African Proverb Wisdom:
excerpted from a book by Charlotte & Wolf Leslau
Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Burundi
Proverbs are daughters of experience.
Yoruba and Niger
A proverb is the horse of conversation: when the conversation lags,
a proverb will revive
A wise man who knows proverbs, can reconcile differences.
Rain beats a leopard’s skin but it does not wash out the spots.
Only when you have crossed the river, can you say the crocodile has
a lump on his snout.
It’s the bad child who does not take advice.
Wood already touched by fire is not hard to set alight.
It is a wife who knows her husband.
If you are in hiding, don’t light a fire.
One falsehood spoils a thousand truths.
When a man is wealthy, he may wear an old cloth.
Do not call the forest that shelters you a jungle.
Hunger is felt by a slave and hunger is felt by a king.
The moon moves slowly, but it crosses the town.
The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.
When the cock is drunk, he forgets about the hawk.
There is no medicine to cure hatred.
When a man is coming toward you, you need not say: “Come here”.
The poor man and the rich man do not play together.
One cannot both feast and become rich.
It is no shame to work for money.
It is Mr Old-Man Monkey who marries Mrs. Old-Woman Monkey.
Even though the old man is strong & hearty, he will not live forever.
When a king has good counselors, his reign is peaceful.
By the time the fool has learned the game, the players have
It is the calm & silent water that drowns a man.
When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him.
When a woman is hungry, she says, “Roast something for the
children that they may eat:.
What is bad luck for one man is good luck for another.
When the fool is told a proverb, it’s meaning has to be explained to
He who cannot dance will say, “The drum is bad”.
Money is sharper than a sword.
It is the fool’s sheep that break loose twice.
When you are rich, you are hated,; when you are poor, you are
Fire and gunpowder do not sleep together.
Noone tests the depth of a river with both feet.
Two small antelopes can beat a big one.
Do not try to cook the goat’s young in the goat’s milk.
The humble pay for the mistakes of their betters.
You are beautiful because of your possessions.
A man with too much ambition cannot sleep in peace.
It is best to bind up the finger before it is cut.
If the palm of the hand itches, it symbolizes the coming of great luck.
Sickness accompanies a waning moon; a new moon cures disease.
When the moon is not full, the stars shine more brightly.
He who hunts two rats catches none.
If you burn a house, can you conceal the smoke?
A strawberry blossom will not sweeten dry bread.
When the master is absent, the frogs hop into the house.
He who is bitten by a snake fears a lizard.
If you do not step on the dogs tail, he will not bite you.
When the vine entwines your roof, it is time to cut it down.
He who asks questions cannot avoid the answers.
The flood takes him in, and the ebb takes him out.
She is like a road…pretty, but crooked.
By trying often, the monkey learns how to jump from the tree.
The heart of the wise man lies quiet like limpid water.
The cricket cries, the year changes.
Thought breaks the heart.
Knowledge is better than riches.
Rain does not fall on one roof alone.
An elephant will reach to the roof of the house.
A man’s wealth may be superior to him.
Lower your head modestly while passing and you will harvest
What is said over the dead lion’s body could not be said to him alive.
Children are the reward of life.
Being well dressed does not prevent one from being poor.
Little by little grow the bananas.
A pretty basket does not prevent worries.
No matter how full the river, it still wants to grow.
Do not dispose of the monkey’s tail before it is dead.
Love is like a baby, it needs to be treated tenderly.
The teeth are smiling, but is the heart?
Great events may stem from words of no importance.
You do not teach the paths of the forest to an old gorilla.
A little subtleness is better than a lot of force.
Two birds disputed about a kernel, when a third swooped down and
carried it off.
The son shoots a leopard, the father is proud.Man is like palm wine: when young, sweet but without strength; in
old age, strong but
Mothers-in-law are hard of hearing.
If you tell people to live together, you tell them to quarrel.
The friends of our friends are our friends.
Wood may remain ten years in the water, but it will never become a
Death does not sound a trumpet.
Let him speak who has seen with his eyes.
When the bee comes to your house, let her have beer; you may want
to visit the bee’s
No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.
He who is free of faults will never die.
A single bracelet does not jingle.
