African Proverbs

African Proverbs

African Proverbs

African Proverbs

 Proverbs provide wonderful nuggets of discussion-provoking wisdom. Proverbs, while arising out of and illuminating distinct cultures, also speak to widely shared, perhaps planet-spanning, truths. According to the Ghanaian researcher Kofi Asare Opoku, “The Yoruba of Nigeria emphasize the value of proverbs with a proverb, saying, ‘A proverb is the horse that can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas.'” (quotation from http://www2.wcoil.com/~mdecker/af-prov.htm). Like a good storyteller, proverbs can paint vivid pictures of precepts which accelerate understanding. Good proverbs are more complex than they seem at first blush — they can almost always be fruitfully examined, discussed, and even reversed.

Proverbs can be used for many pedagogical purposes. They can provide focus to gatherings and closings, either used singly to emphasize one idea, or with each individual or group getting a different one and asking for a few people to share ones that are meaningful to them (thanks to Linda Lantieri for this approach). If you have more time, each pair or group could lead a discussion about the meaning of their saying. Proverbs can be used in character colloquies (intellectual discussions) as part of character education programs. Comparing proverbs from different cultures can emphasize both our unity and multicultural diversity. Additionally, they are useful as springboards for discussions of the implications and ethical dimensions of literature, historical events, scientific and technological controversies, our own beliefs, our learning styles, and our own behavior.

The citations on the web sites used to compile this list usually cited either the ethnic group in which the proverb arose or the country of origin, but few mentioned both an ethnic origin and a country name. Where possible, the proverb’s description as included here includes the contemporary country or countries in which that linguistic or ethnic group primarily lives, and in some cases a regional description. Some sites listed both the English translation and the transliteration of the original, and so where possible that is included too. They are reproduced here spaced widely apart to make it easier to print this page out and cut it into slips to hand out.

