African Proverbs in African Literature

A Critical Resourcebase


NIGERIA [Capital City: Abuja]

Nigeria is a former colony of Britain, where Lord Luggard’s policy of “Indirect Rule‘ was successfully implemented until the country gained independence in 1960.

Nigeria has had the worst case of military intervention in politics in West Africa that led to the civil war between 1967 and 1970 when the eastern portion of the country, inhabited by the Ibos and led by Odumegwu Ojukwu, attempted seceding from the federation. That sordid past is yet to be forgotten, more so when the military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha perpetrated human rights abuses in the 1990s until his own sudden death.

Nigeria has produced more writers than any other single African country. Its novelists, especially, Chinua Achebe, Emecheta Bauchi, and the 1986 Nobel Prize laureate and poet, Wole Soyinka, are known widely for their use of proverbs from their ethnic cultures to enrich their works.


A. Proverbs from the Yoruba

The Yorubas are found in South Western Nigeria and are known for their rich socio-cultural, especially religious values and practices. The Nobel Prize laureate (Literature), Wole Soyinka, is a Yoruba; and he has tapped much from the resources of his tradition and custom to make an impact with his works. Follow this link for more information on them:

1. A chicken eats corn, drinks water, swallows pebbles, yet complains of having no teeth. If she had teeth, would she eat gold? Let her ask the cow who has teeth yet eats grass.

2. Not to do something is to be crippled fast.

3. To lie down resigned to fate is madness.

4. Up, up, struggle; the world is struggle.

5. He who pelts another with pebbles asks for rocks in return.

6. It is not changing into a lion that is hard; it is getting the tail of a lion. [Interpretation: – It is easy for you to pretend to be what you are not; but when it comes to proving your worth, you will be found out.]

7. Kola nut lasts long in the mouths of them who value it!

8. But joy has a slender bidy that breaks too soon.

9. When the head of a household dies, the house becomes an empty shell.

10. When the chameleon brings forth a child, is not that child expected to dance?

11. When rain falls on the leopard, does it wash off its spots?

12. How long must feverish birds tremble in silence before their keeper?

13. Sickness is like rain. Does the rain fall on one roof alone? No. Does it fall on one body and not on another? No. Whoever the rain sees, on him it rains. Does it not?

14. Like a rock in the middle of a lake, forever cooled by flowing waters, I do not know, and cannot know, the sun’s hotness that burns and dries up the open land.

15. Only a mad man would go to sleep with his roof on fire.

16. It is sickness that man can cure, not death.

17. The ruin of a land and its peoples begins in their homes.

18. The moon moves slowly but by daybreak it crosses the sky.

19. By trying often, the monkey learns to jump from tree to tree without falling.

20. Life is a struggle.

21. It is said that the secrets of a home should be known first to the head of the home.

22. A cooking-pot for the chameleon is a cooking-pot for the lizard!

23. The horns cannot be too heavy for the head of the cow that must bear them.
[Interpretation: Each individual is given what he/she needs in life. Don’t be afraid to face the circumstance in which you find yourself because nothing that is beyond your capability will come your way.]

24. We have left our pots unwatched, and our food now burns.

25. Until the rotten tooth is pulled out, the mouth must chew with caution.

26. When trees fall on trees, the topmost must be removed first.

27. When the frog in front falls in a pit, others behind take caution.

28. When crocodiles eat their own eggs, what will they not do to the flesh of a frog?

29. All lizards lie prostrate; how can a man tell which lizard suffers from bellyache? In time, the pain will make one of them lie flat on its back; then, shall that which has been unknown be made known.

30. The good ruler who stands for the people becomes a victim too soon. And bad rulers, like bad sauce, stay longer!

31. Though the bat may hang its head downwards, it is fully aware of the way the birds fly.

32. Is it not ignorance that makes the rat attack the cat?

33. The elders say he who drums for a sick man is himself a sick man.

34. When the evil-plotter beats his drum for the downfall of the innocent, the gods will not let that drum sound!

35. The hyena flirts with the hen, the hen is happy, not knowing that her death has come.

36. You cannot uproot the tree that has been planted by the gods.

37. If you think to have suspicions is wisdom, then, your head is not well.

38. Two rams cannot drink from the same bucket at the same time. They will lock horns.

39. If you rise too early, the dew of life will soak you.

40. The lion’s liver is vain wish for dogs.

41. Meat that has fat will prove it by the heat of fire!

42. An eagle does not go to the market-place unless there is something there.

43. She is a foolish wife who sides with her son against her own husband.

44. The tortoise is not tall but it is taller than the snail; the snail is taller than the frog; the frog is taller than the lizard; the lizard is taller than the fly; the fly is taller than the ant; the ant in turn is taller than the ground on which it walks.

