African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Nigeria (Page 2 of 9)

Towns (Ibadan)

A Yoruba Iwi, or masqueradors’, chant from Nigeria. It is a sharp criticism of modern Ibadan as a town of thieves, violence and disease. For more Iwi poetry, see Tricks.

The spirit of the rock protects the town.
Ibadan, don’t fight!..

Song of the Zakkama to the Sultan of Borno

An extract from a Kanuri Praise-Poem from the ancient kingdom of Bornu in northern Nigeria (c.f., The Sultan of Bornu, Queen Gumsu, The Yerima Mohammadu, In Praise of Yerima Aji, and The Song Sung to Kaigama Anterashi, son of Lima). The Sultan had three official praise singers, who walked beside him procession, or stood before him in audience. Their titles, in order of precedence, were Ngijima, Babuma and Zakkama. The praises are addressed by the Zakkama to Sultan Aman Alimi, who reigned 1793-1810.

You, son of Gumsu, Gumsu Amina, daughter of Talba, you Ibrahim,
Have attained to your father’s place among the great…

Incantation to Gain Popularity

This is another Yoruba Ijala (hunting poem) that was first translated into English in Ulli Beier’s Black Orpheus magazine. Ulli Beier was a German-Jewish scholar who moved to Nigeria in 1950 to teach Phonetics at the University of Ibadan. In 1957 he founded the magazine Black Orpheus, the name inspired by “Orphée Noir”, an essay that he had read by the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre. Black Orpheus was the first African literary journal in English, publishing contemporary authors such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe as well as oral poetry from Nigeria. This Yoruba ìjalá poem appeared in issue 19 of Black Orpheus.

You cannot dispute the forest with a rat.
You cannot dispute the savannah with the buffalo…


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…

At a Thrift-Club Feast

A thrift-club, known in Yoruba as Esusu, is a voluntary society which helps its members to raise money. Every member pays a fixed sum of money regularly at a fixed time (say every fifth or ninth day). One of the subscribing members will take the total amount subscribed for his personal use. The next subscription will be taken by another member, continuing in rotation until every member has taken. As an early form of banking, it played a part in the rise of businesses owned by former slaves in the United States.
This ìjalá, or set of praises, is spoken by the chairmen to encourage and compliment the members.

All you persons of prestige here gathered together,
I greet the woodcock with its characteristic ‘mese’ cry…

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…

To Palm Wine

Palm wine is an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of various species of palm tree. This is a popular Yoruba song in praise of the drink.

Alimotu of the gourd
Lamihun in the fibrous clump…

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

A Salute to my Ogun

Another set of praises (Oriki) for the Orisha Ogun. Ogun is one of the most popular Orisha, both in Nigeria and across the Caribbean and the Americas. Known as the god of hunting, iron and warfare Ogun is both a violent destroyer and a heroic leader who delivers strength and justice to society. (See also poems for Ogun, God of War 1 & 2)

Now I will chant a salute to my Ogun:
O Belligerent One, you are not cruel…

Chain Riddle

A Fulani chain riddle from northern Nigeria. This is a word game for two people. One makes up a line, and the other has to add a second line beginning with the last word of the first. In the process, the players are constantly devising fresh metaphor.

The foreigner salutes you?
Salutes imply royalty?..

Page 2 of 9

African Poems