African Proverbs

Primary Source Reading

The teachings of African poets and leaders were rarely written down, but they were passed down orally for thousands of years. This song continues that tradition and shares the philosophies and proverbs of the Libyans, Ethiopians and Fula. Their teachings are timeless, but what better time to learn the African proverbs than now?


Mother Africa, I know that your people pass knowledge through stories and sayings and rhymes. I know your people are very wise.

So tell me, what do the people of Libya say?
The people of Libya say:
The camel does not see the bend in its neck.

What do the Fula people say?
The Fula people say:
Patience can cook a stone.

What do the Ashanti say?
The Ashanti say:
If you understand the beginning well, the end will not trouble you.

What do the people of Tanzania say?
The people of Tanzania say:
Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.

What do the Ethiopians say?
The Ethiopians say:
When one is in love, a cliff becomes a meadow.

And what do the Ewe people say?
The Ewe people say:
Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.

Flocab Spits Facts:
History Speaks

Most African history, stories and knowledge weren't passed down through books, but via family members, singers and storytellers. Virtually all of Africa's many cultures have a rich tradition of proverbs - little sayings that contain big wisdom. The proverbs from this chapter are just a few of the thousands and thousands of proverbs from Africa's history. See if you can figure out what each one means before you read the description.

Meaning: It is easy to see the faults in other people, but harder to see your own.

For hundreds of years, the camel was the car of the desert, and in many places it still is. Able to travel long stretches without water, it was the perfect animal for transporting people, food and goods across the seemingly endless sands of the Sahara. In Libya, the camels have long necks that are curved sharply. Locals, who think the camel's neck is unattractive, believe that a camel cannot see its own "ugliness."

Meaning: Patience can solve any problem, no matter how impossible it may seem.

The Fula (or Fulbe) people live in many countries in West and Central Africa. Many Fula groups are nomadic, herding cattle and sheep across the African plains. The Fula people eat all kinds of food, but they don't eat stones. This proverb takes something that seems impossible (cooking a stone) and says it can be achieved with patience.

Meaning: Knowledge will free you from worry.

The Ashanti people are a major ethnic group who live in central Ghana. They have a long, rich history that includes the Ashanti Kingdom, which ruled the land around present- day Ghana in the 17th century. The Ashanti are a very proud people who believe that they have been chosen by God to do good in the world. They place a strong value on doing things well and not rushing or being lazy, and they value knowledge. Stories from ancestors are passed down every evening after dinner.

Meaning: Even if people have little power on their own, sticking together makes them very strong.

Tanzania is a country on the east coast of Africa, bordering the Indian Ocean. The people there are a mix of original Bantu speakers and Arab traders who built settlements in the first century. They speak Swahili, but come from many different ethnic groups. But despite their varying cultures, the people know that sticking together makes them stronger.

Meaning: Love makes the whole world seem wonderful (but also makes you a little crazy).

Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world. Fossilized bones from some of the earliest human ancestors have been found there, and powerful civilizations have called Ethiopia home since around 1000 BC. The famous Greek historian Herodotus once remarked that he thought the Ethiopians were the tallest and most beautiful people in the world. They were fierce fighters; they created powerful empires and successfully repelled all European invasions until the 20th century. But Ethiopians were also peace-loving people with a strong appreciation for stories and art.

Many African proverbs mention love as a powerful force that can make rational people do irrational things. Love was celebrated in Africa, but people who were in love were somex made fun of.

Meaning: You can never really understand something unless you get both sides of the story. And history is written by the conquerors.

The Ewe are one of the major ethnic groups in Benin, Ghana, and Togo. They mostly form farming communities, but also hunt and fish. Hunters are revered in the communities that rely on hunted prey for food, so a hunter who returns with a lion or steer will have an audience who wants to hear all about the kill. People listen to the story, but they also realize that the hunter might be exaggerating to make himself look better. They're only getting one side of the story - the lion, after all, is dead.

"When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land."

- Bishop Desmond Tutu

How do the people of Mother Africa pass knowledge?
Through stories and rhyme
Fula people say: "Patience can cook a ____."
Ashanti people say: "If you understand the beginning well, the ___ will not trouble you."
The Ethiopians say: "When one is in ____, a cliff becomes a meadow."
The Ewe people say: "Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the ____ will always have the best part of the story."

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