditional literary art forms and exhume these values.

It is high time we turned a new leave since our current experimental baseless ventures are yielding nothing rather than the opposites of ours that ravage us, our heritage and erstwhile fruitful society. This ugly development cuts across almost all Nigerian nations, with occurrence variance ranging from negative attitudes to socio-geographical, economic, education and political influences, westernisation and globalisation. Bekwarra is one of the diverse nations of Upper (Northern) Cross River, where this situation highly obtains, giving more ground by the multilingual nature of the State. The dire need to reawaken these people’s consciousness towards ameliorating this scourging trend therein, besides bridging this knowledge gap and bringing it to limelight, is why this paper rose.

The oral literature of Bekwarra is part of her history, culture and panorama. It is an aspect of this culture from which its history has been/is best told. Alagoa (1993:8) warns against the tendency of modern scholarship to suggest that non-centralised groups of Nigeria are without history. His opinion tallies with that of Isichei (1976:21), who observes that to have the thinking that larger political units are ‘more advanced’ than small ones could be misleading. Bekwarra, one of such groups, branded ‘minority’ in Nigeria, has history and all societal institutions that any more advanced culture has or could claim, or be ascribed. There is no gain saying the fact that Bekwarra has rich culture, arts (inclusive of literature, sculpture, music, dance, history and craft), technology, polity and economy, just like other ethnic groups in Nigeria and beyond do. The idea that all members of an ethnic group are the direct descendants of once ancestors and the group a ‘pure tribe’ has been debunked by scholars, like Erim O Erim and his fellows.

Erim and Okon (1984:34) maintains that the cultural groups we identify today as ethnic groups are actually the result of mergers from different pre-existing ethnic groups sometime in the past. They add that modern ethnic groups, like Idoma, Bekwarra aand others, are essentially mergers of erstwhile smaller groups that opted to live peacefully under one polity and in the process adopted a common identity (see Anyangaor, 2004:98/9). Fanon (1980:166) notes that ‘each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discovers its mission, fulfil it or betray it.’ As such, each of the diverse tribes of Nigeria mostly underestimated for one sentimental reason or the other, has emerged, and operates likewise. It is quite unfortunate that most of the today generations of the Nigerian (Black) peoples do not discover their mission and if they do, they simply betray it.

The present generations of the Bekwarra people of Northern Cross River are one of one such peoples of Nigeria. They tend not to be conscious of their existence– existentialism. The cosmology and oral tradition of a people are replicated in their philosophy– existentialism, ethics/aesthetics, metaphysics and epistemology. A people who know or quest to know about their existence/environment (universe), physical and mystical beings and phenomena, the code of conducts in conformity to the conventionalised set standards, norms and values, some of which are considered sacred. These aspects of philosophy are embedded in, upheld, made manifest and sustained through oral tradition, oral knowledge and oral literature. Existentialism is a philosophical school which claims that individual human beings create the meaning and essence of their lives (Bubu and Oweh, 2012:33). They further note that man exists as a conscious being and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalisation or system. The contemporary man of whatever (remote) culture must have to be conscious of their total existence and work towards sustaining their being, heritage, environment and entirety.

Bekwarra is a Nigerian African society, located in South-Southern Nigeria, founded by Odama Ofide and Adie Ofide (progenitors of Ijibor/Bewo and Ika-Ichia) and his immediate younger brother Atimina Bendi, their uncle (Gakem progenitor) and Ugbong Oka (founder of Beten), Atimina’s nephew. Their descendants have been living in unity and peace for centuries now since about the late 1400AD, and constitute the Bekwarra in their present sites and environs, like Afrike, Mbube in present Ogoja Local Government Area, Utugwang (e.g. Alege) in present Obudu Local Government Area, Upper/Northern Cross River. Odama and Adie are said to have ‘hurried away’– ‘Ebe Kworra’– from Obudu at night in order to escape a purported folktale bloody conflict that rose between the then Obudu existed two groups: ‘Ebang-Ekpenehe and Ebang-Eguji’. The conflict was mainly between Odama and Agba-unwatung (Abua, 2008:11-24). See Abua (2008, 2009) and Robert (2015, 2016) for details on the conflict.

