Unique African Xhosa Idioms and Proverbs

Among African languages the Xhosa language is embroidered with idioms, proverbs and figurative expressions drawing from a rich culture and history. Some of these African idioms and proverbs are readily understood by any English speaking person while others, if literally interpreted, appear to be meaningless.

Nelson Mandela (whose birthday and lifetime memory South Africa celebrates today) was a Xhosa from the royal family of the Thembu.

From my reading about African literature and languages I collected for you a few of the Xhosa most encountered proverbs and idioms.

Feel the rhythm of African drums and the sing-song of the Xhosa clicking speech in A Pantoum for Africa, not in the AVBOBO Poetry Competition.

For incredible Afrikaans idioms check this post, this one that will make you smile, or even this one with examples. Read here about words with interesting translations, or jump to 6 Idioms Linguistically Identical in Afrikaans, German, English and Romanian.

51 Unique African Xhosa Idioms and Proverbs

Isikuni sinyuka nomkwezeli.

A brand burns him who stirs it up.

This proverb is an exact equivalent to our English one, Let sleeping dogs lie.

Njengo mdudo ka Mapassa.

Like the marriage feast of Mapassa.

This saying is used to denote anything unusually grand. The marriage festivities of one of the ancients, like King Mapassa, are said to have been carried on for a whole year.

Ishwa lomhluzi wamanqina.

Misfortune of soup made of shanks and feet.

Applied to any person who never does well, but is always getting into scrapes. The kind of soup spoken of is very lightly esteemed by many.

Akuko mpukane inqakulela enye.

One fly does not provide for another.

A saying of the industrious to the idle, meaning that each should work for himself as the flies do.

Kude e-Bakuba, akuyiwanga mntu.

Bakuba is far away, no person ever reached it.

Bakuba is the ideal country. This proverb is used as a warning against idle ambition, or as advice to be content with that which is within reach. It is equivalent to the English saying, It is no use building castles in the air.

Kuxeliwe e-Xukwane apo kumaqasho makulu.

They have slaughtered at Kukwane where much meat is obtainable.

According to tradition, there was once a very rich chief who lived at Kukwane (near King William’s Town, now Qonce) who was in the habit of entertaining strangers in a more liberal manner than any who went before or who came after him. This proverb is used if one asks too much from others, as if to say, It was only at Kukwane that such expectations were realized.

Qabu Unoqolomba efile.

I rejoice that Kolomba’s mother is dead.

The mother of Kolomba was, according to tradition, a very disagreeable person. This saying is used when anything that one dreads or dislikes has passed away.

Izinto azimntaka Ngqika zonke.

It is not every one who is a son of Gaika.

Gaika was at the beginning of 20th century the most powerful chief west of the Kei. This proverb signifies that all are not equally fortunate.

Uyakulila ngasonye uxele inkawu.

You will shed tears with one eye like a monkey.

A warning used to deter anyone from being led into a snare of any kind. It is said that when a monkey is caught in a trap it cries, but that tears come out of one eye only.

Lukozo lomya.

It is the seed of the umya (a species of wild hemp).

This saying is applied to anything or any person considered very beautiful. The seed referred to is like a small black bead.

Udhle incholo.

He has drunk the juice of the flower of the wild aloe.

Said of a dull, sleepy person. This juice when drunk has a stupefying effect, and numbs the limbs so as to make the person powerless for a while.

Indonga ziwelene.

The walls have come into collision.

Said of any dispute between persons of consequence.

Uvutelwe pakati nje nge vatala.

He is ripe inside, like a water-melon.

Said of any one who has come to a resolution without yet expressing it. From its appearance it cannot be said with certainty whether a watermelon is ripe or not.

Isala kutyelwa siva noolopu.

A person who will not take advice gets knowledge when trouble overtakes him.

Uyakuva into embi eyaviwa ngu Hili wase Mambalwini.

