Nigerian Proverb

“When the lizard falls from the tree, if no one praises it, it praises itself.”

According to my informant, lizards in Nigeria often quickly bob their heads up and down, a motion that looks like a mix between a head nod and a bow. This gesture, in Nigeria, implies self-congratulations and makes the lizard look as if it is continually praising itself. Lizards, however, are not seen as intelligent creatures. My informant says that they try to jump from tree to tree, but more often than not they miss the trees, and land on the ground. After taking this embarrassing tumble, the lizard gets immediately to its feet and begins bobbing again, seemingly praising itself.

My informant first heard this proverb when he was very young. Generally, the proverb is used to talk about someone who is not present, although occasionally children will say it to tease each other. In most situations, people use this proverb to chastise someone indirectly for being unnecessarily arrogant. My informant says that the proverb refers to people who think highly of themselves, even if no one else does and even when they fail, just like the lizard that fails when he doesn’t reach the second tree. When someone praises or congratulates themselves and that praise is undeserved, someone else will say this proverb to a third person. My informant believes that proverb means that arrogance is blind, and cannot tell the difference between a praiseworthy act and something unworthy of praise.

Chinua Achebe records a variation of this proverb in his book Things Fall Apart. At the beginning of the book, the main character, Okonkwo, needs help with his yam crops. Unlike most young men in his Nigerian village, Okonkwo has never been able to rely on his father to provide food for the family, and cannot ask his father for yams to plant. Instead, Okonkwo always had to work for himself and provide for his family, even as a young boy. In the third chapter, Okonkwo decides to ask one of the other men in the village for some yams on loan, rather than rely on his own father. Before presenting evidence to prove his own worth, Okonkwo says, “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did,” (1994: 21). He then continues by praising himself, saying, “I began to fend for myself at an age when most people still suck at their mothers’ breasts,” (1994: 21).

While my informant’s version of the proverb and the proverb in Things Fall Apart use the same image, a lizard praising itself after jumping from a tree and landing on the ground, the implications of these proverbs directly contradict each other. For my informant, praising oneself is a consequence of arrogance and thus a negative quality. Okonkwo, on the other hand, must praise himself because he has no one else to vouch for his dependability, and thus no one else will praise him. These different usages stem from one of main verbs in the proverb: “falls” versus “jumps.” Whereas “falls” implies that the action was unintentional and thus a failure, “jumps” implies intentionality and success. Perhaps, then, my informant’s proverb criticizes undeserved praise, rather than general arrogance.


Achebe, Chinua 1994 Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.