Ancient African Wisdom

Wisdom is the knowledge or lessons that a society or person has learned about life and the world around them.

Each culture around the world has its own version of wisdom. This often takes the form of life lessons that are taught by older generations or religious officials like priests to the younger generations.

In ancient African culture, wisdom was passed down to new generations through the oral tradition or storytelling.

Practical Lessons

In many cases, ancient African wisdom was designed to be practical. Many people were farmers, hunters, or gatherers who had to live in a difficult environment.

There was danger from hunger, famine, dehydration, being killed by animals, or being attacked by rival tribes.

Wisdom kept children safe and stopped young men and women from being arrogant or foolhardy.

North, South, East, and West Africa often preached similar values despite having unique cultures. In general, they wanted people to be honorable and good for the community.

This meant that boys and girls were instructed to listen to their elders, play their part in society, and be hard workers.

Wisdom was often given through stories. In these tales, hard work and loyalty was rewarded while being lazy, arrogant, or lying was punished. Some folktales meant to impart wisdom included The Cheetah and the Lazy Hunter, The Value of a Person, Woe or Happiness, and The Midnight Goat Thief.

The Blind Leading the Blind painted by Bruegel


The African cultures created numerous proverbs, or sayings meant to impart wisdom to the next generations.

These were one of the best ways to pass down traditions and advice to young individuals who had not yet learned about the world and how to control their emotions.

Most were valuable advice necessary to survive and thrive in ancient African culture. Some that have survived to modern times include the following:

  • “Only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet.”
  • “The best way to eat an elephant in your path is to cut him up in little pieces.”
  • “After a foolish deed comes remorse.”
  • “Knowledge is like a garden. If it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.”
  • “Sugarcane is sweetest at its joint.”
  • “Rain does not fall on one roof alone.”
  • “Wherever a man goes to dwell, his character goes with him.”
  • “A roaring lion kills no game.”

Each one taught young men and women a lesson. In the first, the wisdom is that people should be cautious about a new situation and should not jump in like they would a river to see how deep it is.

In the second, a problem can be solved by breaking it down into little pieces. In the third, the proverb teaches that regret comes after making a hasty decision.

The fourth piece of wisdom talks about the importance of learning and getting knowledge. It mentions that someone can’t be smarter until they put the work into learning.

In the fifth, the ancient African wisdom is that the best rewards often take the most work to receive.

In the sixth, the proverb teaches that misfortune often strikes an entire community not just one person.

The seventh teaches one of the most valuable lessons in ancient African culture. It reminds people that who they are does not change based on where they are.

If someone is a good person, they will always be a good person. If they are bad or dishonorable, then they cannot escape themselves.

Finally, the last proverb reminds young men and women that talking about doing something does not get it done. There needs to be actual action.


  • What is a proverb?
    A simple saying meant to impart wisdom or tell a quick lesson.
  • What did ancient African wisdom value?
    Honor, telling the truth, being a hard worker, and fulfilling one’s role in society.
  • How was wisdom passed between generations?
    Oral storytelling or word of mouth.
  • What is the meaning of “A roaring lion kills no game?”
    Talking about action doesn’t get anything done.