African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Women’s Songs (Page 2 of 3)

Hold back the Sun

An Akan song from the Ashanti region of Ghana, sung by women at work on their farms. See also Farming Song.

Where is the owner of the bush farm?
Hold back the sun!..

Complaint

A Lomwe woman’s song from central Mozambique. The singer is forced to grow cotton for the Companhia dos Algodões de Moçambique, owner of the cotton concession for the district of Ile. Her earnings are a derisory 5 escudos. Meanwhile, under the same forced labour laws, her husband is a labour migrant, working 300 km away at Luabo, headquarters of Sena Sugar Estates…

Pounding Beer

An Embu pounding song from north eastern Kenya, close to Mount Kenya. Pounding songs are sung by women using mortar and pestle to pound grain to flour, the thud of the pestle providing the songs’ rhythm (see also these poems). In this poem the singer pounds malted-millet grain to be made into millet beer for her husband, Mwaniki.

Let me pound beer, pound it for Mwaniki:
He is the one who drinks dilute beer…

In Praise of Seven Women

A Bahima women’s Praise-Poem, recorded in 1955 in Ankole, composed and recited by Kempumbya, wife of Ntumu. (See also The Bahima Women Praise Their Cattle and Bahima Women’s Praises.) The Bahima people are the cattle-herders among the Bayankole people of southwest Uganda. In these praises, originally in the Runyankole language, seven different women are described. The chorus (My companions etc.) is repeated after each praise.

She does not sit just as if she were placed there;
She does not shame her husband’s kraal…

Bahima Women’s Praises

A Bahima women’s Praise-Poem, recorded in 1955 in Ankole, and recited by Rhoda Kenyonyosi, who described it as by an unknown composer and dating from 1950. (See also The Bahima Women Praise Their Cattle).

The Bahima people are the cattle herders among the Bayankole people of southwest Uganda. In these praises, originally in the Runyankole language, the subject is the beauty of the women of the Baronda age set, and especially that of Veronika. The chorus (Stand up, so that before we say goodbye etc.) is repeated after each praise.

You Baronda,
wake up the ugly women…

The Bahima Women praise their Cattle

A Bahima women’s Praise-Poem, recorded in 1955 in Ankole, and composed and recited by Ntamaare. The Bahima people are the cattle-herders among the Bayankole people of southwest Uganda. In these praises, originally in the Runyankole language, the subject is the cattle for which they are famous. Each of the different cows belonging to the herd is admired for its unique characteristics, especially their hide and their horns. The chorus (When they stampede etc.) is repeated after each praise.

They are as greedy as Ishe-Katabazi:
I want them to graze in the newly burnt grass of Rwanda…

Farming Song

A song from the Embu region of Kenya, sung by women at work on their farms.

Ululate for me, my time for going home is not yet,
I shall go home as the sun sets…

Recitation of the Bride

An improvised recitation sung by a Yoruba bride as she is escorted by musicians and relatives to her husband’s house. She speaks her mind about all the hopes and concerns that she has, whilst drummers announce her arrival.

Those who stand-let them stand well.
Those who stop-let them stoop well…

Vimbuza Songs

The Tumbuka people live in eastern Zambia and northern Malawi, their homeland split by the border drawn by the British in 1890. But forty years before, the Tumbuka had suffered an earlier invasion, by Ngoni people fleeing the rise of the Zulu nation in south-east Africa. After many wanderings, the Ngoni settled in the Tumbuka heartlands, bringing with them a new cattle-based economy, new patterns of settlement and new systems of marriage.

A century and a half later, with the British long gone, Tumbuka women living in the Lusaka city compounds, still resent this earlier invasion. