15 Of Our Favorite African Proverbs

Proverbs are like heirlooms — they are handed down from one generation to the next in the hope that the newer generations will heed their time-honored wisdom. These African maxims, declarative statements and positive imperatives can teach us a thing or two about how to live — no matter where we are from — and perhaps more importantly, illustrate our common humanity.

1. On Money — Tanzania

A Tanzanian proverb on money alerts us: “Make some money but don’t let money make you.” …or you risk finding, as the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, “Money often costs too much.”

2. On Marriage — Africa

An African proverb on  marriage suggests that “A happy man marries the girl he loves, but a happier man loves the girl he marries”…reminding us that it is more important to love one woman a thousand ways, than to try and please a thousand women.

3. On Love — Burundi

Burundi has suffered political crisis since the early 1990s when Hutus and Tutsis fought over ethnic rivalry. A Burundian proverb on love shines some light on their sentiments stating, “Where there is love there is no darkness.”

4. On patience — Nigeria

The Igbo of Nigeria know about patience and have learned that “Always being in a hurry does not prevent death, neither does going slowly prevent living.”

5. On Eating — Madagascar

Madagascar’s food reflects the varied and vast influence of the migrants from Southeast Asia, the African mainland, India, China and Europe who settled on the island. Seafarers from Borneo arrived starting from 100 C.E. to 500 C.E.  The Malagasy people may not have been talking about food when they came up with this: “Don’t take another mouthful before you have swallowed what is in your mouth.”

6. On Women — Ethiopia

Where women’s participation in society is limited, freedom and innovation of all people is impeded. Two thirds of the female population is illiterate. While gender policies might offer women opportunities to hold high-ranking positions at the national level, office holders at local levels remain largely male. We all might learn from the Ethiopians who make this observation: “Where a woman rules, streams run uphill.”

7.  On Cooperation — Tanzania

The Haya of Tanzania invented one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs, steel, some 2000 years ago. It is evident they understood that people working together could accomplish great things. The Haya said, “Many hands make light work. ”

8. On Worthiness — Cameroon

In a country that boasts one of the highest school attendance rates in Africa and a literacy rate of 71 percent, Cameroonians know that a person’s worth is not measured in currency. Cameroon knows that money does not make the man by admonishing, “A man’s wealth may be superior to him.”

9.  On leadership — Malawi

Malawians have a saying that beats any Gallup poll as an indicator of a leader’s popularity. “He who thinks he is leading and has no one following him is only taking a walk.” Malawi implemented a multi-party system in 1994, and abolished lifelong presidencies.

10. On beauty — Kenya

The Maasai are an ethnic group of semi-nomadic people inhabiting Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Despite past government attempts to evict the Maasai and force them to abandon their lands and lifestyle, they continued to exude dignity and cheerfulness. Wearing colorful attire they welcome visitors to their villages and share in their joyous dancing. They say, “Judge not your beauty by the number of people who look at you, but rather by the number of people who smile at you.”

11. On Unity — Tanzania

About 100,000 Bondei people live in the Usambara Mountains in the Tanga Region of Northeastern Tanzania. This proverb, credited to them, shows the value they place on community: “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.”

12. On Friendship — Gabon

The Gabonese alert us to the company we keep in this proverb, “Bad friends will prevent you from having good friends.” Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba and his wife Sylvia kept company with U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in August.

13. On Family — Ghana

The Akan from Ghana and along the Ivory Coast approach parenting as an investment in the future, as reflected in this proverb, “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.”

14. On learning — South Africa

A South African proverb states: “What you help a child to love can be more important than what you help him to learn.”

15. On Wisdom — Gabon

The Akan of Gabon are credited with this saying, “Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it.”

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