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Collection of, and Commentary on, 254 Sayings on East African Cloth (Misemo Kwenye Khanga za Afrika Mashariki)

Joseph G. Healey

Collection of, and Commentary on, 254 Sayings on East African Cloth (Misemo Kwenye Khanga za Afrika Mashariki)

I. Introduction and Commentary

 An East African khanga is a rectangle of pure cotton cloth with a border all around it and printed in bold designs and bright colors. It is as long as a person’s outstretched arm and wide enough to cover from neck to knee, or from waist to toe. Khangas are often bought in pairs and are usually worn in a most attractive and useful way. Most traditional outfits require a matched or unmatched pair. Women also use khangas to cover other clothes and to carry their young children on their backs. Khangas are also used as tablecloths and decorative wall hangings.

Khangas use a variety of African sayings, idioms, proverbs, slogans, expressions, idioms and riddles in Swahili and English. These sayings 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/coded or otherwise) that women communicate to each other. Usually the saying is printed on the bottom middle of the cloth. More recent East African khangas also contain informational and educational messages.

The following are the English translations (alphabetically) of some of the Swahili sayings on khangas that are 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.

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Proverbs, Sayings and Popular Wisdom - Audio Proverbs in English and Romance Languages, Proverb Studies, Proverb Collections, International Proverb Bibliographies


De Proverbio – Latin for ‘About the Proverb’ – is a website devoted to proverbs in several languages. It was founded in January 1995 at the University of Tasmania, Australia. De Proverbio was the world’s first refereed electronic journal of international proverb studies. It’s inspiration was Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship edited by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder at the University of Vermont. The Yearbook continued the tradition of Proverbium: Bulletin d’Information sur les Recherches Parémiologiques, published occasionally from 1965 to 1975 by the Society for Finnish Literature, Helsinki.

Recently, the website has added audio proverbs in six languages, read by native speakers.  Also available for the lovers of languages and their proverbial richess is a page of multilingual proverb crosswords.

Proverbs and Their Definition

From time immemorial proverbs have fascinated people of all ages and from all walks of life. As it happened throughout centuries, common people today still avail themselves of the proverb’s rich oral tradition to convey their culture and values, while scholars collect and study them from a wide range of angles: linguistic, social, psychological, political, historical and so on.

Proverbs by James Chapman - cat
A cat in mittens won’t catch mice

The problem of proverb definition is still open. However, it is broadly accepted that proverbs were born from man’s experience. And that they generally express, in a very succinct way, common-sense truths. They give sound advice and reflect the human condition. But, as we know, human nature is both good and bad and the latter is often mirrored by discriminatory proverbs, be they against women, different nationalities or particular social groups. For a thorough discussion of proverb definition, see Popular Views of the Proverb by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder. Another article which sheds some light on the proverb definition is The Wisdom of Many and the Wit of One by Archer Taylor.

Proverbs and Their Origin

As to the origin of proverbs we tend to assume that they were born in times when human society began to self-impose rules and embrace principles necessary for communal living. Research can trace them back only to the time when language was recorded by means of some type of writing. The Sumerian civilisation of more than five thousand years ago is the oldest known civilisation to have made use of proverbs, some of which have been passed on through its cuneiform inscriptions.

One such proverb, in its Latin version, is Canis festinans caecos parit catulos. It spread to other languages. The English translation is The hasty bitch brings forth blind whelps. In French, it became La chienne dans sa hâte a mis bas des chiots aveugles. In the Italian La gatta frettolosa fece i gattini ciechi, the bitch has been replaced by the cat. The Portuguese version is Cadelas apressadas parem cães tortos, and the Romanian, Căţeaua de pripă îşi naşte căţeii fără ochi.

Proverbs and Their Use

Apart from use on a wide scale in day-to-day speech, there is ample evidence that proverbs were essential tools in teaching and learning. The pedagogical use of proverbs was encountered first in Sumerian society and subsequently this use became widespread throughout Medieval Europe.

Proverbs by James Chapman - book
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket

Proverbs and proverbial expressions are found in religious manuscripts of the first half of the eighth century. The aim of introducing proverbs into religious texts was to help novices to learn Latin, and this practice became widespread by the tenth century.

