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African Proverbs And Their Meaning

Updated on January 3, 2014

African Proverbs And Sayings

African proverbs like all other proverbs are a rhetorical and effective way of communicating. It contains everyday experiences packaged in a succinct manner that makes the point it is trying to communicate easy to remember.

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ashes
ashes

Ashes flies back into the face of him who throws them-Nigerian Proverbs

Category: African proverbs about Life

Interpreted meaning: You reap what you sow. Ashes are very light and easily dispersed by wind. It is used for several household activities in Africa, making it readily available for an object for kiddies play. Due to the danger throwing ashes at another poses to the one who throws it, kids are warned never to throw ashes for their own benefit.

Life is a teacher. The more you live, the more you learn~ Nigerian proverb

Category: African Proverbs about Life

Interpreted Meaning: Experience is a huge part of learning and the more years are added to our lives the more enriched our experience bank becomes. In a traditional African setting the Octogenarians, septugenerians are respected when it comes to decision making around simply because they have lived longer than everyone else(or most people).

Most of the cultural norms in African aren't documented, they have been transferred orally and by participation. This African proverb alludes to the fact that living long plays the same role plays in the learning experience (having more oral information and participation) of an elderly man in Nigeria.

A roaring lion does not catch any prey - Acholi people

Category: African proverbs about Life

Interpreted meaning: Boasting without action yields no fruit.

The acholi people live in Northern Uganda. Roaring is one of the strategies that lions use to confuse a prey while it is hunting. However, unless the lion makes effort to also chase the prey the roaring would have been in vain.

Until the Lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story - Ewe people

Category: African proverbs about Life

Interpreted meaning: You can never get a full grasp of an event unless you hear both sides of the story. History is always written by the victors and not the villains.

The camel does not see the bend on its neck -Libyan proverb

Interpreted meaning: it is easy to see the shortcoming of other people, but difficult to see your own. For many centuries, the camel was the car of the desert, and in many places it still is. Able to go long distances without water, it was the ideal animal for transporting people, goods and food across the sands of the Sahara.

The camels long and curved shaped neck makes it very unattractive to some locals In Libya, who believe that a camel cannot see its own ugliness.

When you capture a snake's head, the rest of the body becomes a rope

Origin: Nigeria

Category: African Proverb on Wisdom

Interpreted meaning: when you deal with the real marcoy, every other thing will either become easier to handle or just fall in place.

Baobab tree
Baobab tree

Wisdom is like a Baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it

Category: African Proverb on Wisdom

Interpreted meaning: One person cannot simply collect, analyze and put into use all the knowledge (wonderful things) available out there.

The Baobab trees are believed to live for as much as 6000 years explaining why they are called the tree of live. They grow grow up to 30 meters in high and the trunk diameter can be as much as 11 meters. The trunk can store as much as 120,000 litres of water. This African proverb is often used to encourage group work.

A tsetse fly perched on the scrotum must be chased away with extreme care.

Origin: Ibo tribe, Nigeria

Category: African Proverbs on Wisdom

Interpreted Meaning: Take extra care while handling certain situation so that you don't escalate the problem.The tse-tse fly which is a dangerous swamp fly is the carrier of sleeping sickness. If the tse-tse fly finds it way to your scrotum, you wouldn't want to attack it fiercely-you know what would happen if you did. This African proverb is used to encourage strategy rather than brute force.

villagee
villagee

It takes a whole village to raise a child

Origin: Ibo tribe, Nigeria

Category: African Proverbs on Family

Interpreted meaning: Extended family members and friends contribute in one way or another in raising a child. In Igboland children are seen as a blessing from God and communal effort is employed in raising them (this means at different times when the parents of a child are away from him or her neighbours offer free advisory role) .

stone
stone

Patience can cook a stone

Origin: Fula people

Category: African Proverb on Patience

Interpreted meaning: No matter how impossible a problem seems, patience mixed with persistence can resolve it.

The Fula people don't eat stones. but they understand how much patience is required to prepare some foods like the bitter yam (also known as the three-leaf yam), iron beans to mention but a few. Despite the time it takes to prepare these meals, it eventually gets ready.

crocodile
crocodile

When a crocodile jumps around he ends up receiving the spear- Subi Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Planning

Interpreted Meaning:If a crocodile roams aimlessly he makes it easier for the fisherfolk to get him. If you play with your life working aimlessly, you will soon get the bitter loss.

One falsehood spoils a Thousand truths-Ashanti

Category: African proverbs on Friendship

Interpreted meaning: One mistake could undo series of good work.

No matter how long a log stays in the water, it doesn't become a crocodile. - Bambara Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Identity

Interpreted meaning: No matter how hard you try you can't fake your true identity (who you are). So, its better to be original.

A cockroach knows how to sing and dance, but it is the hen who prevents it from performing its art during the day. -Edo Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Limitation

The story of a singing and dancing cockroach belongs to the imaginary world of folktale where ants walk erect and spiders hold court. No one has ever a singing and dancing cockroach, but the sight of a hen pursuing a cockroach is a common exposition in many African villages. For the hungry hen the cockroach makes a delicious meal.

The cockroach is aware of its precarious existence -- it has an enemy who is always on its trail at daytime. This is a limitation because the cockroach cannot then show what it is capable of doing at a time when all can see. It can only perform in the dark for safety reasons. It is such a situation that this Nigerian proverb describes.

A hippopotamus can be made invisible in dark water. - African Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Knowledge

Interpreted meaning: Ignorance is very deadly. Pay attention to every detail.

He who is beaten by a snake fears an earthworm

Category: African Proverbs on Wisdom

Interpreted meaning: Past experiences can make someone take extra care. Unlike the snake that is a poisonous creature the earthworm is harmless and is often referred to as "The farmers friend." However, both creatures crawl on their bellies, so it makes sense for someone to fear an earthworm after a bad encounter with a snake.

A chicken eats corn, drinks water and swallows little pebbles, but still complains of having no teeth.

If she had teeth would she eat steel? -Yoruba Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Content

Interpreted Meaning: This African proverb expresses the need to accept life as it is and make the best of situations rather than complaining and sulking. You have more than enough to accomplish what you want; focus on the opportunities not the limitations. All that you have is all that you need.

A leader in the community without a potbelly is a stingy man. -Nigerian proverb

Category: African proverb on Leadership

Drinking is seen as one of the main causes of pot bellies. The culture of drinking in Nigeria is centered on merriment and sharing. Someone that is celebrating a promotion or remarkable event goes to a bar and buys drinks for his friends. Most people who perform this ritual are seen as generous people and It is thought that the person that does this often will probably develop a pot belly.

This African proverb makes reference to this fact and stresses how important it is for the leader of a community to make sure that every citizen benefits from the goodies(resources) that accrues to the community. Simply put, a leader should make sure that when the community records a success, every citizen should have a cause to celebrate.

The dog does not worry when the chicken runs over to the bones

Category: African Proverbs on Attitude

Dogs being a carnivore have a huge appetite for meat and bones. Many times you see a dog engaging another dog or a cat in a fight over who grabs a bone. It is a splendid scene to watch and survival of the fittest comes into play. However, if a hen made a move for a bone the dog need not bother squaring up for a fight because he is very sure the hen will walk away from the bone. The hen has no teeth so it cannot eat bones.

This African proverb is used to describe the confidence of people who do not feel threatened by other people's performance because they know that they have their own special talent. It is against unwarranted conflicts.

Send a boy where he wants to go and you'll see his best pace. - Nigerian Proverb.

Category: African Proverbs on Passion

Interpreted Meaning: Passion is the greatest motivator.

Unlike some(or most) homes in the western world where the children(kids) can easily refuse to do what his parents advised, the African society is much more different. A boy always adheres to the instructions of his parents even when he doesn't seem to agree with them because the mentality is "your parents know what is best for you". Of course there are few cases were this mindset has proved costly. For instance, a child taking a major he is bad at just to please his parents. And it is also responsible for some kids putting in half-hearted efforts into the tasks they are assigned. However, the boy can make his parents change their minds by helping them see things the way he sees it.

When his attempt to lobby his parents is successful, his excitement knows no bounds. He does whatever it is wanted to do the best way he can(with a lot of passion), knowing that he fought a "good fight" before he was able to get a shot at it. This African proverb makes reference to this occurrence.

If you are ugly you must learn to dance. ~Zambian Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Beauty

Interpreted Meaning: You must develop skills to overcome your weaknesses.

In ancient times when marriage was organized by parents, the guys mom searches for a wife for her son based on a number of qualities she thinks would make a great home. She considers her looks, dancing skills, character, farming skills to mention but a few. After her "assessment" a girl that is an excellent farmer, but not very pretty might get chosen and vice versa.

This African proverb admonishes us not to bother about things that could be turn offs to people(especially if we can't change them) and instead focus on the awesome stuffs.

A single bracelet does not jingle

Category: African Proverbs on Unity

Interpreted Meaning:There is strength in numbers. You can much more working with a team than working alone.

Bracelets are an important constituent of dance costumes in Africa. They are worn around the waist, arms and legs to create a melodious jingle as the dancer performs. It is necessary for a dancer to wear a lot of bracelets because no matter how she shakes(and a single bracelets moves up and down) her body a single bracelet will never jingle.

The stubborn fly accompanies the corpse to the grave. ~Igbo Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Wisdom

Interpreted meaning: This African proverb teaches that you recognize impending danger and plan your actions to avoid it. If you fail to do so, you will face the consequences.

After the death of an animal, flies come to feast on the carcass. The flies remain there until the corpse is buried, usually flying off at the last second. The fly is aware of the risks-it knows when the corpse is about to be buried and leaves even when it hasn't had enough food. However, sometimes a "stubborn" fly may stay longer than it should and eventually get buried alive along with the corpse.

A fish that does not swallow other fishes does not grow fat.~Igbo Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Survival

Interpreted Meaning: This African Proverb teaches that sometimes one has to act without qualms.

Making friends is like wearing sandals. If they do not fit then you remove them.~Ashanti Proverb

Category: African proverbs on friendship

Interpreted meaning: This African proverb teaches that we should be very selective when picking your friends and it never a bad thing to cut off people who aren't adding value to your life.

A toad does not run in the day for nothing, there must be a green snake in the grass. -Nigerian Proverb

Category: African proverbs on common sense

interpreted meaning: This Africa proverb shows that an unusual cause is always responsible for an unusual action.

If a child washes his hands, he could eat with kings. (West Africa)

Category: African poverbs on hard work

Interpreted Meaning: This African proverb teaches that a young person who develops discipline and manners may participate with elders. This African proverb is used to motivate people to dream big and work hard.

The villager who always complains and is never satisfied with anything is like an annoying flea on the foot. (East Africa)

Category: African proverbs on attitude

Interpreted Meaning: Frequent complain is annoying. The flea constantly tries to lick the wound on the feet of an injured person. it is so indulged in the act that It keeps coming back for a counter attack when you succeed in chasing it away. It's very annoying.

Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it. (Southern Africa)

Category; African proverbs on hard work

Interpreted Meaning: Trying does not guarantee success, but you cannot be successful unless you try. This African proverb is used to inspire people to put in some effort into their endeavors.

Water follows the slope-Swahili

Category: African proverbs on nature and consequences

Interpreted Meaning: This African proverb reiterates how strong universal laws of natures are. Water always and will always flow from higher points to lower points. It is used to stress how eminent the consequences of one`s actions are.

A tree on a hill in the savannah is a meeting place for birds.~ Bembe

Interpreted Meaning: A Savannah is the place were most animals would love to be. Predators like lion, leopard and cheetah easily get their catch here easily. It is also a good food reserve for herbivores and birds. However, birds feel unsafe on the grassland of the Savannah as they are targeted by predators. At the sight of danger they rush to the nearest tree for safety.

This African proverb is used to remind us how valuable our help to strangers or tourist could be.

Water is colourless and tasteless but you can live on it longer than eating food. ~African Proverb

Interpreted meaning: This African proverb is used in admonishing people that most times the advises that turn out to be the most helpful are the ones that are simple/easy to commonize.

Water is a constitute of every food and it is said that humans can live longer without eating food than without drinking water. In traditional african society where parents insist that their kids do what they thought was the best for them. This proverb is used by neighbors to soothe the hearts of angry kids reminding them that their parent's decision was for the best.

What the child says, he has heard at home. ~Nigerian Proverb

Category: African proverbs on Family

Interpreted Meaning: The way a child behaves in public largely reflects the kind of job his parents has done in bringing him up.

The origin of most African proverbs dates back to the era when there were no multimedia means of communication. This explains the thinking that the thoughts that comes out of child stems from what his parents whom he spends most of his time with had imbibed in him.

If there had been no poverty in Europe, then the white man would not have come and spread his clothes in Africa

Category: African proverbs on hard work and poverty

Interpreted Meaning: This saying is used to encourage people to leave their "comfort zones" and explore the world for better opportunities. In the old days Africa was not the best place for foreigners to travel to. A lot of the tourists lost their lives, while others had to battle illnesses. It surprised locals how these foreigners gladly left their comfort zone to come explore the riches in Africa which was largely unknown.

Wisdom is like fire. People take it from others. ~ Hema (DRC) proverb

Interpreted Meaning: No man is an Island of knowledge.

Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.~Tanzania

Category: African proverbs on Unity

Interpreted Meaning: Even if individuals have little strength on their own, sticking together makes them very strong.

A happy man marries the girl he loves, but a happier man loves the girl he marries. ~African Proverb

Category: African proverbs on love

Interpreted Meaning: Love is a decision. It is better to make a conscious effort to love someone.

In the old days, most men married women mainly for her good behavior while women said yes to a proposal for every other awesome thing about a man- love was rarely part of the equation. It was believed that we control our emotions and feelings.

If you don't want a tail of a monkey to touch you then don't attend the monkey dance

Category: African proverb on wisdom

Interpreted Meaning: You can avoid unwanted outcomes by simply not carrying out some actions. Monkeys dance in a very delightful manner. So, a human might be attracted to join the party, but this African proverb cautions such persons to be careful because monkeys also use their tail as part of their dance move.

A cat in its castle has lion's teeth. ~Somali Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Attitude

Interpreted Meaning: People can show unusual strength when it comes to their area of specialty.

A canoe does not know who the leader is; when it turns over, everyone gets wet. ~Malagasy Proverb

Category: African proverbs on leadership

Interpreted meaning: Someone has to be responsible for calling the big shots, if not when things go wrong no one can be held accountable.

A child can play with its mother's breasts, but not its father's testicles. ~African Proverb

Origin: Unknown location in Africa

Category: African Proverbs on Family

Interpreted Meaning: It is okay for a man to sleep around, but a family where the woman sleeps around never last.

If while climbing a tree you insist on going beyond the top, the earth will be waiting for you. ~African Proverb

Category: African Proverbs on Wisdom

Interpreted Meaning: Know your limits and never exceed them.

Unless it dies young, the penis shall surely eat bearded meat.

Origin: Igbo, Nigeria

Category: African Proverbs on Patience

Interpreted Meaning: Things happen in due time and there is no gain in rushing to indulge in sexual activities.

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    • profile image

      Vikyymascot 2 years ago

      This is one kind of a fascinating piece...

    • NickHerc profile image

      NickHerc 3 years ago

      Great collection! I enjoyed it very much.

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 3 years ago

      I really love the proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child.

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      diligentwheel lm 3 years ago

      @Normyo Yonormyo: Thank you for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    • Normyo Yonormyo profile image

      Normyo Yonormyo 3 years ago

      Thanks for this great collection and the collecting.

    • katiecolette profile image

      katiecolette 3 years ago

      Great collection of African proverbs. Thanks for sharing and interpreting their meaning.

    • marktplaatsshop profile image

      marktplaatsshop 4 years ago

      I enjoyed reading it, there are a few great proverbs here, thanks for sharing, i think my favorite is

      Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it.

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @DeborahDian: Thanks Deb!

    • DeborahDian profile image

      Deborah Carr 4 years ago from Orange County, California

      I love these African proverbs. Great article idea! :)

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @LisaDH: Thanks Lisadh!

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 4 years ago

      Great collection of proverbs! My favorite was "A roaring lion catches no prey." True!

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      abernadette1 4 years ago

      breath-takingily beautiful

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @joshua-jim: Thanks Joshua

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      joshua-jim 4 years ago

      Wow!! Wonderful really enjoyed it..

    • profile image

      MarcellaCarlton 4 years ago

      Great selection of Proverbs.

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @pumpum: Thanks for stopping by.

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @Carashops: Thanks for stopping by. I am glad you enjoyed it.

    • Carashops profile image

      Cara 4 years ago

      I love your selection of proverbs.

    • pumpum profile image

      pumpum 4 years ago

      Wonderful!

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @shawnhi77 lm: Thanks Shawnhi77

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @nelly-e-kennington: Thanks Nelly! I will work on implementing your recommendation

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @prime-qu: Thanks for reading

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @henry-ojinika: Thanks Henry!

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @henry-ojinika: Thanks Henry!

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      diligentwheel lm 4 years ago

      @JoshK47: Thanks Joshk47

    • shawnhi77 lm profile image

      shawnhi77 lm 4 years ago

      Wonderful lens. I love it.

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      JoshK47 4 years ago

      Fascinating read!

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      nelly-e-kennington 4 years ago

      Awesome!! Wishes this lens was longer!!

    • prime-qu profile image

      prime-qu 4 years ago

      My favorite "Patience can cook a stone"

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      henry-ojinika 4 years ago

      Great Lens!! I love the fact that you included pictures for every proverb