You will find out what Hili of the Amambalu experienced.

Hili, or Tikoloshe, is, according to the belief of the African people a mischievous being who usually lives in the water, but who goes about as a human dwarf playing tricks on people. He milks the cows when no one is watching them. He causes women to fall in love with him.

This saying is applied as a warning to people to avoid doing wrong, lest the punishment of Hili overtake them.

Ulahla imbo yako ngopoyiyana.

You have cast away your own for that which you are not sure of.

This proverb is equivalent to the English one, A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Yimbabala yolwantunge.

He is a buck of an endless forest.

A saying applied to a shiftless person, one who can never hold any occupation for long.

Uzipembela emoyeni.

You are lighting a fire in the wind.

Said to any one who favours strangers in preference to relatives, or to their disadvantage.

Yintlolela yombini.

A spy for both.

Said of a talebearer, a person who maliciously gossips or reveals secrets.

Akuko ranincwa lingagqimiyo kowalo umxuma.

There is no beast that does not roar in its den.

This proverb means that a man recognises no superior in his own establishment. It is the equivalent for, Every cock crows on his own dunghill.

Inja yomoya.

A dog of the wind.

A saying applied to any one who has no settled plan of living.

Ukaka kampetu.

The shield turned the wrong way.

This saying is applied to anyone who goes over from one party to another. It is a common expression for one who turns evidence against accomplices in crime.

Ngumpa wezala.

It is a cob stripped of maize in an ash pit.

Said of a worthless character.

Isinama ndokunamatela.

I, the adhesive grass, will stick fast to you.

The isinama is a kind of grass that sticks to one’s clothing when it is touched, and can hardly be brushed off afterwards. This proverb is used as a warning to any one to avoid a bad habit or an unworthy companion that cannot easily be got rid of.

Alitshonanga lingenandaba.

The sun never sets without fresh news.

Amaqotyazana angalaliyo emzini.

They are people of experience who do not sleep at a strange place.

This proverb is used in praise of one who is smart in getting a message, or who performs any duty quickly.

Wokolwa yeyokosa.

You will prefer roasted meat.

This saying is applied to anyone who is boasting immoderately, as a warning that if he does not take care he will get into trouble, when he will be glad to take whatever comes to hand. He will prefer roast meat because it is easily cooked, and he will have neither time nor means to boil it. This saying is also used as a threat, as if one said, I will punish you thoroughly.

Kuhla ngamqalamnye.

Throats are all alike in swallowing

This proverb is used when one asks another for anything, and implies, If you do not give it to me now, I will not give to you when I have anything that you would like a share of.

Omasiza mbulala.

The people who rescue and kill.

This saying is applied to Europeans. It is sometimes put in this form, The people who protect with one hand and kill with the other.

Kukuza kuka Nxele.

The coming of Nkele.

Nkele (the Lefthanded) or Makana, was one of the most remarkable men that African continent has produced. He rose through his own merits to be the leader of the Ndlambe clans in the second decade of 20th century. It was he who united them against the English after Lord Charles Somerset invaded their country with a view of compelling them to recognize a chief whom they detested. He led in person the attack upon Grahamstown, and only retreated after the flower of his forces was swept away. To obtain peace for his people, he voluntarily surrendered to the English troops and was sent as a prisoner to Robben Island.
In attempting to make his escape from the island in a boat, he was drowned.

But his people would not believe that Makana was dead, for they deemed him immortal. All through the wars between 1835 – 1852 they looked for his reappearance to lead them to victory.

A while ago his personal ornaments were still in preservation at a village near King William’s Town, but about that date the hope of his return was generally abandoned.
Before his time the corpses of common people were not usually interred, but by his orders it is done ever since.

The saying implies anything long expected, but which never occurs. It is now in general use, though it is only of a few years’ standing.

More unique African Xhosa Idioms and Proverbs

Ilizwe lifile.

The land is dead.

A saying which implies that war has commenced.

