Who first said: if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together?

tl;dr It’s unclear. There’s a clear English-language lineage, but there really are similar African proverbs and it’s hard to rule out cross-pollination.

When the world started falling apart in April, I found myself with unexpected free time. I had reserved the month to do book promotion, and while I did plenty of that, the lack of travel and live events left a void. So I embarked on a pointless internet odyssey: to discover the origin of the proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

"If you want to go fast" inspiration, via Pinterest

It is most often cited as an “African proverb,” though it’s also attributed to Warren Buffet, Hilary Clinton, Cory Booker, Al Gore and others. The supposed African origin means its surfaces occasionally in international development, which is where I encountered it—though not for the first time—earlier this year.

This kind of foggy origin is, it turns out, typical of the things we call proverbs, aphorisms, maxims, adages, and old saws. There is a whole field of study, paremiology, populated by linguists and folklorists who have dedicated their careers to the study of them.

The very online answer #

But before I thought to consult them, I did what anyone would do, and asked Google.

Google's answer to "who said if you want to go fast go alone": Cory Booker

This was Google’s answer even if I replaced “said,” in the question, with “coined.” Using “invented,” I got a different, less-confident answer: Al Gore.1 That search pointed me to a 2016 Jezebel article about this proverb and its origins, written by Jia Tolentino.2

Tolentino dismissed the African origin story. She described scanning “40 pages of search results only to turn up nothing except a wide variety of white people saying [it.]” She concluded:

[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:

      “That’s probably not an African proverb.” — African Proverb

It was a sassy and superficial analysis—though that didn’t make it wrong. Still, Tolentino’s sweeping conclusion irked me. It seemed underresearched, and ill-thought-out.

African languages must have many proverbs. Some must have crept into English. And given the fairly short history of European interest in Africa, isn’t it possible that a proverb might have circulated in multiple African languages for centuries before reaching English. Wouldn’t “African proverb” be a pretty fair description for such a thing?

The experts’ answer #

So I decide to simply email an expert, Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, a leading paremiologist.3 He replied quickly. He knew the proverb, and indeed had published an article that analysed it, which he was kind enough to share with me.4

It’s not online, but you can see a preliminary version of the analysis, posted to a linguists mailing list by Mieder’s coauthor Charles Doyle—by coincidence just a few weeks before Tolentino’s article in 2016. That version notes that:

The saying, which in recent years has often (though perhaps spuriously) [been] identified as an African proverb, might be regarded as an anti-proverb responding, to the older Anglo-American proverb “He who travels fastest travels alone,” a variant of “He who travels alone travels fast(est).”

The first usage Doyle and Mieder give is in a 1917 speech by a Cyrus McCormick, published in The Harvester World.5

Kipling says, '...he travels fastest who travels alone.' That may do for a race, but...ours is a different kind of wok, and we might rather say, '...he travels farthest who pulls with his team.'

The Kipling text—the proverb to which this anti-proverb is a reply—is a poem, The Winners, the first stanza of which runs:

What the moral? Who rides may read.
When the night is thick and the tracks are blind
A friend at a pinch is a friend, indeed,6
But a fool to wait for the laggard behind.
Down to Gehenna7 or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

As Mieder confirmed by email, “we do not agree with the African origin.” In the published article, Mieder and Doyle revised the parenthetical assessment of this claim from their draft’s “perhaps spuriously” to “spuriously.” Officially, then, the proverb is Not African.

Colin Firth giving mission details in "1917" The relevant couplet from Kipling’s poem is recited by Colin Firth in last year’s “1917.”

A rejoinder from Africa #

But that’s not the end, because my search turned up another thread: a “Weekly African Proverb” dated December 21, 2000, on AFRIPROV.org, a website that collects such things:

Alone a youth runs fast, with an elder slow, but together they go far.

— Luo proverb.8

December 2000 predates the modern explosion in the use of “if you want to go fast…” And the more specific attribution to Luo, an East African language group, defeats Tolentino’s skepticism about vague pan-African origins.

But is it really the same proverb, contrasting, as it does, youth and age in a way the Kipling-descended one does not?

To find out more, I emailed Rev. Joseph Healey, the listed moderator of AFRIPOV.org. Healey lives in Nairobi. He has been doing missionary work in East Africa for fifty years, and, it seems, collecting African proverbs for several decades at least. Though he doesn’t have Mieder’s academic pedigree, it’s fair to say he has some authority on this topic.

I asked him specifically about “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” He replied

  1. Originally this proverb [is] from Burkina Faso. So, yes, it is [an] African Proverb.

  2. Typical of important African proverbs it has equivalents in other languages like the Luo (East Africa) proverb “Alone a youth runs fast, with an elder slow, but together they go far.”

