African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Category: Praise-Poems (Page 1 of 6)

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…

Oriki Ìnagije

A Yoruba praise poem or Oriki, commemorating the figure of Balógun Ìbíkúnlé, the great ruler and commander-in-chief of Ibadan forces in the nineteenth-century. Ìbíkúnlé was born in Ogbomoso, a city in Oyo State, south-western Nigeria, during the first decade of the nineteenth century. This was at a time when the Fulani jihads were beginning to make incursions into various territories within Yorubaland.

Ìbíkúnlé joined the Ogbomoso army and rose to an influential position within the war council in his twenties. Observing that Ogbomoso lacked the numbers to effectively banish the Fulani jihads, Ìbíkúnlé moved to Ibadan in the 1830’s. Ibadan contained the largest concentration of warriors in Yorubaland at the time and Ìbíkúnlé aligned himself with an Ibadan war-chief known as Toki Onibudo. Through the 1840’s – 1850’s Ìbíkúnlé had led a series of successful conquests that made Ibadan the most formidable power in Yorubaland. An interesting biography of Ìbíkúnlé can be found at Ibadan Insider.

The Oriki that follows celebrates Ìbíkúnlé’s courage, martial prowess, prosperity and leadership qualities. In addition to being an accomplished soldier and commander in chief, he is also praised for his wealth and generosity.

Ìbíkúnlé, the Lord of his Quarters,
The proverbial magnificent doer…

Ngwane III

Ngwane III is considered the first king of Swaziland, because during his reign from 1745 to 1780, he moved his people north of the Pongola River into what is today the Shiselweni district in the south-east of Swaziland, establishing his capital at Zombodze. In this tibongo by Maboya Fakudze, the most prolific of the imbongi at the court of Sobhuza II, Ngwane III is presented a man of utterly irrational violence until, in the course of his migration to Zombodze he comes to Ngwane’s Rock and the scene of desolation brings him to his senses and he begins to govern properly.

Angry one, of Dlamini.
Ngwane, angry at home…

Two War Songs of King Mphande

Two war songs relating to King Mphande, Zulu king (1840-72), (see Praises of King Mphande). Half-brother to both Shaka (1816-28) and Dingane (1828-40), Mphande was regarded as too weak to be a threat when Dingane assassinated Shaka in 1828 and seized the throne. Mphande eventually takes revenge on Dambuza by refusing to join him in arms against the Boers at the battle of Maqongqo in 1840, which eventually leads to Mphande becoming installed as king.

He was rejected by Ndhlela
He was rejected…

Praises of King Mphande Zulu (second version)

Another set of izibongo praises for King Mphande (see Praises of King Mphande Zulu), recorded by E.W. Grant in the mid-1920s.

Here are the praises of Mpande of Noziqubo,
Umamiude who appeared by the head-crest…

Praises of King Mphande Zulu

Mphande kaSenzangakhona, Zulu king (1840-72), was half-brother to both Shaka (1816-28) and Dingane (1828-40). When Dingane assassinated Shaka in 1828, and seized the throne, Mphande survived the general massacre of Senzangakona’s descendants, a sign of Dingane’s contempt. But after Dingane’s catastrophic defeat by the Boers in 1838 at the Battle of Blood River, Mphande refused to join his half-brother in an attack on the Swazi, instead leading thousands of Zulus into the neighbouring Boer republic of Natalia. The Boers then moved again against Dingane, defeating him at the battle of Maqongqo in 1840, and effectively installing Mphande as king. Dingane was murdered shortly afterwards. It would be wrong to read too much into this. This was long before the days of apartheid, and the Boers then were little different from the other marauding groups – Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, Gaza – raiding each other for cattle, land and people. Historians, including Zulu historians, are divided as to whether Mphande was a reluctant king, hating the responsibilities of power, or whether he was a smart operator, successfully manipulating the forces against him in a dangerous world. This izibongo credits him with destroying many Sotho and Swazi enemies, but capable of being smart, as in the incident with the Boers’ cattle. The following poem was recorded & translated by James Stewart, a magistrate in colonial Zululand from 1888. He spoke fluent Zulu and assembled a vast archive of oral recordings, indispensable to modern researchers. The imbongi’s name is unknown.

