Africa: People’s Wisdom

With hundreds of ethnic groups, Africa is a haven of diversified cultures. It is also a mine for those who wish to explore the world of wisdom, often crystallized in proverbs. Here are some from around the continent.

We are responsible for what we do, after all: A man cannot undo his past. Can zebras wipe away their stripes? (Ovambo, Namibia) As well, we need to be committed, as the Twi of Ghana say “He who needs a thing has to go and find it; and If you are going to bathe, get thoroughly wet” (Chewa, Malawi). “Watch over your reactions: The greatest remedy for anger is delay”, (Swahili, Tanzania) and without thinking of being great innovators: Even today the remedy for dirt is water (Hausa, Nigeria). After all, certain things do not really change: The man that has the sharp knife is the one that will eat the meat (Swahili, Tanzania). Take it easy and stay cool: When you are hungry eat what you despise, and when you are sated, despise it (Egypt), knowing that: When light enters the house, darkness removes itself, (Yoruba, Nigeria).

It is important to keep good relationship: Greet everyone cordially when you don’t know who your in-laws are going to be, (Malagasy, Madagascar); It is not difficult to hurt, but it is difficult to repair (Xhosa, South Africa). Kindness allows a person to eat food he did not buy, (Akan, Ghana). But kindness must give way to justice, otherwise: He steals a little, it is overlooked, and then he steals much, (Ovambo, Namibia); and: A bad wound deserves strong medicine (Lwo, Kenya). Yet justice is not revenge: One never hears “beat him up” in the mouth of an elder, (Yoruba, Nigeria).

Life should be a teacher, but often we do not learn, perhaps we should pay more attention. If things are getting easier, maybe you’re headed downhill (Akan, Ghana); The path does not close on a man carrying a machete (Yoruba, Nigeria); What I used to eat with my teeth, I now eat with my eyes only (Shona, South Africa); When a leopard limps, a hare dares to demand payment of a debt (Lwo, Kenya); One is never fed by working for a person who has not requested help (Kikuyu, Kenya); Even when there is no cockerel, day dawns (Zulu, South Africa); and The future emerges from the past (Kamba, Kenya).

Don’t blame the darkness if you bump into a pole, say the Swahili of Kenya; while the Chewa of Malawi say: Do not blame darkness, put a light on! There is space for everyone, in fact: The horizon will not disappear as you run towards it (Acholi, Uganda). So, go on carefully; and do not worry too much about what could happen: There is nothing dropping from above that the Earth cannot withstand, (Yoruba, Nigeria); take it easy: A bird with fire on its tail burns its own nest, (Chaga, Tanzania).

Great fires erupt from tiny sparks, (Libya); Watch out what you start up: War has no eyes (Swahili, Tanzania). Better wait than reacting too fast: Patience is bitter, but it bears sweet fruit, (Zulu, South Africa), yet be decisive: Indecision is like the stepchild: if he doesn’t wash his hands, he is called dirty; if he does, he is wasting the water (Malagasy, Madagascar). One needs to be practical: It is impossible to go and look into the stomach of another (Ewé, Togo); The rope that is not at hand does not bind the firewood (Swahili, Tanzania); Don’t take another mouthful before you have swallowed what is in your mouth (Malagasy, Madagascar); If you are unlucky in hunting, then the animals teach you how to hunt (Akan, Ghana); The wise man never takes a step too long for his leg. (Alur, Uganda); The unlucky man’s hope prevented him from committing suicide (Hutu, Burundi); The following day begins with a lot of hope (Hausa, Nigeria).

One is to see that relationships are safeguarded: While there is negotiation, there is hope for agreement (Somali, Somalia); If a snake bites your neighbour, you too are in danger (Swahili, Tanzania); The haughty blind person picks a fight with his guide (Amhara, Ethiopia); Don’t abandon your family and friends for strangers (Tigrinha, Eritrea); If members of a family are cross with each other, they only bite off the hair, not uproot it (Twi, Ghana).

However, do not forget yourself: Only a lion knows best its own needs and can best serve them (Tswana, South Africa); Only you can scratch your itch (Chaga, Tanzania); There can be no peace without understanding (Wolof, Senegal); You must kill the hornets to get rid of the nest (Ewé, Togo); A tree that grows in the shade of another one will die small (Meru, Kenya); Another’s eye is not faithful like one’s own (Yoruba, Nigeria); Even a goat can bite when conditions become unbearable (Turkana, Kenya). Finally, do not forget: Not everything can be seen, but everything exists (Wolof, Senegal).

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