African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

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Zulu War Song

A song composed to celebrate the defeat of the British army under Lord Chelmsford at the battle of Isandlwana in January 1879. The defeat brought a decisive end to the first British invasion of Zululand. The Zulu king was Cetshwayo, son of Mphande and grandson of Senzangakhona, and his chief Nduna, or commander of the Zulu army, was Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khjoza.

Thou the great and mighty chief!
Thou hast an army!..

What Happened in Olenguruone?

Olenguruone is in Nakuru County, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, at the heart of Gikuyu homeland. In the days of Mau Mau, when the fighters for Kenya’s independence made the neighbouring forest their base for attacks on British settlers, the colonial authorities cleared the region under a forced reseettlement (or “villagisation”) programme, deporting those who resisted to the detention centre at Yatta or to prisons in Nakuru and Nairobi (see also The Day Kenyatta was Arrested). In 2012, in the High Court, survivors of the Uprising won their case for maltreatment against the British government.

The great sadness occurred in Olenguruone.
Children and livestock were weeping in the heavy rain and bitter cold..

Defeat of the Infidels

This Somali gabay was composed by Muhammad Abd Allah al-Hasan (1856 – 1920), the religious and military leader. Known to the British as the “Mad Mullah”, he established the Dervish state in Somalia, and fought against British, Italian and Ethiopian forces, before eventually being defeated by the British in 1920. The poem may have been inspired by an incident in 1899 when some British officers sold al-Hasan a gun, which they later accused him of stealing, making it the pretext for an attack which al-Hasan got the better of.

To begin with, I had neglected poetry and had let it dry up
I had sent it west in the beginning of the spring rains…

Iremoje for Ogundele

Another example of the Yoruba poetic chants sung at the funerals of dead hunters. See Iremoje for the background and for other examples of this genre.

In Yoruba mythology, death does not wage war against men alone but travels with a team of supernatural war lords, the ajogun. The following was chanted by Lamidi for the deceased hunter Ogundele at Akeetean, Oyo in 1976.

Death does not kill alone,
Nor does he fight singly…

The Death of Richard Corfield

A famous Somali gabay composed by Muhammad Abd Allah al-Hasan (1856 – 1920), the religious and military leader who established the Dervish state in Somalia. Richard Corfield (1882-1913) was a British colonial police officer, appointed in 1912 as commander of the Somaliland Camel Constabulary, charged with maintaining order but instructed to avoid any confrontation with`Abd Allāh al-Hasan. Disobeying this order in August 1913, he launched his 110 Camel Police against a Dervish force of 2,750. Most of his men were elimated and Corfield himself was killed. The poem is vivid for instructing Corfield what story to tell when he arrives in hell.

You have died, Corfield, and are no longer in this world,
a merciless journey was your portion…

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…

Bitter and Sweet – A Somali Gabay

The following poem, ‘Macaan iyo Qadhaadh’ or “Bitter and Sweet”, was composed by Axmed Ismaciil Diriye Qaasim, who died recently in exile. Qaasim was a legendary Somali poet and a scholar who served under the British Colonial Administration as an officer in Odwayne District Commission.

More Somali Balwo

Another group (see Balwo) of love songs from Somalia. Balwo means ‘sorrow’, and the subject of this type of song is invariably unhappy love which is described briefly in striking and unusual images. These songs are immensely popular in Somalia and are regarded by the orthodox as blasphemous (see no. 1: “let not now the imam / drive you from your song”). Abdi Simino, b. 1920s, is credited with having devised and popularised the form.

Since, when you die, delight
By earth’s silence will be stilled…

Songs of the Baggara

The Baggara, meaning “cow-herders”, are composed of several Arab groups living in that part of the Sahel region between Lake Chad and southern Kordofan. The majority live in Chad, but being nomads they move between borders, entering Sudan’s Dafur region following the rains. As elsewhere in the Sahel, this brings them into bitter conflict with settled farming communities, conflicts aggravated as the Sahel spreads south. During the long civil war against the Peoples Liberation army of South Sudan, the Baggara were armed by the Sudanese government, becoming notorious as the paramilitary Janjaweed, seizing cattle, people and land as a perennial local struggle became national in scale. The following songs, recorded in the 1920s by Sigmar Hillelson of the Sudan Civil Service, show them in a different light, as warriors, lovers and poets. The groups mentioned are the Messiria, the Humur, and the Rizeigat, but there are others.

The fair ones, Mahmud’s three daughters,
Umm Misel daughter of Kir…

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…

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African Poems