African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Sotho

The Train

The Basotho have been selling their labour to South Africa first on the railways, then in the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg since the days when Moshoeshoe successfully repulsed attempts to absorb his mountain kingdom. Today, labour migration is the pervasive reality of Basotho life, involving 80 per cent of men and an unknown number of women for long periods of their working lives. Sefela, or to use the full name, sefela sa setsamaea-naha le separloa-thota, “songs of the inveterate travellers” (or as one singer put it, “songs of those who have seen the places and the spaces in between the places”), are the poetic autobiographies of these adventurers.

The trains that take the migrant labourers to the mines become a key theme of sefela poetry with poets competing to re-create evermore vivid metaphors for the “hundred-wheeled centipede of the plains”. The trains have been described as a manifestation of the mythical snake diety, Khanyapa. The shaking, writhing movements of the carriages compared to the dances of possessed spirit mediums.

The following poem was recited by thirty-four year old migrant poet Majara Majara aka Ngoana Rakhali and collected by David Coplan.

We came to the railway magistrate;
We came and asked him where our deserters’ train was…

The Dirge of the Warriors’ Widows

A lament by Sotho women, said to date from the time of Shaka Zulu’s wars. There are different versions of this song in several southern Africa languages, presenting Shaka’s achievements from the perspective of those who suffered from them.

Weakened and weeping, I remain among the ruins.
Weakened and weeping, I remain amid trackless plains…

The Crop Thieves

A Sotho poem from Lesotho on the subject of weaver birds, at harvest time one of the worst predators. The sounds and rhythms of this poem, even in the English translation, imitate marvellously the twittering and bustle of the weaver birds which are stealing corn from the fields.

Tswi-tswiri! I the person, I suspect!
What have you heard that makes you suspicious?..

African Poems