The use of proverbs in teaching and learning was not circumscribed to England. Relatively new research attests to the use of proverbs in teaching in the eleventh century in Liège, France. In Italy the famous medical School of Salerno of the eleventh century formulated medical precepts which later became proverbs adopted by different cultures. Post prandium stabis, post coenam ambulabis was translated After dinner sit awhile, after supper walk a mile in English. In French became Après dîner repose un peu, après souper promène une mille, while in Italian Dopo pranzo riposar un poco, dopo cena passeggiar un miglio. The Spanish version is Después de yantar reposad un poco, después de cenar pasead una milla and the Portuguese Depois de jantar, dormir; depois de cear, passos mil.

Proverbs and Their Abuse

But from use comes abuse, as a Spanish proverb says.  There is no doubt that the capacity of the proverb to convey universal truths concisely led to their abuse and manipulation.

Hitler and his Nazi regime employed proverbs as emotional slogans for propaganda purposes and encouraged the publication of anti-semitic proverb collections. For a thorough analysis of this phenomenon, please read the fascinating article “ … as if I were the master of situation.” Proverbial Manipulation in Adolf Hitler by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, communist regimes of the past have not only manipulated proverbs, but also purged popular collections of features which did not reflect their political ends. The former Soviet regime is at the forefront of such actions. One type of manipulation described by Jean Breuillard in Proverbes et pouvoir politique: Le cas de l’U.R.S.S.  (published in “Richesse du proverbe”, Eds. François Suard and Claude Buridant. Lille: Université de Lille, 1984. II, 155-166). It consisted in modifying ancient proverbs like La vérité parcourt le monde (Truth spreads all over the world) into La vérité de Lénine parcourt le monde (Lenin’s truth spreads all over the world). As a result the new creation is unequivocably charged with a specific ideological message.

Manipulation did not stop at individual proverbs, it extended to entire collections. Vladimir Dal’s mid-nineteen century collection of Russian proverbs is such an example. Its first Soviet edition (1957) reduces the proverbs containing the word God from 283 to 7 only. Instead, those which express compassion for human weaknesses, such as alcoholism, disappear altogether. In more recent years, in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Proverbele românilor (published in 1877 by I. C. Hinţescu) suffered the same treatment. More than 150 proverbs were eliminated or changed in order to respond rigidly to the communist ideology.

Proverbs Across Time and Space

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs states that foreign proverbs’ contribution to the English proverbial stock has enriched our language. Many proverbs of foreign origin were quickly absorbed into English life and have a rightful place in an English dictionary. Indeed, a close scrutiny of that dictionary reveals that more than two hundred and fifty proverbs are listed as first existing in Italian.

This is also true for other modern languages, particularly French and Spanish. The translation is not always literal. At times it is adapted to the new language and the resulting proverb is often enriched in its expression. For instance the Latin Homo sine pecunia est imago mortis (A man without money is the image of death) is rather closely translated in Italian as Uomo senza quattrini è un morto che cammina (A man without money is a dead man walking).

However, in other languages the metaphor changes, but not the meaning. In English the proverb becomes A man without money is a bow without an arrow, while in French Un homme sans argent / Est un loup sans dents (A man without money is a wolf without teeth) and an element of rhyme is introduced. The Romanian adaptation is a real poetic gem Omul fără bani e ca pasărea fără aripi; Când dă să zboare / Cade jos şi moare (A man without money is like a bird without wings; When he tries to fly / He falls down and dies). The concept is essentially the same: the man without money lacks something important…

Proverbs Today

Proverbs by James Chapman - egg and hen
The egg thinks it’s smarter than the hen

While proverbs are still used today in a traditional way, that is in speech, literature and teaching, they have found a new ever expanding use in the advertising industry and in the mass media. One example is Here today, gone tomorrow, which became Hair today, gone tomorrow in the hair-removal industry. In the mass media it has a variety of paraphrases such as Hear today, gone tomorrow or Heir today, gone tomorrow. Before the Barcelona Olympic Games the old proverb All roads lead to Rome became All roads lead to… Barcelona in many English language newspapers and magazines. A new phenomenon encountered in many languages nowadays and is undoubtedly a sign of the proverb’s resilience and vitality.

