Are African proverbs a relic of the past? Are they merely quaint expressions that will gradually die out with new generations of people? Do African youth, especially in the cities, ignore proverbs? Some people maintain that African proverbs will have a lasting influence. Others say that they are old-fashioned and will slowly pass out of use. For many years I have been a member of cultural research teams in Tanzania and Kenya. In the last three years these teams have conducted research on the use of proverbs in the cities of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. It has been a particular challenge not just to identify popular sayings and proverbs in general, but those used in particular by young people. African urban youth’s popular sayings, especially their street language, can change from month to month, and even from one section of the city to the next.

Our research in East Africa shows clearly that traditional African proverbs are not so popular with young people, especially not in urban situations. The research also indicates that many traditional African proverbs will gradually fall out of use and be forgotten. But other proverbs and sayings will find new meaning and new life in contemporary contexts in Africa itself and worldwide. Significantly, African urban youth use certain of the traditional African proverbs and sayings in different contexts and with different meanings than adults. At the same time, new African proverbs, sayings, maxims, slogans, and idioms are being created to fit contemporary situations.


New African proverbs, and saying originate from various situations and environments. We have identified four such environments:

1. Young people coin new proverbs and sayings (or use old proverbs and sayings in a new way) in writing popular songs, plays and novels. Examples, including some titles and lyrics translated from Swahili, are: No problem. The real thing will happen later. The beauty of a wife is her character, not her appearance (on the goodness of a wife). Good behaviour is your defense (best weapon). If you said it wouldn’t happen why has it happened? (part of a song used in a marriage ceremony). If you get a new pot, do not throw away the old pot (advice from a friend in which the pot refers to a boyfriend or a girlfriend). I am the lyrical gangster (a phrase in the popular Kenyan hit song Boombastic).

2. Taxi cab drivers, small van drivers and small private bus drivers make up new proverbs and sayings while chatting together. They have developed a distinctive urban subculture around their vehicles called "daladalas" in Dar es Salaam and "matatus" in Nairobi. Some of these new sayings become slogans and maxims painted on their vehicles. Examples are: Highway to Heaven. Kenyan Roulette. Third World Generation. Street Talk. More than Conquerors. Exterminator. Total Madness. Oasis of Love. High Voltage.

3. Other sources are new sayings on khangas (colourful cotton cloth), T-shirts, posters, drawings and greeting cards.

4. Street language. I will describe the latter two sources in more detail later,

Knowledge of Proverbs Among Urban Youth

Over the last three years I have had informal conversations with African young people in their late teens and twenties in both Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Everyone tells me that they have forgotten most of the proverbs in their mother tongue. This is especially true of young people who were born and raised in the city. For example, entering a doctor’s office in Nairobi, I heard the receptionist chatting with a patient in the Luo language which is used in both Kenya and Tanzania. Later the receptionist told me that she was born in Nyanza Province, but moved to Nairobi as a young girl. When I asked her what Luo proverbs she knew, the young woman answered: "Oh, right now I can’t remember even one proverb in my mother tongue." Certainly a dramatic change in one generation!

What is more serious is that some of these African youth say that the traditional values and wisdom of their African culture do not speak to their contemporary African world, which has become urban and secularized. Several went so far as to say that the teachings of their elders (main1y coming from a rural agricultural society and exemplified in African proverbs) are irrelevant, and are not applicable to today’s urban African world.

Research among the Gikuyu ethnic group in Nairobi, Kenya, indicates that the traditional Gikuyu customs and oral traditions are being lost at a rate of 60 percent in each succeeding generation So if a particular generation knew 100 proverbs, the next generation will know 40, and the following generation may know only ten or fewer of these proverbs. Traditionally, grandmothers told Gikuyu stories and proverbs to the young children, but now many of these women live in Nairobi, have a salaried job and have less time to spend with their grandchildren.

On three occasions I interviewed Gikuyu youth in Nairobi in their early twenties. They described the dramatic shifts in three, successive generations: their generation, their parents’ and their grandparents’. These youth prefer English and Swahili to Gikuyu. They want modern things rather than the traditions and customs of their African culture and are influenced by Western trends in music, clothes and lifestyle. They also prefer contemporary sayings to traditional proverbs.