It is the first Bekwarra progenitor’s name ‘Odama’ that the Tiv had corrupted to Udam/Ndam/Ndama, which virtually all of them now feel that it is a derogatory label for the Bekwarra and their entire Ogoja/Calabar people– siblings and neighbours. The Yala are Bekwarra’s ageing neighbours who still share many things in common (exclusive of certain cultural norms, values, ethics, aesthetics and cosmology, among others) with the latter, Bekwarra. Their interaction/union began (c. mid-1400AD) at Ogboja, when Yala, precisely Ugaja, joined Bekwarra there, before the latter popularity and formalisation of the name Ogboja (now aka Ogoja), meaning ‘fertile soil’, that had out-shown ‘Ebebi’, the Bekwarra’s name for it. Ogboja was a part of the whole then settlement, which yielded high crops (produce) when farmed by the Yala, upon arrival shortly afterwards.

Stoddart lends credence to the early contact of Bekwarra and Yala thus:

The Nkim or any tribe can never claim to be aborigines or owners of Ogoja land. The right landlords are the Bekwarra and the Yala. Bekwarra was the first tribe or nation to migrate from the Nkimtal settlement to the area known as Ogboja. Yala, precisely Ugaga followed suit and shared land boundary with Bekwarra. Then, the Nkumm left their Nkimtal settlement to settle in between Bekwarra and Yala (Stoddart, 1932:16; also see Abua, 2008:9).

Bekwarra is bounded in the north by Vandeikya Local Government Area of Benue State and parts of Yache, Yala Local Government Area of Cross River State. It is bounded southward by Ishibori/Igoli of Ogoja Local Government Area. Utugwang in Obudu Local Government bounds it to the east, while Yala parts: Echumofana, Ekprinyi and Imaje bound it westward. Bekwarra is an agrarian society, characterised by grassland and rainforest. The largest part of its soil is loamy, which partly accounts for high yield of crops. They farm groundnut (anangkere), rice ( iwuanyinyang ), grand beans– Bambara-nut– (ashi), all species of yam (ipem), sweet potatoes (achaka), cassava (ologo), native beans (ebetuo), melon (atan), beneseed (anang), okra (itibi) and vegetables like pumpkin (achehe), fruited pumpkin (okong-obor/ogwu), green– amarantus spp (alefu (and– biane) achipata), bitter leave (uchu), unam (Boki leave), hot leave (ashishi-ichebe), ebenung, ishung-ufah (scent leave), garden egg (ititung), ititung-irijom, ilulu (African salad), atung-gadang, among others.

The rate at which the Bekwarra farm, break (with finger) and sell groundnut is why groundnut is associated with them, such that the Yala fondly call them Iyakwuro le abuno woro, meaning the ‘ Bekwarra have groundnut in the ear.’ Also, it is their dexterity and diligence, particularly in farming and craft that gained them the tribal derogatory label ‘Iyakuro’, originally A ya-ukwuro: ‘you worked well/well-done!’ or you [plural]- Ala ya ukwuro/Ayukwuro: ‘workers/those who work hard.’ A village along Nyanya-Utugwang-Obudu Road (High Way) is known as Ishaane-iritem, ‘deserted forest settlement’. The Ijibor, the Akwurinyi and the Ika-Ichia women are known for selling firewood cum using plenty of firewood for cooking. Iritem Agba Alu of Ukpah is another example of thick forest in Bekwarra. The foregoing suffices here, as the brief on Bekwarra clearly gives an introduction to the people, whose proverbs and culture form the thrust of this piece of work.

Conceptualising Proverb

The definition of proverb has caused scholars of various disciplines much chagrin over the centuries. Many attempts at defining it have been made from Aristotle to the present time (Kindstrand, 1978; Russo, 1983), ranging from philosophical considerations to cut-and-dry lexicographical definitions. The American phrenologist, Bartlett Jere Whiting (1905-1995), reviewed many definitions in an important article on The nature of the proverb (1932), summarising his findings in a lengthy conglomerate version of his own thus:

A proverb is an expression which, owing its birth to the people, testifies to its origin in form and phrase. It expresses what a fundamental truth– a truism– is apparently in homely language, often adorned, however, with alliteration and a rhyme. It is usually short, but need not be, it is usually true, but need not be; it is usually true, but need not be. Some proverbs have both a literal and figurative meaning, either of which makes perfect sense; but more often they have but one of the two. A proverb must be venerable; it must bear the sign of antiquity, and, since such signs may be counterfeited by a clever literary man; it should be attested in different places at different times. This last requirement, we must often waive in dealing with very early literature, where the material at our disposal is incomplete (Whiting, 1932:302; 1994:80).

