African (Akan) proverbs: Unveiling pathways to decolonising decoloniality – Fellows’ seminar by Husein Inusah

3 May 2024

“African proverbs are miniature narratives that condense shared reflections on values and virtues. As part of the rich oral cultures that indigenous communities have transmitted from generation to generation, they have survived the attempts of succeeding colonial powers to supplant African ways of thinking and knowing with Western epistemologies. To collect, study and examine proverbs is thus a unique opportunity to retrieve and safeguard forms of African epistemologies and practice decoloniality,” said Husein Inusah of the Department of Classics and Philosophy at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Husein Inusah during his seminar on 30 April 2024

Starting by quoting a proverb – ‘If you fetch sea water in your palm, you don’t have the sea in your palm’, Inusah said: “Being at STIAS made the meaning obvious – there’s no limit to how much you can learn and imagine here. It’s a vast space to learn.”

Inusah is one of the fifth cohort of Iso Lomso fellows and was presenting an update of his STIAS project (see: Examining the moral dimensions of epistemic decolonisation – Fellows’ seminar by Husein Inusah – Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study ( “STIAS allowed me to do a field study not originally part of the project. It pulled me from the chair into the field,” he said.

Going to the field allowed Inusah to speak directly to the experts to understand the layers of meaning, context and correct usage of Akan proverbs as well as the lived experiences and values they encapsulate.

He explained that there are three parts to his STIAS project – looking at African virtue proverbs: in particular their implications for decoloniality and biodiversity observations; looking at proverbs as a tool for decolonial pedagogy; and, digitising Akan proverbs to preserve the cultural heritage and promote intergenerational knowledge transfer via technology. He also referred to his sources which comprise four collections – two compiled by Europeans in the colonial period and two by decolonial scholars.

His presentation focused on the first part – the interpretations of Akan proverbs, an anthropological reading of the social contexts in which they thrive, and a reconstruction of the larger universe of the ethnographic practice of Akan proverbs to reveal pathways toward knowledge decoloniality in Africa.

Using a cultural-translation model, Inusah is looking at Akan proverbs from the way they were formed to their current contextual uses.

The Akan are found in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. They are the largest ethnic group and, at 45.7%, also the largest linguistic group in Ghana. Akan includes 13 dialects. “They have a rich tradition of using proverbs in everyday conversation, in celebrations, on royal articles and clothing, as well as in their music,” said Inusah.

Storehouses of wisdom

Inusah explained that it’s often difficult to settle on universal definitions of such proverbs, however, “they usually are justified based on the patterns of behaviour of the referent entity cited in the proverb and by the cosmic perception of the people who use the proverb”.

“The referent – often an animal – must offer speech, even if not human, and be given life – be made to breathe. If you don’t know the animal’s behaviour and behaviour patterns, you may not comprehend.”

“The use of animal references is because humans are seen as too erratic, too unstable,” he added. “The Akan clans also each have an animistic token.”

He explained that Akan proverbs are handed down by word of mouth, often include references to ancestors, attitudes and morals, and express a range of human experiences. “The meaning is derived through collective memory,” he said. “The individual who performs the proverb and the community are linked.”

“The Akan also attach some level of sacredness and consciousness to proverb usage which is not the same in all cultures.”

He explained that Akan proverbs are formed from long-term observation of the environment, cultural practices and situations. “People use them to express the primacy of their culture and to communicate its wisdom to all.”

There are also rules governing their usage which include aspects like the status of the one performing and the one decoding the proverb, the place and time of the discourse, the occasion and other contextual factors, and the form in which the proverb should be presented.  Proverbs must be used consistently with the background beliefs underlying them.

“Wrong usage can lead to sanction in formal settings – if you use a good proverb in the wrong setting or use a wrong proverb you can be fined,” said Inusah.

“I didn’t talk too much in the field,” he added, laughing.

Epistemic knowledge and decoloniality

Inusah explained that Akan proverbs are rooted in the culture, shaped by the environment and circumstances, shared by physical experiences and interactions, and embodied in practical activities. As such, they reflect the relationship with the natural environment, respect for nature and interdependence with the natural world.

“They also promise cross-cultural understanding and sharedness of knowledge, reinforcing knowledge beyond cultural borders. In order to understand a proverb you must understand the situation from which it emerges, the concept and vocabulary.”

“Applying proverbs takes wisdom and creativity,” he said. “They are a higher order of thinking. A way of emphasising that reason is universal and embedded in all cultures.”

“Akan proverbs are part of community-relational knowledge. They don’t exist in isolation but in interconnectedness and interdependence. They are knowledge claims and specifically a form of epistemology, and teach us about the situatedness of knowledge.”

As such, Inusah believes they should be studied and collected as a part of safeguarding African epistemology and practicing decoloniality.

“Reconfiguring the world is about recognising marginalised epistemologies and repositioning them at the centre, going back to epistemologies supplanted by colonisation to reaffirm, reinforce and assess their unique perspectives on life,” he explained. “Knowledge decolonisation is the cognitive sensitivity to one’s situatedness and relationality.”

“Performing decolonisation is about being situated in the full knowledge epistemology. It’s not just about going back to the past but connecting with the past, present and future; presenting cultural hybridity as a pathway to culture; and, recognising and giving attention to other knowledge systems.”

“Decolonisation is about sensitivity to one’s situation. In parts of Africa people are not even aware that colonialism is part of their daily life. There is an obsession to link to colonial categories of thought. We are still in prison. To decolonise you need consciousness of all oppression – without that you can’t achieve freedom,” he concluded.


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Noloyiso Mtembu


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