African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Category: Poems of Gods & Ancestors (Page 2 of 5)

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!

The Sacrifice

Two versions of a Dinka poem from South Sudan. During the time of the Mahdi, the Dinka ruler was required to sacrifice his son as proof of his loyalty. Both versions are horrified by the demand.

The old are asked about the distant past:
Ask your father about the distant past…

Prayer to Ruwa

A Chaga prayer from Tanzania. Ruwa is the Chaga name for God and also for the Sun. He is described as their Chief, the Preserver, who united the bush and the plain and created men. The bull in line 6 is being sacrificed to Ruwa, and the prayer is for healing, for offspring, for unity and for security.

We know you Ruwa, Chief, Preserver:
He who united the bush and the plain…

In Praise of Shango

Shango was the third Alafin (king) of the Oyo kingdom. He was deified after his death and is one of the most popular Orishas across the Caribbean and the Americas. These praises are sung by devotees of Shango and emphasise the daily duty of paying respect to the Orisha.

Yoruba mythology describes Shango as having three wives during his lifetime, Oshun, Oba, and Oya. In this poem, Origeibo is mentioned as his wife, along with a line describing Shango as The man who married without paying a dowry. We have not come across the name Origeibo before and are hoping that perhaps a reader with some knowledge may be able to shed some light on this.

These Oriki (praises) were recorded in Yoruba in the early 1950s by Ulli Beier, the German-Jewish scholar who went on to make distinguished contributions to Nigerian literature. The translation has been modified slightly.

When the elephant wakes in the morning,
he must pay his respects to his new wife…

Prayer for a New-Born Child

A Ga chant from Ghana. On the eighth day after a child is born, the relatives and friends gather for the ‘out-dooring’ ceremony. Very early in the morning, the baby is brought outside for the first time. An old person takes the baby in his or her arms and raises it to the dew three times. He then chants this prayer, to which everyone present responds Yao, meaning ‘Amen’.

Hail, hail, hail, let happiness come: Yao.
Are our voices one? Yao

Page 2 of 5

African Poems