In the task of practical evangelisation, we have researched many "modern sayings" ("misemo ya kisasa" or "misemo ya kileo" in Swahili) which appeal especially to youth and to people living in urban areas in Africa. These sayings are usually short, catchy and up-to-date. Some well-known examples of modern sayings translated from Swahili are: Even though I am a simple person, I will not lower myself. My beloved. Freedom and justice. Home is best. I have returned to fulfill my duty. It [marriage] needs patience. The month is at the corner. Refugees are our friends. We are still young, let’s enjoy life. Unity is hard.

There are also traditional proverbs that take on new meanings in new contexts. A popular Swahili proverb is: Heri pazia kuliko bendera. A good English meaning is: Better a. curtain hanging motionless than a flag blowing in the wind. While this proverb has been used for many years, it has acquired a new understanding in the contexts of AIDS education and awareness. The proverb is now used mainly to caution young people to stay with one partner (one curtain in the house) rather than "play around" with many partners (flag blowing to and fro).

African youth continue to use familiar African proverbs and sayings, especially about personal relationships (boy-girl relationships and between friends of the same sex). Some examples are: Mountains never meet but people do. If you want something from under the bed, you must bend down to get it. This traditional proverb is used by African urban youth in a specific context. A boy uses this proverb in advising a friend that it takes time, effort and money (buying expensive gifts) to keep a particular girlfriend. To make a mistake is not a mistake; but to repeat the mistake is a mistake. A girl uses this proverb in advising a friend that one mistake or failure by her boyfriend should not discourage her. She should patiently endure in the relationship.

At present there is an upsurge in theatre and drama in Uganda. Plays are being written based on African proverbs. There is a Ganda proverb which says: One who keeps saying ‘I will listen (obey)’ will be cooked-with the corncob. The proverb is about a grub that feeds on corncobs underneath the leaf. It never leaves the cob so eventually gets cooked with it. The theme is warning against putting off something until it is too late. This proverb is used for a stubborn person who does not accept advice and warnings and finally comes to grief. The proverb became the theme of a very popular Ganda play called Ndiwulira about a young man who does not listen to advice about his personal lifestyle and relationships, gets AIDS and dies. The play has been performed throughout Uganda as part of AIDS education and awareness programs. It has been made into a video and shown on national television.

Sayings on East African Clothes

East African khangas (colourful cotton cloth with many designs) use a variety of African sayings, idioms, proverbs and riddles in Swahili and English. They must be understood in their cultural and social contexts. It is important to understand that many of the sayings are intended to be a commentary on the lives of East African women and their complex relationships. Many of the, sayings are messages (hidden or otherwise) that women communicate to each other. Many of these sayings are also used on T-shirts, posters, drawings and greeting cards.

Our Research Committees in Dar es Salaam, Musoma and Bujora (Mwanza), Tanzania, have systematically collected 226 of these sayings. The following are the English translations of some of the Swahili sayings on khangas popular with youth in urban areas in East Africa.

1. Education is an ocean (that is, it has no end).

2. Good luck begins in the morning.

3. How did you know this if you did not go behind my back?

4. If you give to me, I will receive,. I am not used to begging.

5. If you said it’wouldn’t happen why has it happened?

6. I knew you would say it. (Used after a relationship gets out into the open.)

7. I’m not jealous. I just feel bad.

8. Let it happen whatever might be. (Used by a friend when you lose vour boyfriend or girlfriend.)

9. Lover, turn off the light. The original Swahili is. Shemeji zima taa, and is based on an old popular song entitled: Shemeji, shemeji, mwazima taa, by the Cuban Mirimba Band of Morogoro. Tanzania. (Used especially by youthful hooligans and "toughs.")

