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Owe Yorùbá: Yorùbá proverb and its literal translation

Yorùbá is one of the ethnic groups in Nigeria. Its richness in cultural values cannot be overemphasized ranging from the beliefs, mode of greetings, dressing style, to the mode of communications which I classify into a verbal and non-verbal mode of communication.

The non-verbal mode of communication among the Yorùbá people was commonly used in the early period of Yorùbá creation. The communication can be between families, two or more towns, the landowner (onílé) and visitors (alejò), and between two lovers. This mode of communication is referred to as “Àrokò” where the sender will carefully wrap an item or items that convey the message to be sent through a messenger and pass it across to the receiver. The receiver then decodes the message from the items that he/she receives. The message could be a warning or information. It could also a message expressing rejection or acceptance of an offer, or expressing disapproval of someone’s action and so on.



The verbal mode of communication among the Yorùbá people varies in terms of expression which I will classify as direct expression and indirect expression of the message. The direct expression of the message implies that the message conveyed would be said in clear terms and will be easily understood. On the other hand, the message conveyed through indirect means requires interpretation of the words used before it could be understood. This mode of expression among the Yorùbá people is referred to as “owe” (proverbs).
This article, therefore, is aimed at providing you with different Yorùbá proverbs (owe Yorùbá), its literal translation and its contextual interpretation. This will help you to a large extent in your understanding of any message expressed using these proverbs. They are quite interesting as we will also explore the appropriate usage of these proverbs and you will be thrilled with this enticing discovery.


1. Àgbà kò sí nílu, ìlú bàjé, baálé ilé kú ilé d’ahoro

Literal translation: No elders in the village, the village come to ruin. The head of the house died, the house becomes empty.
Interpretation: This means that when there are no elders or experienced leaders/guidance to make corrections or guide the young ones, things will get destroyed.
This proverb is often used in a situation whereby the death or absence of experienced guidance maybe in a family or in a community causes the destruction of a child or a community at large.


2. Á ń jù wọ́n kò ṣé wí léjọ́, ìjà ìlara kò tan bọ̀rọ̀

Literal translation: The fact that we are becoming Superior to them cannot be discussed or reported. Envious quarrel doesn’t get settled on time.
Interpretation: people whom you used to be their subject will not be happy to see you becoming more successful than them, but will never be able to tell you that they are not happy. Hence, they will be envious of you and start creating problems or obstacles on your path to success.
This proverb is often used as an advice for someone who is gradually becoming successful in all facets of his life to be careful of who you share your success with. Not everyone wants you to attain great heights especially those whom you used to be their subjects or slaves.

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3. Olówó o ní jẹ orogan, kí ìwòfà náa wá jẹ́ ágùn má tẹ.

Literal translation: This simply means that two bosses cannot exist together in one place. One person has to be an obedient subordinate.
It is often used to advice someone under the leadership of another person to be submissive or obedient to his superior so as not to face bad consequences of being arrogant.


4. B’oni otí rí, ọ̀la kò le rí bẹ, l’omu babaláwo dífá ọrọrún.
Literal translation: whatever today will be, tomorrow will not be the same. Which is why the priests consult the Oracle every 5 days.
Interpretation: whatever you have achieved or become today, always be thankful to God for you no certainty of what the future holds.


5. Dídùn lódùn la ń b’ọrẹ jẹ̀fọ́, tí ilé oge tó oge jẹ.
Literal translation: if it wasn’t for the sweetness of a friend’s cooked vegetables, a pretty lady’s food is more than enough for her to eat.
Interpretation: if it wasn’t for the fact that friendship is sweet, and that your friend is successful, there won’t any need for you to often wine and dine with her because you have achieved more than she has.
Usage: it is often used at a time of misunderstanding between two or more friends.


6. Òjò ló pá álápà, ló di àmúgùn ewúrẹ́.
Literal translation: it is due to the rain that made a “mud house” (alapa) vulnerable to goats. And so they climb on it.
Interpretation: if it wasn’t for the current situation of things, someone not worth your attention, let alone talk to you, will not be insulting you.
Usage: if a bad time is occurring in one’s life, that brought about insults from someone inferior to you, you can express your pain with this proverb. But remember, no condition is permanent. This will get better soon.


7. Ìgbà kìí tọ́ lọ bi òréré, ọjọ o lọ bi ọpá ibọ́n.
Literal translation: moments don’t go for long, days don’t go forever
Interpretation: circumstances we face in life are not permanent, time changes so we do too.

Usage: we could use it for consolation or warning. Maybe someone is facing a hard time in life, such a person can be consoled by telling him that the bad phase will not last forever. Things will soon change for the better. On the other, is used to warn someone who behaves arrogantly because he’s currently experiencing a good phase of life. Do not be arrogant, be humble and take care of those around you who are facing the opposite side of life. Remember, igba o lọ bi òréré.


