Swahili Proverbs In English: Life Lessons From East Africa

July 25, 2023 No Comments
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You’ve probably never been to East Africa, but you should know that the Swahili people of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are incredibly wise. Their language is filled with proverbs that provide pithy insights into life, love, and human nature. For centuries, Swahili proverbs have been passed down through generations, containing truths that remain relevant today, no matter where in the world you live.

Though you may not be familiar with Swahili culture, these sayings can inspire you with their timeless life lessons and help you gain new perspectives on old problems. So prepare to soak in some of the wisdom of Swahili proverbs. You’re about to get a glimpse into a rich cultural tradition and learn a few tricks that can help you navigate life’s twists and turns.

Swahili Provers: A Vibrant Language of East Africa

Swahili is the official language of several East African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Spoken by nearly 100 million people, Swahili is a vibrant language that gives us insight into the cultures of East Africa.

Swahili originated on the Swahili Coast of East Africa, where Bantu languages mixed with Arabic to form a new language. Swahili absorbed many Arabic words and even adopted the Arabic alphabet. Today, Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa, allowing people from different Kindreds and countries to communicate. Swahili proverbs, called metals, are an important part of the language. These proverbs often convey wise sayings and life lessons in poetic form. For example:

  • “Kila mtoto ana koja lake.” (Every child has their own way of walking.) In other words, everyone has their own unique talents and ways of living.
  • “Kinyago hakipo ndani ya shimo.” (A puppet cannot fit into a hole.) This means you cannot force something into a space where it does not fit.
  • “Kujikaza ndiko kujiendeleza.” (To work hard is to progress.) In other words, steady progress over time leads to success.

By learning Swahili proverbs, we gain insight into the values and wisdom of East African culture. The language itself is also beautiful, with melodic tones and a rich vocabulary. If you ever get a chance to visit East Africa, learning some Swahili will allow you to better connect with the local people and understand their way of life.

The Importance of Swahili Proverbs in Swahili Culture

swahili proverbs

Proverbs play an integral role in Swahili culture. They are used to pass down wisdom and life lessons from generation to generation. Knowing some of these proverbs can provide insight into the values and perspectives of Swahilis.

Swahili proverbs often convey messages about relationships, hard work, and destiny. For example, “Kila ndege huruka na mbawa zake” means “Every bird flies with its own wings.” This proverb emphasizes self-reliance and not depending too much on others. Another common theme is perseverance. “Maji moto hayaachi mtoto wake kuchoka” translates to “Hot water does not let its child get tired.” This means that difficulties or challenges should not prevent you from achieving your goals. You must persevere.

Some proverbs also provide advice on good character. “Kila njia ina watu wake” means “Every way has its own people.” It suggests you should not follow the crowd or let peer pressure sway you from your values and purpose.

The Role of Swahili Proverbs in Everyday Conversations

Proverbs are frequently used in everyday conversations among Swahilis. They are a concise way to convey meaningful advice, warnings, or observations. Using the right proverb at the right time is a sign of wisdom and eloquence.

However, proverbs should be used judiciously, as too many proverbs in one speech can seem pompous or haughty. With their poetic language and metaphorical meanings, Swahili proverbs add color to everyday conversations. They have endured for centuries because they highlight timeless messages and life lessons that remain relevant today. Understanding these proverbs provides insight into the Swahili worldview and way of thinking.

“Kutokuwepo Ni Kuufanya Moyo Kutamani”: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

swahili proverbs

The Swahili proverb “Kutokuwepo Ni Kuufanya Moyo Kutamani” translates to “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” This saying highlights the human tendency to value the familiar more when it’s no longer present. When someone or something you care about is missing from your life, even for a short time, you gain a new appreciation for them. The little details you may have taken for granted now stand out in your memory. Their positive impact on your day-to-day becomes more evident.


In relationships, absence truly can make the heart grow fonder. When you’re apart from close friends or loved ones, you tend to focus less on any petty grievances and more on the meaningful moments you’ve shared. You find yourself looking forward to the next time you meet, eager to pick up where you left off.

