Introduction to Gods and Ancestors

A man praying to his Gods and Ancestors is not primarily concerned with making poetry. If other people are present, they are not likely to be there as an audience but as people joining in the prayers. Yet poetry is built of patterns. The prayer which begins this section is composed of several brief petitions – for health, good crops, children, and for deliver­ance from disease and dangers. These prayers are re-arranged and repeated, and the whole community shows its support in the chorus. The prayer is simple, but it has a formal dignity quite separate from ordinary speech…Read More

Introduction to Praise-Poetry

Carefully weave the acts of kingship runs the first line of the first poem in this selection of Praise-Poems (The Sultan of Bornu). Praise-Poems exist in many different parts of Africa. In Yoruba they are called Oriki, in Zulu lzibongo, in Tswana Maboko – the list of examples would be a very long one…Read More

Introduction to Relationship Poems

The poems in this section are chosen for their range of feeling about human relationships. They are about courtship, marriage, parenthood and bereavement. They deal with different kinds of love and different kinds of grief…Read More

Introduction to Survival Poems

Pounding grain makes you cry, begins the second poem of this section. The song draws up a list of hardships which could be continued almost indefinitely. These poems are about farming and hunting, about pounding and foraging, about cattle-herding and cattle-raiding, and about warfare against neighbouring peoples and against colonial invaders. They deal with the difficulties of survival where famine, disease and violence are constant threats…Read More

Introduction to Pleasure Poems

The theme of the poems in this section is pleasure – pleasure in games and riddles, pleasure in singing and dancing, pleasure in drumming and musicianship, pleasure in drinking, smoking and story-telling, and pleasure in the beauty of the landscape, a whole range of pleasures from childhood to old age…Read More

Introduction to Epic Poems

No anthology of African oral poetry would be complete without some extracts from African epics. Yet no epic can properly be represented by an extract. The epic is by far the most ambitious of literary forms. It attempts, through the form of a long story usually concerned with a single but very special hero, to give a complete account of existence. Everything is included – the relation of men to the gods, the nature of good and evil, the place of the individual in society, the connection between the past and the present and between the present and the future. All this is put together in a pattern of events which make up a story. How that pattern presents itself to the story­teller will depend on who he is and on where and when he lives. But so far as he is concerned, the result will be the truth. As Mamoudou Kouyaté, one of the tellers of the Sundjata story, declares: ‘My word is pure and free of all untruth’…Read More

Introduction to Protest and Satirical Poems

Poetic justice: this neat phrase, once used to describe the Chopi musicians of southern Mozambique, refers to the rule in many African societies that allows poets an unusual freedom of speech. Sons may criticise their fathers, wives their husbands, workers their employers, and everybody the chiefs or officials who rule them, so long as it is done through poetry or song. It is a freedom which the rulers of some independent African States have found embarrassing and unacceptable…Read More