The proverb is a way of looking at things. It is not the only way, but it has the merit of indicating a direction: One way only is no way (Malinké-Mali).
No one can remain indifferent at the cunning of the hare, the mischievous intelligence of the tortoise, the shrewdness or the stupidity of the monkey, the opportunism of the chameleon. To behave like them or not, is not an external obligation – it is wisdom. In the stories and proverbs that go with them, animals play a prominent role. They often impersonate human beings.
They take over the task of passing messages to the traditional society, in all its variety of people, from the chief to the beggar, the wise, the rogue, the liar, the cheating trader, the lazy farmer, the barren woman, the orphan. Often, it is the weaker animals that win over the strong ones, generally by their astuteness.
The lion can boast but it is easily swindled – it has more claws than brains. The monkey seems to behave with intelligence. The hyena is gluttonous, false and brutal, and it always fares badly. The hare is cleverer than the hyena. In his book Petit Bodiel (1977), Amadou Hampàté Bà ( 1901-1991), a Malian writer and ethnologist tried to analyse what it is that transmits the wisdom contained in the stories. Traditional society found in the stories, where virtues and vices are personified, an ideal means to transmit moral values.
The story is like a minor, where each one can find his/her own image and become aware of one’s aspirations and potentialities, or face courageously one’s own anxieties and disappointments. No one can remain indifferent before the cunningness of the hare, the mischievous intelligence of the tortoise, the shrewdness or the stupidity of the monkey, the opportunism of the chameleon. It comes spontaneous to try and imitate the character of the story. To act like him or not is not an imposition, it is wisdom.
It is curious – the ox eats the straw and the dog eats bread! The donkey carries the wine and drinks the water – Galla-Ethiopia. It happens often enough that he who works hardest is paid the least. Man is a baboon: he eats with two hands (Sotho-Lesotho): a man can have concubines. Sometimes we make the animals say what we want to say: The hare says that a courageous person sleeps peacefully (Mossi-Burkina Faso); The chameleon said that whether you go fast or slow, death is always there (Ewé-Togo); The antelope said that if you remain always in the same forest, you will die there – never stop learning.
If you encounter a buffalo, you will climb up a cotton plant (Ngbaka-DR.Congo): in danger you will do the most impossible things. You escape from a lion and meet a buffalo (Beti-Cameroon) – no escape from real danger. Too many hunters baffle the dog (Rundi-Burundi), too many teachers disorient the students. The goat kicks its master in the pants (Luba-DR.Congo), don’t expect gratitude.
The locust you catch will bite you (Kongo-DR.Congo) – success comes with overcoming difficulties. Even if skinny, an elephant dares not cross over a grass bridge (Mande-Ivory Coast) – look out! The ants said, together we can carry the elephant (Mossi-Burkina Faso) – unity is strength. The black hen lays white eggs (Mina-Ivory Coast) – appearances can deceive. The cow kicks the hand that milks it (Zulu-South Africa) – the nearest person suffers for the chief’s anger.
When the monkey is chased away, the crazy baboon laughs (Kaonde-Zambia); don’t make fun of those who are in trouble. Deep waters make the frogs croak (Kiga-Uganda), everything has a cause. He scared me with a dead snake (Zulu-South Africa) – excessive timidity. Sheep run off without knowing why, nor where they go (Beti-Cameroon), herd instinct, lack of reason. For those who act hastily and heedlessly. The lizard runs so fast that it overtakes its own hole (Kongo- DR.Congo).