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2002 Version of the Basic Talk on "Using African Proverbs, Sayings, Idioms, Riddles, Stories, Fables, Plays and Songs (African Oral Literature and Culture)"

I pointed out to you the stars (the moon) and all you saw was the tip of my finger (Sukuma Ethnic Group, Tanzania proverb). (See TANT, pp.17-18, 53 and 306)

Nilikuonyesha nyota (mwezi) na uliangalia kidole tu. (See KI, I, p. 6 and KM, II, p. 7)

Proverb --


Tale --


Saying --

Msemo, Usemi

Fable --

Ngano, Hadithi ya Mafumbo

Modern Saying --

Msemo wa Kisasa/Kileo              

Parable --


Idiom --


Play --

Mchezo wa Kuigiza, Tamthilia

Riddle --


Verse --


Story --


Song --


The different types of African Oral Literature and Culture are very helpful:

j.        To understand African cultures, traditions, customs and values ("a window into the African worldview").

k.      To use in our everyday life and work ("proverbs and stories as a way of life").

1. African Proverbs

African Values of Visiting, Welcome, Hospitality, Personal Relationships


<!--[if !supportLists]-->a.                    <!--[endif]-->A visitor is a guest for two days. On the third day give him or her a hoe. (See FG, p.33 and TANT, pp. 168 and 173)
Mgeni siku mbili; siku ya tatu mpe jembe akalime.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->b.                     <!--[endif]-->Let the guest come so that the host may benefit (get well). (See TANT, pp.168 and 173-74)
Mgeni njoo, mwenyeji apone. (See SS, I, p. 26 and KI, I, p. 58)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->c.                     <!--[endif]-->Mountains never meet but people do. (See FG, p. 189 and TANT, pp.107 and173)
Milima haikutani lakini binadamu hukutana

African Values of Unity, Community, Sharing and Joint Responsibility

<!--[if !supportLists]-->d.                     <!--[endif]-->Unity is strength; division is weakness. (See FG, pp. 127, 189 and TANT, pp. 38, 42, 143, 173, 287 and 345)
Umoja ni nguvu; utengano ni udhaifu. (See KM, II, pp. 86 and 106 and KU, p. 51)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->e.                    <!--[endif]-->One finger cannot kill a louse. (Very common oral style of "one...cannot") (See FG, p. 125 and TANT, pp. 41 and 114-15)
Kidole kimoja hakivunji chawa. (See SS, I, p. 14; KM, II, p. 106 and KU, p. 48)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->f.                     <!--[endif]-->Sharing is wealth. (See TANT, pp. 114, 143, and 362)
Kupeana ni akiba. (See KI, I, p. 58)

African Values of Patience and "Slow but Sure"

<!--[if !supportLists]-->g.                    <!--[endif]-->Patience is the key to tranquillity. (See FG, p.13 and TANT, p. 186)
Subira ni ufunguo wa faraja.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->h.                    <!--[endif]-->Hurry, hurry has no blessing. (See FG, p. 83 and TANT, p. 39)
Haraka, haraka haina baraka. (Most common Swahili proverb) (See SS, I, p. 10; KI, I, p. 73 and KM, II, p. 95)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->i.                      <!--[endif]-->Slowly, slowly is the way. (See FG, p. 83)
Pole, pole ndiyo mwendo. (See KI, I, p. 73 and KM, II, p. 95)

Practical African Proverbs in Everyday Life

<!--[if !supportLists]-->j.                    <!--[endif]-->If you don't fill up a crack you will build a wall. (See TANT, pp. 291 and 315)
Usipoziba ufa utajenga ukuta. (See SS, I, p. 49 and KM, II, pp. 35, 89)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->k.                  <!--[endif]-->Health is more important than wealth.
Afya ni bora kuliko mali. (See KM, II, p. 61)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->l.                      <!--[endif]-->A reserve does not decay. (See FG, p. 189)
Akiba haziozi. (See SS, I, p. 1 and KI, I, p. 15)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->m.                     <!--[endif]-->To give is something of the heart, not of riches. (See TANT, p. 39)
Kutoa ni moyo, si utajiri. (See KM, II, p. 63)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->n.                      <!--[endif]-->When elephants fight the grass gets hurt. (See FG, pp. xii and 126 and TANT, pp. 36-37 and 42)
Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia. (See SS, I, p. 51 and KU, p. 50)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->o.                     <!--[endif]-->The person who does not listen to an elder's advice gets his or her leg broken.
Asiyesikia la mkuu huvunjika guu. (See SS, I, p. 4; KI, I, p. 48 and KM, II, pp. 35, 89)

