The Swahili language and African proverbs

“One arrow can knock down an elephant”. This proverb is derived from the Swahili language. The Swahili language is spoken by the ethnic group of the Swahili people of East Africa. Swahili is spoken across Africa and is considered a major African language. The language is spoken by an estimated 100 to 150 million people. The Swahili language comes from the Bantu language family and over time it has gained many words from Arabic and Persian languages which is due to the trade that has been taken place in the region for years. Most of the language is borrowed from Arabic after 1500 A.D., so the indigenous language doesn’t include the Arabic elements.

Swahili was first written in Arabic; this was since Arabic people utilised Swahili to help teach the African people of their religion, Islam. Later on, as Portugal gained contact to East Africa and missionaries began their journeys to East Africa, Swahili was written in the Latin alphabet. When Germany first took over this region of East Africa, they chose to change the alphabet system to the Latin alphabet.  The British took over shortly after, they decided to formalize the use of Swahili in that region of East Africa.

Swahili is an official language in Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It is also recognised as a minority language in Mozambique and Burundi. This proverb did specifically originate from Kenya, so it is used there, but it is also common in a couple of the countries surrounding Kenya such as Uganda and Tanzania. The Swahili people reside in the countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. The Swahili people do also reside in a small portion of Mozambique, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When this proverb is translated to English the rough translation is “One arrow can knock down an elephant”. I feel that this proverb does an excellent job at showing the benefit of knowledge and wisdom in a culture that values it very highly. Typically, elephants are large strong animals, that would take a large group of people to take down but through knowledge this is not the case. One man with a single arrow has the ability to take down a large beast, an unstoppable force, an elephant. But this can only be achieved through knowledge. Through knowledge one man with a simple tool has the same strength and power as a group with the same tools.

At the time of the proverb it must have taken a large group to have a chance at taking down a single elephant. Through the power of knowledge of knowing where a critical point is on an elephant, whether it be its eyes or a part of its stomach means that a single man with a single shot can take down an elephant that would take hours of work from a large group of men equally equipped with multiple arrows and weapons. A modern-day translation of this proverb would be ‘through knowledge, a single man can have more power than an entire group’. African proverbs teach about life and knowledge, they teach about life and help individuals learn. Proverbs teach while still hold and preserve African culture throughout history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *