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50 African Proverbs That Will Get You Thinking

Africa Culture
by Dikson Feb 26, 2021

As six-year-olds in Zimbabwe, we were taught African 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 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 ethnic groups, or countries while 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 (and remember if you ever visit Africa).

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 man himself. — 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, similar to the Japanese idiom, “The child of a frog is a frog.”
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

A version of this article was previously published on February 2, 2017, and was updated on February 26, 2021, with more information.

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