2. African Sayings and Idioms

<!--[if !supportLists]-->p.                     <!--[endif]-->A promise is a debt. (See FG, p. 127 and TANT, p. 38)
Ahadi ni deni. (See KU, p. 51)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->q.                     <!--[endif]-->He or she has lived many years (that is, an old person).
Amekula chumvi nyingi.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->r.                     <!--[endif]-->Education is like an ocean, it does not have an end. (See FG, p. 126 and TANT, p. 38)
Elimu ni bahari. (See KU, p. 49)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->s.                        <!--[endif]-->He has not gotten married yet.
Hajapata jiko.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->t.                      <!--[endif]-->To be welcomed very well (with two hands held out in friendship). (See FG, p. 33 and TANT, p. 68)
Kupokewa kwa mikono miwili. (See KI, I, p. 58)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->u.                    <!--[endif]-->Good-bye until we meet again. (See FG, p. 188 and TANT, p. 38)
Kwa heri ya kuonana.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->v.                     <!--[endif]-->To be greedy and avaricious.
Kuwa na mkono wa birika. (See KI, I, pp. 54, 58 and KM, II, p. 58)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->w.                       <!--[endif]-->Face to face.
Ana kwa ana au Uso kwa uso.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->x.                    <!--[endif]-->Home is best. (See TANT, p. 38)
Mtu kwao.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->y.                    <!--[endif]-->My beloved.
Nyota yangu.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->z.                     <!--[endif]-->The month is at the corner" (See TANT, p. 38)
Mwezi umeenda kona.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->aa.             <!--[endif]-->Preserve our culture. (See TANT, p. 39)
Hifadhi utamaduni wetu.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->bb.               <!--[endif]-->You faked me out (that is, you fooled me). (street language or a modern saying)
Umeniacha kwenye mataa (lugha ya mitaani au msemo wa kisasa)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->cc.               <!--[endif]-->Ordinary people who work hard from early in the morning until late at night in the never-ending struggle to survive (street language or a modern saying). (See TANT, p. 39)
They (those people) who sleep exhausted (literal translation).
Walala hoi (lugha ya mitaani au msemo wa kisasa).

<!--[if !supportLists]-->dd.               <!--[endif]-->The electric wires are still live. (a warning not to play with the 'live wires" of AIDS because they are packed with enough "voltage" to kill).
Umeme haujakatika. au Amekanyaga waya za umeme.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->ee.              <!--[endif]-->A person who is does not have any money.
A person who has boiled over or is dry, that is, who is broke or without any money (literal translation).

3. African Riddles

<!--[if !supportLists]-->ff.               <!--[endif]-->My house has no door? ... EGG
Nyumba yangu haina mlango? ... YAI (See SS, II, p. 2)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->gg.             <!--[endif]-->My house is large but its door is small? ... BOTTLE
Nyumba yangu ina mlango mdogo? ... CHUPA (See SS, II, p. 5)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->hh.             <!--[endif]-->My lamp illuminates the whole world? ... MOON
Taa yangu yazagaa ulimwengu mzima? ... MWEZI (See SS, II, p. 6)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->ii.                 <!--[endif]-->God's cup is open? ... WELL
Kombe la Mungu li wazi? ... KISIMA (See SS, II, p. 4)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->jj.             <!--[endif]-->I shot my arrow without feathers; it has returned with feathers? ... RUNNER BEAN (See WL, p. 76, JM, p. 73 and TANT, pp. 235-37 and 342-43)
Nilitupa mshale wangu bila manyoya; umerudi na manyoya?" ... KUNDE (See KI, I, p. 17)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->kk.          <!--[endif]-->My tamarind tree is bent so close to the ground that even a child can pick fruit from it?" ... MOTHER'S BREASTS.
Mkwaju wangu umezaa kochokocho. Hata mtoto anaweza kuchuma?" ... MATITI YA MAMA. (See KM, II, p. 43)

