African Proverbs (19th C.)

The languages of Africa are rich in proverbs. These examples were collected in the 19th century and reflect traditional values. They were collected and translated by various Europeans and edited by the famous explorer Richard F. Burton in 1865 in Wit and Wisdom from West Africa.

Try rewording some of these proverbs to explain their meaning.


The house-roof fights with the rain, but he who is sheltered ignores it.

To love the king is not bad, but a king who loves you is better.

Allah does not destroy the men whom one hates.

Oji (Ashanti):

If nothing touches the palm-leaves they do not rustle. (1)

He is a fool whose sheep runs away twice.


The man who has bread to eat does not appreciate the severity of a famine.

Because friendship is pleasant, we partake of our friend's entertainment; not because we have not enough to eat in our own house.

When your neighbor's horse falls into a pit, you should not rejoice at it, for your own child may fall into it too.

The pot-lid is always badly off: the pot gets all the sweet, the lid nothing but steam. (2)


His opinions are like water in the bottom of a canoe, going from side to side.

You lament not the dead, but lament the trouble of making a grave; the way of the ghost is longer than the grave.

(1) Compare English "Where there's smoke there's fire."

(2) Said of slaves, who work without pay.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by American Heritage Custom Books.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

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