19 cool African proverbs and their meanings

All the many different types of African people have a rich cultural heritage that has survived colonialism, conflict and many other issues.

Except for Egypt, there may not be huge libraries of written history or literature dating back for hundreds or even thousands of years in Africa, like there is on other continents. But there was a wealth of wisdom that was handed down verbally through the generations.

Some of this “wisdom of the elders” is expressed in proverbs – little bits of human truth that can make us go “hmmm” – or have a good laugh. African countries have many of these in all the many and various languages. Some of them still in common use today!

african guy with cows

Let’s look at some of these old sayings and what they mean in English, in a light-hearted way!

  1. The strength of the crocodile is in the water – people can be very strong in their right environment (also, be careful of large murky bodies of water).
  2. You begin with the meal before the water is boiling! – you’re too impatient and doing things the wrong way round (seriously, does anyone LIKE raw potatoes?).
  3. Knowledge is like a lion; it cannot be gently embraced – to gain knowledge you have to go after it with all your energy (and make sure you don’t tickle the lion too much).
  4. Little pots have ears – don’t forget that children can hear what you’re saying (and probably repeat all the embarrassing parts to their friends).
  5. The quail waits for the stick – the lazy person loitering around is going to be punished (for a lazy person, the worst punishment is having to do some work!).
  6. The heart is like a goat that has to be tied up – people are not easily satisfied, they want lots of things (some people’s hearts seem to want EVERYTHING!).african goats
  7. The fool who owns an ox is seldom recognized as a fool – a stupid guy who has money might not seem at first to be a stupid guy (but stupid people usually get recognized in the end, often when it’s too late…).
  8. He flees from the roaring lion to the crouching lion – that guy went from one dangerous situation to an even more dangerous situation (the English saying that means the same thing is quite good too: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”).
  9. The iguana puffs itself out to make itself a man – some people show off to seem more important than they are (also, some iguanas are more important than some people).
  10. A mouth like yours should get jam – you speak well and say good things (great, now where’s my jam?)
  11. The jackal is marrying the wolf’s wife – when the sun is shining but rain is also falling (how do I get invited to this jackal’s wedding??)african rainbow
  12. If you are looking for a fly in your food it means that you are full – if you have energy to complain about silly things, you don’t have any real problems (but seriously, close the windows when you’re cooking, flies are gross).
  13. The impatient person eats goat, the one who hesitates eats beef – sometimes you need to be patient and wait for something better to come along (goat meat is pretty nice actually, healthy and low in fat too!).
  14. Where there is honey, there are bound to be ants – if something nice happens, there will always be small problems associated with it (not joking with this one, just saying the word “ants” makes my skin crawl…).
  15. When a bird builds its nest it uses the feathers of other birds – we have to co-operate with other people to get anything done in life (strange, the birds in my neighbourhood use cat hair).african weaver bird
  16. No one drinks medicine on behalf of a sick person – if you have something unpleasant to do, you’ll have to do it yourself (of course, some medicine tastes better than others!)
  17. You are looking for sausage in the dog’s house – whatever you are looking for is going to be very hard to find (OK, unless the dog is Vegan).
  18. That guy has twelve jobs but thirteen accidents – he is quite good at a lot of things, but not excellent at anything (most people feel that way, to be honest!).
  19. Two wives, two pots of poison – the more things you own, the more risk there is to those things (or, you’re just a guy who really knows how to irritate women).african guy wives

So if you’re thinking of taking a volunteering trip or gap year in Africa, you can try asking some locals if they’ve heard of any of the proverbs! You might get some funny looks, but you’ll definitely make some new friends!

See you in Africa soon!

 

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