African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Category: Epic Poems

The Story of Miqdad and Mayasa

The following epic poem was transcribed by Dr Alice Werner, who was the professor of Swahili and Bantu languages at London’s School of Oriental Studies between 1917-1930. Dr Werner first encoutered the story of Miqdad and Mayasa during her visit to the village of Bomani, a village in Kenya’s Kilifi County, in 1913. During her visit Dr Werner met Sharif Hassan and his wife, Mwana Bamu, who entertained their guests by reading aloud from her treasured manuscript of the poem.

The Story of Miqdad and Mayasa opens with an encounter between the storyteller Miqdad and the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca. Taking shelter in a cave from the rain outside, Muhammad requests that Miqdad tells a story to pass the time.

There does not appear to be any versions of the story in Arabic and Dr Werner believed that the poem may have been transmitted through the oral tradition within Kenya for many years before being finally committed to writing. This may explain why from time to time the author of the text appears to forget that Miqdad is the narrator and speaks of him in the third person.

I begin with the name of the Compassionate,
and pray for the faithful one…

The Legend of Liyongo

Liyongo, the national hero of the Swahili people, lived in the area of the delta of the Tana River, north of Mombasa. His father, ruler of the city-state of Shaka, had two sons – Liyongo the elder, and Mringwari. On his father’s death, Mringwari was chosen as ruler and Liyongo was imprisoned: he escaped, joining the villagers and ivory hunters on the mainland, and building a reputation for bravery, chivalry, generosity and justice. Many of the poems praising him are said to have been composed by him, so that he is also celebrated as a poet.

Oh my child, be silent, do not cry;
Listen to the tale of the King of Bauri,

Sundjata (extracts)

Three extracts from different versions of the Sundjata epic, which is as yet the best known and most widely admired of African epics. Sundjata is a historical figure (he died in 1255), and the Sundjata legend comes down to us from a period of turmoil in West African history when the ancient empire of Ghana was in decline. The Ghana empire (the name of which was resurrected by the modern state of Ghana at Independence, though in a different place) had existed from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, covering an area which incorporated parts of the present day Mali, Mauretania, Chad and Senegal.

After it had happened
That Sundjata’s mother had become pregnant,

Introduction to African epics

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’.

African Poems