Simple (and Super Common) Swahili Proverbs

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Simple swahili proverbs useful for communicating in Swahili villages in Tanzania like this
A rural village in Tanzania. Photo from Pixabay.

Swahili is a language that’s rich in proverbs (or sayings) that are really common. They’re not confined to literary use — Swahili proverbs are used in daily life. We hear these all the time, sometimes prompted by a word we use (like haraka will prompt the first one below). You’ll hear these a lot, even in the beginning stages of your Swahili-learning journey.

You’ll hear them in stories, in jokes and in songs. Often the title of a song will either hint at or just be a proverb

The thing we really love about proverbs is that they can teach you about language and culture in one fell swoop. You can learn something new about grammar from each of the Swahili proverbs below. And they all tell you about about Swahili culture, too.

If you want an overview of Swahili grammar, check out our Swahili resources page. And if you want to learn something everyday you can use in Tanzania and Kenya, you can visit our page on Swahili everyday words and phrases to sound local.

Or just try to decipher the below!

Want to learn about what Chinese proverbs can tell you about Chinese culture? See our guide to some of the most beautiful Chinese proverbs here!

Haraka haraka haina baraka: “Haste makes waste”

Literally: “Hurry, hurry has no blessing.”

This proverb is pretty simple. Haraka means speed or quickly. Its meaning in Arabic is “movement”, but in Swahili it’s about speed. For example, Je, unaweza kufanya baraka? means “Can you hurry up?”

Baraka means blessing. It’s also from Arabic. You might know a certain former US President whose name sounds similar. It’s the same word/root!

Haina is the third person negative of kuna, to have.

Meaning: The meaning of this proverb is pretty central to Zanzibar (and Swahili) culture: nobody is in a rush to do anything. People walk more slowly. Food doesn’t arrive until thirty minutes after you order it, even if you’re the only guests.

It’s also interesting that it’s the opposite of the proverb in Arabic, which is “haraka baraka“, or literally “movement is blessed”. That proverb has a different meaning though — it’s about exercise being good for you.

Kuuliza si ujinga: “It is not foolish to ask”

Literally: “Asking is not stupidity.”

Kuuliza is the verb for “to ask”. For example Naweza kuuliza kitu? means “May I ask a question?”

Ujinga means “stupidity” or “foolishness”.

Si is the present tense negative of kuwa, “to be”. It’s a very irregular verb. But it’s the same for every person in the present tense. For example Mimi si Mmarekani means “I’m not [an] American”.

Meaning: Ask! Tanzanians are really helpful people. We were on high alert, coming from the Middle East, and assumed everyone was trying to sell us something. Not at all the case. People would walk up to us in the street and give us directions, or walk us halfway to a place, just because.

Kuishi kwingi kuona mengi: “Experience comes with age”

Literally: “To live much is to see a lot.”

Kuishi is the verb for to live. It’s a synonym of kukaa and used interchangeably (except when kukaa is used to mean “to sit” or “to stay”).

Kuona is the verb for “to see”.

The second and fourth words both mean “a lot”. Why do they look so different? Because of Swahili agreement — nouns have to match adjectives (just like grammatical gender in European languages). The adjective modifies different things so takes two shapes.

Kwingi modifies kuishi, which in infinitive form is a ku-class noun. So the adjective prefix is kw-.

Mengi modifies mambo, a word which is implied but not written! It means “things” or “issues”. Mambo is a ji-ma class noun, and has the adjective prefix m-. So “many things” is mambo mengi.

Meaning: Seniority and age is more venerated in African culture (like many cultures) than it is in Western culture. You greet elders differently and act deferentially to them, using slightly different language (the same, but more polite). This is reflected in this proverb: those among us who are older have already seen it all.

Nyumba nzuri si mlango, fungua uingie ndani: “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”

Literally: “A good house is not its door; open and go inside.”

Nyumba means “house”. It’s an n-class noun, so nzuri is how you say “good” for a house.

Si is is the present tense negative of kuwa, to be, as mentioned above. And mlango is “door”.

So far we have Nyumba nzuri si mlango, which is “A good house is not its door”. This is the short form of the proverb.

It finishes with fungua uingie ndani. Here’s where it gets tricky! Fungua is an imperative. Following that is uingie, which is the second person subjunctive of -ingia, the verb for “to enter”. You have to use the subjunctive after any command. Finally ndani means “inside”.

Meaning: You can’t judge a book by its cover… but the interesting part of this proverb is that it asks you to look deeper. Buying a car? Look at the upholstery. Check under the bonnet. In fact, looking this proverb up on the internet that’s exactly an example I saw!

Swahili proverbs "don't judge a book by its cover". you have to look under the bonnet!
An Instagram post advertising car upholstery company. Need your East African BMW upholstered? Check them out. These guys know their Swahili sayings!

Pilipili usozila zakuwashiani?: “Mind your own business”

Literally: “How can you be burned by a hot pepper you haven’t eaten?”

Such a wonderful proverb. But let’s break it down grammatically first.

Pilipili means “pepper”. You’ll learn this word pretty fast after beingn asked “Pilipili fresh?” when you eat pretty much anywhere.

Usozila… this is a complicated word. U means “you”. la at the end is the verb for “eat”. It’s actually a contraction of usizokula, which means “the thing that you didn’t eat”.

Zakuwashiani is a contraction of zakuwashia (“it burns you”, referring to chillies) and nini (“what”). Together it means “It burns what?’

Meaning: You use this as a way of telling people not to talk about other people’s business. Say your friend is getting all worried about what’s going on with some politicians or celebrities. It’s really stressing your friend out. Why is she bothering reading about them or worrying about them? You can’t get burned by a pepper you don’t eat.

I like this one a lot because I hear pilipili all the time. Brings it home! I get burned by peppers I’ve eaten almost daily.

Ukitaka kula nguruwe, chagua aliyenona: “In for a penny, in for a pound”

Literally: “If you want to eat a pig, choose a fat one.”

I love this methali, even if I rarely eat meat in Zanzibar!

Ukitaka is the “question” form of the verb -taka, “to want”. U-ki-taka means “If/when you want”. With kula, the infinitive of to eat, this means “if you want to eat”.

Nguruwe means a “pig”. Note, it’s very similar to nguru, which is a “kingfish”.

Chagua is the imparative of the verb -chagua, to choose.

Aliyenona: this is based on the verb -nona, to “get fat”. Alinona means “he/she got fat”. And putting the referential ye in there means “he/she that got fat”.

Meaning: You may as well go the whole way if you’re going to do something. Going out for some kebabs? Have more!

And more…

It would have been easy to fill this page with a hundred more Swahili proverbs. I didn’t, because I want to just showcase a few. I might add more later. Let me know if there are more you’ve heard that should be on a beginner’s list!

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1 year ago

What does, “ndimu changa haina maji” mean? It’s printed on a dashiki someone gifted me.