African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Death (Page 1 of 3)

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?

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…

Iremoje for Ogunjinmi

The following Iremoje was part of the dirges chanted at the funeral of a deceased hunter, Ogunjinmi, whose name means “the god Ogun blesses or favours me”. See also The Asipade and Iremoje for Pa Ogundele for previous examples of this genre.

The Iremoje funeral rites are held at night, outside the house of the deceased hunter, and will continue until dawn. As Ogun is regarded as the Orisha who brought the knowledge of metallurgy to mankind, other members of the community who use iron implements such as farmers, blacksmiths, barbers, drivers and weapon-smiths also join the hunters family and friends in attending the ritual. The audience forms a circle around the ritual space. At the center of the ring, the hunters tools are arranged around an effigy of the deceased including his hunting clothes, tools and weapons.

To live in the forest the hunter must master various skills, carpentry to build his hunting lodge, knowledge of medicinal plants to heal his wounds, knowledge of culinary plants for cooking, and tailoring so that the hunter can weave clothes to keep him warm and disguise himself from his prey. The following Iremoje was chanted by Lamidi Abonikaba at Oyo in 1975. During the dirge Lamidi holds up the needle that the hunter used whilst in the forest.

Ogunjinmi, you have caught your father’s dog.
A needle that falls into a pit is lost forever…

Iremoje for Pa Ogundele

The following poem is part of the dirges chanted at the funeral of a deceased hunter, Pa Ogundele, by Atoyebi at Agunpopo, Oyo in 1975. Pa Ogundele was a member of the hunters society, the Asipade, (see The Asipade) for whom magical charms are an essential tool for capturing animals and surviving in the forest. However, whilst these charms are highly prized ultimately no magic can defeat death.

Ajuwon Akanbi,
Hunter, I thought you had egba magic…

The Asipade

Iremoje are a Yoruba corpus of poetic chants sung at the funerals of dead hunters. The activities of hunting and warfare fall under the providence of the Yoruba god Ogun, and thus Iremoje also emphasise the virtues and talents associated with this Orisha. See also A Salute to my Ogun, Ogun, God of War i, and Ogun, God of War ii.

Ogun is said to have spent half his life in the forest and the other half in the townships bringing civilisation to mankind. This contrast between the wildness of the forest and the order of the townships is often referenced in Iremoje.

Ogun, Chief Lakaaye
Chief Osin Mole…

Maize has a Market

A spirit possession song from the southern region of Malawi, sung in chiChewa and opening for the outsider a window on the sufferings of a society where children had, and have, only a 50% chance of surviving infancy. For women like Effie Musa from whom this song was recorded in August 1982, witchcraft practiced by one of her neighbours was the only plausible explanation.

Maize has a Market
Sorghum has a Market..

Song of the Aged

A very ancient Zulu song for the old and the dying, said to date from before the reign of Shaka.

The body perishes, the heart stays young,
The platter wears away with serving food…


The Yoruba believe in Atunwa, reincarnation within the family. Yoruba funeral songs such as Slowly the Muddy Pool Becomes a River and Where are You Now? incorporate the symbolism of loved ones returning in other forms. This poem is a grief-stricken Yoruba prayer, inviting a dead child to be born again.

Death catches the hunter with pain.
Eshu catches the herbalist in a sack…

Where are You Now?

Another Yoruba funeral song from Nigeria. (See also the poem ‘Slowly the Muddy Pool Becomes a River’). In ‘Slowly the Muddy Pool becomes a River’, the bereaved son appealed to a hunter not to kill the kob antelope encountered on the way to the farm, but to ‘let the dead depart in peace’. Here, the poet accepts that though the dead may be reincarnated in different form, life has to continue as normal. The dead ‘cannot receive double punishment’.

The hunter dies
and leaves his poverty to his gun

But for Death

A lively example of a Yoruba poetic tradition known as ewi-egungun, the chant of the masked dancers. Masquerades feature on festive occasions, such as a chief’s appointment, the funeral of a prominent person, the dedication of a shrine, the visit of someone important. The main business of the dancers is to attract attention by their costume and movements, and the poetry they chant is secondary, and largely improvised. The Oje are the the masked dancers.

Offspring of Abilodesu, listen to my words
One with disordered head pad…

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African Poems