Haba na haba, ñore-ñore, ten-ten and dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin [English translation]

Following last week’s post about the Swahili proverb ‘Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba’, Oumar Bah shares some thoughts with us and draws a parallel with the guerzé, pular and bambara languages.

[Cliquer ici pour voir la version originale en Français]


It took my fancy to look for equivalents in other African languages to this beautiful Swahili proverb ‘haba na haba hujaza kibaba‘ whose French version would be « petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid » (little by little, the bird builds its nest)

  • Guerzé

Much to my surprise, there is language, namely guerzé (a language spoken in south-east Guinea),whose equivalent proverb is almost identical to the Swahili ‘Haba na haba …’ .

The Guerzé are an agricultural people who are mainly found around Nzérékoré region, at the foot of Mount Nimba. Their traditional land has been arbitrarily divided during the ‘scramble for Africa’ and hence it spills out into neighbouring Liberia where the Guerzé are known as Kpɛlɛ.

So, here is the proverb:

Ten-ten bə now hɔya

Literal translation: « Drop by drop, the earthen pot gets filled up » (during the preparation of palm wine, a very popular drink in the region, the pot is filled up slowly, drop after drop).

If we delve into a bit of linguistic analysis for this guerzé sentence, we find that ten means „drop“,  is a relative connector, now „earthenware pot“, is a verb root meaning „to fill“ and the suffx -ya probably carries an aspect value ( I have access to very little information concerning guerzé, as this language has been quite scarcely documented).

  • Pular

Ko ñore-ñore hebbinta maayo. Photo by Marie-Laure Le Guen

In pular or fula, another guinean and west African language, there is an equivalent which, contrary to Swahili and guerzé, does not stem from the analogy to an earthenware pot but to a river being filled up little by little:

Ko ñore-ñore hebbinta maayo

Literally : « It is the drizzle that fills up the river »

And here is the linguistic analysis : ko is a locative  marker, ñore-ñore means „drizzle“, hebbina is the causative  form of the verb heewa „to fill up“, the suffx -ta denotes in this case the imperfective aspect, maayo means « river ».

  • Bambara

Spoken in neighbouring Mali, the bambara language has a proverb which matches the French saying word for word, at least according to the online dictionnary bambara.org :

Dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin, kɔnɔnin bɛ a ɲaa da

Literally : « Little by little, the bird builds its nest »

Linguistic analysis: dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin « little by little », kɔnɔnin « bird (diminutive form = little bird) », bɛ (imperfective aspect marker), ɲaa « nest », da « to create, to build »

  • The proverb in songs

Let us highlight that, in Guinea like in Kenya, artists have drawn on this theme: around 1970-1971, Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz National produced a rhumba song entitled « doni doni » that made the delight of music lovers in Africa and beyond.

The lyrics are in French but the chorus « Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid » is translated into malinké, another Guinean language which is closely related to bambara.

This song is also available on Youtube :

Lastly, here is the German equivalent of this proverb:

Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein

Literally : « A constant drop can hollow out the stone »


A heartfelt thank you to Oumar Bah for enlightening us!

Written by Oumar Bah.

English translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen

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