Most countries and continents of the world have their proverbs and wise sayings. In Africa, it is the same and African proverbs are the pride of the African culture. From time immemorial, African proverbs have been used to convey messages during important conversations. It is believed that these such sayings come from the wise and only the wise understands it. Over the years, it has become associated with the wise, the elderly and the grey-haired who pride themselves in the knowledge of these proverbs and more often than not, use them to give stern advice children or the youth. In most traditions in Africa, it is usually atypical for one to tell an African proverb and still be the one to explain the meaning. This notwithstanding, Answers Africa brings you some of the greatest and most famous African proverbs and their meanings:
African Proverbs of Life
1. Only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet.
Meaning: You don’t jump straight into a situation without thinking about it first.
2. Knowledge is like a garden: If it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.
Meaning: If you don’t make efforts to acquire knowledge then you would not expect to have it and if you do not put the knowledge you have to use, you cannot expect to gain anything from it.
3. Sugarcane is sweetest at its joint.
Meaning: Good and sweet things of life may appear difficult to achieve but in the end, it is worth it.
4. Don’t set sail using someone else’s star.
Meaning: Avoid copying someone else. Just because someone has been successful in what he/she does should not be what will make you do the same thing and expect to be successful.
5. The best way to eat an elephant in your path is cut him up into little pieces.
Meaning: The best approach to solving a problem is to take it bit by bit; one at a time.
6. A restless feet may walk into a snake pit.
Meaning: If someone is busy doing nothing or is involved in what he does not know about, it is easy for him to get into trouble.
7. A chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches.
Meaning: You can easily foresee the future of something through the character and tell-tale signs it exhibits today.
8. After a foolish deed comes remorse.
Meaning: Feeling sorry always follows a foolish act.
9. A man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness.
Meaning: What goes around, comes around so whatever you sow, you shall reap.
10. A roaring lion kills no game.
Meaning: You cannot achieve or gain anything by mere sitting around and just talking about it.
11. If a child washes his hands he could eat with kings.
Meaning: If you prepare and allow yourself to be well trained when you have the opportunity, you will achieve a lot and be favoured in due course.
12. Rain does not fall on one roof alone.
Meaning: Trouble comes to everyone at one time or another.
13. Life is like a shadow and a mist; it passes quickly by, and is no more.
Meaning: Life is short, and you only live it once.
14. Wherever a man goes to dwell, his character goes with him.
Meaning: What defines a man is his character which is inseparable from him and follows him wherever he goes.
15. Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.
Meaning: Don’t look at your mistakes; look at what caused you to make the mistakes otherwise you may repeat the mistake.
The beauty of African proverbs lies in their mystery. Earlier in this article, we mentioned that in most African traditions, it is “unacceptable” to tell an African proverb and still be the one to explain the meaning. It is in the spirit of African culture that we left some of them uninterpreted to enable you enjoy their richness and wisdom while trying to see how many of them you can interpret.
16. An old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb.
17. By the time the fool has learned the game, the players have dispersed.
18. Even though the old man is strong and hearty, he will not live forever.
19. What is bad luck for one man is good luck for another.
20. Fire and gunpowder do not sleep together.
21. Hunger is felt by a slave and hunger is felt by a king.
22. The lizard that jumped from the high Iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did.
23. Money is sharper than a sword.
24. No one tests the depth of a river with both feet.
25. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride.
26. If you are in hiding, don’t light a fire.
27.If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for something.
28. When the cock is drunk, he forgets about the hawk.
29. When the fool is told a proverb, its meaning has to be explained to him.
30. Only when you have crossed the river, can you say the crocodile has a lump on his snout.
31. Rain beats a leopard’s skin, but it does not wash out the spots.
32. The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.
33. When a man is coming toward you, you need not say: “Come here.”
34. When a man is wealthy, he may wear an old cloth.
35. A man’s grave is by the roadside.
35. When you follow the path of your father, you learn to walk like him.
36. It is no shame at all to work for money.
36. It is the calm and silent water that drowns a man.
37. Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.