  3. It has a universal variation as in Rudyard Kipling’s line “he travels fastest who travels alone.”

Is it possible that this proverb expresses such a universal truth, using such an obvious metaphor, that is has arisen independently in different places and at different times. Then my search for a single origin would be futile.

When and how did the standard form emerge? #

So I narrowed my objective. What was the evolution of the particular modern form, the one that now litters the internet, containing the exact word pattern fast–alone—far–together.

Mieder and Doyle’s article includes many variants after 1917 that do not quite contain that pattern: from 1977, for example: “‘He travels fastest who travels alone,’ as George Washington said. But he travels farthest who has a companion.” The last of these “pre-modern” forms of the proverb is a 1993 essay in the New York Times Book Review by South African poet Breyten Breytenbach:

He who travels alone travels fastest, but in the company of friends you go farther.

Breytenbach’s phrasing lacks the parallelism that makes the modern wording sticky, and shifts awkwardly from the third to second person. But at least our search has come back to Africa (albeit to an Afrikaans-speaking white South African).

Choose the Life, cover

It is Mieder and Doyle’s very next entry that finally gets all the words right. It is a 2004 book, Choose the Life, by Bill Hull, an evangelical pastor. Hull uses the exact wording of this post’s title; the same wording appearing in most of those images above:

So my gift of love has been to submit to that process. As the African proverb tells us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Tantalizingly, of all the references collected by Mieder and Doyle, Hull’s is the first to cite an African origin.

But what if Hull—used to Biblical rhythms and the poetry of the sermon—settled on this wording himself, and just invented the African origin.

This worried me, so… I emailed him. He told me that he first heard it in “a sermon or message that a person gave, don’t remember who, but they were a missionary and they ascribed it to the people they lived and worked with in South Africa.” (Another South African connection.)

This new, more evolutionarily successful form of words—with it’s critical mutation, a claimed African origin—quickly took root in the fertile soil of the rhetoric of early 2000s globalist optimism. I can’t prove Thomas Friedman ever used it, but… oh no wait, yes I can.

Where does that leave us? #

This is where my own odyssey ended. By the time I got to this point, the early-April panic of COVID had slipped into the late-April everyday of anti-COVID precautions, and ordinary life, to a point, had resumed.

I can’t really dispute the expert judgement, of Professors Mieder and Doyle, that this proverb has a clear non-African lineage. But equally, there are enough African connections—and to west, east and southern Africa, no less—to raise doubt in my mind. I think the jury is still out. (And if you happen to find out anything more, know Breytenbach—whose email address is not public—or speak Luo, please let me know!)

The one thing I thing I learnt for sure is that cold-emailing random people on the internet is surprisingly effective. People are really helpful, and by enlisting their help over a few days in April, I came much closer to an answer than I would have done, had I worked alone.

If only there were a pithy phrase to capture that idea.

  1. Maybe this is because Al Gore is known for inventing things

  2. Right now, Tolentino’s article is the internet’s Best Answer to this question. But perhaps this post can supplant it? 

  3. Though not before I wasted a lot more time with Google. Tracing proverbs, as I discovered, is a difficult search problem. Some proverbs exist in stable, fixed forms: “a stitch in time saves nine,” for example. (Rhymes help a lot: they stabilize the wording as the mirrored strands of DNA stabilize a genome.) Stable proverbs are easy to search for in Google, or newspaper archives, or other corpuses. But others proverbs mutate, taking varying wordings even while expressing the same idea. For these, it is not enough to search on an exact phrase—you have to be creative. Sometimes these unstable proverbs eventually find a stable form, which is what seems to have happened—just about—with “if you want to go fast…” 

  4. Doyle, Charles C., and Wolfgang Mieder. “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs: A Supplement.” Proverbium, 33 (2016), 85-120. 

  5. This McCormick must have been Cyrus Hall McCormick III, whose namesake grandfather had invented the McCormick Reaper and founded the predecessor of the International Harvest Company. The Harvester World was, as far as I can tell, the company’s trade magazine. 

  6. Kipling is not afraid to boldly deploy another proverb within this stanza. 

  7. From Wikipedia: “Gehenna or Gehinnom is thought to be a small valley in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. Thereafter, it was deemed to be cursed. In rabbinic literature, Gehenna is also a destination of the wicked.” 

  8. I also found this proverb as a chapter epigraph in a 2015 book by Kate Otto Chebly, a doctor in New York, along with a transliteration from Luo: Rawera ringo matek kende owuon kod juduong’ gidhi mos to kanyakla gichopo mabor. Otto Chebly told me a Luo friend suggested the quote.