African Proverbs in African Literature

A Critical Resourcebase



In this section, some of the proverbs will be interpreted to give you an idea as to how rich they are and why Africans like using them. These proverbs add “flavor” to the linguistic abilities of those who know how to use them to enrich their utterances.

Although we cannot cover all the proverbs listed in this project, suffice it to say that whatever we have here will serve useful purposes. We begin with the interpretation of some of the proverbs from some West African countries.

A. Proverbs from Cameroon

1. “If you do not step on the dog’s tail, he will not bite you”:
Whenever you do what is wrong, you must prepare for the consequences. This proverb is used in instances where someone invites trouble to himself or herself by disturbing the peace of others or by going beyond bounds.

2. “Rain does not fall on one roof alone”:
It is important for you to remember that the consequences of your act will not affect you alone. If you do anything that brings good fortune, it will be shared by the entire community. In the same sense, if you bring down a misfortune, it will affect everybody in your community.

This proverb indicates that you are not alone and shouldn’t do things as if no one else shares any attributes with you. It seeks to remind people of the need to see things beyond their noses so as not to be overbearing.

3. “The tears of the orphan run inside”:
This proverb discloses what befalls an orphan or any helpless person who faces misfortune. Whenever the destitute faces any problem, no one comes forth to help him or her. It is difficult for such a person to come out of the desperate situation unscathed.

Thus, whether he or she cries or not, it makes no difference because there will be no one to sympathize with him/her. Instead of becoming demonstrative, the destitute must learn to control his/her emotions because it will be pointless to cry out, knowing very well that there is no helper.

B. Akan Proverbs from Ghana

1. “Rain beats the leopard’s skin but it does not wash out the spots”:
Old habits die hard. If you are known in your community for one thing (especially, that which is bad), it will be very difficult for the society to change its opinion about you even if you one day do good things. Impressions count a lot.

2. “When the cockerel is drunk, he forgets about the hawk”:
This proverb is an admonition to people who get out of one circumstance and forget about it. In life, it is always good for one to remember that whatever threatens one’s life never goes away, regardless of one’s circumstances. The advice is that one should always be on the alert.

C. Ewe Proverbs from Ghana

1. “He who tests the depth of a stream with both feet must be prepared to swim”:
If you invest all your resources in one venture, you stand the risk of losing all and suffering the painful consequences. Before you do anything at all, make sure that you have a back-up for it. In other words, it is dangerous for you to plunge yourself into a situation without any careful effort to determine its outcome in advance.

2. A lizard that knows how to hide grows to become a crocodile”:
If you know how to handle issues properly, you will always make progress.

D. Yoruba Proverbs from Nigeria

1. “It is not changing into a lion that is hard; it is getting the tail of a lion”:
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.

2. “The horns cannot be too heavy for the head of the cow that must bear them”:
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.

E. Ibo Proverbs from Nigeria

1. “He who rides the horse of greed at a gallop will pull it up at the door of shame:
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.



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