The foregoing points out the fact that proverbs are conventionalised, cultural, literary and logical and should not or cannot be easily manipulated or pirated by a literary rhetorician, as such rhetoric can easily be known or detected by a competent or experienced native speaker of the language or speech form in which they are housed and with which they are communicated. It is in this regard that a Bekwarra proverb warns: Atiung oyuo ubang, I bang unyuan re. This is translated as: ‘One who understands a language does not tolerate joke.’ It means that one who understands a language/dialect always decodes whatever message encoded in the language/dialect and can never be misled in the language. This proverb warns the speaker (encoder), including a learner/non-native speaker, to be conscious/mindful of his words/expressions that s/he speaks/uses for the decoder to decode the message. To this, another Bekwarra proverb says, Unwu kari ikang ka atung I yuo kpe ke irityem ng (Mouth speaks for ear to hear and transfer to the mind). It means that statements are not just made without intent and there must be a stimuli response if the communication is listened to, comprehended and digested or taken cognizance of. This is why when a learner/non-native speaker of a language speaks wrongly or mispronounces, the native/experienced speaker would retort immediately: ‘Please don’t spoil my/our language/dialect for me/us.’ These points to these two of the characteristics of language: Language is conventional; it is rule-governed.

A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk, which contains wisdom, truth, morals and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorable form and which is handed down from generation to generation (Mieder, 1985:119; Mieder, 1993:24). Though this conception is factual, it is briefly stated with the core ingredients of proverbs upheld by many. In other words, it is short and concise but at the same time carries much more than what has been stated. It tallies with our brief conception of proverbs as conventionalised and institutionalised witty sayings that collectively constitute an aspect of a people’s oral tradition and literature, passed down by the older generation/s or ancestors for special educative, informative and satirical communication, embedded with cultural traits, norms, values, didactic, ethics, morals and thereabout and as well characterised by some concealment, secrecy, indigenous linguistic prominence, cosmology, philosophy and belief.

The definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking, and should we fortunately combine in a single definition, all the essential elements and give each the proper emphasis, we should not even then have a touchstone. An incommunicable quality tells us that one sentence/expression is proverbial and another is not. Hence, no definition will enable us to positively identify a sentence as proverbial. Those who do not speak a language can never recognise all its proverbs. Similarly, much that is truly proverbial escapes us in Elizabeth and old English. We add that not even all who speak a language do recognise its proverbs, idioms and other figurative expressions. Worst is the current trend of indigenous language (Mother-tongue) attrition that arise from the quest for English and French proficiency, languages that their linguists and people had paid supreme sacrifices to see them become what there have finally become. Now our extreme interest in them at the great expense of ours amounts to the attrition of the latter, our indigenous languages and cultures. For example, only a few contemporary Bekwarra parents can speak, understand and teach their children (the younger ones) their proverbs. Let us be contented with recognising that a proverb is a saying current among the folk. At least so much of a definition is indisputable (Taylor, 1931; 1962; 1985). For Taylor (1985:3),

Proverbs [are] concise traditional statements of apparent truths with currency among the folk. More elaborately stated, proverbs are short, generally known sentences of the folk that contain wisdom, truths, morals and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorisable form and that are handed down from generation to generation (Mieder, 1996:597).

Meider (2004:4) muses that this is a short and general definition which does not pay proper attention to numerous fascinating aspects of proverbs as formulaic and metaphorical texts and as regard their use, function and meaning in varied contexts. Proverbs, like riddles, jokes or fairy tales, do not fall out of the sky and neither is they products of a mythical soul of the folk. Instead they are always coined by an individual either intentionally or unintentionally, as expressed in Lord John Russel’s well-known one-line proverb definition that has taken on a proverbial status of sorts: ‘A proverb is the wit of one and the wisdom of many’ (Ca, 1850). Given by the chagrin in defining proverb, the foregoing scholars’ and our conceptions suffice for legion others, as these would give our reader an insight to what proverbs are, their nature, panorama and held/shared perspectives about them– proverbs.

Proverbs and wise sayings are pregnant with meanings and are constructed with the aim of repositioning and conscientising and sensitising man, so as to inculcate a sense of direction as he manages to get along with the complexities of his life. And, Existentialism is a philosophical movement which claims that individual human beings create the meaning and essence of their lives (Bubu and Oweh, 2012:33). They further note that man exists as a conscious being and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalisation or system. This applies to the Bekwarra man/woman who is conscious of his/her being and not necessarily in accordance with any definition, essence, generalisation or system. Existentialism attempts to inject the spirit of seriousness and consciousness in the life of an individual or people. Philosophy as a concept means many things to many people. It provides a medium through which we can have an insight into reality. One role of philosophy is that it enables us to develop the ability to see all aspects of situations (Egbeke, 1997:1). This integrative and cognitive role of philosophy could be seen in existentialism. This reflects proverb cognition across cultures.

