Ancient African Proverbs

Proverbs exist in every culture as part of the tradition of passing down wisdom and knowledge. Proverbs typically have a moral lesson that can be learned, although some are meant to be funny.

Ancient African religions had their proverbs with traditional sayings. Each tribe or village drew inspiration from their environment and the teachings, and since the continent of Africa has such a vast expanse of different landscapes, the proverbs match the lifestyle of the people.
From the French proverbial phrase

What African Proverbs are About:

African proverbs often relate to animals and the earth, telling lessons that are learned through daily activities.

Much of life in many of the villages was difficult and involved a lot of work. The proverbs were handed down from one generation to the next to help them learn and become a valuable member of their community.

The “griots” or storytellers were often those that passed the proverbs down to the next generation.

Here is a list of the most popular African proverbs. Some of these may not make any sense to you as they are designed for those that live in an African environment, while others you might “get” because they are universal.

Favorite African Proverbs:

  • A bird that flies off the earth and lands on an anthill is still on the ground. — Igbo proverb
  • He that beats the drum for the mad man to dance is no better than the mad man himself. — African proverb
  • Where water is the boss there the land must obey. — African proverb
  • No matter how beautiful and well-crafted a coffin might look, it will not make anyone wish for death. — African proverb
  • When the shepherd comes home in peace, the milk is sweet. — Ethiopian proverb
  • A spider’s cobweb isn’t only its sleeping spring but also its food trap. — African proverb
  • If you do not have patience you cannot make beer. — Ovambo proverb
  • He who runs after good fortune runs away from peace. — African proverb
  • Teeth do not see poverty. — Masai proverb
  • You have little power over what’s not yours. — Zimbabwean proverb
  • If you pick up one end of the stick you also pick up the other. — Ethiopian proverb
  • Better little than too little. — Cameroonian proverb
  • You must attend to your business with the vendor in the market, and not to the noise of the market. — Beninese proverb
  • When you befriend a chief remember that he sits on a rope. — Ugandan proverb
  • The night has ears. — Masai proverb
  • The child you sired hasn’t sired you. — Somali proverb
  • A doctor who invoked a storm on his people cannot prevent his house from destruction. — Nigerian proverb
  • An intelligent enemy is better than a stupid friend. — Senegalese proverb
  • The young bird does not crow until it hears the old ones. — Tswana proverb
  • If you carry the egg basket do not dance. — Ambede proverb
  • The food which is prepared has no master. — Malagasy proverb
  • The worlds of the elders do not lock all the doors; they leave the right door open. — Zambian proverb
  • Even the best cooking pot will not produce food. — African proverb
  • The child of a rat is a rat. — Malagasy proverb
  • Where you will sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth. — Yoruba proverb
  • He who is unable to dance says that the yard is stony. — Maasai proverb
  • You cannot name a child that is not born. — African proverb
  • Do a good deed and throw it into the sea. — Egyptian proverb
  • When the roots of a tree begin to decay, it spreads death to the branches. — Nigerian proverb
  • Slander by the stream will be heard by the frogs. — Mozambican proverb
  • A child is a child of everyone. — Sudanese proverb
  • Even the lion, the king of the forest, protects himself against flies. — Ghanaian proverb
  • Birds sing not because they have answers but because they have songs. — African proverb
  • If your only tool is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail. — Gambian proverb
  • When you show the moon to a child, it sees only your finger. — Zambian proverb
  • It is crooked wood that shows the best sculptor. — African proverb
  • One who bathes willingly with cold water doesn’t feel the cold. — Fipa proverb
  • Earth is the queen of beds. — Namibian proverb
  • Be a mountain or lean on one. — Somali proverb
  • A flea can trouble a lion more than a lion can trouble a flea. — Kenyan proverb
  • Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it. — Ewe proverb
  • The death of an elderly man is like a burning library. — Ivorian proverb
  • Anger and madness are brothers. — African proverb
  • Do not follow a person who is running away. — Kenyan proverb
  • An orphaned calf licks its own back. — Kenyan proverb
  • Even as the archer loves the arrow that flies, so too he loves the bow that remains constant in his hands. — Nigerian proverb
  • He who burns down his house knows why ashes cost a fortune. — African proverb
  • If you are building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building or do you change the nail? — Rwandan proverb
  • You cannot build a house for last year’s summer. — Ethiopian proverb
  • We desire to bequeath two things to our children; the first one is roots, the other one is wings. — Sudanese proverb

The Blind Leading the Blind painted by Bruegel


What is the purpose of proverbs?

to pass down wisdom and knowledge

What individual in Egyptian villages often shared proverbs?

the griot or storyteller

Write down one of your favorite African proverbs.

Why would anyone share proverbs with children?

to help them become a valuable member of their community

Why are proverbs from African villages different?

proverbs were based on the environment where they lived