10. The messenger is not killed. (Used in passing messages in love affairs.)

11. The patient person eats ripe fruit.

12. Spend money recklessly. (Used by youth after getting their monthly salary.)

13. Thank you for your good deeds to me.

14. There is no guardian like a mother.

15. There is no secret between two people.

16. To give is something of the heart, not riches.

17. To keep complaining won’t help. (Used by boys and girls when someone has "stolen" their boyfriend/girlfriend).

18. You are not a loving person; you don’t remember good deeds. (Used especially by girls.)

19. You will die poor if you rely on relatives.

20. You will exhaust the butcheries while all meat tastes the same. (This crude expression is what one boy says to another boy who is "playing around.")

21. You willget hurt by talking behind other people’s backs.

In analysing these sayings and proverbs, a clear pattern emerges. As several young people in Dar es Salaam explained to me, many of these expressions concern love affairs and problems in girl-boy relationships: jealousy, envy, hatred, a young couple break up, a young couple coming back together again, etc.

Street Language

There are many sayings, idioms, slogans, local and slang expressions that belong to the contemporary "street language" (referred in Swahili as "lugha ya mitaani" [ital]) of the popular urban youth culture. Some examples are: The government s on vacation. Home of peace. Solidarity (charity) walk. Just hanging around. Fast, fast. Life is exciting. Cool. Fit.

Most street language has a meaning or comrnunicates something in a particular context. Here are five more examples which include the original Swahili.

1. Umeniacha kwenye mataa. (You have left me at the [red] lights. Meaning: you left me behind in the dust. You faked me out, that is, you fooled me. A fiancé(e) or a boyfriend/girlfriend who has been left or "dumped" may use this saying. It also can be used by someone who has worked on a joint project with a partner and has been left penniless by that person.

2. Walala hoi. (They [those people] sleep exhausted.) Ordinary people who work hard from early in the morning until late at night in the never-ending struggle to survive. This saying is used for all age groups including the youth. It refers to poor working class people who work long hours, have a dull job, get a low salary, have little to show for it, are tired at the end of the day, and have little to relax and enjoy life. An example is a porter who carries heavy loads all day. The saying can also refer to people who have two or three jobs just to make ends meet. These jobs will stretch through the whole day and even part of the night. It can also refer to the "oppressed poor" in a political sense.

3. Umeme haujakatika. (The electric wires have not been cut; they are still live.) Also, Amekanyaga mawaya/waya za umeme. (A person has stepped on electrical wires). These two sayings are a warning against playing with the "live wires" AIDS (casual "sleeping around" and unprotected sex) because they are packed with enough "voltage" to kill.

4. Amechacha. (A person who has fermented and got spoiled.) Used to describe a person who is broke, that is, doesn’t have any money.

5. Amechemka. (A person who has boiled over or dry). Used to describe a person who has failed achieve his or her goal. This example of street language evolved in the urban milieu of old beat up taxis and rundown small buses. Using the analogy of a radiator that has boiled over, the saying refers to a person who has not succeeded. It also can refer to someone who does not have any money.


In analysing the various examples described above, several observations can be made. While East African Youth have their own language, whether it be street language or even "sheng" (a mixture of Swahili and English), they blend the new and the old. Many expressions are their own style of communication, their own "in" language, different kinds of "hip" language that can be superficial and fleeting. But many of their expressions express values, such as those related to the importance of good human relationships.

If today’s African young people – particularly in cities – are less and less grounded in their traditional cultures, then a relevant African Christianity is challenged to speak to this emerging culture, to this new generation and to their new African vales. This integrated approach is expressed by a group of African theologians thus:

Inculturation should draw from the traditional African values that continued to influence the people’ lives and their worldview. At the same time it must draw from the recent African experience, brought about by contacts, rapid change and the entire socio-economic and political realities in Africa and elsewhere.*

It is clear that urbanization is one of the best possible tests for inculturation in Africa. Towns and cities will be the proving ground for the survival and redefinition of African culture. The traditional African wisdom of proverbs and sayings will continue to speak to universal experience. Various forms of African oral literature, including songs and modern sayings, are an "enduring wisdom". But we are challenged of find new applications to them in our contemporary world.

* Cast away fear: a Contribution to the African Synod. Supplement to New people, March-April 1994, p. 10.

Last Revised 09-Feb-09 10:27 AM.