5 African proverbs that reveal the true meaning of life

Bridget Boakye February 27, 2018

We recently did a feature on African proverbs on love that rung true for many. African proverbs, often concise, poetic, sometimes whimsical, use nature and everyday life to reveal the essence of ‘the thing’ without saying ‘the thing’.

These 5 quotes on life, gathered from different African countries, speak to different aspects of living a meaningful life without commanding, hence making them all the more exciting to read and remember.

1. You have little power over what’s not yours. — Zimbabwean proverb

We have heard this another way: worry about what you have control over. This quote reveals what we all know but have a difficult time practising: we are only in control over what we own, which is primarily our own lives and the decisions we make concerning it. Although we can seek to influence, trying to wield power over others often stresses or leaves us unfulfilled.

2. If you pick up one end of the stick you also pick up the other. — Ethiopian proverb

This Ethiopian proverb reminds us that life is a double-edged sword. There are often unintended and unforeseen consequences of our actions. Knowing that this is a reality of life should make us both cautious and confident: sure, we may not always know what lies on the other end of the stick and must be discerning, but we should be comforted that this is the reality everyone else faces.

3. You must attend to your business with the vendor in the market, and not to the noise of the market. — Beninese proverb

In this age of social media, it is easy to forget the essence of life: to doggedly contribute to the world around us. But before social media, there was the African market, the quintessential African milieu – bustling hawkers, traders, carriers, preachers, angels, gossipers, nay-sayers, cars, trotros, dancers, restaurants, thieves, animals, and all else. This quote reminds us, with the powerful imagery of the complexity of lives in the African marketplace, that we must forsake the distractions around us if we are to accomplish what we have set out to do.

4. When you befriend a chief remember that he sits on a rope. — Ugandan proverb

This proverb is one on power and position. We must remember that however free we want to live our lives, we are all largely bound by the responsibilities and limitations of our role in our various circles. In this instance, however close you are to a chief, you must understand that he is held to certain restraints both spiritually and politically. Understanding this reality helps us to negotiate better with others while opening ourselves to be cognizant of and honest about the responsibilities that help shape our decisions.

5. A doctor who invoked a storm on his people cannot prevent his house from destruction. — Nigerian proverb

We were all taught this as kids: what goes around comes around. In this proverb, we have a distinct imagery – that of a doctor who invokes harm. Despite his expertise and skill, the harm touches him too. With this in mind, we should always remember to do good, so as to only have the best return to us.

Last Edited by:Bridget Boakye Updated: February 27, 2018


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