Tag Archives: Nigeria

Nigerian Thief Proverb


Stanley Kalu was raised in Nigeria. Since then, he and his family have lived in various African countries. He currently studies screenwriting at the University of Southern California. He is a friend of mine, and he has often told me stories about growing up in Nigeria. I asked him for folklore, and without even needing to ask for Nigerian folklore, he offered up several pieces, including two proverbs. When I asked why he gave me two proverbs, he said that his mother often said them to him, and that mothers and their proverbs are so infamous that there are meme websites dedicated to them that he visits when he feels homesick. Stanley provided the proverb in English.


Stanley: This is a great Nigerian proverb. “Every day is for the thief. One day is for the owner of the house.”

Owen: Could you explain what this proverb means to you?

Stanley: It means that while you can do all the crimes that you want, every day, one day you will get caught and you will get found out.

Owen: Did someone used to say this to you repeatedly?

Stanley: Nah, my Mom just said it one time.


This is a great example of a proverb that makes little sense to an outsider. When he told me the proverb, I could barely guess what it meant. It is his following explanation that is necessary for understanding. It was also interesting that I had to ask him for the explanation–he stated the proverb so obviously at first.

How the Tortoise Got Its Cracked Shell


“There is a lot of animal folklore in Nigeria. I used to hear this one story all the time when I was little. It goes like this:

There was once a great drought in all the land. So the animals gathered to try and make a plan. It was decided that the tortoise, due to his charm and manner of speaking, would fly up to heaven with the birds in order to bring food down. As he flew, he told the birds that at such times it is important to change your name. So he told them his name was “all of you.” They got to heaven (and the feast) and God said the food was for “all of you.” The tortoise gorged himself. The birds got mad and left, but the tortoise begged them to tell his wife to put soft things by his house so that he could jump and fall from heaven safely. The birds told his wife the opposite and the tortoise jumped and broke his shell.

I’ve heard that one a million times. There are many Nigerian folktales about the cunning tortoise.”


This story reminds me of many tales that revolve around how an animal or other natural phenomenon came to be. It is a way of explaining the world around us before science or other explanations came about to replace tales. The cunning tortoise is a recurring character in Nigerian folklore, representing craftiness and outsmarting others, often at his own expense.

The Significance of Yams in Nigeria


My friend grew up in Nigeria before coming to the US for college. He says yams are life in Nigeria.

Friend:“The yam is the staple food and therefore a measure of masculinity and wealth. If a family has a lot of yams, you’re rich because you can feed your family. This makes you a strong man. Yams are equated to life in Igbo culture. Nigeria is the leading producer of yams in the world, so of course they are a big deal to us.”

Me: Do you still have family who farm yams?

Friend: “My father does not farm yams, but my grandfather did, and his father before him. When my grandfather got married, he had to present his yams to my grandmother’s family to prove he could provide for her, which is a fairly typical custom in Nigeria.”

Me: Is there anything specific about how yams are farmed that makes them special?

Friend: “On some farms in Nigeria, the women aren’t allowed to go to the farm until harvest time. Then the women do all of the harvest work. It’s superstition I guess. There are many people today who still grow yams. Yams are featured at any big gathering or at any holiday meal.”


Analysis: Many cultures have some form of staple food. For the Irish, potatoes are an important part of sustenance, and therefore are a large part of how people live. Because of this, a simple food like a potato, or yam, can come to have symbolic meaning.  What a family produces in terms of yams, and how it relates to masculinity is extremely interesting, given that yams are an unpredictable measure of success. One year, the harvest could be plentiful and the weather perfect. The next year, however, bad luck could lead to very few yams. Another aspect of this folklore worth noting is that while the men do the initial farming, the women do the harvesting. Perhaps this relates to the hunter/gatherer trope, but a man’s worth relies on work which is half done by women.

“Every day is for the thief, one day is for the owner.”

Subject: Yoruba (Nigerian Proverb

Phonetic Script: “Kwa ụbọchị bụ maka ohi, otu ụbọchị dị ka onye nwe.”

Translation:” Every day is for the thief, one day is for the owner.”

Interpretation: You can lie, cheat, and steal, but one day, you will be caught.

Analysis: This proverb shows the values of the Igbo people. Virtue is better that self-interest.




Iwa Lewa

My informant is a senior at USC and of Nigerian ethnicity. Her parents were immigrants to America from Nigeria and with them brought customs, traditions, and phrases with them to their new home, including proverbs that they would use to raise their daughter.

“Iwa lewa translates I think, literally to “character beauty”. Iwa Lewa…so your behavior or the way you act is what makes you beautiful.”


Analysis: Originally written in Yoruba, this proverb expresses Nigerian values in the content of a person’s character. A person’s character is what composes their beauty, not just their outward appearance. The proverb is used mostly in reference to women, however the message could be applicable to both sexes. This proverb sheds light on the cultural values of Nigerian people. It allows the listener to understand that within Nigerian culture, external beauty is not valued or appreciated as much as being a good or morally upstanding person.

This proverb particularly reminds me of the English proverb “Don’t judge a book by its cover” which my parents used to tell me all the time as a means of getting me to understand that people are not just what they look like on the surface, you also have to look within that person to see who they really are and what they’re really about.


Ile oba t’o jo, ewa lo busi

My informant is a senior at USC and of Nigerian ethnicity. Her parents were immigrants to America from Nigeria and with them brought customs, traditions, and phrases with them to their new home, including proverbs that they would use to raise their daughter.

“Ile oba t’o jo, ewa lo busi. In English it means a King’s palace that burned down, actually became more beautiful…meaning that every cloud has a silver lining or that good things can come from something bad. My parents would tell me this if I was going through a rough time or if I lost something important.”



Analysis: This proverb was originally given in Yoruba and essentially states that there is a silver lining to every cloud. Even in instances where things are bad, you can always find something good about the situation that you find yourself in. In a way, the proverb is also saying that the process of “rebuilding the palace” is the silver lining, because the final product or new thing is more beautiful than before because of new appreciation for it and the work that was put into achieving it.

Witchcraft: Sitting Pretty


“My mom always told me that I shouldn’t sit with my legs against the wall. Back in the day witches sat like that, so people would think that I was a witch…. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because they were thought to be able to walk on walls.”


My informant told me that in a lot of Africa, a lot of families were of tribal and animistic religions. There were “really dark tribal things” going on and people would report really weird things like people turning into cats, a lot of kidnappings, and people turning their friends into witches for uses in witchcraft. She felt uncomfortable when she first heard her mom tell her that. She told me that a lot of things in Nigerian culture was stigmatized. Certain ways that you sleep were bad too. For example, sleeping on your side kept you from being robbed. She feels that a lot of it goes back to village culture, before Nigeria was urbanized.


My informant heard it from her mom when she was young.

Personal Thoughts:

I think this is a great example of folklore showing certain fears that a community has. From what my informant said, it seems like witches were powerful figures back in Nigeria history, but they were seen in a negative light which explains why the informant’s mom didn’t want her to be associated with witches.