In most African societies, riddles are a form of art. They are simple and elegant ways to communicate a lot of meaning in few words. Riddles play an important role in the traditions of African speech and conversation.  Like proverbs, African riddles are brief and based on observations of nature. However, with riddles, the listener is expected to guess the answer to a question or the meaning of a statement. 

Riddles make an important contribution to children’s full participation in the social, cultural, political, and economic life of African communities, especially by fostering critical thinking and transmitting indigenous knowledge. 

Riddles are used manly for entertainment and stimulating thinking and some are not presented as question, albeit implicitly, but as true statements of something the listener has to catch, interpret and locate in its proper context. 

Enjoy.

Mother! Carry me on your back. - A bed.

Prr! straight to Cape Town!  – Slipperiness.

Let me go far away and when I come back let me catch hold of the tail of my mother’s cow. A drinking water ladle.

A child’s porridge is delicious. Sleep.

I was going along the road when I heard a person calling me, Sister -in-law!’but when l turned round there was no one in sight.  Dry pigeon peas on a pod.

My house is small but it has many windows. A fish trap.

God’s cup is always open.  A water well.

I have shut the door on my children and they are now fighting. Roasting maize seeds on the cob.

My house is large but its door is small. A bottle.

My children are four in number but, when one goes away, the rest cannot work. The legs of a bed.

Who has a house too small for guests? A turtle.

What do you look at with one eye, but never with two?  The inside of a bottle.

What is the village the Supreme Being built with only one house for the day and many for the night? The firmament.

What is the house my father built with no central pole? The sky.

What is the fire God lit and never put out? The sun.

What is the fire my father lit that burns in the night, but not in the day? The moon.

What is it that cannot be counted? The stars.

What is it that when it falls does not make noise? The night

We hear it with our own ears, without seeing it with our own eyes. What is it? The wind.

There is a river in which you can wash only in the morning.  - The dew

Everything is visible. But there is something that cannot be seen. – God

Why is a man like pepper? Until you have tested him, you can’t tell how strong he is.

What things always chase each other but never overtake one another? The wheels of a vehicle.

Who has more courage than a Maasai warrior? Two Maasai warriors.

Who can whistle from another man’s mouth? The other man.

Who has a house too small for guest? A tortoise

What do you look at with one eye but never with two?  The inside of a bottle

It falls standing but runs on its belly. What is it? Rain.

It is greater than God and more evil than the devil. The poor have it, the rich need it and if you eat it you’ll die.What is it? Nothing.

What it is that cannot be caught or brought? – The smoke

Wherever I go, it closely follows me. – My shadow.

It keeps on setting off, but it never arrives. – The sun.

My father’s suit is made of holes. – Fishing net.

My son is crying in the forest. I hear him, but I do not see him. – The wind.

When I face an enemy, I do know what to do. But facing this one, there is nothing I can do. – Incurable disease.

Three people stand near a river they have to ford. The first one, after a closer look around, crosses it. The second one looks at the riverbank and at the water, but does not cross it. The third one does not see the river and does not cross it. Who are the three? – The one who saw the river and crossed it was a woman. The one who saw the riverbank and the water but did not cross it is the child the mother carries on her shoulders. The one who has seen nothing is the baby the woman carries in her womb.

The two of us cross the wilderness without talking to each other. You and your shadow.

Your mother walks across the village with life poking out (of her body). The leg of a baby (you’ll often see a baby’s leg protruding from the cloth sling or swaddle with which mothers tie their young children to their back)

My brown one with speedy calves? My bow and arrows.

Why are you so brave yet you cannot sit at the place where the little black girl sits? Because it is the fire (the little black girl is the pot which has turned black with soot).

They moved homes and the red one was born? The fire (the Maasai often burn up the old village when they move)

I have an ox who lives in the midst of enemies? The tongue.

Why is your sister so very short yet there is no fruit that is beyond her reach? Because she is a bird.

My house/dwelling has neither windows nor doors. An egg.

I (can) hear it but I don’t (i.e. can’t) see it. My voice.

