Zulu and English Proverbs

Gathering of Zulus in tradition dress

Proverbs, phrases and sayings are an important way of communicating and reveals a lot about a specific group of people, a culture or in many cases, an individual. The Zulu Nation, and many English speaking people, love using proverbs to convey pertinent messages about life, history and behavior. Expressive Zulu sayings, often based on shared human experiences both good and bad, form a colorful tapestry about the Zulu Culture.

It is interesting to note that in both English and Zulu many of the messages are similar and teachings concur on many subjects. We might speak different languages but we all experience the same trials and tribulations that life throws at us.  Proverbs, sayings and phrases symbolize wisdom, wise words handed down by the older generations that hopefully assist us on our sometimes rocky journey.

Zulu warrior in traditional dress

Being of English descent we were taught many different sayings by our grandparents, things that I still use and teach my grandson. So much of what I was taught resonates with Zulu teachings and proverbs.  Thought-provoking indeed!

A few examples of Zulu and English sayings conveying the same meaning:

  • Uphakathi komhlane nembeleko

“He is between the back and the sack (that carries a child on the back)” or as I was taught by my grandmother, “He or she is on a fat pig’s back”.

Wonderful saying which clearly explains the comforts that are enjoyed by some people who often do not appreciate what they have.

  • Ikhotha eyikhothayo engayikhothi iyayikhahlele

“The cow licks one that licks her” or as I often say, “You scratch my back and I will scratch yours”.

Not practiced by many people in this day and age.  A favour for a favour seems long gone, blown out with the wind and taken across to an uninhabited land. A land where egos thrive and souls die.

  • Uchakide uhlolile imamba yalukile

“When the cat is away the mice will play”.

Easy one and so classically true among all races and cultures and often seems to involve our children. Growing up in the Zululand town of Empangeni allowed our generation freedom and we all quickly learnt about the cat going away.

Click here for more Zulu proverbs and sayings and here for slang

Zulu maidens dancing in tradition dress

Zulu and English Proverbs place in the next generation

Sadly, not many of the younger generation understand phrases and have very little interest in learning. One is often received with a blank look when conveying a quick message containing some wisdom. The great thing about sayings is that you can add your own bit of spice, make people laugh if the situation calls for a good chuckle and, best of all, you can make a short and sweet statement.

  • “Talk is cheap, money buys the whiskey”.

Stop having an opinion or an excuse and do something constructive. Much like “Empty vessels make the most noise”.

The poetic and descriptive Zulu language is not easy for English speaking folk as we often cannot get the mouth movements right and can look a bit silly trying to pronounce some of the words. Zulu is onomatopoeia (sounding similar to a described noise) and it is these noises, without a doubt, that we struggle with.

Elderly Zulu woman in traditional dress

I particularly like the Zulu proverb below which I cannot pronounce correctly, but hope to master shortly:

  • Uncukubili njeng empisi

“You are two-coloured like a hyena”.


You say different things to different people and don’t behave honestly. No saying could be closer to the truth as we all say things to please others even if it is contrary to our beliefs and value system.

Love them or hate them, proverbs and phrases will always be a part of our lives and hopefully we will teach the significant and rich meanings to our children and grandchildren.  They make us what we are, define our specific cultures and enhance our languages.

Zulu Proverbs and Sayings – Zululand News

South African Pop Culture Slang Words – Zululand News

Young male Zulu warrior in traditional dress