Travel and Culture: African Proverbs and Their Meanings

Every culture has its proverbs - single sentences crafted with wisdom and passed down through the generations to give guidance to those that need it. Africa is no exception, and each of the continent's myriad tribes has its own set of traditional sayings. Some are comical, some are cryptic, but all of them offer subtle grains of truth that remain relevant today - no matter where you live or what your circumstances may be.

African proverbs also offer a fascinating insight into the cultures that created them. Many of them draw their inspiration from the continent's unique flora and fauna, while others paint a picture of life in a traditional village. Often, the proverbs' exotic nature can make them difficult to interpret for those that live far from the jungles and savannahs of Africa. In this article, we explore the meaning of ten different proverbs and try to find their popular counterparts. 

  • 01 of 10

    A Roaring Lion Kills No Game

    Lion hunting
    ••• Jessica Macdonald

    This simple proverb originates from Uganda, and can be interpreted in several ways. In the same way that a lion must use stealth to stalk his prey rather than announcing his position and scaring the target away, it's best to work quietly towards your goals rather than bragging about an achievement prematurely. Similarly, the proverb also suggests that sitting around and talking loudly about doing something ultimately achieves nothing. Essentially, it translates along the lines of "actions speak louder than words".  

  • 02 of 10

    Rain Beats the Leopard's Skin But it Does Not Wash Out the Spots

    Leopard in the Rain
    ••• Leopard in the Rain. Denis-Huot / Getty Images

    This Ghanaian proverb is a more elaborate version of the well-known saying "a leopard can't change its spots". In the same way that no matter how long a leopard stands in the rain, its spots will never wash away, you can't change a person's true character regardless of how hard you try. Similarly, it can also be interpreted as a caution to look after your reputation. If you become known for bad ​behavior, it's difficult to change a person's opinion of you no matter how many good deeds you do thereafter. 

     

  • 03 of 10

    Wood Already Touched by Fire is Not Hard to Set Alight

    Campfire at Night
    ••• Campfire at Night. Lijuan Guo Photography/ Getty Images

    Also from Ghana, this proverb can be interpreted in both a positive and a negative way. Essentially, it translates as "the first step is the hardest", and could therefore be seen as an encouragement to take the plunge at the beginning of a new endeavor. It also speaks of the ease with which an idea can become reality once it has taken root. However, it can be seen as a caution, too - in that it only takes one bad decision to start one on the slippery slope to disgrace or dishonour. 

     

  • 04 of 10

    You Do Not Teach the Paths of the Forest to an Old Gorilla

    Silverback Gorilla
    ••• Silverback Gorilla. Panoramic Images / Getty Images

    This evocative proverb comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the last bastions of the critically endangered eastern gorilla. Quite simply, it reminds us to respect and listen to our elders and the wisdom that they have accrued over the years. It also points out the arrogance of trying to lecture the experienced on subjects that they are already familiar with. "Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs" is an appropriate Western equivalent. 

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    He Who is Bitten by a Snake Fears a Lizard

    Bush Snake
    ••• Bush Snake. Jessica Macdonald

    The African version of "once bitten, twice shy", this proverb refers to the way in which one unfortunate experience can make you doubly wary of suffering the same experience in the future. It also advises you not only to be cautious of the animal, person or situation that hurt you in the first place, but to treat similar things with the same respect. The proverb originates from Uganda, a country with several venomous snake species including the puff adder and the black mamba. 

  • 06 of 10

    Wisdom is Like a Baobab Tree; No One Individual Can Embrace it

    Baobabs at Sunrise
    ••• Baobabs at Sunrise. Hannes Thirion / Getty Images

    This proverb originates from the Akan and Ewe tribes of West Africa, and uses the great size and girth of the baobab tree to describe the vastness of knowledge. It has two interpretations: one, that it is impossible for one person to know everything; and two, that wisdom belongs to everyone, and should not be kept to oneself. Essentially, if you have knowledge, share it. Appropriately, the baobab tree is known by some African tribes as the Tree of Life. 

  • 07 of 10

    When Two Elephants Fight, it is the Grass That Gets Trampled

    Elephants Fighting
    ••• Elephants Fighting. Jessica Macdonald

    This Swahili proverb speaks of the effect that conflict has not only on those involved, but on the people or places that surround them. It suggests that once the conflict is over (whether it's an argument between parents or a country's civil war), the long-term damage is often more serious for the innocent than for those that caused the problem in the first place. "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" offers a good parallel for this proverb. 

     

  • 08 of 10

    It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

    Xhosa Children
    ••• Xhosa Children. Jessica Macdonald

    This proverb originates with the Yoruba and Igbo tribes of Nigeria. It is a testament to the value of a strong community​ and the power that a positive environment has on a child's growth. Taken less literally, it also refers to the importance of helping those that are less fortunate in order to create a stronger whole - whether that be a village, a country or the global human community. 

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Do Not Call the Forest That Shelters You a Jungle

    Colobus Monkey Sheltering in the Forest
    ••• Colobus Monkey Sheltering in the Forest. Anup Shah / Getty Images

    Another pearl of wisdom from the West African nation of Ghana, this proverb is comparable to the Western idiom "don't bite the hand that feeds you". Essentially, it acknowledges the foolishness of insulting the person, relationship or institution that you depend upon for survival. The proverb is attributed to the Ashanti people of southern Ghana, a heavily forested area known for its timber trade. 

  • 10 of 10

    Not Everyone Who Chased the Zebra Caught it, But he Who Caught it, Chased it

    Lioness Chasing Zebra
    ••• Lioness Chasing Zebra. Gallo Images / Getty Images

    This South African proverb is the safari equivalent of "if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again". It means that you may not achieve your goals every time you set out to do so, but the only way that you will ever reach them is to keep trying. It also reminds us that those that already have success have likely worked hard and experienced failure many times - and that losing today doesn't mean that you can't win tomorrow.