38. The poor man and the rich man do not play together.
39. A bad name is like a stigma.
40. When you are rich, you are hated; when you are poor, you are despised.
41. You can tell a ripe corn by its look.
42. You must judge a man by the work of his hands.
43. The moon moves slowly, but it crosses the town.
44. People should not talk while they are eating or pepper may go down the wrong way.
45. When a man says yes, his chi (personal god) says yes also.
46. One cannot both feast and become rich.
47. When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.
48. It is the fool’s sheep that break loose twice.
49. The wise create proverbs for fools to learn, not to repeat.
50. Every woman is beautiful until she speaks.
51. One who causes others misfortune also teaches them wisdom
52. Ears that do not listen to advice, accompany the head when it is chopped off.
53. He who refuses to obey cannot command.
54. You do not teach the paths of the forest to an old gorilla.
55. An army of sheep led by a lion can defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.
56. You are beautiful because of your possessions.
57. Instruction in youth is like engraving in stone.
58. He who fears the sun will not become chief.
59. He who is destined for power does not have to fight for it.
60. A large chair does not make a king.
61. You are beautiful, but learn to work, for you cannot eat your beauty.
62. When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him.
63. Having beauty doesn’t mean understanding the perseverance of marriage.
64. He who thinks he is leading and has no one following him is only taking a walk.
65. Money is not the medicine against death.
66. Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.
67. If the cockroach wants to rule over the chicken, then it must hire the fox as a body-guard
68. If there is character, ugliness becomes beauty; if there is none, beauty becomes ugliness.
69. There can be no peace without understanding.
70. A close friend can become a close enemy.
71. Money can’t talk, yet it can make lies look true.
72. He who earns calamity, eats it with his family.
African Proverbs about Unity
73. A single bracelet does not jingle
74. If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
75. Milk and honey have different colours, but they share the same house peacefully.
76. It takes a whole village to raise a child.
Meaning: The society is responsible for the moral characters it creates and everyone in a community should be responsible for helping to train a child irrespective of who the parents are; offering correction where they are needed.
77. When a king has good counselors, his reign is peaceful.
78. He who does not know one thing knows another.
Meaning: No one knows everything, but everyone knows something.
79. One falsehood spoils a thousand truths.
80. A fight between grasshoppers is a joy to the crow.
81. He that digs up a grave for his enemy, may be digging it for himself.
82. It takes a whole village to raise a child
Meaning: What defines a man is the circumstances and people around him and if they are good, he turns out good.
83. A bird will always use another birds’ feathers to feather its own nest.
84. A person is a person because of other persons.
85. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.
86. When there is peace in the country, the chief does not carry a shield.
87. Two small antelopes can beat a big one.
88. The mouth which eats does not talk.
African Proverbs About Love
89. A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which his mother puts into his palm.
90. As the dog said, ‘If I fall down for you and you fall down for me, it is playing.’
91. If you offend, ask for a pardon; if offended forgive.
Meaning: This is as simple as it sounds: If you upset someone, apologize to him or her. If someone upsets you, forgive him or her because what goes around, comes around.
92. A small house will hold a hundred friends.
93. It is Mr. Old-Man-Monkey who marries Mrs. Old-Woman-Monkey.
94. Those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.
95. Wood already touched by fire is not hard to set alight.
96. The old woman looks after the child to grow its teeth and the young one in turn looks after the old woman when she loses her teeth.
97. The one who loves an unsightly person is the one who makes him beautiful.
98. Dogs do not actually prefer bones to meat; it is just that no one ever gives them meat.
African Proverbs About Family
99. Do not call the forest that shelters you a jungle.
Meaning: Do not insult someone who is capable of taking your responsibility or taking care of you.
100. The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.
101. A wise man who knows proverbs, reconciles difficulties. (Yoruba)
102. When a woman is hungry, she says, “Roast something for the children that they might eat.”
103. Looking at a king’s mouth one would never think he sucked his mother’s breast.
104. There is no medicine to cure hatred.
105. It’s a bad child who does not take advice.
106. Dine with a stranger but save your love for your family.
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