African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa


A modern poem in the traditional manner of a praise for one’s clan, sent to us by Adjei Agyei-Baah. Here the history of the Ashanti people is celebrated with reference to the richness of their land, their gods, and their traditional rulers.

The edenic garden on a fertile land of gold

The Otumfuo of the Ashantis

A poem sent to us by Adjei Agyei-Baah on the theme of the Ashanti royal house. The Ashanti people live within a wealthy, gold-rich region of Ghana. Otumfuo is an honourary title bestowed upon Ashanti rulers when they ascend the throne. The Ashanti Empire was officially established in 1701 by the Ashanti King Osei Tutu and his adviser and High Priest, Okomfo Anokye.

The Golden Stool (Ashanti-Twi: Sika ‘dwa) is the royal throne of the Ashanti king, and is also believed to house the spirit of the Ashanti nation. According to the legends of the oral tradition, the Golden Stool descended from heaven and into the lap of Okomfo Anokye when the Ashanti army defeated their rivals, the Denkyira, in 1701. The entire surface of the Golden Stool is inlaid with gold and hung with bells to warn the king of dangers.

In 1863 the British army attacked the Ashanti kingdom to take control of the Gold Coast. Six hundred troops massed on the border of the Ashanti kingdom during the dry season, but left it too late to launch their invasion. When the rain season began the troops rapidly came down with malaria and dysentery and eventually abandoned their supplies and retreated without a shot being fired. This led the then Ashanti King, Asantehene Kwaku Dua, to remark “The white man brings his cannon to the bush, but the bush is stronger than the cannon”.

He who knows not the Otumfuo
Let me present him…

On Chewing Khat

Khat (also spelled qat or qaat) is a flowering plant native to the Northeast African peninsula (the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia). When chewed it produces a stimulant effect similar to amphetamines. The talkative high that emerges has made it popular for a variety of social occasions. Politicians and businessmen chew it whilst making deals, Sufis chew it to enflame themselves in prayer, and some Somali poets use it to inspire spontaneous verse.

This poem by Yuusuf Meygaag Samatar of Hargeisa (the capital of Somaliland) discusses the various benefits and drawbacks of chewing khat.

When I eat of this Qaat plant I find it to inspire
It helps me to take a seat among notable peers…

Ode To Sango

Another in our series of Modern Poetry in the Oral Manner, this one about one of the most prominent Orisha, Sango, also known as Shango (see also In Praise of Shango) or Xango in Latin. The following poem not only addresses his encounter with the Owu people, now concentrated in Abeokuta, but also portrays Sango’s personality ranging from his birth, life and wives, to his controversial end.

Jakuta, son of Aganju,
Violent ruler, grandson of Oduduwa…

Songs of Death

These are a series of Nyembara songs from Sudan, performed to mourn the death of Chief Yokwe Kerri in the 1930’s. They were collected by A. C. Beaton, with additional help in translation from the Bari language into English by a Father Spagnola.

How came bereavement to his house?
How came forlorn-ness?

Introduction to Modern Poetry in the oral manner

I have added this new section, provisionally called Modern Poetry in the oral manner, in response to readers visiting the site who have sent me their own written poems inspired by the material they have been reading here.

Modern African poetry draws on a multitude of traditions, including European and American. Some of the best, however, works very closely with oral styles and imagery, perpetuating what may best be called an oral aesthetic…

Moremi Ajasoro

This is a modern poem by Aremu Adams Adebisi on the theme of the legend that surrounds the 12th century Yoruba princess, Moremi Ajasoro. Moremi was married to the Yoruba king Oranmiyan who ruled the kingdom of Ile-Ife. Ile-Ife had been at war with a neighbouring tribe for many years, who the Yoruba referred to as ‘the Forest people’ (Ìgbò in the Yoruba language, though the said tribe is believed by scholars to have had no relation to the contemporary Ìgbòs of modern Nigeria)…

The Itsekiri Praise Poem

A modern poem sent to us by Laju Ereyitomi Oyewoli, in the style of a traditional praise of one’s own clan. The Itsekiri people live in Nigeria’s Niger Delta area and traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Iwerre. The area is a key centre of Nigeria’s crude oil and natural gas production.

Iwere ni mi
For I belong to the powerful bloodline…

Akan praises of the Paramount Chief

The Akan peoples of Ghana include the Ashanti, Fanti, Akim, Akwapim and Asen. One distinct style of Akan oral poetry are the poems recited by the masters of ceremonies to paramount chiefs. These poems remind the chief of the clans historical enemies and the victories in war that his predecessors attained.

The master of ceremony performing the poem half covers his mouth with his left hand whilst pointing a sword in his right hand to the chief in front of whom he stands.

He is one who hates to see an enemy return victorious
He delivers old and young from the ravages of war…

The Farmer in Chaha Song

The Gurage people traditionally inhabit the fertile region of southwest Ethiopia where they grow a banana-like plant called Ensete, as well as coffee and khat. The diligent farmer is often praised in Chaha (the local language of which there are various dialects) songs as the model Gurage citizen and he is depicted on the Ethiopian dollar ploughing his fields.

To be a hardworking cultivator of land, generous to beggars and orphans, and hospitable to neighbours and kinfolk, is the model to which the Gurage aspire.

O man who cultivates the field, how great is your merit!
Wealth flows out from your fingers…

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African Poems