45. Ignorance makes the rat call the cat to a fight.

46. Because the farm-owner is slow to catch the thief, the thief calls the farm-owner thief.

47. A tree stump never shifts.

48. No termite ever boasts of devouring rock.

49. Venom of viper does nothing to the back of a tortoise.

50. The day the partridge meets the lord of the farm, it jumps into the bush with its back or it drops dead.

51. The monkey and gorilla may claim oneness but the monkey is Monkey and the gorilla, Gorilla.

52. The mangrove dwells in the river, but does that make it a crocodile?

53. Can the cockroah be innocent in a gathering of fowls?

54. It is easy for the butterfly to think himself a bird.

55. It is what is in the heart when there is no wine in the head that comes out when there is wine in the head.

56. A bush does not sway this way or that way unless there is wind to disturb it.

57. The snail may try, but it cannot cast off its shell.

58. The toad likes water but not when the water is boiling.

59. Secrets of the owl must not be known in daylight.

60. Old age indeed does cruel things to the mind!

61. When the gods command, we men must obey.

62. When the wood-insect gathers sticks on its own head, it carries them.

B. Proverbs from the Ibos

The Ibos are located in South Eastern Nigeria and are also known for their rich culture. The prominent novelist, Chinua Achebe, is an Ibo whose works are enriched by the prepondernace of proverbs from his ethnic group. This link provides more information onn the Ibo people.

1. Until Lions have their own historians tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

2. He who rides the horse of greed at a gallop will pull it up at the door of shame.
[Interpretation: If you rush to acquire wealth through the wrong means, you will end up being disgraced in the end. In other words, covetous living is bad.]

3. It is the curiosity of the goat that leads him to salute the hyaena.

4. A Fulani will lie but he will not make a lying proverb.

5. A cockroach knows how to sing and dance, but it is the hen who prevents it from performing its art during the day.

6. When a dog catches a prey, it is because it wants to eat it.

7. When the handshake goes beyond the elbow, it turns into something else.

8. The dog says “When I fall for you and you fall for me, I know it is a play; but when I fall for you and you don’t fall for me, then, I know it is a fight.”

Proverbs from the Oyo

This link takes you to a source that gives you something to read about this ethnic group.

1. He who wishes to barter does not like his own property.

2. Seeing is better than hearing.

3. Evil knows where evil sleeps.

4. He who is sick will not refuse medicine.

5. A wealthy man will always have followers.

6. The dying man is not saved by medicine.

7. Some birds avoid the water; ducks seek it.

8. The day on which one starts out is not the time to start one’s preparations.

9. The house roof fights the rain but he who is sheltered ignores it.

10. Since he has no eyes, he says that eyes smell bad.

11. He who is being carried does not realize how far the town is.

12. He who runs from the white ant may stumble upon the stinging ant.

13. The stone in the water does not know how hot the hill is, parched by the sun.

14. The one-eyed man thanks God only when he sees a man who is totally blind.

15. Someone else’s legs do you no good in traveling.

16. Fine words do not produce food.

17. If the bull would throw you, lie down.

C. Proverbs From the Oyo

1. The bird flies high but always returns to earth.

2. If you rise early, the dew will wet you.

3. When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole nearby.

4. Children of the same mother do not always agree.

5. What the child says, he has heard at home.

6. If you fill your mouthwith a razor, you will spit blood.

7. Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.

8. Before shooting, one must aim.

9. He who has goods can sell them.

10. When one is in trouble, one remembers God.

11. Meat does not eat meat.

12. Before healing others, heal yourself.

13. A shepherd does not strike his sheep.

14. A bird can drink much but an elephant drinks more.

15. Horns do not grow before the head.

16. If the stomachache were in the foot, one would go lame.

17. Time destroys all things.

18. Earth is the queen of beds.

19. Little is better than nothing.

20. When a tree falls on a yam farm and kills the farm’s owner, you don’t waste time counting the numbers of yam heaps ruined.

21. A man does not wander far from where his corn is roasting.

22. It is the woman whose child has been eaten by a witch who best knows the evils of witchcraft.

23. The hunter does not rub himself in oil and lie by the fire to sleep.

23. One goat cannot carry another goat’s tail.

24. Those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.

25. When the moon is shining, the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.

26. You can tell a ripe corn by its look.

27. The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.

28. It is only when fish is fresh that you can bend it.

29. One cannot refuse to eat just because there is a chance of being choked.

30. A mother’s tenderness for her child is as discreet as the dew that kisses the earth.


The following links will take you to sources that have some important information on Nigeria:


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