Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Ashanti, Yoruba, Swahili, and Zulu proverbs


He who has seen a thousand doesn't praise a hundred.

If the head is there, the hat isn't put on the knee.

If the leg becomes bigger than the thigh, then the leg is diseased.

If you do not carry it on black hair, you will carry it on grey hair.

No one drinks the medicine for the patient.

The old arrow is a model for the craftsman making a new one.

The person making the bonfire suffers from the heat.

If a small bird sings with the voice of a big bird, its voice breaks.

Anger is like a wanderer; it doesn't live in one man's house.

The warrior fights with courage not with anger.

If a child is cutting a piece of yam, he cuts it according to the size of his mouth.

If you pledge your tongue, you can't get it back.

Even if the goat becomes a sheep, there will always be black spots on its body.

If the wind can lift up a stone; take care of yourself if you are a piece of light gourd.

If you talk and talk, your tongue slips.

You estimate the size of an animal before you hit with a stick.

You don't ask for palm oil with a gourd that has no opening.

You don't break the calabash from which you drink wine.

If a chicken is eating your neighbour's corn, chase it away or it will eat yours some day.

If two persons are fighting, the third must be the peacemaker.


Medicine left in the bottle can't help.

When hunger gets inside you, nothing else can.

You can't stop a pig from wallowing in the mud.

When wood breaks it can be repaired, but ivory breaks forever.

The person who has been a slave from birth doesn't value rebellion.

A man with a cough cannot conceal himself.

A proverb is the horse that can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas.

As there is guilt in innocence, there is innocence in guilt.

He who throws a stone in the market will hit his relative.

One who waits for chance may wait a year.

Silence is an attribute of the dead; he who is alive speaks.

The butterfly that brushes against thorns will tear its wings.

The hand of the child cannot reach the shelf, nor the hand of the adult get through the neck of the gourd.

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

You cannot shave a man's head in his absence.


He who wants what is under the bed must stoop for it.

A hen doesn't break her own egg.

A parent bears the body, she doesn't bear the spirit.

Where there is bending there will be rising up.

A dull knife slaughters no chicken.

If you destroy a bridge, be sure you can swim.

Walk with a stick when the person ahead of you slips.

When the lion roars all the animals are quiet.

Laugh at the end.

If you live with a lion, wear the skin of a crocodile.

Houses which are close together, burn together.

He who walks in silence quarrels with nobody.

It takes two to rub each other's backs.

There is a lid for every pot, a key for every lock.

Better building bridges than building walls.
The best way to keep a secret is not to tell it to anyone.

Stay near the tree so that the fruits may fall on you.


Do not go between a spear and a bull.

Firewood gives birth to ash.

Do not talk about a rhinoceros if there is no tree nearby.

Even when there is no cock, day dawns.

The most beautiful fig may contain a worm.
No dew ever competed with the sun.

Darkness conceals the hippopotamus.

Some seeds will grow, others will die.

Silence itself is eloquent.

A leopard licks its spots, black and white.

You can't eat "almost".

For more Ashanti, Yoruba, Swahili, and Zulu proverbs, as well as proverbs from Africa and all over the African Diaspora, please see Lifelines: The African Book of Proverbs

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at