To love someone who does not love you is like shaking a tree to
make dew drops fall.
Sleep is the cousin of death.
The flesh of a young animal tastes flat.
Those who are absent are always wrong.
To one who does not know, a small garden is a forest.
When one is in love, a cliff becomes a meadow.
A fool looks for dung where the cow never browsed.
The cattle is as good as the pasture in which it grazes.
Evil enters like a needle and spreads like an oak tree.
A close friend can become a close enemy.
What is inflated too much, will burst into fragments Restless feet may walk into a snake pit.
A coward sweats in water.
Snake at your feet…a stick in your hand!
The witness of a rat is another rat.
He who learns, teaches.
A fool will pair an ox with an elephant.
One who runs alone cannot be outrun by another.
Cactus is bitter only to one who tastes of it.
The frog wanted to be as big as the elephant and burst.
One who recovers from sickness forgets about God.
Termites live underground.
Woman without man is like a field without seed.
If a friend hurts you, run for your wife.
If the heart is sad, tears will flow.
Unless you call out, who will open the door?
Her horns are not too heavy for the cow.
There is noone who became rich because he broke a holiday, and
noone who became fat
because he broke a fast.
When the heart overflows, it comes out thru the mouth.
You cannot build a house for last year’s summer.
A partner in the business will not put an obstacle to it.
When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.
He who digs too deep for fish may come up with a snake.
Confiding a secret to an unworthy person is like carrying grain in a
bagwith a hole.
A loose tooth will not rest until it’s pulled.
The dog I bought bit me; the fire I kindled burnt me.
A blade won’t cut another blade; a cheat won’t cheat another cheat.
If one is not in a hurry, even an egg will start walking.
If relatives help each other, what evil can hurt them?
A home without a woman is like a barn without cattle.
Sitting is being crippled.
The fool speaks, the wise man listens.
A cat may go to a monastery, but she still remains a cat.
I have a cow in the sky, but cannot drink her milk.
Dine with a stranger, but save your love for your family.
A too modest man goes hungry.
If you offend, ask for pardon; if offended, forgive.
He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured.
A fool and water will go the way they are diverted.
Where there is shame, there is no honor.
A silly daughter teaches her mother how to bear children.
Advise and counsel him; if he does not listen, let adversity teach him.
Anticipate the good so that you may enjoy it.
Clothes put on while running come off while running.
A cow gave birth to a fire. She wanted to lick it, but it burned. She
wanted to leave it,
but she could not because it was her own child.
One scoops with a scoop.
Living is worthless for one without a home.
When one sets a portion for oneself, usually it is not too small.
He who wants to barter, usually knows what is best for him.
She who does not yet know how to walk, cannot climb a ladder.
When a fool is cursed, he thinks he’s being praised.
It is easy to become a monk in one’s old age.
Singing “Hallelula” everywhere does not prove piety.
Saying that it is for her child, she gets a loaf of bread.
What has been blown away cannot be found again.
The fool is thirsty in the midst of water.
Even over cold pudding, the coward says, “It will burn my mouth”.
What one hopes for is always better than what one has.
A single stick may smoke, but it will not burn.
As the wound inflames the finger, so thought inflames the mind.
He who lives with an ass, makes noises like an ass.
If a man comes, a quarrel comes.
Move your neck according to the music.
One is born, one dies; the land increases.
If there were no elephant in the jungle, the buffalo would be a great
A crab does not beget a bird.
If you find no fish, you have to eat bread.
One camel does not make fun of the other camel’s hump.
The man on his feet carries off the share of the man sitting down.
Around a flowering tree, one finds many insects.
To make preparations does not spoil the trip.
He who has done evil, expects evil.
A good deed is something one returns.
He who does not cultivate his field, will die of hunger.
A cow that has no tail should not try to chase away flies.
The toad likes water, but not when it’s boiling.
Knowledge is like a garden; if it is not cultivated, it cannot be
When a needle falls into a deep well,many people will look into the
well, but few will be
ready to go down after it.
To have two eyes is cause for pride; but to have one eye is better
than to have none.
Save your fowl before it stops flapping.
Too much discussion means a quarrel.
Mutual affection gives each it’s share.
Mutual gifts cement friendship.
