African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Category: Poems of Gods & Ancestors (Page 2 of 6)

Prayers Uttered by the Zezuru at Mabwe aDziva

A prayer to Mwari (God) and the ancestors at a time of drought among the Zezuru, one of the groups making up the Shona people of southern and south-eastern Zimbabwe. Mabwe aDziva, refers to the Stones of Dziva, or the Matopos Shrines. Dziva, meaning pool, is one of Mwari’s praise names…


The Yoruba believe in Atunwa, reincarnation within the family. Yoruba funeral songs such as Slowly the Muddy Pool Becomes a River and Where are You Now? incorporate the symbolism of loved ones returning in other forms. This poem is a grief-stricken Yoruba prayer, inviting a dead child to be born again.

Death catches the hunter with pain.
Eshu catches the herbalist in a sack…

Where are You Now?

Another Yoruba funeral song from Nigeria. (See also the poem ‘Slowly the Muddy Pool Becomes a River’). In ‘Slowly the Muddy Pool becomes a River’, the bereaved son appealed to a hunter not to kill the kob antelope encountered on the way to the farm, but to ‘let the dead depart in peace’. Here, the poet accepts that though the dead may be reincarnated in different form, life has to continue as normal. The dead ‘cannot receive double punishment’.

The hunter dies
and leaves his poverty to his gun

A Salute to my Ogun

Another set of praises (Oriki) for the Orisha Ogun. Ogun is one of the most popular Orisha, both in Nigeria and across the Caribbean and the Americas. Known as the god of hunting, iron and warfare Ogun is both a violent destroyer and a heroic leader who delivers strength and justice to society. (See also poems for Ogun, God of War 1 & 2)

Now I will chant a salute to my Ogun:
O Belligerent One, you are not cruel…

Hunters Prayer (Acoli)

An Acoli prayer from Uganda, the hunter is praying that his spear will be adequate for the hunt.

The spear with the hard point,
Let it split the granite rock…

But for Death

A lively example of a Yoruba poetic tradition known as ewi-egungun, the chant of the masked dancers. Masquerades feature on festive occasions, such as a chief’s appointment, the funeral of a prominent person, the dedication of a shrine, the visit of someone important. The main business of the dancers is to attract attention by their costume and movements, and the poetry they chant is secondary, and largely improvised. The Oje are the the masked dancers.

Offspring of Abilodesu, listen to my words
One with disordered head pad…

Lion Refused to Perform Sacrifice

Another of the thousands of poems associated with the Ifa oracle of the Yoruba people (see also How Leopard got his honour). There are 256 different Odu or branches of lfa poetry, and many hundreds of different poems are associated with each Odu. The Ifa priest learns these poems during many years of training. Each poem is associated with a set of ‘throws’ of the divination instruments (cowrie shells, kola nuts etc.) to indicate which poem is suitable when a client comes to him for advice. He recites the poem to the client who must find his own meaning in the words. The Ifa priest will also direct the sacrifices to be made to the relevant Orisha following the divination.

The twisted wooden stump which crosses the road in a crooked way.
Ifa divination was performed for Lion…

How Leopard got his honour (from the Ifa oracle)

I thought that with the inclusion of the Ifa poem, Lion refused to make sacrifice, that now would be a good time to repost one of my favourite poems, Tiger (From the Ifa Oracle) and to make a slight modification to the translation. In the translation from the Yoruba by Bruce Alvin King the big cat is referred to as a tiger but I think that the leopard is a more accurate translation.

This poem from the Ifa oracle illustrates how, through a superb description of the leopard’s hide and claws, leopard was granted honour by consulting Ifa and making sacrifice.

Ifa divination was performed for Leopard,
The one with the lovely and shining skin…

The Odo Masked Dancers

Odo, as practised by several Igbo-speaking communities in eastern Nigeria’s Enugu State, is the occasion when ancestral spirits return in the form of masked dances to share in important events, or simply to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. The dancers perform in public arenas and openly compete, both in their costume and in poetry. The Odo in this case is wearing the mask of the okpoko bird, a mythical bird that makes a loud noise while approaching its prey. See also the poem Self-Praises for the Ozo Title.

May the gathering here listen,
for it’s the Odo that hears the market din…

Prayer for Rain

A ChiSena prayer to Chauta (God) from southern Malawi. The prayer is led by an elder, with the people responding in chorus.

Chauta we beseech you, we beseech you!
You have refused us rain, we beseech you!

Page 2 of 6

African Poems