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The Usefulness of Proverb     new 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.


  • The hen with baby chicks doesn't swallow the worm.  Sukuma (Tanzania)  

  • Ma kibuge kut ingony kou ingok (Nandi, Rwanda).  Do not wipe your mouth on the ground like a hen”.   This proverb tells you, ‘never be ungrateful even for a small deed done to you by a friend’. It is used to chastise those who receive help and end up complaining after they have been given assistance however small it may be. It therefore teaches appreciation.

  • Where there is peace, a billhook (sickle) can be used to shave your beard or cut your hairRundi (Burundi)

  • Walk on a fresh tree, the dry one will break. Bena (Tanzania)

  • When a tree falls on a yam farm and kills the farm's owner, you don't waste time counting the numbers of yam hips ruined  Igala (Nigeria)

  • Like vomit and shit under your feet (the rumormonger spreads scandal).  Sumbwa (Tanzania)

  • The tears of the orphan run inside. (English)  Mafa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger)

  • Use of brains begets wealth. (English)  Sheng (Kenya)

  • Cows are born with ears; later they grow horns. (English)  Nuba-Tira (Sudan)

  • An eye that you treat is the one that turns against you. (English)  Luo (Kenya, Tanzania)

  • A chicken eats corn, drinks water and swallows little pebbles, but still complains of having no teeth. If she had teeth would she eat steel? (Literal English) Yoruba and Idanre (Nigeria)
    From the word of an elder is derived a bone. Rwanda (Rwanda) and Rundi (Burundi)

  • Words are like bullets; if they escape, you can't catch them again. Wolof (Senegal, The Gambia)

  • You cannot use a wild banana leaf to shield yourself from the rains and then tear it to pieces later when the rains come to an end. Nandi (Kenya)

  • Young growing cuttings determine a good harvest of cassava. Tonga (Malawi)

  • Smoke does not affect honeybees alone; honey-gatherers are also affected. Bassa (Liberia)

  • The person who has a light knee can survive longer. Toposa (Sudan)

  • What is in the stomach carries what is in the head. Bukusu (Kenya)

  • Slowly, slowly, porridge goes into the gourd. Kuria (Kenya, Tanzania)

  • A fool has many days. Tharaka, also in Gikuyu (Kenya)

  • A Tutsi liked to warm himself by the fire; someone else took the bull. Zinza (Tanzania)

  • Far is where there is nothing, where something is that you will struggle to the death to reach. Shona (Zimbabwe)

  • A child (young person) does not fear treading on dangerous ground until he or she gets hurt (stumbles).Bukusu (Kenya)

  • When elephants fight the grass (reeds) gets hurt. Swahili (Eastern and Central Africa)

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Explanation of the Proverb: 
The hen with baby chicks doesn't swallow the worm  Sukuma (Tanzania)  
An inspiring Sukuma proverb in Tanzania on sacrifice and self-denial is The hen with baby chicks doesn't swallow the worm. Its main theme is "Parental Care." The mother hen is constantly looking for food to feed her chicks. When she does find some food, for example a worm, she doesn't eat it but leaves it for her chicks. Only after the chicks have eaten and been satisfied will the mother hen take something for herself. In contrast to the hen, the mother duck doesn't provide for her ducklings. She let's them fend for themselves. See the Sukuma proverb Uli ng'wana wa mbata ibegejage (You are the child of a duck; take care of yourself).

Similar African proverbs are When a woman is hungry she says: "Roast something for the children that they may eat" (Akan, Ghana). No matter how skinny, the son always belongs to his father (Galla, Ethiopia). The cows never run away from her calves (Bemba, Zambia). The porcupine lovingly licks her spinney (thorny) offspring (Oromo, Ethiopia). The child who stays near his or her mother does not fall into the trap (Chewa, Malawi/Zambia). The mother hen does not break its own eggs (Swahili, Eastern Africa). The umbilical cord and strap in which the cord is wrapped is like mother and child (Ganda, Uganda).

Parents can learn much from this proverb. It is their obligation to care for their children by providing what is necessary for their health, education and right conduct -- food, clothing and other needs. To fulfill their obligations to their children, it is necessary for parents to be self-sacrificing and forego certain things in their lifestyle, for example, excessive beer drinking, wearing expensive clothes, etc.

An important aspect of African proverbs is their participatory nature that fits in very well with relationship and community values. Sometimes a preacher or teacher gives the first half of the proverb and the congregation or audience responds with the second half: Unity is strength...division is weakness. The hen with baby chicks...doesn't swallow the worm. The second half is the advice that the speaker wants the audience to accept so he or she "maneuvers" the listeners so that the words come from their own lips. End



A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing  

During the colonial period in Kenya there were three Kikuyu men Kioi, Githogori and Kaminju who thought that they knew everything. They decided to go to adult education classes to learn English. When they went to the school they carried with them books and pencils and put them on a table. When the tutor came he asked them, "Who put these items here?" They said in the Kikuyu language ni ithuii atatu. The tutor told them that to say this in English they should say we three. They learned these words and went home. The following day the tutor found they had sharpened their pencils very badly "like sugarcanes" and asked them, "What did you use to sharpen the pencils?" They said in Kikuyu na banga. He told them that to say this in English they should say with a panga or knife. They went home and came back the following day. But the tutor told them that he would not teach them until they come back with school fees, that the classes were not free. He sent them away and told them if they were asked why they were sent away they should say it was because of money.

As they walked home they feared that they might forget what they had learned so they decided to assign the three phrases they had learned so far -- we three, with a panga or knife and because of money -- to the three of them respectively, that is, to Kioi, Githogori and Kaminju. As they were going home they came upon the body of a man who had just been killed so they started looking around the scene. As they were looking around a colonial policeman arrived in a car, saw the dead man and asked, "Who killed him?" Kioi replied, "We three." The policeman asked, "With what?" Githogori replied, "With a panga or knife." The policeman asked further, "Why?" Kaminju replied, "Because of money." Now the three Kikuyu men thought that they knew English quite well and were eager and happy to speak with a white man. But they were immediately handcuffed and landed in jail. So the English proverb, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Story, Dr. Gerald Wanjohi, adapted from a Kikuyu Ethnic Group story on a satiric radio program, Nairobi, Kenya.


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