Riding on a bus one day, I saw a motto on another bus that I didn't understand. "Teeth are just bones" it said. Puzzled, I asked one of my students what the meaning was. "It's a Bemba saying, and it means that you shouldn't trust a smile to mean friendship, teeth are just bones."
Since then, I have been collecting African sayings. Most are easier to interpret than the Bemba one. Some I have heard on BBC Africa, which broadcasts "wise words" every morning.
Sometimes the same idea appears in two expressions:
The ax forgets, the tree that has been axed will never forget.
He who gives the blow forgets, he who bears the scar remembers.
Or another pair:
A cutting word is worse than a bowstring.
A cut may heal, but a cut of the tongue does not.
Here are more sayings I have collected:
A chattering bird builds no nest.
If you are in hiding, don't light a fire.
He who cannot dance will say the drum is bad.
Don't hunt what you can't kill.
Money can buy a bed but can't buy you sleep.
Cross the river in a crowd, and the crocodile won't eat you.
No matter how tall your father is, you must do your own growing.
The hen does not attend the meeting when the fox is the chairman.
Ashes fly back in the face of he who throws them.
There is nothing more expensive than a lost opportunity.
If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.
Water all seeds--you don't know which will grow.
He who inherits the leopard also inherits the spots.
Like ants, eat little and carry the rest back to your home.
There is no shortcut to the top of a palm tree.
Never start a quarrel with fire when you are dressed in dry leaves.
Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it chased it.
It is a fool who rejoices when his neighbor is in trouble.
Pray for a stronger back rather than a lighter load.
A word to the wise is wasted--spare them for the dumb.
He who receives a gift does not measure.
If you run after two hares, you will catch neither.
And my four favorites:
When elephants fight, the grass suffers.
He who forgives ends the argument.
The path is made by walking.
In the school of life, the lesson comes after the test.
I was reflecting the other day that not all "words of wisdom" that we might have been taught are truly wise. As a child, I heard that "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never harm you." It wasn't true. As adults, a friend and I, discussing the effects of taunting, gossip, and name-calling, re-wrote the saying: "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words may break your heart." My grandmother taught me to "consider the source" when dealing with painful words, but how much better if we can sometimes prevent them from being spoken at all.