Today, I was reading a column by Alana Massey at the Cut; its subject was loneliness, and it mentioned an “African proverb” in passing as such:
An African proverb that I think of often says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I used to think it was an indictment of the solitary runner who wanted to go quickly until I realized that speed and distance are morally neutral objectives. There are times when we need to go fast and there are times when we need to go far. Some people need to do each more often than the other.
Not a wise type personally, I rarely—or more precisely, never—think about proverbs myself. But they (particularly the “African” kind) come up often enough in personal writing that I’ve developed a curiosity about their geneses. Even our contemporary ones (“never tweet,” etc) are born out of quite specific scenarios, and this one, being attributed non-extemporaneously to “Africa,” intrigued me. In a continent that stretches over 11 million square miles and holds over a billion proverb-generators, which particular structure of labor and leisure and social organization gave rise to this pithy little saying?
I Googled it. If you Google If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together, you may find yourself doing what I just did, which is reading 40 pages of search results only to turn up nothing except a wide variety of white people saying:
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~African proverb.
Here’s a sampling of what I mean.
The quote is the headline of a Forbes story that opens with the morning routine of a 23-year-old white entrepreneur who owns a company called “Heyo.” The quote is on the Goodreads page of a white author of Christian fiction; in an installment called Coming Attractions, a white missionary named Eli says to a white girl named Katie:
In Africa we having [sic] a saying, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
“Before I go back home, I want you to consider us, Katie,” the young missionary adds. This unfortunately sent me down a rabbit hole of that book, in which the characters talk about Africa like this:
The quote was also named Wikipedia Quote of the Day on October 14, 2007. It is attributed to Al Gore:
There’s an old African proverb that says “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We have to go far — quickly. And that means we have to quickly find a way to change the world’s consciousness about exactly what we’re facing, and why we have to work to solve it.
Gore appears to have said this in a quote accepting his Nobel Peace Prize that same year, and then again when he guest-starred on Season 4 of 30 Rock, on an episode that aired November 2009. To Kenneth the page, Gore goes:
You know, there’s an old African proverb that I made up. “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We need to go far, quickly.
What else? The proverb is a lede of a “Meaning Manifesto” by a white guy named Dan who appears to be promoting his ebooks. A white woman used it in a LinkedIn article called “Lessons Learned in Africa” that starts “Summer is the time for vacations.” The quote is on a website called AnswersAfrica.com, on a page called “African Quotes: 100+ Sayings That Will Leave You Amazed.” (It’s listed as #3, right after “Always being in a hurry will not prevent death.”) Hmm. Richard Branson said it:
The quote appears in an LA Times story about the Westlake basketball team. It is a pull-quote on the corporate responsibility page of TOMS. It’s in a book about “teaching entrepreneurship to postgraduates.” It is identified as “Kenyan” in a book called Glorious & Free; it is identified as a saying of “Botswanan grandmothers” in a novel by Jodi Picoult. It is the quote of the day on the Facebook page of a Portland bakery called Pip’s Original Doughnuts. And on and on and on.
In my passing experience, the “~African Proverb” type of wisdom—extremely general, with a veneer of authenticity borrowed from the continent where human life originated—seems particularly popular among tech types, NGO types, techy NGO types, Ted Talks and evangelical Christians; this rough gesture is frequently made on Instagram and Pinterest, as well.
An image search pulls up the visual equivalent of the above situation:
There are pages and pages of more:
Well, if you happen to have any leads of the origin of this popular African proverb, my inbox is open. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is—if you hear a gripping “African proverb” in a TED Talk or an episode of 30 Rock, or even just from a person who is comfortable saying “African proverb” with a straight face, you might remember:
Images via screenshot, Shutterstock/Bobby Finger