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The Usefulness of Proverbs

Proverbs provide wonderful nuggets of discussion-provoking wisdom. Proverbs, while arising out of and illuminating distinct cultures, also speak to widely shared, perhaps planet-spanning, truths. According to the Ghanaian reer Kofi Asare Opoku, "The Yoruba of Nigeria emphasize the value of proverbs with a proverb, saying, 'A proverb is the horse that can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas.'" (quotation from https://www2.wcoil.com/~mdecker/af-prov.htm). Like a good storyteller, proverbs can paint vivid pictures of precepts which accelerate understanding. Good proverbs are more complex than they seem at first blush -- they can almost always be fruitfully examined, discussed, and even reversed.

Proverbs can be used for many pedagogical purposes. They can provide focus to gatherings and closings, either used singly to emphasize one idea, or with each individual or group getting a different one and asking for a few people to share ones that are meaningful to them (thanks to Linda Lantieri for this approach). If you have more time, each pair or group could lead a discussion about the meaning of their saying. Proverbs can be used in character colloquies (intellectual discussions) as part of character education programs. Comparing proverbs from different cultures can emphasize both our unity and multicultural diversity. Additionally, they are useful as springboards for discussions of the implications and ethical dimensions of literature, historical events, scientific and technological controversies, our own beliefs, our learning styles, and our own behavior.

The citations on the web sites used to compile this list usually cited either the ethnic group in which the proverb arose or the country of origin, but few mentioned both an ethnic origin and a country name. Where possible, the proverb's description as included here includes the contemporary country or countries in which that linguistic or ethnic group primarily lives, and in some cases a regional description. Some sites listed both the English translation and the transliteration of the original, and so where possible that is included too. They are reproduced here spaced widely apart to make it easier to print this page out and cut it into slips to hand out.

Some Proverbs                                                                       

"The man who has bread to eat does not appreciate the severity of a famine." Yoruba proverb

"He is a fool whose sheep runs away twice." Oji (Ashanti) proverb

"Copying everyone else all the time, the monkey one day cut his throat." Zulu proverb

"Where there is no shame, there is no honor." Congo proverb

"Happiness can grow from only a little contentment." Pygmy proverb

"Always being in a hurry does not prevent death, neither does going slowly prevent living." Ibo proverb

"If you understand the beginning well, the end will not trouble you." Ashanti proverb

"When the brothers fight to the death, a stranger inherits their father's estate." Ibo proverb

"When the mouse laughs at the car, there is a hole nearby." Benin proverb

"A chattering bird builds no nest." Cameroon proverb

"Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable." Bondei proverb

"Work is the medicine for poverty." Yoruba proverb

"You are beautiful; but learn to work, for you cannot eat your beauty." Congo proverb

"The rain does not recognize anyone as a friend; it drenches all equally." Ibo proverb

"Pride only goes the length one can spit." Congo proverb

"One falsehood spoils a thousand truths." Ashanti proverb

"He who hates, hates himself." Zulu proverb

"Money is sharper than a sword." Ashanti proverb

"Hate has no medicine." Ghanaian proverb

"He who is guilty is the one that has much to say." Ashanti proverb

"Ingratitude is sooner or later fatal to its author." Twi proverb

"Everybody loves a fool, but nobody wants him for a son." Malinke proverb

"God! I am in your hands! What you say will happen! Nothing baffles you!" Ibo prove

"Sorrow is like rice in the store; if a basketful is removed everyday, it will come to an end at last." Somali proverb

"By the time the fool has learned the game, the players have dispersed." Ashanti proverb

"We will water the thorn for the sake of the rose." Kanem proverb

"He who treats you as himself does you no injustice." Lon proverb

"Words are sweet, but they never take the place of food." Ibo proverb

"Ndiobaga muniku." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"I don't roast seeds."

"Ni ithiga ukwire yerie ngwenje." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"You are telling a stone to prepare for a haircut."

"Nibubire coro na kuria kwarie." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"You blew the flute on the wide side."

"Mwigiritania na tkwora ndaturaga ngi." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"Whoever leans on a rotting body lacks no flies."

"Ciakuraca tricaga mburto." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"Strangers eat keenly."

"Yakuira yuraga we kianagima." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"A goat that is loose listens not to the voice of the shepherd."

"Gutiri umenyaga ikirwa ta akifetwa." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"No one knows caution as regrets."

"Gutiri mwii na mucuthiriria." Kimbeere -- Embu Dialect (Kenya)
"There is no thief and tie onlooker."             