My mountain has a forest only at the peak/summit.  My head.

My lamps illuminates the entire world/earth. The sun and moon.

Here you see nothing and over there you see nothing. Darkness.

My soldiers all wear black clothes. Black ants.

I hear him all the time but I don’t see him. Wind.

It is invisible and untouchable. Air

It makes all the people cry. Smoke.

It is always with you but you never see it. The back of your head.

My hen has laid an egg on thorns. A pineapple.

My European’s hand is always on his waist. A tea cup.

When I beat/hit my child, the people dance/play. My drum.

My house/dwelling has no lights (inside). A grave.

It is yours, but your friends use it more than you do, What it is? Your name.

What is it that gets wetter when it dries? A towel.

What is as light as a feather, yet no man can hold it for long? One’s breath.

I turn around once.What is out will not get in. I turn around again.What is in will not get out. What am I? A key.

On my way home the other day, I met with a load of wood that was neither straight nor crooked. What kind of wood was it? Sawdust.

I am the beginning of sorrow, and the end of sickness. You cannot express happiness without me, yet I am in the midst of crosses. I am always in risk, yet never in danger. You may find me in the sun, but I am never out of darkness. What am I? The letter ‘S’.

Discovered in Africa, I spread like a tide, to become a hot staple known the world wide. A necessity to some, a treasure to many, I’m best enjoyed among pleasant company. Some like me hot and some like me cold. Some prefer mild, others only bold. Some take me straight, while some like to savor my essence to which has been added a flavor. So put down your cares and sit awhile with me; I’ll send you back refreshed and full of energy. What am I? Coffee.

My personal favourite for a laugh – The Denka of Southern Sudan and many other pastoralist tribes like to tease the listeners with the following:

Crossing a river with your cow and your wife, in the risk of drowning, what will you save? – The cow. With it you can marry another woman.

When I look at you I see you through to the intestines. A granary.

I have gone round the forest with a multicoloured motorcycle. A rainbow.

It is upside down but does not leak. A cow’s udder.

They face up as if they are about to lead a song. The horns of cattle.

I have a person who stays between two swords but never gets cut. The tongue.

My house has only one pole. The mushroom.

Those things in the cave have one hundred eyes. Honey combs.

An elephant with one ear. A cup.

____

And finally a few more philosophic riddles that could have multiple meanings and answers and retell a page of history.

What is death without mourning? Is it not sleep akin to death? While sleeping, one is as if were dead; yet no mourning is done.

What is the use of shouting if nobody comes to help?  The cock crows (cries), but nobody rushes to its help.

Who is loved, even though has done no good? A baby is cherished and kissed, even though he has not yet helped anyone.

Who is hated even though has done no wrong? Nobody loves and values the company of the old, even though he has done nothing wrong to anybody.

 Do you have any riddles to share? Please feel free to post them in the comment box below – we’d love to hear from you.

About The Author

Afritorial

Neva is a storyteller and media strategist with a background in PR, film, advertising and digital marketing who is passionate about technology, new media and the endless possibilities of the social and mobile sphere. Read more about her on our 'About Us' page.

4 Responses

  1. Antonio Mulima

    Go this way and I will take the other way round. Who am l? A belt.

    It lives in a dark grass and feeds itself with red liquid. What is it? A louse.

    You go and visit him at his house but as soon as you hug him he will immediately be at your house before you do. What is it? When you climb a palm tree and get a coconut.

    Who is the best football keeper in the world that can catch two ball at exactly the same time? The kind of cloth that women wear in their breasts before wearing a house.

    In my father’s house only 5 people can be hosted. What is it? A shoe.

    Reply
  2. Gid Nekson

    My father has a loked room but i cant imagine where a goat passed to defecate inside. -pawpaw.

    Reply
  3. Daniel Emmanuel Gbizi

    I was given a lion, a goat and guinea-corn to cross a river on foot. Note: A lion feeds on goat, a goat feeds on guinea-corn, but a lion does not feed on guinea-corn. How do I get these three things across the river in good condition?

    Reply

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