Reconnecting after time apart often feels exciting and sparks an emotional intensity that daily interaction may lack. Of course, prolonged separation can be difficult to sustain, but short periods of absence help strengthen the bonds between two people.

Everyday Joys

This proverb also applies to the simple pleasures of life. The comforts of home, your morning coffee, a walk in the park—we don’t fully appreciate them until they are unavailable for a while. Traveling or a change in routine disrupts your access to these everyday joys, and you gain a fresh appreciation for the familiar.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but there’s no place like home. Our daily habits and comforts, though mundane, are what truly ground us and give life deep meaning. Appreciate them while you have them, and value them even more when you return. In the end, the wisdom of this Swahili proverb is clear: Never take for granted the people and simple pleasures that bring you joy each and every day. Their true worth is best measured by the empty space they leave behind, however briefly, when they’re gone.

“Kila Mtu Ana Haki Ya Kupenda”: Everyone has the right to love

This Swahili proverb reminds us that everyone has a right to their own opinions and preferences. What you may love, another person may dislike. What brings you joy may bring another sorrow. We are all unique in our experiences, values, and tastes.

Rather than judging others for what they cherish or pursue, try to be understanding and accepting. Live and let live. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Focus on surrounding yourself with people and things that you personally find meaningful.

Find Your Society

Seek out like-minded souls who share your passions and priorities. Connecting with those who appreciate you for who you are can lead to rich relationships and a strong support system. At the same time, expose yourself to different perspectives to grow in understanding and wisdom. A balance of both similarity and diversity in your relationships will yield the most fulfillment.

Some of the deepest human bonds are formed when we find “our people, those kindred spirits with whom we feel fully seen and understood. The same is true for places, activities, music, cuisine, and all of the other elements that make up a well-lived life. Discover what and who sparks your enthusiasm, then invest in those connections.

While embracing diversity and maintaining an open mind, never feel pressured to feign interest in something that you simply do not value or enjoy. You have a right to your preferences, so spend your limited time and energy on the people, places, and pursuits that genuinely inspire you. Each to their own, so choose what is right for you.

Focusing on what personally fulfills you and surrounding yourself with those who appreciate you for who you are is a recipe for a life well lived. The wisdom of “Kila Mtu Ana Haki Ya Kupenda” reminds us that we each have a right to love whatever and whomever we choose. Find your society, and let your joy be your guide.

“Kilio Hufuta Uchungu”: Laughter Is the Best Medicine

Laughter is the best medicine, as the Swahili proverb says: “Kilio hufuta uchungu.” When times are hard, a little laughter can lift your spirits and make your troubles feel lighter.

Share a Laugh With Loved Ones

Call a friend or family member and share a funny story or joke. Laughter is contagious, and bonding over humor can strengthen your connections with others. Even just a quick chat and chuckle over the phone or video call can release feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin, easing stress and anxiety.

Watch a Comedy Show or Movie

Put on your favorite funny TV show or movie. Let the silliness and jokes transport you away from your worries, at least for a while. Classic comedies from the past can be particularly comforting. Streaming services offer many options, so you’re sure to find something to tickle your funny bone.

Do Something Silly

Do an activity just for the fun of it, like dancing to loud music, making silly faces in the mirror, or playing with a pet. Acting goofy releases pent-up energy and triggers your body’s natural stress-relief mechanisms.

Laugh at Yourself

Learn to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously. Share an embarrassing story or make a joke highlighting your quirks and faults. Laughing at our own imperfections and mistakes makes them feel less monumental and helps us maintain perspective. We all do silly and foolish things at times—we might as well chuckle about them!

A little laughter lightens even the heaviest of hearts. When life’s difficulties have you down, don’t forget this simple Swahili wisdom: “Kilio hufuta uchungu”—”Laughter wipes away the pain.” Take a break to spread some joy and cheer, and your troubles won’t feel quite so troubling.

