Proverbs from Africa




Many African proverbs require a commentary since they cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the ethnographic background. And some proverbs are unique to the local culture with another tribe not understanding their context.
For example, the Dama have a proverb - 'If you have a cup of sweet milk be content' or 'an ugly object may hide something sweet'. The proverb is peculiar to the deserts of Namibia where the doringboom (thorn tree) grows. Its sap yields a syrupy liquid that is sweet. The Dama love to drink their milk in the shade of this tree, cutting off also strips of its bark and dipping it in the milk to make it sweet.
Unless you know of the tree or the desert area where treats like this are scarce you would not fully appreciate the proverb.
Every tribe has its own compendium of proverbs (in the small country of Burundi alone there are over 3,000 proverbs) and each generation creates its own classics. In Africa proverbs may also be used by the younger generation, who have to respect their elders and not answer back, thus allowing its speaker to retort without it appearing so.
For example - the proverb The sun does not change but the clouds do could be said by a young person to his father meaning that the child's ways will be different from that of their father (the retort) while likening the father to the sun affords him the respect and flatters him.
African proverbs are often couched in the form of a question, to make them sound more gentle as in - Does the cub teach the lion to hunt? - which might be said by an adult as a form of reprimand without sounding harsh.
The knowledge of proverbs among the African tribes is vital for what one might call 'making friends and influencing people' as they serve as instruments of peace, impressing the contending parties with their wisdom and diffusing incidents of anger or hatred. And so a man who knows many proverbs will be considered very wise indeed.
Jan Knappert has collected a number of  proverbs (he has over 2,000 Swahili ones) from all over Africa and has written a small book on the subject.
Some of the ones he has collected are -

The chimpanzee will have to live without a tail
- Congo
Of begging, or being thankful for your lot in life

When the termite hill rustles, go get your basket
- Yaunde
Be ready when the time is favourable.
Termites are collected and eaten as a delicacy when the
Swarming season begins.


A monkey is an ugly thing, even with a golden ring
- South Africa
No matter how attractive you try to make something,
it will still be a bad deal.

The chameleon looks in all directions before moving
- Uganda
Exercise caution before acting.

Do not put your goat out to graze in a field of leopards
- Congo
Don't attempt an action when you know you are bound to fail.

Let the elephant fell the trees, let the bushpig dig the holes,
let the mason wasp fill in the walls, let the tall giraffe put
up the roof, then we will have a house
-  Zaire
Through co-operation and each doing his part,
the job will get done.

It is the silent lion that is stalking you
- Zambia
Death creeps up on you.

The mantis is watching the butterfly, while the shrike
is watching the mantis.
- Botswana
While you are busy criticising your neighbour,
someone else is poised ready to criticise you.

Now he has a suit on and behaves like a white man.
- Angola
He may have changed his appearance and his behaviour
but at heart he is still the same.
He thinks he is above his peers because he puts on airs and graces.
He is of false character.



Many wives, many children. Many children, many kinsmen.
Many kinsmen, many spears.
- Kunama

When two hippos quarrel, don't put your oar in.
- Buganda
Don't mix in a family feud.

Do not try to fight a lion if you are not one yourself.
- Swahili

Some people are like cowdung.
- Buganda
It looks dry and hard but the inside is slippery.

A cow can swing her tail both left and right.
- Dama
Said of a person who says different things to different people.

Does the mosquito thank you for your blood?
- Swahili

Leave some honey for the honey bird who guided you.
- Zulu

We covet what the Portuguese have in their shop.
- Angola

A good chief is like a strong tree with many branches. People like to sit in its shade.
- Dama

The man who eats with a spoon does not remember that he once ate with his fingers.
- Congo

If you want dinner, do not insult the cook.
- Swahili




Source: the A-Z of African Proverbs by Jan Knappert Pub. Karnak House ISBN 0-907015-39-5


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