Proverbs are one of the most useful and insightful tools to understanding a language. Where things may be lost in translation, a proverb poetically and succinctly conveys a deeper meaning. One can see the cultural archetypes fundamental to the language hidden in proverbs. Most importantly, using proverbs makes you seem really, really cool.

Proverbs, or léebu in Wolof, are truly incredible. I am still working on mastering the proverbs, but I am sharing the collection I have accrued so far!

Wolof Proverb Literal Translation English Meaning Cultural Context
Ndankndank mooy japp golo ci ñaay Slow-slow does one grab a monkey in the forest Slow and steady wins the race Pretty straightforward. There are a lot of monkeys in southern Senegal.
Yakkamti yàkkule [I don’t actually know what this one literally means. Yakkamti means “to be in a hurry,” and I only learned this proverb in context.] Haste makes waste  
Xaaral ba ginaar sax bëñ Wait until the chicken grows teeth Never! This is a funny way of telling someone “no” when they ask you for things, i.e. money, clothes, etc.
Saabu du foot boppam Soap does not do laundry alone It takes a village. The bar of soap by itself does not get clothes clean. It takes other people to get the job done.
Nit nitay garabam People are a person’s medicine No man is an island. Being a loner or an introvert is very bizarre in Senegal. Community is incredibly important.
Jangal nit ki napp moo gën di ko may xaalis Teaching a man to fish is better than giving him money Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  
Xamxam dafay weey, xaalis dày jeex Knowledge remains, money gets used up You can’t take away knowledge.  

 

Xamxam du doy Knowledge is not enough Knowing something isn’t the same as getting something done. This could refer to multiple things: ability, motivation, resources, and influence, all of which need to supplement knowledge.
Bor du am rakk Debt does not have a younger sibling Pay down your first debt before you take on more Informal credit is the major financer in Senegal. In many cases, people who make “loans” will often call them gifts, knowing they probably will not be repaid.
Duma jënd jaar ci pax I won’t buy a chipmunk in a hole. Don’t buy something without seeing it first.  
Yàggay wone légëtu taat Over time, the scar on your butt will show. Over time, people will see who you really are. Come on, who doesn’t want an excuse to say “butt” in any language?
Yalla yalla bay sa tool It’s better to farm your field than to pray for it. Heaven helps those who help themselves.  
Xamul aay na, wante laaj te wela ko yées Not knowing is bad, but not asking is worse. If you need help, speak up, rather than do something wrong. People in Senegal are much more likely to give you misinformation than tell you that they do not know something, in an effort to save face.
Yàgg du sabbu waaye dina fóot [Duration of time] isn’t soap, but it will clean clothes. Time heals all wounds.  
Ku yàgg ci teen bagg fekk la fa Whoever spends time at the well can soon find a bucket Wait for it and it will come; patience is a virtue. Being patient is seen as a virtue in Islam.
Ku am kuddu du làkk Whoever has a spoon will not be burned Whoever has someone to help him will not get tired.  
Seytaane waxul dëgg waaye yaq na xel Satan doesn’t tell the truth, but he casts doubt in your mind NOT TODAY, SATAN!  
Ku bëgg akara dangay ñeme kaani Whoever wants accra must brave the peppers Nothing worth having comes easily. Akara/accra is a common breakfast food in Senegal. It is similar in concept to falafel and made of dried, powdered black-eyed peas, shaped into little balls, and fried. You serve it with a baguette and savory, spicy onion sauce.
Xifuma wante samay bët suruñu I’m not hungry but my eyes aren’t full My eyes are bigger than my stomach. Senegalese food is really delicious. Really.
Lu metti yàggul te ku muñ muuñ Whatever is painful does not last, and whoever perseveres smiles It’s always darkest before the dawn.  

There you have it—several proverbs I have learned so far! Which one is your favorite?