“Kupoteya Njia Ndiyo Kujua Njia”: By Getting Lost, One Learns the Way

The Swahili proverb “Kupoteya Njia Ndiyo Kujua Njia” translates to “By getting lost, one learns the way.” This saying highlights the value of learning through experience, even when that experience involves struggle or setbacks.

When you embark on a new endeavor or journey in life, you can’t expect to navigate it perfectly right from the start. There will inevitably be moments of confusion, wrong turns taken, and dead ends encountered. But within each “failure” lie lessons to guide you forward. Getting Lost Builds Wisdom Each time you get lost, whether literally or metaphorically, you gain information to help ensure you don’t get lost in the same way again.

The knowledge you gain about what doesn’t work steers you closer to what does. With each lesson, your internal compass becomes better calibrated. Some of the most impactful learning in life happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. Having to find your own way in unfamiliar territory develops self-reliance and resilience.

You cultivate problem-solving skills through trial and error. Over time, these abilities allow you to face new challenges with greater courage and confidence. Appreciate the JourneyThe proverb also reminds us that there is value in the journey itself, not just the destination. When you get lost, don’t be so focused on finding your way out that you miss the discoveries along the path. Look around and take in your surroundings. You may gain unexpected insights or stumble upon opportunities not found on the planned route.

Getting lost provides a chance to build determination and grit in working to overcome obstacles. Celebrate the small wins, like figuring out a clue or discovering a new direction. Maintaining a sense of appreciation and wonder, despite any difficulties, will make the exploration that much richer. With an open and curious mindset, any path you wander down can be an adventure.

So the next time life leaves you lost and searching for the way forward, remember this Swahili wisdom. Find the lessons in your experience and appreciate the journey. Let getting lost guide you to discovering new directions and developing wisdom. The way will reveal itself when the time is right.

“Mgeni Siku Ya Kwanza”: A Visitor Only Stays a Day

This Swahili proverb highlights an important life lesson: Be cautious about overstaying your welcome, whether as a guest or recipient of someone else’s generosity. As a visitor in someone’s home, it’s courteous to not overstay the initial welcome. Even if your host says, “Make yourself at home,” assume your visit will last a day or two at most.

Be sensitive to cues that it’s time to leave—your host seems busy or tired, rooms you’ve been using need to be cleaned, and daily routines need to resume. Offer to depart and suggest meeting again soon. As someone relying on the goodwill of others, express gratitude and look for ways to become self-sufficient. Don’t take advantage of the situation or make excuses for why you can’t provide for yourself. Your hosts may feel obligated to help indefinitely if you don’t show initiative.

Look for ways to contribute and make their lives easier. Start saving money, developing skills, and planning your next steps. The sooner you can stand on your own two feet, the sooner you’ll have independence, and your hosts will have their lives back. In relationships, watch that initial infatuation and passion don’t turn into feelings of obligation or being trapped. Make sure to maintain your own interests and independence while also nurturing the relationship. Give each other space to breathe and be yourself apart from the relationship.

Healthy relationships are based on mutual care, respect, and support—not neediness, dependence, or entitlement. Overall, this proverb reminds us to value our own independence and not take advantage of the generosity of others. Reciprocate kindness, express gratitude, and look to become self-sufficient. In all areas of life, balance giving and taking, connection, and independence. A little goes a long way.

“Mlima Huuwona Mwenzake”: No One Sees His Own Mistakes

The Swahili proverb “Mlima huuwona mwenzake” translates to “No one sees his own mistakes.” It’s human nature to notice the faults in others while remaining blind to our own shortcomings and errors in judgment. But recognizing our own mistakes and imperfections is the first step to growth and wisdom.

To gain insight into your own flaws and weaknesses, start by listening to feedback from those close to you with an open mind. The people who care about you most will gently point out behaviors or habits that could use improvement. Rather than getting defensive, try to understand their perspective. Look for the kernels of truth in what they say.

