20 African Proverbs; Origin and Meaning

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Africa is well known for its folklore and stories ridden with its culture and rich history.

African proverbs are also filled with the continent’s rich culture and centuries old tradition. African proverbs are elementary and very fundamental in every sense of the word and each of them has its own unique meaning and lesson.

Most Africans can connote and recognize the meaning and lessons of a proverb as soon as they see or hear it. This is probably because in one way or another, the environment and the people around them have shown or said similar things.

This list is however for everyone including Africans who want to know more about African proverbs and their origins.

1) YOU DO NOT CLIMB A PEPPER TREE BUT RATHER YOU GO AROUND IT
MEANING: Problems always have more than one resolution. Don’t go charging into every bad situation you find yourself. There are ways to solve issues amicably for the good of all involved and it doesn’t have to be head on conflict.
ORIGIN: Igbo tribe in Nigeria.

2) THE DANCE OF A MILLIPEDE DOES NOT IMPRESS THE PERSON THAT HAS SEEN THE DANCE OF A SNAKE
MEANING: Strive to exceed your comfort zone. The person who finds peace in remaining where he or she is will not succeed beyond that point. Expand and widen your experiences and horizon.
ORIGIN: Igbo tribe in Nigeria.

3) UNTIL LIONS START WRITING THEIR OWN STORIES, HUNTERS WILL ALWAYS BE THE HEROES
MEANING: Until you find your own voice and begin to tell your story the way you want it to be told, your story will always be owned by someone else.
ORIGIN: Kenya and Zimbabwe

4) THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FIG TREE MAY HAVE A WORM
MEANING: Outward appearances are sometimes misleading. Worms are usually attracted to the best fig tree. This proverb is almost similar to ‘all that glitters is not gold’.
ORIGIN: Zulu Proverb south Africa

5) CATTLES EAT PASTURE TOGETHER BUT THEY HAVE DIFFERENT PRICE TAGS
MEANING: A Group of people seen together does not mean they have the same goals, dreams, vision and capabilities. You might start a journey with your friends or loved ones but everyone has a different and separate race to run.
ORIGIN: Cote D’Ivoire

6) MONKEY DEY WORK, BABOON DEY CHOP
MEANING: This means the act of exploitation. This is usually when someone else does all the work while another person takes all the glory or reaps all the benefit. It is when a hardworking individual is being taken advantage of.
ORIGIN: West and Central Africa Proverb

7) USE YOUR TONGUE TO COUNT YOUR TEETH
MEANING: This proverb is known for its almost passive suggestion. It means to think and act wisely and accordingly. Another Nigerian Proverb that has the same meaning as this is ‘sew your coat according to your size’. This essentially means, know your means and act accordingly.
ORIGIN: Nigerian Proverb

8) EVEN AN ANT CAN HARM AN ELEPHANT
MEANING: Never underestimate the potentials of even your smallest opponent. With a well strategized and precise attack any giant might be easily defeated.
ORIGIN: Zulu Land

9) THE MONKEY BELIEVES HIS BUSHY EYELASHES COST HIM HIS BEAUTY
MEANING: This is when someone is giving unrealistic explanation or solutions to his problems.
ORIGIN: Nigerian Proverb

10) IT IS SWEET, IT IS SWEET WILL SOON MAKE A GOAT CHOKE ON YAM
MEANING: Overindulgence can lead to something not desired. Moderation is always essential.
ORIGIN: Nigerian Proverb

11) IT IS EASIER TO BREAK A SINGLE BROOMSTICK THAN A BUNCH
MEANING: There is power in Unity and if we want to stand the tides of time, Unity is essential.
ORIGIN: Akan, Ghana

12) ONLY AN ANIMAL THAT USES ITS TEETH FOR CLIMBING KNOWS WHICH TREE IS BITTER
MEANING: Some experiences will only be truly appreciated and understood with firsthand knowledge.
ORIGIN: Igbo Tribe in Nigeria

ALSO READ : 20 most beautiful African countries

13) THOSE WITH FRIENDS ARE WEALTHY
MEANING: When you have genuine and true friends, it means you are not alone even in difficult times. Good friends that will provide comfort, assurances and advice when needed. A person with genuine friends should count themselves lucky and wealthy.
ORIGIN: Nigerian Proverb

14) THE RABBIT DOES NOT RUN IN DAYTIME FOR NOTHING
MEANING: This is usually used to warn people that danger might be lurking. Quite literally, Rabbits only run during the daytime if it is being pursued by a threatening predator.
ORIGIN: Nigerian Proverb

15) TREES CLUSTERED TOGETHER MAKES A MONKEY LOOK SMART
MEANING: This means to stop comparing yourself with or to your surroundings. Go outside your environs and challenge yourself with the best and then you will truly see where you stand.
ORIGIN: African Proverb

16) THE PERSON WHO EATS ALONE CANNOT DISCUSS THE TASTE OF THE FOOD WITH OTHERS
MEANING: It is better to share. Communal sharing is more enjoyable and peaceful.
ORIGIN: African Proverb

17) IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE AND TRAIN A CHILD
MEANING: The upbringing of a child is a united effort. This is emphasizing on the importance of family relationships. However its literal meaning dates back to decades ago before modernization and development hit the shores of Africa. A community could be seen as one big family then and any accounatble adult could punish, reprimand and\or send any child on an errand even though the child was not primarily theirs. Adults treated their neighbor’s child as they would theirs and advice and stories were occasionally swapped between families.
ORIGIN: African Proverb

18) SUGARCANE IS SWEETEST AT MIDPOINT
MEANING: Enjoying or reaping the fruits of your labor is a gradual process. There are things that have to be done and attended to before achieving your goals.
ORIGIN: African Proverb

19) A ROARING LION KILLS NO GAME
MEANING: This literally means to keep your plans to yourself and quietly work them out. Let your actions and work speak for itself. Do not divulge plans before they are even conceived.
ORIGIN: African Proverb

20) SINCE EVERY LIZARD LIES ON THEIR BELLY, WE CANNOT TELL WHICH ONE HAS BELLY ACHE
MEANING: Never make hasty judgments, always get your facts straight. Appearances can be misleading.
ORIGIN: African Proverb

Proverbs have been in existence as far back as Africans themselves. They use them to chastise, warn, deter and advice. African proverbs would majorly be noticed being used by elders of a particular community in form of riddles and sometimes to keep their discussions private from the children around them. African proverbs are notably used in cultural times like weddings, burials, chieftaincy titles, festivals and the likes.

18 comments

  1. Proverbs unify people around the world. People with different cultures, religious beliefs and languages can interpret many proverbs in the same context.

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    1. Actually the proverb “all lizards lay on their belly and we can’t predict the one with a stomach”..It means “keep your secrets yours even among your most trusted loved ones because you are unaware of the one with evil intentions towards you”

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