African Proverbs

A proverb is a short, well-known saying which shares a piece of advice or a general truth about the world. We hear proverbs all the time in our daily lives, though we do not always notice them.

For example, the expression “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is technically a proverb, as is the saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Throughout history, proverbs have been important to many cultures of the world because they can quickly describe a country’s worldview (way of looking at things.)

This is because proverbs shape a nation, or culture’s, sense of right and wrong. Most proverbs are like stories we learn in our childhoods, and they affect what we view as “good” and “bad.”

Because they are so widespread, they can offer a useful insight into how a culture is likely to think or feel about certain things, or what their opinions might be on events like birth, death, and marriage.
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Often, proverbs use real facts and imaginary details in conjunction with one another.

In African culture, proverbs are particularly important. Because Africa is a continent with a mainly oral (spoken) record of history, proverbs are one of the few ways to share wisdom that can spread to all parts of the continent.

They are not limited by the same cultural factors other stories and legends might be. There are sayings for all occasions, and for all purposes.

This is what makes proverbs so universal: there are proverbs for birth, death, weddings, religious rites, rites of passage, etc.

Many African proverbs are so universal, they have even made it to Europe and America, and have been accepted as part of the regular vocabulary of the people.

The Yorubas of the African country Nigeria actually discuss the importance of proverbs with a proverb of their own: “A proverb is the horse that can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas.”

Some of the most profound proverbs you will ever hear have their origins in the continent of Africa; for example, the famous saying, “many hands make light work,” comes from Tanzania.
Scroll of the Biblical Book of Proverbs

This expression teaches us that teamwork can make any job easier, and encourages us to work together with those who are willing to.

Some famous African proverbs include:

  • There are no shortcuts to the top of the palm tree.
  • All monkeys cannot hang on the same branch.
  • Those who are absent are always wrong.
  • God has created lands with lakes and rivers for man to live. And the desert so that he can find his soul.
  • Do not allow the belly to make you useless.
  • Little by little grow the bananas.
  • If you overtake a leader, you break your neck.
  • The big game often appears when the hunter has given up the hunt for the day.
  • A clever king is the brother of peace.
  • Do not call to a dog with a whip in your hand.

The wisdom of these proverbs helps to dismantle the idea that African people are barbaric and uneducated, an unfortunately common viewpoint held in the modern world.

They show us that not all wisdom comes from a classroom: when these proverbs are translated, it’s easy to see the intelligence they possess.

In this way, proverbs can help people to understand that one society is not superior to any other.

All wisdom is precious and valuable, no matter where it comes from, and can be found in even the most unlikely of places.

Facts about proverbs, and their importance to Africa:

  • A proverb is a short, well-known saying which shares a general truth of the world or offers a useful piece of advice.
  • We hear proverbs all the time in our daily lives, though we do not always notice them: for example, the expression “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
  • Proverbs help to shape the morality (sense of right and wrong) of a culture.
  • This is because proverbs are a reflection of the way we live; how we think, what we do, and what our values are.
  • Proverbs are specifically important to Africa because, in a continent with a mostly spoken record of history, proverbs make up a rare library of shared wisdom.
  • Proverbs are also an important link between various places in Africa; some proverbs share wisdom from one tribe to another, so that they can learn from each other’s mistakes.
  • Many proverbs are based on physical, real-world experiences, but can be attributed with a greater meaning depending on their context.
  • In the western world, many think of the African people as being stupid or uneducated because of how different their society is to ours. The wonderful proverbs of Africa help to prove this idea wrong and show that wisdom can be found anywhere.


  1. What is a proverb? Can you give an example of one?

– A proverb is a short, well-known saying which shares a general truth of the world. An example of a proverb is “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

  1. Why do proverbs help to shape the morality of a culture?

– Proverbs are like stories intended to tell a certain moral message; because we hear them so often, and especially as children, they shape what we view as right and wrong.

  1. Why are proverbs specifically important in Africa, and to African culture as a whole?

– Because the record of African history is spoken, not written, proverbs are one of the few records of shared wisdom available between tribes.

  1. Can you give an example of a famous proverb that originates from Africa?

– Many hands make light work.