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
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
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
Of begging, or being thankful for your lot in life
When the termite hill
rustles, go get your basket
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
Exercise caution before acting.
Do not put your goat out
to graze in a field of leopards
Don't attempt an action when you know you are bound to
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
Through co-operation and each doing his part,
the job will get done.
It is the silent lion that
is stalking you
Death creeps up on you.
The mantis is watching the
butterfly, while the shrike
is watching the mantis.
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.
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
He is of false character.
Many wives, many children.
Many children, many kinsmen.
Many kinsmen, many spears.
When two hippos quarrel,
don't put your oar in.
Don't mix in a family feud.
Do not try to fight a lion
if you are not one yourself.
Some people are like
It looks dry and hard but the inside is slippery.
A cow can swing her tail
both left and right.
Said of a person who says different things to different
Does the mosquito thank
you for your blood?
Leave some honey for the
honey bird who guided you.
We covet what the
Portuguese have in their shop.
A good chief is like a
strong tree with many branches. People like to sit in its
The man who eats with a
spoon does not remember that he once ate with his fingers.
If you want dinner, do not
insult the cook.
Source: the A-Z of
African Proverbs by Jan Knappert Pub. Karnak House ISBN