4. African Stories, Fables, and Songs (connected to proverbs, sayings, riddles, plays and events)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->ll.                 <!--[endif]-->The Hyena and the Two Roads. Well-known story or fable in different African languages. The last sentence (the moral of the story) is a proverb:
Two roads overcame the hyena. (See TANT, pp. 41, 53, 158-59 and 358-59)
Njia mbili zilimshinda fisi. (See KI, I, p. 9)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->mm.               <!--[endif]-->The Notorious Liar in the Village. Sukuma Ethnic Group (Tanzania) Story. The last sentence (the moral of the story) is a proverb:
It is better to have a witch as a neighbor than a liar. (See TANT, pp. 110-11)
Heri jirani mchawi kuliko mwongo. (See KM, II, p. 54)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->nn.                 <!--[endif]-->Masanja Goes To Dar es Salaam. Story based on a Sukuma Ethnic Group (Tanzania) riddle:
"He went to the coast naked and returned fully clothed? ... GROUNDNUT (See WL, pp. 75-76, JM, p. 71-73 and TANT, pp. 203, 235-37 and 242-43)
Alikwenda pwani uchi; akarudi amevaa? ... KARANGA (See KI, I, p. 17)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->oo.               <!--[endif]-->Song Connected to a Traditional African Event. The Sukuma Ethnic Group (Tanzania) has a song of thanksgiving sung by parents who are helped by their children. This song is also a popular saying:
Woman, Woman, Giving Birth is Very Good. It is Something To Be Grateful For. (See TANT, pp. 68-69) Mama, Mama Kuzaa Ni Vizuri. Kuna Shukrani. (See KM, II, p. 30)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->pp.               <!--[endif]-->Song Connected to a Traditional African Event. The Sukuma Ethnic Group (Tanzania) has a song about a mother whose adult son has died. Mary sings an adaptation of this song, She Is Crying For Her Son, at the foot of the cross in the biblical Passion Play first produced at Bujora and Misungwi Parishes in Mwanza, Tanzania. The original song is: I Am Overwhelmed By Grief. (See TANT, p. 248)
Ninalia Kwa Huzuni.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->qq.               <!--[endif]-->Song Connected to a Traditional African Event. The Kuria Ethnic Group (Kenya/Tanzania) sings a traditional song when a baby is born in the village:
We Come to the Home of the Child (See WL, p. 49, JM, p. 41 and TANT, p. 97)
Wa Kwao Mwana Wamefika.

NOTE: These stories and songs are very good in the inculturation (the Swahili is "utamadunisho") and incarnation (the Swahili is "umwilisho) of the Gospel in Africa. They can also be acted out in spontaneous role-plays and dramas.

Reference Code:

SS, I -- Swahili Sayings From Zanzibar -- Book I on Proverbs
SS, II -- Swahili Sayings From Zanzibar -- Book II on Riddles and Superstitions
FG -- A Fifth Gospel: The Experience of Black Christian Values
WL -- What Language Does God Speak: African Stories About Christmas and Easter
(the Swahili adaptation is JE -- Je, Mungu Anasema Lugha Gani: Hadithi za Afrika Juu za Noeli na Pasaka)
KI, I -- Kueneza Injili Kwa Methali -- Book I on "Food and Meals"
KM, II -- Kugundua Mbegu za Injili -- Book II on "Family and Marriage"
KU -- Kuishi Injili
TANT -- Towards an African Narrative Theology

NOTE: More background information on and further explanations of these proverbs, sayings, stories and other types of African Oral Literature are found in Chapter One entitled Towards an African Narrative Theology, especially the sections on "Oral Literature as a Source of an African Narrative Theology of Inculturation" and "Research Methodology Used in Collecting and Interpreting African Oral Literature," in the following book: Joseph G. Healey, M.M. and Donald F. Sybertz, M.M., Towards An African Narrative Theology (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 3rd reprint 2000 and Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 3rd printing 2001), 400 pages.

Prepared by:

Also available from:



Rev. Joseph G. Healey, M.M.                             

Research Committee

Maryknoll Missioners

Maryknoll Language School

P.O. Box 867

P.O. Box 298

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Musoma, Tanzania



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10 March, 2002


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