You can also reflect regularly on situations where things didn’t go as planned. Look for moments when you may have acted rashly or said something you regretted. Ask yourself what you could have done differently to achieve a better outcome. Learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself for being human.

It’s easy to justify our own actions by making excuses or blaming outside circumstances. But accepting full responsibility for your mistakes, without qualification, is a sign of maturity and strength of character. When you do mess up, apologize sincerely to anyone affected. A heartfelt apology can go a long way toward repairing relationships and trust. Make amends if needed, but then work on forgiving yourself too. Dwelling endlessly on your errors and imperfections will only make you feel inadequate and rob you of inner peace.

The truth is, we all stumble and fall at some point. What matters most is how you pick yourself back up, learn from your failures, and resolve to do better next time. So take a long, honest look in the mirror. Don’t shy away from seeing your own mistakes and flaws reflected back at you. Let the wisdom of the Swahili proverb guide you: “No one sees his own mistakes.” Accept them, learn from them, and become a wiser person as a result.

Swahili Proverbs FAQ: Common Questions and Answers

Swahili proverbs contain centuries of wisdom, but you may still have some questions about them. Here are some common questions and answers to help you better understand these insightful sayings.

What is the purpose of Swahili proverbs?

Swahili proverbs aim to teach important life lessons and values in a simple yet poetic way. They pass on wisdom, advice, and warnings from generation to generation. Proverbs often use metaphorical language and references to nature, animals, and everyday objects to convey deeper meanings about relationships, human nature, morality, and existence.

Do Swahili proverbs have literal meanings?

Rarely. Most Swahili proverbs have symbolic or figurative meanings. For example, “Haraka haraka haina baraka” literally means “Hurry hurry has no blessing,” but its actual meaning is “Haste makes waste.” Proverbs use poetic language and analogies to express ideas that often have little to do with the literal meanings of the words. You have to interpret them to understand their wisdom.

Are there any common themes in Swahili Proverbs?

Yes, many Swahili proverbs focus on themes of patience, community, respect, forgiveness, and destiny. Some other common topics include:

  • The importance of slow and steady progress over haste.
  • Living in harmony with others and valuing relationships.
  • Showing respect to elders and authority figures.
  • Accepting one’s fate or destiny with grace.
  • The consequences of greed, laziness, and foolish behavior.

How can I use Swahili Proverbs?

You can apply the wisdom and advice in Swahili proverbs to your own life. Share them in conversation or writing to illustrate a point or convey a message in a poetic way. Studying the proverbs also provides insight into Swahili culture and philosophy. Proverbs have endured for generations because they express timeless truths about human existence.

Are there any other resources to learn more about Swahili Proverbs?

Yes, there are many books, websites, and articles dedicated to Swahili proverbs. Some recommended resources include:

  • “Swahili Proverbs from Zanzibar” by Heinrich Velten
  • “Swahili Proverbs” from the University of Southern California
  • “The Wisdom of African Proverbs” from Global Vision International
  • “A Collection of Swahili Proverbs from Tanzania and Kenya” from SayingImages.com

Learning about Swahili proverbs can provide a lifetime of wisdom and open your mind to a rich cultural tradition. I hope this FAQ helps answer some of your questions and inspires you to explore these insightful sayings further.


And there you have it, some insightful life lessons from Swahili proverbs. These centuries-old sayings offer simple yet poignant truths that apply as much today as ever before. As you go about your day, think about how the proverbs can inspire you. Appreciate each moment, choose your words wisely, work to understand others, and follow your dreams. While life may not always go as planned, maintaining a positive and open perspective can help you weather challenges and find meaning in each day.

The wisdom of the Swahili proverbs proves that sometimes the most profound insights come from the simplest of sources. So take these life lessons to heart, and let them guide you to greater peace, purpose, and connection with others.

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I'm an elementary school teacher who loves what she does! I enjoy creating resources in my Native language "kiswahili". My goal is to spread the beautiful language of "Kiswahili" inside and outside the classroom. Thanks for stopping by! Read More

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