Important writers of the past, among them Goethe and Voltaire, have questioned the traditional wisdom of proverbs. That led to some proverb transformations. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder coined the term anti-proverb for all forms of creative proverb changes. They can be deliberate innovations, alterations, variations, parodies. Anti-proverbs are widely spread today, some living a short time, some even making their way into recent proverb collections. A new broom sweeps clean, but the old one knows the corners and Absence makes the heart grow fonder – for somebody else are considered anti-proverbs.

Proverbs and Their Collection

Apart from studies on individual and multilingual proverbs and proverbial expressions, you will find a few e-books on our website. I will mention a Brazilian collection and a dictionary of equivalent English and Romanian proverbs. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder’s yearly bibliographies are an invaluable tool for students and researchers. Given their widespread use over the millennia, it is no wonder that scholars of the past started assembling proverbs in collections. Aristotle is believed to be among the first paremiographers (collectors of proverbs), but, unfortunately, his collection was lost. In more recent times a great impetus to the collection of proverbs was given by Erasmus. His fame spread from Venice throughout Europe after the publication in 1508 of his Adagiorum Chiliades. This collection contained 3,260 proverbs drawn from classical authors.

The success of the book led to several augmented editions culminating with that of 1536, which contains 4,151 proverbs. Erasmus’ work was translated into several European languages. While it became the model for future proverb collections in those languages, they were widely copied and translated.

One good example of such a practice is the 1591 Italian collection Giardino di Ricreatione, nel quale crescono fronde, fiori e frutti, vaghe, leggiadri e soavi, sotto nome di sei miglia proverbii, e piacevoli riboboli Italiani, colti e scelti da Giovanni Florio. And two decades later appeared in French as Le Jardin de Récréation, au quel croissent rameaux, fleurs et fruits très-beaux, gentils et souefs, soubz le nom de Six mille proverbes et plaisantes rencontres françoises, recueillis et triéez par GOMÈS DE TRIER, non seulement utiles mais délectables pour tous espritz désireux de la très-noble et copieuse langue françoise, nouvellement mis en lumière, à Amsterdam, par PAUL DE RAVESTEYN.

Proverbs and Fun

Proverbs by James Chapman - duck
If the world flooded, it wouldn’t matter to the duck

On the less academic side, you can test your knowledge of languages by solving our bilingual or multilingual crosswords. Or, you can listen to our featured proverbs in 6 languages – English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. Also, enjoy sharing them with your friends. Some were posted on Twitter as comments to political events of the day.

Painters in Renaissance time, from Hieronymus Bosch to Pieter Bruegel, with his famous Netherlandish Proverbs, were attracted by the subject.

Modern artists like James Chapman illustrated recently proverbs from other world languages with hilarious cartoons. See some of his images on this page.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

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 will get hurt by talking behind other people’s backs.

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

The kitenge, the other type of colorful East African cotton cloth with many designs, also uses various informational messages mainly dealing with celebrations, anniversaries, meetings, deaths.

II. List of 254 Sayings on Khangas

Our Research Committees in Dar es Salaam, Musoma and Bujora (Mwanza), Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya have systematically collected a list of 254 sayings on khangas. The examples are listed alphabetically (Swahili and then the English translation). Many of these sayings are also used on T-shirts, posters, banners, drawings, greeting cards, etc.

1. "Acheni nyodo kila mtu na bahati yake."
"Forget about effort, each person has his or her luck."

2. "Adui ni mdomo wako."
"Your lips are your enemy."

3. "Akili ni mali."
"Brains are wealth."

4. "Alaa! Kumbe!"

5. "Amani, Upendo, Umoja"
"Peace, Love, Unity"

6. "AMECEA Celebrating the African Synod in Nairobi with John Paul II Sept. 1995"

7. "Anayechekea kovu ya mwingine hajajeruhiwa bado."
"The person who laughs at another’s scar has not been wounded yet."

8. "Apendaye halipizi."
"The one who loves does not take revenge."

9. "Asante sana kwa wema ulionitendea."
"Thank you for your good deeds to me."

10. "Awamu ya pili."
"The second round."