Proverbs                                                                

  • The hen with baby chicks doesn’t swallow the worm.  Sukuma (Tanzania)  
  • Ma kibuge kut ingony kou ingok (Nandi, Rwanda).  “Do not wipe your mouth on the ground like a hen”.   This proverb tells you, ‘never be ungrateful even for a small deed done to you by a friend’. It is used to chastise those who receive help and end up complaining after they have been given assistance however small it may be. It therefore teaches appreciation.
  • Where there is peace, a billhook (sickle) can be used to shave your beard or cut your hair.  Rundi (Burundi)
  • Walk on a fresh tree, the dry one will break. Bena (Tanzania)
  • When a tree falls on a yam farm and kills the farm’s owner, you don’t waste time counting the numbers of yam hips ruined  Igala (Nigeria)
  • Like vomit and shit under your feet (the rumormonger spreads scandal).  Sumbwa (Tanzania)
  • The tears of the orphan run inside. (English)  Mafa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger)
  • Use of brains begets wealth. (English)  Sheng (Kenya)
  • Cows are born with ears; later they grow horns. (English)  Nuba-Tira (Sudan)
  • An eye that you treat is the one that turns against you. (English)  Luo (Kenya, Tanzania)
  • A chicken eats corn, drinks water and swallows little pebbles, but still complains of having no teeth. If she had teeth would she eat steel? (Literal English) Yoruba and Idanre (Nigeria)
    From the word of an elder is derived a bone. Rwanda (Rwanda) and Rundi (Burundi)
  • Words are like bullets; if they escape, you can’t catch them again. Wolof (Senegal, The Gambia)
  • You cannot use a wild banana leaf to shield yourself from the rains and then tear it to pieces later when the rains come to an end. Nandi (Kenya)
  • Young growing cuttings determine a good harvest of cassava. Tonga (Malawi)
  • Smoke does not affect honeybees alone; honey-gatherers are also affected. Bassa (Liberia)
  • The person who has a light knee can survive longer. Toposa (Sudan)
  • What is in the stomach carries what is in the head. Bukusu (Kenya)
  • Slowly, slowly, porridge goes into the gourd. Kuria (Kenya, Tanzania)
  • A fool has many days. Tharaka, also in Gikuyu (Kenya)
  • A Tutsi liked to warm himself by the fire; someone else took the bull. Zinza (Tanzania)
  • Far is where there is nothing, where something is that you will struggle to the death to reach. Shona (Zimbabwe)
  • A child (young person) does not fear treading on dangerous ground until he or she gets hurt (stumbles).Bukusu (Kenya)
  • When elephants fight the grass (reeds) gets hurt. Swahili (Eastern and Central Africa)
  • If a toad jumps around in the daytime, it is either chasing something or something is chasing it (Nigeria)
  • A bird that flies from the ground onto an anthill does not know that it is still on the ground  (Nigeria)
  • Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten  (Nigeria)
  • The Earth moves at different speeds depending on who you are (Nigeria)
  • When the elephants fight it is the grass that suffers (Nigeria)
  • The child that will not allow his parents to sleep through the night must be prepared to stay awake himself  (Nigeria)
  • A person once bitten by a snake will be scared by an old rope  (Nigeria)
  • When the bush is on fire, the antelope ceases to fear the hunter’s bullet (Nigeria)
  • He who dines with the dogs will eat feces  (Nigeria)
  • A snake will always give birth to something long  (Nigeria)
  • It’s the house of the coward that men stand and point at the spot where the brave man’s compound used to be  (Nigeria)
  • None but the brave deserves the fair (Nigeria)
  • In the city of the blind, the man with one eye will be king  (Nigeria)
  • When an old man sees a snake and refuses to run, he is prepared to die! (Nigeria)
  • What an old man will see while seating, a small child cannot see even standing on top of a mountain! (Nigeria)
  • When a masquerade dances well in a parade, the owner will be happy  (Nigeria)
  • The one-eyed man does not thank God until he sees a blind man  (Nigeria)
  • When it is to do something that is very difficult, don’t say you can do it  (Nigeria)
  • He who throws a stone in the market will hit his relative  (Nigeria)
  • The Mouse that makes jest of a cat has already seen a hole nearby  (Nigeria)
  • If you don’t pay attention to the pot, the contents will spill and quench the fire  (Nigeria)
  • From frying pan to fire (Nigeria)
  •  Be glad you are unknown, for when you are known, you would wish you weren’t (Ghanaian)
  • The lizard does not eat hot chillies for the frog to sweat  (Ghanaian)
  • Where error gets to, correction cannot reach (Ghanaian)
  • Got a stone but didn’t get a nut to crack, got a nut but didn’t get a stone to crack it with (Ghanaian)
  • You don’t need a light to see someone you know intimately at night  (Ghanaian)
  • The goat thought it was dirtying its owner’s wall till it realized its coat was peeling (Ghanaian)
  • If a blind man says he will throw a stone at you, he probably has his foot on one  (Ghanaian)
  • Ashi vie me duna ashie ga o
    • (Literally – The little hand does not beat the big hand)
    • English equivalent: Monkeys play by sizes
  • So many little things makes a man love a woman in a BIG way  (Ghanaian)
  • Do good because of tomorrow (Ghanaian)
  • The length of a frog can only be determined after it dies (Ghanaian)
  • It is a fool who rejoices when his neighbor is in trouble  (Ghanaian)
  • Be mindful of your own fingers when you are chewing that of a monkey (Ghanaian)
  • As you worship plantain, remember to worship banana as well  (Ghanaian)
  • Count not only my blessings but also count my worries and struggles as well (Ghanaian)
  • A straight tree never lasts in the forest
    • ( Literally – A good thing/person is always sought after”)
  • rebuke is greater to the wise than hundred blows on a fool (Ghanaian)
  • He who climbs a good tree always gets a push
  • If you notice your neighbour’s beard is on fire, then you better get some water by yours  (Ghanaian)
  • If Nakedness promises to cloth you, please be mindful of his/her name  (Ghanaian)
  • Someone who has ever been bitten by a snake is always scared of an earthworm (Ghanaian)

Past magazine articles

Birgit

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