The sayings of Africa are some of the most profound words you’ll ever hear. My mother never fails to throw in a handful of Ibo proverbs to keep in mind and keep me grounded whenever we’re deep in conversations. Take the famous Tanzanian proverb “many hands make light work”. This is a saying that’s been adopted all over the world and encourages people to work together. Another famous example is the Nigerian proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”. These words of wisdom span the globe even appearing in American movies and books. Proverbs have had a great influence on the lifestyles of many people, mainly through means of religion and culture. The word “proverb” from the Latin “pro-verbium” (“pro” meaning “in front of” and “verbium” meaning “word”), suggests that a proverb takes the place of ordinary words. The ways in which proverbs vary from people to people demonstrates the differences between cultures; however it’s common for proverbs to show how very similar people really are. A proverb from Southeast Asia demonstrates this factor. The Malay proverb “Give him your foot and he will demand your thigh” is very similar to the British proverb “Give him an inch and he will take a mile.” The value of African and non African idioms and proverbs is far reaching and there are numerous examples of their benefits.

“…it’s common for proverbs to show how very similar people really are…”

They share with the world the practical wisdom the people have learned in their way of life. The Zulu proverb “You cannot chase two antelope at once” developed when African people found they could only capture one animal at a time because if they tried to focus on more than one, the animals they hunt would all get away. This practical wisdom of tackling one thing at a time applies to people all over the world not just those chasing after wildlife. Proverbs also provide an understanding of the way of life in Africa. The view on gender roles in Africa is summed up by the proverb from Ghana that says “A woman is a flower in a garden; her husband is the fence around it”. Proverbs help to dispel the belief that a people are barbaric and uneducated for there’s often a stigma surrounding people who can’t speak English and aren’t educated in a typical western manner. When these proverbs are translated it’s easy to see the intelligence and life experience the people possess. It also shows that a society and its way of life aren’t superior to that of another society.
It’s often said that a picture can tell a thousand words and proverbs have the ability to explain a thousand words in one simple sentence or statement. There are many long winded essays, articles and papers on how thinking positively is beneficial. The Tanzanian proverb “One who bathes willingly with cold water doesn’t feel the cold” sums this up in one line. In addition to positive thinking, proverbs tend to be uplifting and inspiring. One such example is the Zulu proverb “You should face your responsibilities squarely; no elephant ever found its trunk too heavy”.

“….Proverbs help to dispel the belief that a people are barbaric and uneducated….”

Proverbs provide hard hitting messages in a profound way rather than a nasty or demoralizing manner. One such example is the Zulu proverb, “when you bite indiscriminately, you end up eating your own tail”. Another example is from Gambia “words are like bullets; if they escape you can’t catch them again”. These proverbs subtly warn people of the consequences of their actions. The Vietnamese relay these thought provoking messages from the Confucian tradition ( by Confucius- a Chinese philosophical thinker) in examples such as “Stay master of yourself; never be a slave of your passion” and also “Sincerity and innocence will in the end triumph”. Others capture simple but powerful truths that are true around the world; “Girls, do not cry; there will be plenty to cry about when you’re old”. Proverbs were and still are important in traditional societies because they’re relevant in a number of court proceedings. They’re considered part of traditional texts and are used by litigants to a great extent, the same way as the texts of judicial authorities. Proverbs in the political system emphasize the dual aspect- the leader holds the traditional authority but his appointment and removal shall be in the hands of the people. The Fante (the Akan people who reside in most of the southern half of Ghana and adjoining areas of Côte d’Ivoire), discuss their traditions and customs by continually employing proverbs in their arguments. Their collection helps the ethnographer to determine the ideal forms of behavior and even in some areas, the verbalization of the law. Proverbs open the doors to insightful and entertaining discussions. Using proverbs in a discussion is an entertaining way to narrate your point. They can also give a greater potency to any message you are trying to convey. If you wanted to try and explain to someone the consequences of fibbing, the Yoruba proverb “you may tell little lies, small as a thorn, but they will grow to the size of a spear and kill you” poignantly teaches this lesson.

Unfortunately, despite proverbs being the backbone of a lot of societies by helping to identify and dignify a culture, their potential value for modern thought and life is still to be recognized. Even in Africa, proverbs are a vanishing heritage associated mostly with the rural world. They seem never to have found a home in the modern world, especially in the imported system of education because schools don’t bring out the great importance of proverbs in the lessons being taught. Africa’s proven to be a rich source of proverbs and sayings, encapsulating in a few words profound principles that bespeak wisdom. Many philosophers in the western world could learn from the simplicity and brevity of African proverbs that are unclouded by too many words. The meaning of proverbs is easily understood because so much can be said with fewer words; and wisdom doesn’t have to involve countless vocabulary. Proverbs add color to our lives and give us valuable lessons we can all apply to our benefit.

Israel Mbagu