Book reviews

Songhay-Kaado The storyteller Speak Zarma Zarma proverbs Sorcery's Shadow

Health, say it with proverbs.
Songhay-Zarma proverbs from Niger

Written by Yves Bernard


Photo of front page of book of Yves Bernard; click left mouse button to view enlarged.


The motto of the book is « Ce si ba karji », the Zarma proverb on the front page of the book. Literally it signifies « the foot doesn't like thorns ». The meaning of this proverb is the people have an aversion to diseases, badness, and they rather focus on fineness, goodness, health.

Just another example to get you excited and one that is recognizable. 
« Ay si ay ciiri daŋ caŋ ham ra » literally signifies « I don't add my salt to rat meat ». Bernard elucidates that salt is a scarce item in certain villages. Rat meat is meat that is seen as almost valueless, something that children sometimes eat; their proud catch of their common hunt. You don't  « cast pearls before swine » and you will carefully store your precious possession for better, more suitable circumstances.

As a foreigner you will certainly impress people using proverbs in their language. And if you use a proverb mistakenly, you will at least have 'them laughing.

Maga-Mazou Areynatou shows the incredible consequence of the usages of proverbs in the preface of the book. She describes that even non-Christian  patients asked for support and consolation after Yves Bernard started to experiment using Zarma proverb in his daily routine as (Christian) chaplain in the hospital. He no longer was the catholic father Yves, but a Zarma who brought comfort.

To get to the bottom of proverbs of a foreign language also is to get to the bottom of the foreign culture linked to the language. A proverb is a world in a nutshell, it evokes images and explains, for example, what is important, dangerous of experienced as lovely.

This book is a must for anyone who aims to work or travel for sometime in western Niger for the above mentioned two reasons. Bernard's choice for health as central theme of the book is not a problem. Heath is without doubt an important theme in daily live, but moreover, almost all proverbs can be used in non-medical situations as the second example given shows. The situations suitable to use a proverb is described by Bernard. The French used is easily accessible, also because text are written briefly and to the point, in my view quite un-French.  

The subject index is without doubt a pleasant extra. By choosing a Zarma word proverbs can be found in which the word plays a significant role. The translation of the word is given in the index.



Structure of the book

The author is a systematist. Therefore the book takes a lot after a book of reference, for example, the numbering of proverbs and the way of referring to sources used. Nevertheless this book is a pleasure to read and can be considered as a volume of (very) short stories. Each night you could read a tale before going to sleep.

The book begins with two brief introductions, each of one page. The first is written by the head of the department of linguistics of the University of Niamey, the second by the author. The introductions are followed by clear explanatory notes. The book contains 92 proverbs that are discussed in detail. The number of proverbs you can make yourself familiar with is many times larger, because many sections provide several alternative proverbs for the proverb discussed.

The book is made up of five chapters:

  • health, a great wealth
  • illnesses
  • to take care of oneself, a vital olbigation
  • prevention of illness
  • to sympathize

Each chapter contains proverbs that are related to these themes. Three of the chapters are subdivided based on sub-themes.

The specific theme is given above each proverb discussed. The proverb is translated both literally, word-for-word, and in a more general sense. Subsequently the origin, use within the framework of the field of health, alternative proverbs, the philosophy, and use in other fields are discussed. The alternative proverbs are very helpful and are briefly discussed as well, similar to the main proverb; literal and general translation and a short explanation. At the end, a few related (French) proverbs are given and is referred to related texts in the Bible and/or the Koran. These later references stem of course from Bernard's missionary background.      

The comprehensive table of content is put in the beginning of the book in contrast to many other French books that put this table at the end. The table of references at the end of the book is short and only contains literature that is not or not easily obtainable. The acknowledgment and index are put in at the end as well. The subject index gives entry via the Zarma language. 


The author

Yves Bernard arrived in Niger as a missionary Redemptory in 1972. He gained a lot of knowledge of the Songhay-Zarma and their language through experience. He particularly lived in Hondey, a village along the Niger river, and next in Boukoki, a popular district of  Niamey.

Earlier he published a Zarma - French dictionary together with linguist Mary White-Kaba as well as a research document for a French - Zarma dictionary.


Text on back flap

« In the traditional  African culture, based on an oral tradition, the proverb is a catalyst for communication, that contributes to the art of living »  Maga-Mazou Areynatou.   

This collection of Songhay-Zarma proverbs is dedicated to the health domain, the assistance of patients parts of the activities of the author, a chaplain at the hospital of Niamey. This work also bear witness to the importance of the knowledge of proverbs for listening and mutual understanding in Niger, and more general, in Africa.

It is in his capacity of chaplain in the hospital, and still engaged in linguistics, he publishes this book with proverbs.


Book in a nutshell
original title: Dire la Santé avec des proverbes.
Proverbes zarma-songhay du Niger
author: Yves Bernard
ISBN : 978-2-296-04631-3
size: 245 pages (136 mm * 216 mm)
published: 2007, in French and Zarma
publisher: L' Harmattan
5-7 rue de l' Ecole Polytechnique
75005 Paris, France
on internet:


Last updated: 11 februari 2012