African history and culture is rooted in oral tradition and storytelling. While there are an incredible plethora of cultures across the continent, something they all have in common is the gift of a wise tale. Proverbs are the delicious nuggets plucked from the full meal of a great story that Africa has to tell.

Knowledge has been passed from generation to generation throughout the continent for centuries to help people navigate life’s challenges and triumphs. It is done not only with purpose, but with an undeniable beauty and flair. That is why there exists an old African proverb that equates the death of an old man to the burning of a library — the wisdom he acquired from his forefathers, and his own lived experience goes with him.

Africa has been unjustly perceived as a “dark continent” even though it has brought much light to the world. The world's second largest continent, Africa has been a vital source of many valuable things. Gold, diamonds, and even the steaming hot coffee you can’t go a day without, can be found on African soil.

Africa, “the Mother of Mankind”, gifts the world with so much of her beauty and resources — but one of the most valuable is the gift of knowledge. Here are just a few of the African adages and their meanings that every Global Citizen should know, to help empower you on the mission to defend the planet, demand equity, and defeat poverty.

1. A Woman Holds the Knife at the Sharp End

There is a saying that derives from the Sotho diaspora of South Africa’s 11 official languages, “Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka bogaleng”, which loosely translates to “a woman holds the knife at the sharp end”. Given the hardships that women and girls have to face in their lifetime — everything from period poverty and gender-based violence, to higher levels of unemployment and the burden of unpaid care work — such an idiom could not be more fitting.

This proverb serves as an important reminder that we still have a long way to go to ensure the safety, dignity, and equality of women and girls around the world. You can take action with us now to help empower girls in the mission to achieve gender equality, as part of our year-long campaign "End Extreme Poverty NOW — Our Future Can't Wait". Start taking action here

2. There Is No Beauty But the Beauty of Action

A simple yet powerful Moroccan proverb that reads, “there is no beauty but the beauty of action” is one we're sure will resonate with Global Citizens everywhere. Thoughts and words may be enticing but it is our actions that hold the real reward. Our actions have the power to change the world around us and inspire others in our lives to get up and take action too.

If you are a long-standing Global Citizen, then you know very well that we are all about taking action. If you are not yet a Global Citizen, you can sign up to join the movement taking action to end extreme poverty NOW either here on our website or by downloading the Global Citizen app. The world needs immediate action to defeat poverty. Not later or some time in the future, but now.

3. A Tree Is Bent While It Is Still Wet

From the Southern Bantu language isiZulu comes a saying “Umuthi ugotshwa usemanzi” which translates to “a tree is bent while it is still wet”. The meaning of this proverb is that wisdom and behavioural influences are instilled when a person is still young.

If we intend to create thought leaders, action-takers, and change-makers, we need to make sure that we teach our children and the next generation the significance of what it means to have the future in their hands while they are still young, to empower them to become the next generation of world leaders. 

4. A Chattering Bird Builds No Nest

Similar to the Moroccan proverb above, this proverb that is largely used by Cameroonians and Ugandans seeks to tell the listener that they should stop talking about what they want to do and actually do it.

It's an important message for everyone, whether you're a world leader or someone who wants to start driving change in your own community: Talking will not get any real work done. It is time to take action.

5. Hands Wash Each Other

This proverb speaks to how the systems of life work. From the isiZulu saying, “Izandla ziyagezana” meaning “hands wash each other”, we know that we are here, on this planet, to help each other, and build each other up.

If we help our neighbour, we are actually helping ourselves in the long run. No one exists in a vacuum.

6. A Person Is a Person Because of Other People

There’s many ways to say it: “Motho ke motho ka batho” in seSotho, or “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” in isiZulu — this phrase roughly translate to “A person is a person because of other people”, or "I am, because you are." This proverb is the bedrock of South Africa’s society, which is rooted in community.

Africans have the spirit of Ubuntu without having to try, it is part of who we have always been, and the acknowledgement of the fact that we are a product of each other’s actions and decisions. Ubuntu is a reflection of what it takes to live in true unity, and explores what it means to work, live, and thrive together.

7. You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock

This is an adage born during South Africa’s apartheid era, that speaks to to the contribution that women had in fighting against oppression. “Wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo,” which translates from isiZulu to mean “You strike a woman, you strike a rock”.

As well as encapsulating women's strength, this proverb is very telling of how women are the backbone of any society — and you can learn more about some of the remarkable women freedom fighters who helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa here

8. The Child Who Is Not Embraced by the Village Will Burn It Down to Feel Its Warmth

There is a popular and widely-known African proverb that states “It takes a village to raise a child”. This alternative and expansion of that idea further highlights the importance of actively loving, educating, and listening to younger people — or we'll all feel the repercussions.

If you've been inspired by these proverbs to raise your voice and take action in the mission to end extreme poverty NOW, join the movement of Global Citizens around the world by signing up as a Global Citizen here or by downloading the Global Citizen app, and start taking action today. 

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

8 African Proverbs That Every Global Citizen Should Know

By Tshiamo Mobe