Six songs, all from Malawi, sung by women using mortar and pestle to pound grain to flour, the thud of the pestle providing the songs’ rhythm. Nos. I and III are ChiChewa songs, Nos. II and IV are ChiMang’anja, No. V is ChiTumbuka and No. VI ChiLomwe.

No. IV refers to the second world war when many Malawian men fought for the British in the King’s African Rifles. No. V is a complaint about the migrant labour system which has taken the singer’s husband to Johannesburg and left her destitute. In No. VI the singer is a bride in a new home, complaining that she is not being well treated.

I

Pounding grain,
Pounding grain makes you cry,
Tears drip drip;
Drawing water,
Drawing water makes you cry,
Tears drip drip;
Fetching wood,
Fetching wood makes you cry,
Tears drip drip;
Hoeing,
Hoeing makes you cry,
Tears drip drip.

II

Who is rich? Joseph is rich;
He has bought a car we can go in.
Who is poor?
The dog that sleeps on the verandah!

III

A shared husband I don’t want! I want my own
Who looks on proudly as I pound, Not somebody else’s
Who when I pound
Turns his back on me!
I want a beautiful child
Who sleeps on a mattress
In a house with a wooden door!

IV

I reveal a secret:
There are no boys here.
They went to Nairobi
To fire guns against Hitler.

Oh my, Hitler! Hitler is on fire!
Mother, mother, even if you mourn:
Mother, mother, even if you boast!

V

You who are going to Johannesburg,
Tell my husband
I am naked, his mother is naked!
I am naked.

I am naked, his mother is naked;
The baby walks in my hands.
I am naked, his mother is naked!
I am naked.

VI

Namukholoviyo, please pound maize!
I do pound maize, but when you are an outsider
People keep saying, ‘How about this? How about that?’
And that pains me.

Namukholoviyo, please work hard in the fields!
I do work hard in the fields, but when you are an outsider
People keep saying, ‘How about this? How about that?’
And that pains me.

Namukholoviyo, please have your hair cut!
I do have my hair cut, but when you are an outsider
People keep saying, ‘How about this? How about that?’
And that pains me.

Namukholoviyo, please wash yourself!
I do wash myself, but when you are an outsider,
People keep saying, ‘How about this? How about that?’
And that pains me!

from Oral Poetry from Africa (1984),
Compiled by Jack Mapanje and Landeg White,
Longman