Methali are Swahili proverbs or traditional sayings that express a truth or teaching.

In Swahili-speaking East Africa, as with many other African societies, methali were major tools for instructing children. Often short, metaphorically colorful and funny, methali are easy to remember. Thus, they are ideal for passing on wisdom and experience of wise ancestors (wahenga), including principles on how to live life, treat others and oneself, and tackle challenges. The importance of methali are stressed across Africa: “proverbs are the daughters of experience” (Sierra Leone); “proverbs are the affairs of the nation” (DRC); “a wise man who knows proverbs reconciles difficulties” (Nigeria).

Today, methali are studied in schools in Tanzania and Kenya, are commonly used in conversation and even appear on khangas. Over time, some proverbs from Oluhaya, Kichagga, Gikuyu, English, Arabic, etc., have also been incorporated into Swahili methali.

  • Mtaka cha mvunguni sharti ainame. “S/he who wants what’s under the bed must bend for it.” What one desires is not easily obtained; one must strive to achieve a goal.
  • Kidole kimoja hakivunji chawa. “One finger does not break/kill a louse.” Working together is often necessary.
  • Akiba haiozi. “A reserve will not decay.” Save/invest for the future.
  • Akili ni mali. “Intelligence is an asset.” Knowledge can be used to improve one’s life.
  • Mficha uchi hazai. “One who hides nakedness won’t have a child.” One unwilling to be vulnerable cannot be helped.
  • Haba na haba hujaza kibaba. “Little by little fills up the measure.” A long journey begins with a single step.
  • Umoja ni nguvu, utengano ni udhaifu. “Unity is strength, disunity is weakness.”
  • Kupotea njia ndiko kujua njia. “To get lost is to learn the way.” If you fail, try, try again; failure is part of the learning process.
  • Mtoto akililia wembe mpe. “If a child cries for a razor blade, give it to him/her.” Experience is a good teacher.
  • Bila silaha usiingie vitani. “Don’t enter a war without a weapon.” Prepare/train hard.
  • Mgema akisifiwa tembo hulitia maji. “If the palm wine brewer is praised, s/he dilutes the palm wine with water.” Don’t overpraise.
  • Tembo wakipigana huumia nyasi. “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets hurts.” When the mighty (politicians, countries) fight, little people suffer.

By Rahim Mawji

(Image: Thefairbanksfour; Road Trip KE)

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