Source Book for African Anthropology



The wit and humor of brief sententious sayings can be illustrated by examples from Hamitic and Negro languages. These aphorisms, riddles, and proverbs are used to point out a moral, to impress children, or to give point to an argument, and in addition there may be some latent content that gives veiled expression to sexual or other ideas which are usually suppressed.

The Tuareg, whose lives have been associated with raids and reprisals, express mistrust in the proverb, "It is better to see than to believe." Other aphorisms that are relevant of their mentality are: "It is better to conceal than to refuse"; and "Noise and the chase do not go together."

The following are proverbs collected from a district west of the Cavally River, which divides Liberia from the Ivory Coast. These and many similar ones are used by five tribes collectively known as the Gweabo (Sapir and Blooah, 1929; Herzog and Blooah, 1936).

The palm tree says, "We do not know the child of wealth by his size." The meaning is that the largest palm does not necessarily give the greatest weight of nuts; the appearance of a person is not a reliable indication of his wealth. If a stranger is presumptuous, he is reminded of his position in the village by the proverb, "A stranger’s feet are small," a sentence that refers to the bartering of chickens. These birds find themselves in new places among strange and possibly hostile poultry; therefore, the new arrivals have to step warily. Impecunious people express optimism in an expression which is attributed to a frog who said, "I possess nothing, but I have my jump."

R. S. Rattray (1928, p. 304) asked some people of Ashanti whether they did not protest when the king used false weights to his own advantage when weighing gold dust. To express the danger and the futility of protesting against royalty the people quoted their proverb, "One does not rub bottoms with a porcupine."

The Ibo of Nigeria say, "When a traveler reaches a land where men cut off their ears he cuts off his own." This is equivalent to the English, "Do in Rome as the Romans do." The proverb, "Charity begins at home," has a parallel in the Ibo saying, "It is the place a man lives in that he repairs." The proverb, "When you play with a puppy, he tears your clothes," means that "familiarity breeds contempt." (Basden, 1921, p. 283.)

From the Ovimbundu of Angola, Hambly (1934a, pp. 253–254) collected a few brief sayings, some of which are quoted below:

"You cannot tie a buck’s head in a cloth; the horns will stick out." This means, "Murder will out."

"A turtle cannot climb on a tree stump; someone has to put it there." The saying refers to inheritance of kingship which usually descends to the oldest son of the deceased chief’s principal wife. But if this youth is foolish, another successor is chosen. Yet influential persons may see their own advantage in aiding the foolish heir to gain office the "turtle has been placed on the tree stump."

In order to deride a person who makes threats or promises that he is unable to fulfill, the Ovimbundu say, "Hot water does not burn a house," or "Cold water does got make mush." The proverb, "A sleeping dog does not catch a hare," has a similar meaning.

If two persons have a secret, the fact is expressed by saying, "They uncovered the pot, ate a little honey, and covered it again."

As a warning not to be foolish through good fortune, the Ovimbundu say, "If you are full of food, do not climb on a leopard’s back." The implication is that, although you yourself are not hungry, the leopard may have a good appetite.

Understanding of some proverbs depends entirely on a knowledge of local customs. The aphorism, "That which destroyed the buck came from its own head," may appear meaningless until we recall the custom of blowing a horn to attract the attention of antelope. If the curiosity of the animals is aroused they will stand still or even approach the sound.

"I caught some fish but lost my bracelet," is quoted when a loss in some transaction exceeds the gain. The saying would be appropriate if a man gave up his occupation and accepted work for lower pay.

In a riddle which asks what object in the hut is like a human life, a certain philosophical trend may be seen. The answer is, "The log that is gradually pushed into the fire." Like a human life, the log is being consumed while it lives. Considerable material for study will be found in the pages of Gutmann (1909); Lindblom (1935); Meinhof (1911); Schapera (1932a), and Junod and Jaques (1936).


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Chicago: "Proverbs," Source Book for African Anthropology in Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886- 310–311. Original Sources, accessed July 17, 2024,

MLA: . "Proverbs." Source Book for African Anthropology, in Source Book for African Anthropology, edited by Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886-, pp. 310–311. Original Sources. 17 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Proverbs' in Source Book for African Anthropology. cited in , Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. , pp.310–311. Original Sources, retrieved 17 July 2024, from