African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Swahili (Page 1 of 2)

The Story of Miqdad and Mayasa

The following epic poem was transcribed by Dr Alice Werner, who was the professor of Swahili and Bantu languages at London’s School of Oriental Studies between 1917-1930. Dr Werner first encoutered the story of Miqdad and Mayasa during her visit to the village of Bomani, a village in Kenya’s Kilifi County, in 1913. During her visit Dr Werner met Sharif Hassan and his wife, Mwana Bamu, who entertained their guests by reading aloud from her treasured manuscript of the poem.

The Story of Miqdad and Mayasa opens with an encounter between the storyteller Miqdad and the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca. Taking shelter in a cave from the rain outside, Muhammad requests that Miqdad tells a story to pass the time.

There does not appear to be any versions of the story in Arabic and Dr Werner believed that the poem may have been transmitted through the oral tradition within Kenya for many years before being finally committed to writing. This may explain why from time to time the author of the text appears to forget that Miqdad is the narrator and speaks of him in the third person.

I begin with the name of the Compassionate,
and pray for the faithful one…

Serenade II

This is another version of the much-loved Swahili love song from the east African coast (see Serenade), probably the best known and most widely admired of all Swahili poems in translation. Like My Mwananazi, it is associated with Liyongo, the epic hero. There are interesting differences from the former version. Here, for instance, she is advised to listen, not to sing, to her suitors, and the ‘passers-by’ are not supposed to hear anything of what is going on.

O lady, be calm and cry not out but attend to your suitors patiently,
listen patiently to them who have climbed up to your window,
lest those passing along the road may see…

My Mwananazi

This is a well-known Swahili song, a version of which we posted previously without the vernacular text (see Mwananazi). This is an older, longer version, sung in praise of a dutiful wife in the Islamic tradition. It was first recorded in the 1860s, but is still extant in slightly different versions. The translation (slightly revised) was by Hamisi wa Kayi…

The Hesitation Dance

A Swahili dance song, recorded in the 1860s, giving a glimpse of sophisticated life in the coastal cities in earlier centuries. The song is also called ‘The Stumbling Figure’. Bishop Steere calls it ‘Gungu’ or ‘The Hesitation Dance’, adding “it is the custom meet about ten or eleven at night and dance on until daybreak. The men and slave-women dance, the ladies sit a little retired and look on. Each piece takes a long time to sing, as most of the syllables have several notes and flourishes or little cadences to themselves.”

Mother take me that I may see, may see
Beauty and ornaments at Ungama…

The Well-Wined Warrior

This is another version of the song in praise of palm-wine, attributed to Liyongo the national hero of the Swahili people. See also Liyongo’s Drinking Song for a different version of this song.

O tapster of soured wine,
from the sheath of the withered palm…

The Hunter’s Praise of his Bow

Another of the poems attributed to Liyongo, the national hero of the Swahili people, who lived in the area of the delta of the Tana River, north of Mombasa.

Praise my bow with its haft of the wild-vine,
let it be dressed with oil and shine like glass.

Song of the Coco-Palm

A Swahili poem in praise of the coconut palm, discovered c1905 by the scholar Muhammed Kijuma (1855.1945) in an old collection of marriage songs. It is attributed by some to the legendary hero Liyongo (see ‘The Legend of Liyongo’). Swahili poetry is much influenced by Arab and Persian forms, as is evident here from the long lines (each of 20 syllables), and rhymed couplets.

Give me the minstrel’s seat that I may sit at ease and tell of the praises of the coco-palm.
This tree, when it is young and sprouting, spreads its leaves outwards widely…

The Song of the Poor Man

Another Swahili song discovered c1905 by the scholar Muhammed Kijuma (1855-1945) in an old collection of marriage songs. It begins by seeming to mock the poor man, but quickly shifts to sympathising with him…

Liyongo’s Self-Praises

The nineteenth century Swahili poet Sheik Abdallah (d. 1820), wrote a poem called ‘Song of Liyongo’, in five-line stanzas, in which the first three lines of each stanza were his own work, while the closing two lines were by Liyongo, as recorded in the oral tradition. In the version presented here, the closing lines of each stanza are presented separately, without Sheik Abdallah’s additions…

Liyongo’s Drinking Song

A Swahili song from the East African coast. It is one of the songs attributed to Liyongo, the Swahili national hero. The ‘tapster’ is the man who taps the palm tree for palm wine. Muscadet is a kind of European wine. Like other peoms associated with Liyongo, the Drinking Song arises from the rich culture of the East African coast with its centuries of trading with the East and with Europe.

O tapster, give me the palm-wine
With the bitter flavour from the coconut palm

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African Poems