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Classic Xhosa Proverbs

by Jean Black

Many historical Xhosa proverbs conveyed excellent practical lessons of prudence and wisdom.  Very fun and interesting to read and ponder.  Here are some and their English meaning:

A brand burns him who stirs it up

Let sleeping dogs lie. 

One fly does not provide for another

Each should work for himself, as flies do.  A saying of the industrious to the idle. 

He is ripe inside, like a watermelon. 

Said of anyone who has come to a resolution without yet expressing it. 

It is a cob stripped of grain in an ashpit. 

Said of a worthless character. 

Throats are all alike in swallowing. 

When one asks another for anything, it implies if you do not give to me now, I will not give to you when I have anything that you would like a share of. 

He has drunk the juice of the flower of the wild aloe. 

Said of a dull, sleepy person.  This juice when drunk has a stupefying effect, and benumbs the lims so as to make them powerless for a time. 

The walls have come into collision. 

Said of a dispute of consequence between persons. 

A person who will not take advice gets knowledge when trouble overtakes him. 

Self explanatory. 

He is a buck of an endless forest

Someone who never continues long in any occupation, always shifting around. 

You are lighting a fire in the wind.

Said to anyone who favours strangers in preference to relatives, or to their disadvantage. 

There is no beast that does not roar in its den

Every cock crows on his own dunghill.  A man recognizes no superior in his own establishment. 

A dog of the wind

Someone who has no settled plan of living. 

I, the adhesive grass, will stick fast to you

This proverb is used as a warning to anyone to avoid a bad habit or an unworthy companion that cannot easily be got rid of. 

The land is dead. 

War has commenced. 

One does not become great by (only) claiming greatness.

A man's actions, and not his talk and boasting, are what makes him great or not. 

The wonderful and the impossible have come into collision. 

A saying applied to any intricate question

It is the foot of a baboon. 

A saying denoting a treacherous person. 

We shall hear;  we are on the side towards which the wind blows. 

We shall soon know all that is going on. 

He has gone in pursuit of the (fabulous) birds of the sea. 

A saying applied to one whose ambitious aspirations are not likely to be realised. 

Here are some more interesting classic proverbs of practical lessons and prudence, mostly from the Xhosa culture in South Africa.  The English meaning is under each:

You are creeping on your knees to the fireplace.

This is a saying used to warn anyone who is following a course that's going to lead to ruin.  It refers to an infant or baby, crawling to the pretty fire in the fire-circle to reach out to the beautiful fire, but who will end up getting burned or killed. 

They prevent us from getting red clay from the pit, and they do not use it. 

This is the same as the ancient fable that goes, "There was a dog lying in a manger who did not eat the grain but who nevertheless prevented the horse from being able to eat anything either."  It refers to somebody who doesn't use something, yet prevent others from using it, perhaps out of spite or greed. 

Or it could similarly refer to a person who hoards so much stuff that over time it goes to ruin, instead of giving it away in time to others who might have had use for it.  

Skinning a mouse

To do something in secret.  This is understood in the light of that one can secretly skin a small thing like a mouse because it can be easily shielded from passing eyes, while in contrast trying to skin an ox may be too big an affair to keep secret. 

One who eats the remains of a meal without first obtaining permission. 

Somebody who delivers an uncalled-for expression of opinion. 

It dies and rises like the moon

Said of a question that keeps jumping up again and again, even after it was supposed to be settled, like the moon that rises again when it's gone down. 

There is no wormwood that comes into flower and does not wither. 

One of those sad descriptions about life and death, implying that like a flower that blooms and inevitably withers, so everybody in life has their time and then it's over.  

The foot has no nose

An encouragement to be hospitable.  It refers to when for example you're traveling yourself and land somewhere where you need help, your tired and desperate feet will take you to wherever you can find help, without first "smelling" if the person you're asking for help is one of those you yourself weren't hospitable to when they needed it previously.


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