11. "Bahati haina hodi."
"Luck doesn't give a warning sign."

12. "Bienheureux Danial Comboni Un Prophet pour Afrique
"Blessed Daniel Comboni A Prophet for Africa"

13. "Bila jasho huishi."
"You don't live without working."

14. "Bora maisha; mengine ni majaliwa."
"Life is the best gift; the rest is extra."

15. "Buriani Baba wa Taifa Mwalimu J.K. Nyerere 1922--1999
"Farewell (and remain at peace) Father of the Nation Teacher J.K. Nyerere 1922--1999"

16. "Chakubimbi ukimuona muogope."
"If you see Chakubimbe (the rumor monger) stay away from him."

17. "Chakukupa sina ila nakuombea dua."
"I have nothing to give you except to pray for you."

18. "Chakukupa sina ila nakuombea salama."
"I have nothing to give you except to wish you good luck."

19. "Chakupewa hakina nyongeza."
"The freeloader can't ever get too much."

20. "Chama cha Mapinduzi."
"Revolutionary Party."

21. "Cheka nao lakini si wema kwako."
"Laugh with them, but it’s not good for you."

22. "Christ in Our Community -- Kanisa Katoliki Kenya"
"Christ in Our Community -- the Kenyan Catholic Church"

23. "Dawa ya homa ni quinini, dawa ya ubaya ni nini?"
"The medicine of malaria is quinine. What is the medicine for wickedness?"

24. "Dhuluma si njema."
"Oppression isn't good."

25. "Dunia ni maarifa."
"The world is knowledge."


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

235. "Uzuri wa Afrika."
"The beauty of Africa."

236. "Uzuri wa mke in tabia si sura."
"The beauty of a wife is her character not her appearance."

237. "Vituko vyenu nimevizoea sasa navipuuzia."
"I am used to your trouble making, but now I don't care."

238. "Waja hawasemi."
"They come, but they don’t say."

239. "Wajigamba una nini?"
"Poor as you are, what are you boasting about?"

240. "Wanafiki wana vikwao vyao."
"Hypocrites have their own places."

241. "Wanafiki wanafiki vikwao."
"Hypocrites accept their way."

242. "Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia."
"When elephants fight the grass gets hurt."

243. "Watanzania tumuenzi Baba wa Taifa."
"Tanzanians, let us honor the Father of the Nation."

244. "Watoto wana haki ya kufurahia maisha."
"Children have a right to enjoy life."

245. "Watu kwa amani."
"People of (or for) peace."

246. "WAWATA (Wanawake Wakatoliki Tanzania) Kwa Upendo wa Kristu Tutumikie."
"Catholic Women of Tanzania For the Love of Christ Let Us Serve."

247. "Wengi wachunguzi lakini wewe kiongozi."
"There are many shepherds but you are the leader."

248. "Wewe ulie tu."
"To keep complaining won't help."

249. "Wivu sina moyo unaniuma."
"I'm not jealous; I just feel bad."

250. "Wote ni wana. Ubaguzi wa nini."
"We are all brothers and sisters. Why is there discrimination? "

251. "Ya kwako du ya wenzako midomo juu."
"Why should you talk about others' weaknesses instead of yours."

252. "Yataka moyo."
"[Marriage] needs patience."

253. "Yote ni matawi shina ni mimi."
"All are branches. I am the root." (Meaning: The legally married woman is the root. The rest of the women/wives are branches to the man.)

254. "Zawadi ni zawadi."
"A gift is a gift."

NOTE: More background information on and explanations of these proverbs, sayings and other types of African Oral Literature are found in Chapter One entitled "Towards an African Narrative Theology of Inculturation," 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, 1996) and Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 400 pages. See also the article Joseph G. Healey M.M., "You Faked Me Out: Sayings of East African Urban Youth" in Wajibu (Volume 14, No. 1, 1999), pages 2-4.

Copies of this list of sayings are available from:

Rev. Joseph G. Healey, M.M.
Maryknoll Society
P.O. Box 867
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Research Committee
Maryknoll Language School
P.O. Box 298
Musoma, Tanzania

Collected and edited by Rev. Joseph G. Healey, M.M.
16 February, 2000

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