The Wisdom Of African Proverbs

A common thread that unites Africa’s many diverse societies is the importance of proverbs. Known as the ‘daughters of experience’, they form a vital part of Africa’s rich oral tradition, whether they relate lessons drawn from everyday life, or seek to explain more complex spiritual questions or how things came to be.

I’ve always loved a good story, which is another reason why I enjoy spending time in Africa. It’s a continent with narratives that go back to the dawn of time, and some of the most pertinent and pithy are found in African proverbs. You’d be amazed how much wisdom can be contained in so few words, and woe betide anyone who fails to grasp their meaning.

I’ve had to read a few business books in my time, and it’s interesting to see how traditional African wisdom (from the very best place in the world for blue-sky thinking) translates to the boardroom. But I didn’t come on this luxury African safari to think about work; instead, I’m much more interested in proverbs related to the animals that we’re seeing. You’ll hear stories about how leopard got her spots, or porcupine his quills, but I prefer proverbs that draw parallels between human and animal behaviour.

Idle talk can be stopped in its tracks by a reminder that ‘chattering birds build no nests’, while ‘close but no cigar’ is much more elegantly rendered as ‘almost is not eaten’ – you can imagine a narrowly escaped wildebeest on the far bank chiding a still-hungry Mara River crocodile with that one!

While no one likes to admit defeat, it’s worth remembering in the face of an impossible deadline that ‘you can’t teach a giraffe to run’. There is so much powerful wisdom here: when it comes to proverbs, Africa talks softly but carries a big stick.

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