Ubukulu abubangwa.

One does not become great by claiming greatness.

This proverb is used to incite any one to the performance of noble deeds. It means, a man’s actions, not his talk and boasting, are what people judge his greatness by.

Kuhlangene isanga nenkohla.

The wonderful and the impossible have come into collision.

A saying applied to any intricate question.

Yinkungu nelanga.

The mist and the sun are together.

A saying denoting a very great number.

Lunyawo lwemfene.

It is the foot of a baboon.

A saying denoting a treacherous person.

Sova singasemoyeni.

We shall hear, we are on the side towards which the wind blows.

The saying denotes, we shall soon know all that is going on.

Umke namangabangaba aselwandhle.

He has gone in pursuit of the (fabulous) birds of the sea.

A saying applied to one whose ambitious aspirations are not likely to be realized.

Umona wasemlungwini ubandeza icitywa ungaliqabi.

They prevent us from getting red clay from the pit, and they do not use it.

This saying was used of Europeans, to denote that they acted as the dog in the manger towards the Africans.

Usela ngendebe endala.

You drink out of the old cup.

The indebe is a drinking vessel made of rushes. The saying is used to a wealthy man, and means, You use a vessel handed down to you from your ancestors.

Ukasela eziko.

You are creeping on your knees to the fireplace.

This saying is used as a warning to any one who is following a course that must lead to ruin. It is as if one said, You are like an infant crawling towards the fire circle (in the middle of a hut), who is sure to get burnt.

Ukuhlinza impuku.

To skin a mouse.

A saying which implies, to do anything secretly. A mouse can be skinned without any one seeing it, but an ox cannot.

Yeyele ngelomkono.

It has stuck fast by one of the front legs.

This saying is used when one has committed oneself to any matter of importance. An animal cannot extricate itself easily when fast by one of its front legs.

Ugqada mbekweni.

One who eats the remains of a meal without first obtaining permission.

This saying is used of an uncalled for expression of an opinion.

Ukaulela inkawu ziyakasela.

You disturb monkeys on their way to drink.

This saying is used to express uncalled-for interference.

Umafa evuka njengenyanga.

It dies and rises like the moon.

Said of any question that springs up again after it is supposed to be settled.

Akuko nkanga idubula ingeti.

There is no wormwood that comes into flower and does not wither.

A proverb descriptive of the life of man.

Unyawo alunampumlo.

The foot has no nose.

This proverb is an exhortation to be hospitable. It is as if one said, Give food to the traveller, because when you are on a journey your foot will not be able to smell out and avoid a man whom you have turned from your door, but to your shame it may carry you to his.

Uzicandele umgalagala.

You have exposed yourself.

This saying is applied as a warning not to give anything to a persistent person, as he would very likely be encouraged thereby to continue asking for more.

Inkala ixingetyeni.

The crab has stuck fast between the stones at the entrance of its hole.

Said of any one who is involved in difficulties of his own creation, or of one who raises an argument and is losing it.

Ubopelele inja enkangeni.

He has fastened a dog to a shrub.

This saying is used to denote a very greedy person, one who is so greedy as to fasten his dog to a shrub that the animal may not beg for food while he is eating. The shrub denoted is the very common one that is covered with yellow flowers at midsummer.

Yimbini yezolo yakwa Gxuluwe.

Guluwe’s two of yesterday.

This is a saying of any one who goes away promising to return, but does not keep his word and no good comes out of it.

There’s a story, as old as five generations, so nearly a legend, explaining how this idiom came alive. I read this legend in an old book, “The Ethnography of South Africa:

The Legend Behind African Proverb Guluwe’s Two

Once lived was a renown hunter named Guluwe, Fearless. No man was ever as skillful and as successful in the pursuit of game as Guluwe was. For hone had Guluwe’s spear, his beloved and trusted assagai that he’s forged himself out of an ancient wooden pole and a sharp iron tip.