Honeck (1997:122/3) notes that the cognitive view of proverbs assumes that the same set of principles apply to all cases of proverb cognition. It does not matter whether one is interested in initial proverb or how biblical proverbs might be interpreted. The optimal circumstance is that they are addressed by the theory. He further hypothesised what he calls ECBT-2: the Cognitive Ideals Hypothesis, a modification of the Extended Conceptual Base Theory (ECBT) (Honeck & Temple, 1994) which is an extension of the Conceptual Base Theory (Honeck et al., 1980). The Cognitive Ideals Hypothesis, Honeck (1997:137) notes, has implications for a number of topics: proverb creation, the occurrence of oppositional concepts in the proverb, a typology of proverbs, the literal content of the proverb, production and pragmatics.

What people mark with proverbs basically revolves around attempting to capture didactic, literary contents, one ideal or the other, and norms/standards. Societies and individuals judge that they are ideals, normative and standard ways by which events should and do occur. Honeck calls these generic ideals. Proverbs tell us what these ideals are, how to attain them and what constitute a deviation. That is, proverbs tread in perfection. On a cultural level, every society values some thoughts and behaviours rather than others. In general, thoughts of perfection derived from multiplied constraints that operate on every level of existence. Thus, each generic ideal can potentially be instantiated in different ways and realms (Honeck, 1997:137). Generic ideal is general and universal, including Bekwarra. Proverbs must be expressed with the conventionalised given words and structures. These are the specific ideals, because it represents a specification of the generic ideal that underlines and motivates the proverb. It is on this basis the Bekwarra proverbs, like those of other cultures, possess and display specification of the generic ideals, i.e. having inherent features. A proverb must be expressed with particular words and syntax. Honeck (1997) calls this the specific ideal, because it represents a particularisation of the generic ideal that underlies and motivates the proverb. The generic ideal is general and universal.

Proverbs say what people are expected to have known already. One (a child) who lacks the sufficient experience to build up a tacit knowledge system is bound to face understanding difficulty. If the proverb/s concepts are unknown to a non-native, an alien or L2 speaker, who is not from that culture, then an appropriate generic ideal cannot be roused. It is on this basis that there is the dire to teach and learn our oral literature like proverbs, idioms, folklore/folktales, arts, languages/dialects. A critical and logical appraisal of the Bekwarra thought system shows that within the folk philosophy of traditional African communities, people do philosophise and reflect on fundamental problems about human nature. Through this way, they mould their in-depth cosmology which gives meaning to reality using a distinctive African experience. This is so because philosophy aims at making a synthesis and coherent picture of human experience and the world (see Ncha, 2010:138).

According to Bubu and Oweh (2012:33), African philosophy, as we know is rich in proverbs, and wise sayings, which apart from giving colour to our rich cultural heritage, plays a functional role in moulding and giving meaning to our worldview [cosmology] and reality. Enyimba (2009:96) has erstwhile lent credence to this view thus: ‘We believe that the basic concern of African philosophy is to address topical issues of philosophical interest which have bearing on African realities, world views and the way and manner in which they make sense of their existence.’ Existentialism is a philosophy that is concerned with the concrete aspects of existence and the ambiguities and paradoxes that constitute the inner being of man (Agulana, 2000:47). One major aim of existentialism, according to Nyong and Toryima (1992), was [is] to correct the perceived imbalance in the perception of reality which rendered philosophising arid, abstract, and totally out of touch with human being. The reason was that much premium was placed on reason as a human faculty. There is dire need to correct the imbalance in the perception of the existential characteristics and panorama of Bekwarra, such as its proverbs, oral literature and knowledge, and culture as a whole. Therefore, this study is imperative.


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Bekwarra Proverbs, Oral Literature, Indigenous Knowledge and Culture Sustenance
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bekwarra, proverbs, oral, literature, indigenous, knowledge, culture, sustenance
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Odey Simon Robert (Author), 2017, Bekwarra Proverbs, Oral Literature, Indigenous Knowledge and Culture Sustenance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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