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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