It takes two to make a quarrel.
Two flavors confuse the palate,.
He who talks incessantly, talks nonsense
A little leaven smooths away the whole lump.
Their mosquito won’t bite me.
A bad son gives a bad name to his mother.
After a foolish deed comes remorse.
A man who has once been tossed by a buffalo, when he sees a black
ox, thinks it’s
He who receives a gift does not measure.
He that does not know one thing knows another.
Do not say the first thing that comes to your mind.
A white dog does not bite another white dog.
Try this bracelet. If it fits you, wear it; but if it hurts you, throw it
away, no matter how
When you take a knife away from a child, give him a piece of wood.
He who is unable to dance says that the yard is stony.
One finger alone cannot kill even a louse.
Because a man has injured your goat, do not go out and kill his bull.
A man who continually laments is not heeded.
Talking with one another is loving one another.
Absence makes the heart forget.
If a dead tree falls, it carries with it a live one.
Virtue is better than wealth.
There is no phrase without a double meaning.
Hearts do not meet one another like roads.
One does not slaughter a calf before it’s mother’s eyes.
There is no cure that does not cost.
Seeing is different from being told.
It is the duty of children to wait on elders, and not the elders on
Thunder is not yet rain.
Soon found soon lost.
Home affairs are not talked about on the public square.
Good millet is known at the harvest.
A little rain each day will fill the rivers to overflowing.
Do not measure the timbers for your house in the forest.
Though the palm tree in the jungle is big, who knows how big it’s
yield will be?
Indecision is like the stepchild. If he doesn’t wash his hands, he is
called dirty; if he
does, he is wasting water.
The end of an ox is beef, and the end of a lie is grief.
Don’t kick a sleeping dog.
Don’t be so in love that you can’t tell when the rain comes.
Sorrow is like a precious treasure, shown only to friends.
Love is like young rice, transplanted, still it grows.
An eel that was not caught is as big as your thigh.
The dog’s bark is not might, but fright.
Marriage is not a fast knot, but a slip knot.
Life is a shadow and a mist; it passes quickly by, and is no more.
Don’t take another mouthful before you have swallowed what is in
Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.
Let your love be like the misty rain, coming softly, but flooding the
If you try to cleanse others, like soap, you will waste away in the
It is only water that is spilt, the calabash is not broken.
He who wears too fine clothes, shall go about in rags.
Before eating, open thy mouth.
Too large a morsel, chokes the child.
One must talk little, and listen much.
Not all the flowers of a tree produce fruit.
Two eyes see better than one.
He who loves money must labor.
If you watch your pot, your food will not burn.
Before one cooks, one must have the meat.
A cutting word is worse than a bowstring. A cut may heal, but the cut
of the tongue does not.
He who begins a conversation does not foresee the end.
He who marries a beauty, marries trouble.
Ashes fly back into the face of him who throws them.
He who does not mend his clothes will soon have none.
There is no medicine against old age.
He who boasts much can do little.
You cannot shave a man’s head in his absence.
The egg becomes a cock.
Familiarity breeds contempt; distance breeds respect.
The rat cannot call the cat to account.
He who wishes to barter does not like his own property.
Seeing is better than hearing.
Evil knows where evil sleeps.
He who is sick will not refuse medicine.
A wealthy man will always have followers.
The dying man is not saved by medicine.
Some birds avoid the water, ducks seek it.
The day on which one starts out is not the time to start one’s
The house roof fights the rain, but he who is sheltered ignores it.
Since he has no eyes, he says that eyes smell bad.
He who is being carried does not realize how far the town is.
He who runs from the white ant may stumble upon the stinging ant.
The stone in the water does not know how hot the hill is, parched by
The one-eyed man thanks God only when he sees a man who is totally blind.
Someone else’s legs do you no good in traveling.
Fine words do not produce food.
If the bull would throw you, lie down.
The bird flies high, but always returns to earth.
If you rise too early, the dew will wet you.
When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole nearby.
Children of the same mother do not always agree.
What the child says, he has heard at home.
If you fill your mouth with a razor, you will spit blood.
Not to know is bad. Not to wish to know is worse.
Before shooting, one must aim.
He who has goods can sell them.
