As 6-year-olds in Zimbabwe, we were taught proverbs before we were taught how to navigate the nuts and bolts of Shona (the most common language in the country). This approach left some students capable of dropping rich wisdom freely but not being able to ask you how your day was.

Many African proverbs are strongly tied to the earth and animals, conveying lessons of life and learning often through daily, seemingly menial, procedures. An example of a Zimbabwean proverb is “there is honey but no bees” — describing a situation when you find something free for the taking and without consequence.

Here’s a list of African proverbs from around the continent. Some are known to come from specific tribes, ethnic groups, or countries, and others have an unknown source and are listed simply as “African proverbs.” Have a read and pluck out some ancestral insight from the motherland to carry with you today.

1. A bird that flies off the earth and lands on an anthill is still on the ground. — Igbo proverb

2. He that beats the drum for the mad man to dance is no better than the mad manhimself. — African proverb

3. Where water is the boss there the land must obey. — African proverb

4. No matter how beautiful and well crafted a coffin might look, it will not make anyone wish for death. — African proverb

5. When the shepherd comes home in peace, the milk is sweet. — Ethiopian proverb

6. A spider’s cobweb isn’t only its sleeping spring but also its food trap. — African proverb

7. If you do not have patience you cannot make beer. — Ovambo proverb

8. He who runs after good fortune runs away from peace. — African proverb

9. Teeth do not see poverty. — Masai proverb

10. You have little power over what’s not yours. — Zimbabwean proverb

11. If you pick up one end of the stick you also pick up the other. — Ethiopian proverb

12. Better little than too little. — Cameroonian proverb

13. You must attend to your business with the vendor in the market, and not to the noise of the market. — Beninese proverb

14. When you befriend a chief remember that he sits on a rope. — Ugandan proverb

15. The night has ears. — Masai proverb

16. The child you sired hasn’t sired you. — Somali proverb

17. A doctor who invoked a storm on his people cannot prevent his house from destruction. — Nigerian proverb

18. An intelligent enemy is better than a stupid friend. — Senegalese proverb

19. The young bird does not crow until it hears the old ones. — Tswana proverb

20. If you carry the egg basket do not dance. — Ambede proverb

21. The food which is prepared has no master. — Malagasy proverb

22. The worlds of the elders do not lock all the doors; they leave the right door open. — Zambian proverb

23. Even the best cooking pot will not produce food. — African proverb

24. The child of a rat is a rat. — Malagasy proverb

25. Where you will sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth. — Yoruba proverb

26. He who is unable to dance says that the yard is stony. — Masai proverb

27. You cannot name a child that is not born. — African proverb

28. Do a good deed and throw it into the sea. — Egyptian proverb

29. When the roots of a tree begin to decay, it spreads death to the branches. — Nigerian proverb

30. Slander by the stream will be heard by the frogs. — Mozambican proverb

31. A child is a child of everyone. — Sudanese proverb

32. Even the lion, the king of the forest, protects himself against flies. — Ghanaian proverb

33. Birds sing not because they have answers but because they have songs. — African proverb

34. If your only tool is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail. — Gambian proverb

35. When you show the moon to a child, it sees only your finger. — Zambian proverb

36. It is crooked wood that shows the best sculptor. — African proverb

37. One who bathes willingly with cold water doesn’t feel the cold. — Fipa proverb

38. Earth is the queen of beds. — Namibian proverb

39. Be a mountain or lean on one. — Somali proverb

40. A flea can trouble a lion more than a lion can trouble a flea. — Kenyan proverb

41. Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it. — Ewe proverb

42. The death of an elderly man is like a burning library. — Ivorian proverb

43. Anger and madness are brothers. — African proverb

44. Do not follow a person who is running away. — Kenyan proverb

45. An orphaned calf licks its own back. — Kenyan proverb

46. Even as the archer loves the arrow that flies, so too he loves the bow that remains constant in his hands. — Nigerian proverb

47. He who burns down his house knows why ashes cost a fortune. — African proverb

48. If you are building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building or do you change the nail? — Rwandan proverb

49. You cannot build a house for last year’s summer. — Ethiopian proverb

50. We desire to bequeath two things to our children; the first one is roots, the other one is wings. — Sudanese proverb

What are your favorite African proverbs? Share them in the comments.

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