Every continent 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 its countless ethnic groups 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 savannas of Africa. In this article, we explore the meaning of 12 different proverbs and try to find their western counterparts.
"A roaring lion kills no game"
This simple proverb originates from Uganda and has two interpretations. In the same way that a lion must stalk his prey silently to avoid scaring it 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".
"Rain beats the leopard's skin but it does not wash out the spots"
This Ghanaian proverb is a more elaborate version of the saying "a leopard can't change its spots". No matter how long a leopard stands in the rain, its spots will never wash away; in the same way, 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 your image no matter how many good deeds you do thereafter.
"Wood already touched by fire is not hard to set alight"
Also from Ghana, this proverb can be both positive and negative. Essentially, it translates as "the first step is the hardest", and could 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 a reality once acted upon. However, it can be seen as a caution, too, in that it only takes one bad decision to start a person on the slippery slope to disgrace or dishonor.
"You do not teach the paths of the forest to an old gorilla"
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.
"He who is bitten by a snake, fears a lizard"
The African version of "once bitten, twice shy", this proverb explains how 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.
"Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it"
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.
"When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled"
This Swahili proverb speaks of the effect that conflict has not only on those involved, but on the people or places around 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.
"It takes a village to raise a child"
This proverb originates with the Yoruba and Igbo tribes of Nigeria. It is a testament to the value of a strong community and the important roles that aunts, uncles, friends, teachers, and other role models can (and should) take in a young child's upbringing. 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.
"Do not call the forest that shelters you a jungle"
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 heavily forested southern Ghana. Many of the Ashanti rely on the local timber trade for their income.
"Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it"
This proverb is the South African equivalent of "if you don't try, you'll never know", or "if at first you don't succeed, 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.
"No matter how hot your anger is, it cannot cook yams"
Originating from Nigeria, this proverb reminds us that anger is not a constructive emotion. Being angry at a situation won't change it; rather, try and keep a level head and think of a positive way in which to accept or fix the problem. Western equivalents include "no use crying over spilt milk" (for those irritations that you just have to get over) and "don't get mad, get even" (for times when you can rectify an injustice as long as you're able to curb your temper).
"The best way to eat the elephant standing in your path is to cut it up into little pieces"
A more evocative way of saying "one step at a time", this African proverb advises anyone facing a seemingly insurmountable task to tackle it in manageable stages until it's finished. It draws some similarities to the famous quote by Nelson Mandela, "it always seems impossible until it's done". By tackling one issue at a time, Mandela and his peers ultimately overcame apartheid in South Africa to establish the country's first black-led democracy–proof of this proverb's power.