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Emotional intelligence through the lens of the indigenous African wisdom: The case of African Proverbs

23 July 2019

Explore the intersection of emotional intelligence and African indigenous wisdom through proverbs. Discover how ancient wisdom aligns with modern concepts

Written by: Mavuto Kapyepye

Proverbs have been part of a people's tradition and customs since time immemorial. The philosophical language used reflects a people's life, thinking, and environment. Proverbs can be and do get used to sometimes summarise complex concepts. Despite the localised touch to the vocabulary expressed, some proverbs have been known to communicate concepts that have global relevance, such as emotional intelligence. In my previous articles, I have elaborated on the five components of emotional intelligence based on Daniel Goleman's framework. In this article, I revisit those five components by drawing on parallels with African indigenous wisdom as transmitted through proverbs.


African Proverb: "Man, know thyself"~Egyptian origin

Self-awareness speaks to one's ability to recognise their own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, values, and drivers, and to understand their impact on others. This ancient Egyptian Proverb "Man, know thyself" has its origin in the spiritual practices of the time, whose epicenter was the temple. One of their spiritual teachings, according to Patricia Feager, was stated as follows: "The kingdom of heaven is within you; and whosoever shall know himself shall find it". From this teaching comes the proverb "Man, know thyself," and its application transcends the spiritual realm. If we are not intentional on reflecting, we cannot truly understand who we are, why we make certain decisions, what we are good at, and where we fall short. Self-awareness grows when you get to know yourself on a deeper level. Are you aware of how you get energised as a person? Is it through interacting with people or through introspection in your own space? The very first component of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, is reflected in this ancient Egyptian Proverb under discussion here: "Man, know thyself".


African Proverb: "Anger and madness are brothers".

African Proverb: "If you get rich, be in a dark corner when you jump for joy".

Self-regulation is also referred to as self-management, or just discipline. Self-regulation is concerned with how you control and manage yourself and your emotions, inner resources, and abilities. It also includes your ability to manage your impulses. There are many triggers to our emotions daily, and such emotions can be positive, such as excitement, or negative, such as anger and frustration. The two proverbs cited above bring out two dimensions of self-regulation. The first one touches on management of negative emotions in a situation where anger is involved. It is presented as an alert on the consequences of not being able to manage anger. The second proverb speaks to positive emotions as a result of something good one is experiencing. Some people can get overwhelmed by positive emotions such as excitement. It is about learning to regulate our feelings once we become aware of them. It speaks to managing one's internal states, impulses, and resources, so that they do more good than harm. It does not say "do not be emotional", it rather says "be intentional and strategic rather than reactive". When you stay calm and positive, you can think and communicate more clearly with your team, colleagues, friends, or family.


African Proverb: "˜He who does not seize opportunity today, will be unable to seize tomorrow's opportunity". ~ Somali origin

African Proverb: "˜If you wish to move mountains tomorrow you must start by lifting stones today".

African Proverb: "Those who accomplish great things pay attention to little ones".

Alan Mallory's explanation of self-motivation states that it is not just our ability to get out of bed each day, tidy our homes, or show up to work. It involves our personal reasons for doing something; it's a combination of our drive, initiative, commitment, optimism, and persistence to accomplish something beyond money or recognition.

The first proverb makes a good point about a person taking initiative to seize or even create opportunities in the now. That speaks to one's presence of mind in what is happening in his or her environment. Only a person who has a high sense of self-motivation will be able to do that. In the second proverb, the key message is that some tasks or challenges may indeed look big and insurmountable, but it takes a person who is self-motivated to take the task head on, even if it means taking small, but incremental steps. Those that are not self-motivated will give up. The third proverb summarises the value of being on track when one embarks on achieving some goal. Along the way there may be a lot of distractions that can shift our focus away from the ultimate destination, but when one has the drive, sustained focus, and persistence, one will still come out victoriously.


African Proverb: "Concern is like medicine" ~ Swahili origin In Swahili, the proverb is written Pole ni dawa, and the proverb refers to the notion that when we show concern for others, they will feel better emotionally. We can agree that when someone reaches out to us in a time of distress, we feel touched. The show of care, even if it does not solve the real problem we are facing, brings relief like medicine.

Empathy is also known as compassion, and it is the ability to sense other people's emotions as well as being able to sense what the other person might be thinking or feeling. When one has empathy, the capacity to feel compassion is more enhanced. This quote from Trevor Noah gives a practical summary of the notion of empathy: "€˜We live in a world where we don't see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don't live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip-off people with sub-prime mortgages, if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping-off. If we could see each other's pain and empathise with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place."

Being empathetic does not mean you have to like the other person, neither does it mean you are giving approval to someone's viewpoints or actions; you do not have to agree with someone for you to show them empathy.

Effective relationships

African Proverb: "herever you travel, leave behind your feet and not your lips, because the lips will come back to haunt you" ~ Malawian origin

One must have the ability to communicate effectively and properly manage relationships in order to move a team of people in a desired direction. The way we speak to others, the way we respond to communication from others, and the attitudes we bring in our interactions with others reflect whether at that given time we are investing in effective relationships. The proverb cited above summarises the importance of engaging in productive and beneficial interactions with people, and speech is an important aspect in all this. When you speak well and kindly, people will follow you (using their feet), while when you speak unkindly, your image will be negative in the minds and eyes of people and that will haunt you. Cultivating effective relationships is an important component of emotional intelligence, because as this other African proverb goes: "A person is a person because of other persons."


Emotional Intelligence as a concept was popularised in literature by Americans; however, when you analyse it, you find that it was already available in African tradition, but not necessarily consolidated into a body of knowledge. There is a place too, for African proverbs on the global stage.


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