The Leopard and the Rabbit - A  Tanzanian Folktale

Once upon a time the Leopard lived in a small house far way in the bush. After thinking for a long time he decided to look for a better place. After a short time he found a suitable place nearer the other animals. The Leopard began to cut sticks for building a house. After collecting a big bundle he carried it to the new building site. While the Leopard was doing all these things the Rabbit was nearby watching. He also cut a bundle of sticks and put them near the Leopard's bundle. But the Rabbit did not tell the Leopard. The next day the Leopard brought another bundle. He was surprised to find a second bundle already there, but didn't know who had brought it. However he put down his own second bundle. Meanwhile the Rabbit was hiding and watching the Leopard's work. Then the Rabbit cut a second bundle and brought it to the site, making a total of four. The Leopard continued to bring bundles of sticks and the Rabbit did likewise. When the Leopard saw that the sticks for building were enough, he began digging the foundation for his house. When he got tired he went away. The Rabbit also came and dug the foundation for the second wall and put in poles. He got tired and went to sleep.

Day after day the Leopard and the Rabbit were building the same house without meeting or talking together. Soon the house was finished, the first side having been built by the Leopard and the second side having been built by the Rabbit. The Rabbit was the first to move into the side of the house he had built. Then the Leopard moved into his side. Then the problems began. The Rabbit lit a fire on his side of the house and the Leopard on his side. The Leopard was surprised to see a fire lit in his house without his knowledge. He shouted, "Who is that mad person lighting a fire in my house?" Then the Leopard and the Rabbit began to quarrel without solving the problem. The Rabbit thought of a way to make the Leopard leave the house to him. He told his wife to pinch the children to make them cry loudly. When the children began to cry the rabbit asked his wife in an angry voice: "Why are the children crying?" Mrs. Rabbit answered, "They are crying for the Elephant's liver." The Rabbit answered boastfully in a loud voice so the Leopard and his wife could hear. "Tell them to stop crying. Finding an Elephant's liver is no problem for me. Tomorrow I will kill an Elephant and give its liver to my children." When the Leopard heard these words he became terrified. He thought that the Rabbit was a very dangerous person. If he could kill an Elephant for sure he could kill him also.

After a few days another quarrel erupted between the Leopard and the Rabbit. Then the Rabbit thought of another way to terrify the Leopard and drive him away. Again he told his wife to pinch the children to make them cry loudly. When the children began to cry, the rabbit asked his wife in an angry voice: "Why are the children crying?" Mrs. Rabbit answered, "They are crying for the Leopard's liver." Meanwhile the Leopard and his wife were listening very carefully to this conversation. The Rabbit answered boastfully in a loud voice so the Leopard and his wife could hear. "Tell them to stop crying. Finding a Leopard's liver is no problem for me. There is a Leopard right here in this house with us. I will kill him easily and give his liver to my children. I don't want my children to be deprived of anything." The Leopard was terrified and told his wife: "Dear, we must move away from here immediately. Otherwise we will all be killed by the Rabbit." Early the next morning before the Rabbit family got up, the Leopards moved out. On the road they met the Baboon who asked, "Why are you sweating so much and in such a big hurry this early in the morning? Why are you carrying all your belongings? Where are you going?" The Leopard replied, "We are running away from the Rabbit who plans to kill us and feed us to his children. I have been thrown out by the Rabbit from the house I built with my own hands." The Baboon answered: "Oh, I know the Rabbit. That's one of his tricks. Let me take you back to your house. But we must tie our tails in order to go together."

So the Leopard and the Baboon tied their tails together and went to where the Rabbit was. When he saw them the Rabbit began to rebuke them. He told his wife to pinch the children to make them cry loudly. Then the Rabbit asked his wife in a voice that could be heard by everyone: "Dear, why are the children crying?" Mrs. Rabbit answered, "They are crying for the Leopard's liver." The Rabbit said in a loud voice, "I planned with the Baboon that he would bring the Leopard here and so he has. Keep calm, my children. You are going to get the Leopard's liver right now." When the Leopard heard this he became very angry and began to insult the Baboon saying, "Is this your plan, Mr. Baboon? You deceived me. Do you want me to be killed by the Rabbit?" He became terrified and tried to run away. But since his tail was tied to the Baboon's he could not. They ran in opposite directions and their tails were badly bruised. In this way the Rabbit took over the whole house. (Traditional Sukuma, Tanzania Folktale told by Sukuma Re Committee)


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