African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

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Songs of Death

These are a series of Nyembara songs from Sudan, performed to mourn the death of Chief Yokwe Kerri in the 1930’s. They were collected by A. C. Beaton, with additional help in translation from the Bari language into English by a Father Spagnola.

How came bereavement to his house?
How came forlorn-ness?

Introduction to Modern Poetry in the oral manner

I have added this new section, provisionally called Modern Poetry in the oral manner, in response to readers visiting the site who have sent me their own written poems inspired by the material they have been reading here.

Modern African poetry draws on a multitude of traditions, including European and American. Some of the best, however, works very closely with oral styles and imagery, perpetuating what may best be called an oral aesthetic…

Moremi Ajasoro

This is a modern poem by Aremu Adams Adebisi on the theme of the legend that surrounds the 12th century Yoruba princess, Moremi Ajasoro. Moremi was married to the Yoruba king Oranmiyan who ruled the kingdom of Ile-Ife. Ile-Ife had been at war with a neighbouring tribe for many years, who the Yoruba referred to as ‘the Forest people’ (Ìgbò in the Yoruba language, though the said tribe is believed by scholars to have had no relation to the contemporary Ìgbòs of modern Nigeria)…

The Itsekiri Praise Poem

A modern poem sent to us by Laju Ereyitomi Oyewoli, in the style of a traditional praise of one’s own clan. The Itsekiri people live in Nigeria’s Niger Delta area and traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Iwerre. The area is a key centre of Nigeria’s crude oil and natural gas production.

Iwere ni mi
For I belong to the powerful bloodline…

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…

The Farmer in Chaha Song

The Gurage people traditionally inhabit the fertile region of southwest Ethiopia where they grow a banana-like plant called Ensete, as well as coffee and khat. The diligent farmer is often praised in Chaha (the local language of which there are various dialects) songs as the model Gurage citizen and he is depicted on the Ethiopian dollar ploughing his fields.

To be a hardworking cultivator of land, generous to beggars and orphans, and hospitable to neighbours and kinfolk, is the model to which the Gurage aspire.

O man who cultivates the field, how great is your merit!
Wealth flows out from your fingers…

Mother is gold

A short poem sent to us by Laju Ereyitomi Oyewoli. Iya ni wura means “Mother is gold” and is a common saying among the Yoruba people of western Nigeria.

Iya ni wura
Mother is Gold…

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…

He Who Had Stamina Gained his Intent

Here’s something very unusual, a Somali Gabay that makes fun of the form. Specifically, this is a mock-heroic version of the poem The news to Rome, with its celebration of holy war and camel raiding. In this version, the “true men” launch an expedition to a brothel where they eat the addictive stimulant “qaat”. One thinks of parody as a written form, but here is an oral example (for another, see The Incompetent Hunter). Nothing, in fact, could illustrate how well these poems are known than the fact that they could be mocked in such detail – as described in the footnotes. Notice the reference to the “Allah-supported” poet in the brothel. Part of the satire’s point is that Somali poets no longer perform at meetings of the tribal elders but in public bars. The poet is Abdisalaam H. Aadan, famous for his satires on the older Dervish poets in these qaat-chewing forums. The poem was recorded in 1977.

By the Herer ravine, if at noon, you gulp down an unpalatable lunch
Sleep you should not enjoy – you must wage a holy struggle for the soul…

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African Poems