Mdayi make reply to the land across:
Who is he that can dare to summon Mdayi?…

The Shumba Murambwi Praise Poem

One variety of praise poetry common across Africa are praises for one’s own clan. The Shumba Murambwi praise poem celebrates the ancestors and lineage of a Shona clan from Zimbabwe. Whilst recorded by Hodza in 1985, many of the allusions to events, personages and places within this poem are provided by Alec Pongweni from his fascinating book The Oral Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe.

To understand the poem some of the history of the clan must be described. At some point estimated to be in the late 18th century, an early ancestor of the clan named Chikanga is murdered on his way home after trying to settle a dispute with the Warozi, a neighbouring ruling family. One of Chikanga’s sons, Muchinadzo, flees and adopts an alias to disguise himself, Chivunguvungu of the Ngonya – later shortened to Chibi, and is eventually invited to settle on the territory of Mhungudza under the protection of the local Paramount Chief. Chivunguvungu overthrows his host, taking over the kingdom until his grandson, Tavengegwei, succeeds him.

Until this point the family had maintained the alias used by Muchinadzo to hide himself from the murderers of his father, Chikanga. The descendants of Muchinadzo seem to acknowledge that Chikanga may have provoked those who murdered him due to his anti-social behaviour (Chikanga appears to have been a talented cattle thief), but regard themselves as unfairly associated with his crimes. This seems to be the reason why Tavengegwei chooses the name Murambwi, “the rejected one”.

Disputes over land for cultivation creates divisions of the tribe, leading to separate dynasties emerging from Tavengerwei’s cousin, Ndema, and later a large family calling themselves the Mhari splits from the descendants of Ndema.

Whilst these various dynasties are all referenced in the Shumba Murambwi Praises, the heart of the poem glorifies the Lion (Shumba), the totem animal that the Mhari adopt to represent their clan. The lion seems to be universally recognised as a emblem of courage, nobility, ferocity and supremacy in the popular imagination, but what makes the poem particularly vivid is that the Mhari were directly familiar with the lion in its natural habitat. The clan has tracked, hunted and fought with lions and thus glorify the animal with an intimate familiarity of its behaviours and habits whilst also invoking these qualities to define their tribe. The poem expresses gratitude to the ancestors of the clan and to the lion who triggers awe and shock when met face-to-face in the wild.

Thank you, The Rejected One
Thank you, the Lion…

The Train

The Basotho have been selling their labour to South Africa first on the railways, then in the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg since the days when Moshoeshoe successfully repulsed attempts to absorb his mountain kingdom. Today, labour migration is the pervasive reality of Basotho life, involving 80 per cent of men and an unknown number of women for long periods of their working lives. Sefela, or to use the full name, sefela sa setsamaea-naha le separloa-thota, “songs of the inveterate travellers” (or as one singer put it, “songs of those who have seen the places and the spaces in between the places”), are the poetic autobiographies of these adventurers.

The trains that take the migrant labourers to the mines become a key theme of sefela poetry with poets competing to re-create evermore vivid metaphors for the “hundred-wheeled centipede of the plains”. The trains have been described as a manifestation of the mythical snake diety, Khanyapa. The shaking, writhing movements of the carriages compared to the dances of possessed spirit mediums.

The following poem was recited by thirty-four year old migrant poet Majara Majara aka Ngoana Rakhali and collected by David Coplan.

We came to the railway magistrate;
We came and asked him where our deserters’ train was…

The Self-Praises of Kola Khoali

Lithoko are praise poems from Lesotho, which is today a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. These may be sung to praise chiefs such as Moshoeshoe the founder of the Sotho kingdom, there are also, lithoko tsa makoloane, praises performed at initiation rites and lithoko tsa bafo, the praises of male commoners.

The following self-praises of one commoner, Kola Khoali, was documented by Hugh Tracey in 1959 during his recording tour in 1959.

Be quiet and listen to celebration,
Mixed with cries of weeping…

Praises of Sobhuza II (second version)

This is a second version of the Praises of Sobhuza II. This version of Sobhuza’s tibongo, sung by Mhlabeleli Dlamini, another member of the royal house, focuses on the later part of Sobhuza’s reign after his position had been secured. It begins with Sobhuza’s dispatch of the regiments in World War 2, and continues with his later political campaigns, culminating in national independence and the triumph of the royalist party in parliament.

The hurrying one of Mahlokohla
Who hurries to Egypt…

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African Poems