8. Ògbọ́ kùkù òjò, ó da omi inu agbada nù.
Literal translation: just by the sound of cloudy rain, you poured away all your water in the drum
Interpretation: you threw away all that you have acquired with hard work just because you heard about freebies
Usage: we use this proverb to scold or warn someone who is attempting to throw away all his has acquired with his sweats for something he is not certain will happen. Just like lavishly spending all your hard-earned money in Nigeria because someone promise to take you abroad without a visa yet. You are on your own o.

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9. Má ṣe bólátitó, t’oba ṣe bọ́látitó ìjà níí dà.
Literal translation: do not behave according to the level of your wealth, because if you do, it will create rifts.
Interpretation: a powerful and wealthy person should not rule or act powerfully. Such actions destroy either his life or someone else’s.
Usage: this proverb is used as a warning for a powerful leader who exploits his subjects without minding the consequences.


10. Ẹni tí kò ṣe bi ẹlẹ́dẹ̀ lọnà Ọ̀yọ́, kò lé ṣe bi adégbọ́rọ̀ lọ́’ja ọba.
Literal translation: the person who doesn’t behave like a pig (dirty), along Oyo road, will not be able to behave King in the king’s market.
Interpretation: if you are not ready to work hard, take on crude jobs, you might not be as successful as to be able to live like kings.
Usage: this is proverb is often used in a situation whereby a person who wants to be successful in life is not willing or ready to take on petty jobs or start small. Such a person is aiming for a high position without making any attempt to work hard. Being a millionaire isn’t a day job, my brother. If you want to succeed in life, start from somewhere no matter how small. In the end, your hard work will pay off.


11. Ọ̀pẹ̀kẹ́tẹ̀ ń dàgbà, inú ọmọ ádámọ̀ ń bàjé, adi baba tán inú wá ń bí wọn.
Literal translation: “opekete” is a palm tree. In a literal sense, it is translated as follows.
A palm tree is growing, man created from Adam is not happy. We became a father, they are angry.
Interpretation: When a young child is growing up physically, possessively or spiritually, human beings will start to envy and hates you. This is because they do not want you to be more successful than they are.
Usage: this is also used as a warning for a growing man to be careful of who discuss your life with. Do not show off or disclose what you have to any man, no one is trustworthy.


12. Ẹni à bá tà ká fi ra àtùpà, ọwá di ẹni àjítanná wò.
Literal translation: someone we were supposed to trade for a lantern, he now became the person whom we wake up early and light up to see.
Interpretation: someone has listed all hopes of achieving anything in life but, perhaps through hard work and dedication became successful someone of high integrity and now command respect.
Usage: it is often used as an expression of appreciation to God or anyone who’s helped you on the path to success when all hopes are lost.

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13. Ìbí ò júbí, b’aṣe b’ẹ́rú lá b’ọ́mọ.
Literal translation: no birth is superior; the way a slave is given birth to is the same way a child is given birth to.
Interpretation: in this proverb, a child is considered to be a wealthy person while the slave is considered to be a very poor fellow. So this proverb simply implies that both a wealthy and poor child are born the same way. It’s not like the rich is born with gold in their hands or born wearing fancy clothes, we are born the same way -naked with nothing
Usage: it is used as a warning for an arrogant wealthy child that looks down on the poor ones and consider them as slaves. The proverb is reminding him that he’s only fortunate to be who and what he is today, not because he’s born with golds and silver in his hands and so his current position can be given to someone else -the poor.
My dear brother and sisters, if you are in a superior position today, don’t look down on your subjects. They were created the same way you were; you are just being fortunate. Today is your turn to shine, tomorrow might be a different situation. So please, be good to all!


14. Ojú tó máa bá ni kalẹ́, kò ní f’ase ṣe’pin.
Literal translation: The eyes that will stay with you till night, will not be bringing out dirt in the morning.
Interpretation: eyes in this context is referring to something valuable to us. That valuable item could be our health, a family member or friends. But this valuable item is causing problems or showing faults frequently. Thus, this proverb interpreted eyes as something or someone that will stand by you through difficult and good time for a very long time, should not be creating problems for you or wanting to leave you at a very near time.
Usage: this proverb is applicable in a situation whereby a soon to be husband who cheats on his wife or a soon to be wife who cheats on her husband are caught in the act. The partner being cheated could easily be concluded that if truly this wife or husband is meant to be mine forever, he or she would not have engaged in such an act. It is also applicable when referring to an item or health just like the literal meaning implies.


I am sure you all know that “Owe Yorùbá” are enormous. We have only managed to bring you a few of them and I hope you have become more enlightened with these few. We hope to bring you more over time. Thank you for reading!

Please if you have questions or comments on the above post, feel free to drop it in the comments box below, we will acknowledge any questions or comments to our best of ability.
Thank you once again!

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