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Leisure • African Philosophy

African Proverbs to Live By

Many of humanity’s wisest ideas have been expressed in the form of proverbs. The difficulty is that many great proverbs have been weakened by centuries of over-exposure. The homely English saying ‘look before you leap’ undeniably contains a central nugget of wisdom. Yet to cite it blithely in its native place can feel underwhelming; it’s simply been said far too often for its truth to prove effective. 

This is why we stand in great need of proverbs from somewhere else: proverbs whose words can feel fresh and surprising and whose underlying wisdom will seem newly and immediately relevant. We are blessed that sub-saharan Africa has an extremely vibrant and long-standing tradition of proverbs. Among ethnic groups including the Yoruba, the Kolanga, the Igbo, the Hausa and the Maasai, wisdom is handed down in the form of short often acerbic or melancholy sayings about the human condition – that can be put to use in everyday situations ranging from choosing a career to enduring family life.

Rachidi Bissiriou, Untitled, 1985

We have gathered together some of our favourites. 

— When a single finger is cut, all the fingers will have blood.

— Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.

— When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.

—The axe forgets, the tree remembers.

— Once you carry your own water, you’ll remember every drop

— If you assume you are too small to make a difference, spend a night with a mosquito.

— No matter how hot your anger is, it cannot cook yams

— Two people in a burning house don’t stop to argue.

— One cannot prepare for the dry season by simply drinking plenty of water.

— To give away is to make provision for the future.

—We are people because of other people.

—He who offended forgets, but he who suffered from the offence does not.

— You can’t use your hand to force the sun to set.

— Until a lion learns to write, every story shall glorify the hunter.

—The child ignored by the village will burn it down just to feel its warmth.

— Ants surround the dying elephant.

— Even the tongue and the teeth quarrel now and then.

— It doesn’t take long to get used to a nicer house.

— Three men can ruin a country.

— He who excretes in the road will likely meet flies on his return

—An empty sack cannot stand up, a full sack cannot bend.

— If you want to be blamed, marry. If you want to be praised, die.

— The doctor is never killed when the patient dies

—  If you have an anus, do not laugh at your neighbour’s farts. 

— The dancers may change, the drums are the same.

And finally, a proverb about the utility of proverbs:

— To go through life without proverbs is like eating a bowl of rice without sauce.

The power of African proverbs doesn’t lie in presenting entirely new ideas but in lending new life to essential ones. Their role isn’t to change our thinking, but to remind us of what we know full well but have grown too worn down and weary to remember when it truly counts. 

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