A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from May 23, 2010
“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”

"When (two) elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers” is an East African proverb, cited in English since at least the 1910s. In the 1960s, Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta (1894-1978) and Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk both used the “when elephants fight” saying to describe their small countries, seemingly trambled in the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Although the saying has been used in political contexts, “when elephants fight” has only infrequently described Republicans (whose party symbol is the elephant).


Google Books
Parliamentary papers
Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons.
London : HMSO
Pg. 24:
GERMAN EAST AFRICA.
THE ADMINISTRATOE TO THE SECRETARY OF STATE.
(Received 16th May 1918.)
Pg. 25:
He has suffered from the heavy exactions first of the Germans and then of ourselves, but as a rule is inclined to comfort himself with the philosophic reflection of the native proverb: “When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.”

2 February 1919, Gazette-Telegraph (CO), “Native Chiefs Give Opinions of German Rule in Few Words,” pg. 2: 
German East Africa, whic still saw guerilla fighting between remnants of German bands and the British forces, remains reticent. A native recalled a tribal proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

Google Books
Tanganyika and its future
By Julius Richter
London: World Dominion Pr.
1934
Pg. 3:
A native chief once described the confused state of his people during the wars with these quaint words, “When two elephants fight, the grass must be trodden.”

26 March 1936, New York (NY) Times, “Belgians agitated by new world fears” by Anne O’Hare McCormick, pg. 14:
Belgians quote frequently these days a proverb learned in the Congo: When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.

Google Books
Hutchinson’s pictorial history of the war
London: Hutchinson & Co.
1940
Pg. 247:
We may hope that the African proverb “When elephants fight the grass is trampled” will not be fulfilled.

Google Books
The Reader’s Digest
v. 65 - 1954
Pg. 65:
...the last two bloody revolutions, recall the Thai proverb, “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

8 May 1961, Fitchburg (MA) Sentinel, pg. 6, col. 6: 
When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers; and When West and East are struggling in Africa, it is Africa that suffers.—Jomo Kenyatta, political leader in Kenya.

Google Books
17 October 1963, Jet magazine, pg. 30:
Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first prime minister, on the Cold War struggle for Africa: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. If East and West fight over Africa, Africans will suffer.”

Google Books
African one-party states
By Gwendolen M Carter, Charles F Gallagher, et al.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
1964
Pg. 403:
Nothing of the sort happened, for as the Swahili proverb puts it, “When elephants fight, it is the grass which is trampled.”

Google Books
East Africa and Rhodesia
v. 41 - 1964
Pg. 434:
We have a saying in East Africa that when elephants fight it is the grass which gets crushed.

Google News Archive
22 October 1964, Eugene (OR) Register-Guard, ‘Cambodia: An Ant Dodging Elephants,” pg. 10B, col. 2:
Thomas S. Abercrombie of the National Geographic foreign staff recently talked with Prince Sihanouk in the study of the Prince’s modest home.
(...)
Sihanouk, whose policies have woven an intricate path between East and West, told Abercrombie:

“I believe in a ‘sawtooth diplomacy.’ The path of neutrality is never a straight line.” and in one of his speeches he told his countrymen: “When two elephants are fighting, the ant should step aside.”

Google Books
The Elephants and the Grass;
A study of nonalignment

By Cecil Van Meter Crabb
New York, NY: Praeger
1965
Pg. 2:
When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. 
-- AFRICAN PROVERB

Google Books
Swahili grammar and syntax
By Alfons Loogman
Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press
1965
Pg. 205:
Wapiganapo tembo nyasi
When elephants are fighting it is the grass that gets hurt.

Google Books
History of East Africa, Volume 2
By Roland Anthony Oliver
Oxford: Clarendon Press
1965
Pg. 625:
In the African phrase, ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass which is trampled’.

Google Books
Freedom and unity : uhuru na umoja ; a selection from writings and speeches ; 1952 - 65
By Julius Kambarage Nyerere
London: Oxford Univ. Press
1966
Pg. 323:
We have a saying in East Africa; when elephants fight it is the grass which gets crushed.

African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories
African Proverb of the Month
November, 2001
Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia. (Swahili)
When elephants fight the grass (reeds) gets hurt. (English)

Swahili ( Eastern and Central Africa ) Proverb
Also Kikuyu ( Kenya), Kuria ( Kenya/Tanzania),
Ngoreme ( Tanzania )
(...)
In Africa and worldwide this is probably the most commonly used Swahili proverb that is translated into English.

Orca Book Publishers
When Elephants Fight
By author: Eric Walters Other primary creator: Adrian Bradbury
ISBN: 9781551439006
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Pub Date: October/01/2008
Lexile Level: 1130L
Pages: 96
Availability: In stock.
Price: $19.95
“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people, a tribal group in Kenya, Africa, is as true today as when the words were first spoken, perhaps thousands of years ago. Its essence is simplicity-when the large fight, it is the small who suffer most. And when it comes to war, the smallest, the most vulnerable, are the children.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Sunday, May 23, 2010 • Permalink