African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Category: Survival Poems (Page 2 of 6)

A War Gabay

Another Somali Gabay (see Bitter & Sweet: a Somali Gabay for details of the form). This one was composed by chieftain belonging to the Ogaden clan, living in eastern Somalia, and his dispute is with the Isaaq clan, living to the north-west. His son has been killed in a skirmish with the Isaaq, and he has demanded 200 camels in compensation. He has been offered 100 and, rejecting that, chants this war song composed of a single long and alliterative sentence, ostensibly addressed to his horse ‘Aynabo, but in fact to the enemy. This gabay was recorded in 1951 by Margaret Lawrence, whose husband Jack was a civil engineer in what was then British Somaliland.

If you, oh ‘Aynabo, my fleet and fiery horse,
Do not grow battle-worn, and slow of foot, and weak…

Hunting Song – Ambo

An Ambo song, for men out in the bush hunting game. The Ambo are a tiny group in northern Zambia, numbering less than 3,500, and speaking a language related to Bisa. The father tells his son that the hunt is taking them too far for him to accompany them.

A little child has cried:
I’ll go with you, father…

The Cattle Killing

The subject of The Cattle Killing is one of the most baffling and controversial events in African history. In the spring of 1856, a teenaged Xhosa girl called Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha river. On her return, she told Mhlakaza, her uncle who was a diviner, that she had spoken with a group of the ancestors. They had promised that if the Xhosa killed their cattle and burned their crops, British settlers at Cape would be swept into the sea, and the ancestors would return to life, bringing fresh, healthy cattle and abundant stocks of grain. Mhlakaza told this to Sarhili, the senior Chief of the Gcaleka, who believed the prophecy and ordered compliance. No one knows for sure how many cattle were slaughtered – perhaps 60,000, perhaps 400,000…

Lament (Ngoni)

An Ngoni song from northern Malawi, sung at girls’ initiation ceremonies. The Ngoni were driven into exile by Shaka Zulu’s conquests, and this song presents Shaka’s achievements from the point of view of people who suffered from them.

Zwide was the chief of the Ndwandwe whom Shaka defeated in 1818 (see the poem Shaka). Soshangane, who established his own kingdom in southern Mozambique, was originally one of Zwide’s generals. See also the poem The Dirge of the Warriors’ Widows.

It is because of Zwide, chief of the Soshangane people
That though I lie down I cannot sleep…

Hyena (Yoruba)

Another Yoruba ijala (hunting poem) about the hyena (see also the Sotho praise-poem about the Hyena). Hyena is regarded as the ultimate scavenger, there being nothing the animal won’t eat.

Hyena, who goes into the farm and finds that a three-year old bone is full of marrow for him…

The Hunter’s Praise of his Bow

Another of the poems attributed to Liyongo, the national hero of the Swahili people, who lived in the area of the delta of the Tana River, north of Mombasa.

Praise my bow with its haft of the wild-vine,
let it be dressed with oil and shine like glass.

The Refugees

A Dinka song from South Sudan. It describes the plight of refugees who fled into Zaira in the 1960s from the war between the Khartoum government and the Anyanya nationlist movement in the south.

Gentlemen grind their grain in the land of the Congo;
The Dongolawi, the Arab, has remained at home…


This Yoruba Ijala (Hunting Poem) is different, praising not an animal but a plant. Cassava, also called manioc or tapioca, is a root vegetable, rich in starch, but not so nutritious as yams or maize, and consequently grown only along the farm’s boundary. But the images in this poem – bride, friend, prince, wife, camwood – along with the musical support, all suggest how greatly it is valued.

a stand-by cheering the despondent…

The Victory of Ali, Son of Abdu

A Hausa song from northern Nigeria, unusually for a war song performed by women. The song was recorded by the Hausa scholar C.G.B. Gidley in 1964. Among his informants was Mallam Isa Ahmed Kurawa, who remembered it being sung during his childhood by an old lady in Kano, to the accompaniment of the shantu, a cylindrical gourd laid across their thighs by women drummers.

It describes the so-called victory of Aliyu (Ali), the Emir of Kano, over Amadu, Sultan of Damagaram, at the battle of Tiittarawa outside Kano in 1898 (‘so-called’, because Ali was actually defeated in this war). The causes of the war are not precisely known, but the two states had long struggled for control of the Saharan slave trade.

Great Visitor, Son of Abdu,
Water it is that drowns whoever goes against it…

Hold back the Sun

An Akan song from the Ashanti region of Ghana, sung by women at work on their farms. See also Farming Song.

Where is the owner of the bush farm?
Hold back the sun!..

Page 2 of 6

African Poems