One day Guluwe led the crossing of the Great Kei River, the snaky water that dares meet the Great Ocean, the Indian Ocean. With him traveled Khakhabay himself, the one who will be known as the great-grand father of Sandile, King of the Xhosa.

But for hunting to be successful land is requires so Khakhabay soon took possession of the Amatolas Mountain… Which he purchased from the Hottentot chieftain Hoho.

Was it a good deal? At least for one of them, for Khakhabay found the land infested by a great numbers of bushmen, known as abatwa and said to be tiny humans able to hide beneath a blade of grass and ride ants. Abatwa the bushmen who led a life there.

Oh, well, it happened five generations ago.

One day Guluwe the hunter, who had two young men with him, killed an eland but while he was still shouting his cry of triumph,

“Tsi! ha! ha! ha! ha! the weapons of Khakhabay!”

…he was surprised by a number of these bushmen surrounding them.
They said: “Look at the sun for the last time, for you shall kill no more of our game.”

Guluwe sighed, sure of himself, the great huntsman who faced the largest of game, and offered them a large quantity of dacha (dagga, a species of wild hemp used for smoking) as his ransom. Most bushmen agreed but one, one who was unwilling to spare him. The bushmen kept him with them while Guluwe pretended to send the two young men for the dacha ransom, while secretly instructing them not to return.

The bushmen then commenced to eat the large eland Guluwe hunted. They ate that day, and all that night, never ceasing to watch Guluwe. The next morning they asked him when the young men would be back with the dacha, and he replied that he did not expect them before sunset. Soon the bushmen, stuffed with meat, lay down to sleep.

All but the one who advised that Guluwe should not be spared.

That one watched a while longer, but at length he too was overcome by drowsiness.

Guluwe, with his assagai, spear, put one after another bushman to death until, forgetting himself, shouted his hunting cry:

“Tsi! ha! ha! ha! ha! Izikali zika Rarabe!”

This awakened the one bushman who had advised his tribesmen that Guluwe should be killed. He sprang to his feet and escaped, calling out as he ran with the speed of the wind:

“I said this Guluwe of the Khakhabays should be destroyed; you who are dead have perished through not following my advice.”

And no good indeed came to the bushmen when they believed “Guluwe’s two of yesterday.”


The Cheetah and the Dog, The Elephant and the Sheep, The Lion and the Dog, diversity stories
The Cheetah and the Dog, The Elephant and the Sheep, The Lion and the Dog, diversity stories

Unique African Xhosa Idioms and Proverbs

The History of Xhosa Language, the language with the click sounds

South Africa has eleven official languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, Venda, and Ndebele.

Xhosa is the language with the most click sounds because because the Xhosa people lived in geographic proximity to those areas of South Africa that were historically inhabited by the Khoekhoen people, the Khoisan. Therefor many linguistic sounds were borrowed.

Xhosa or isiXhosa is the second most popular South African home language and closely related to Zulu, the Xhosa people being the second biggest ethnic group in South Africa after the Zulu people.. The homeland of the Xhosa people was initially the Eastern Cape region of South Africa.

The first Xhosa leader was King Mithiyonke Kayeyeye who ruled between 1210 – 1245. Oral tradition tells us that the Xhosa Kingdom was founded during the 15th century by King Tshawe who overthrew his brother Cirha. After Tshawe’s ascension to the throne, the Xhosa nation blossomed, incorporating other independent clans such as the Khoi and the Sotho. Duting the 18th century King Phalo took two brides, so his lineage split into two: the Great House of Gcaleka and the Right Hand House of Rharhabe.

The Xhosa people have a long history of pastoralism and of growing maize. The Xhosa people are renowned for their distinctive fashion which includes bead work and they are also known as the Red Blanket People because of their custom of wearing blankets dyed red with the use of natural dye, ocher.

Notable Xhosa descendants are Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and activist Steve Biko.

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