When one is in trouble, one remembers God.
Meat does not eat meat.
Before healing others, heal thyself.
A shepherd does not strike his sheep.
A bird can drink much, but an elephant drinks more.
Horns do not grow before the head.
If the stomach-ache were in the legs, one would go lame.
Time destroys all things.
Earth is the queen of beds.
Little is better than nothing.
One little arrow does not kill a serpent.
Do not be like the mosquito that bites the owner of the house.
Wisdom is like mushrooms that come after you have finished eating
If your mouth turns into a knife, it will cut off your lips.
A borrowed fiddle does not finish a tune.
The monkey does not see his own hind parts; he sees his neighbor’s.
Rwanda and Burundi
When the leopard is away, his cubs are eaten.
In a court of fowls, a cockroach never wins his case.
If you are building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building, or
do you change the
You set the trap after the rat has passed.
Spilled water is better than a broken jar.
Nobody tells all he knows.
The cow steps on the calf, but she does not hate it.
It is better to travel alone than with a bad companion.
Three kinds of people die poor: those who divorce, those who incur
debts, and those
who move around too much.
The heart is not a knee that can be bent.
If you speak, speak to him who understands you.
He may say that he loves you. Wait and see what he does for you.
The opportunity that God sends does not wake up him who is asleep.
To spend the night in anger is better than to spend it in repentance.
When you know who his friend is, you know who he is.
The truth is like gold. Keep it locked up and you will find it exactly as
you first put it
A healthy ear can stand hearing sick words.
If a centipede loses a leg, it does not prevent him from walking.
If your son laughs when you scold him, you ought to cry, for you
have lost him. If he
cries, you may laugh, for you have a worthy heir.
If a little tree grows in the shade of a larger tree, it will die small.
An intelligent enemy is better than a stupid friend.
Don’t try to make someone hate the person he loves, for he will still
go on loving, but he
will hate you.
It is better to be loved than feared.
A paddle here, a paddle there, the canoe stands still.
However full the house, the hen finds a corner to lay in.
Only a monkey understands a monkey.
If you climb up a tree, you must climb down the same tree.
A big fish is caught with big bait.
He who refuses a gift will not fill his barn.
Quarrels end, but words once spoken, never die.
If a single hair has fallen from your head, you are not yet bald.
He who upsets a thing should know how to rearrange it.
A cow must graze where she is tied.
An orange never bears a lime.
Invite some people into your parlor and they will come into your
The sweet rice is eaten quickly.
An elephant’s head is no load for a child.
Do not tell the man that is carrying you that he stinks.
It is the wandering dog that finds the old bone.
To try and to fail is not laziness.
In the ocean, one does not need to sow water.
He that does not shave you does not cut you.
A thief is always under suspicion.
To be without a friend is to be poor indeed.
A coward is full of precaution.
Poverty is slavery.
Wisdom does not come overnight.
Do not walk into a snake-pit with your eyes open.
Water and milk do not mix.
One cannot count on riches.
A brother is like one’s shoulder.
Where I make a living, there is my home.
A termite can do nothing to a stone save lick it.
A little shrub may grow into a tree.
Let rats shoot arrows at eachother.
Do not mend your neighbor’s fence before looking into your own.
A sheep cannot bleat in two places at the same time.
Events follow eachother like the days of the week.
Even the night has ears.
Everything has an end.
We start as fools and become wise through experience.
Even flies have ears.
Do not make a dress for the baby before the child is born.
In the world all things are two and two.
A roaring lion kills no game.
Only a fool tries to jump fire.
With wealth one wins a woman.
Do not leave your host’s house throwing mud in his well.
A word uttered cannot be taken back.
When the man is away the monkey eats up the maize and enters the
A half loaf is better than no bread.
Do not call to a dog with a whip in your hand.
The horse who arrives early gets good drinking water.
A fault confessed is half redressed.
One does not cross a river without getting wet.
Darkness conceals the hippopotamus.
A horse has four legs, yet it often falls.
The most beautiful fig may contain a worm.
Without life, there is nothing.
Follow the customs or flee the country.
The rich are always complaining.
Even an ant may harm an elephant.
Copying everybody else all the time, the monkey one day cut his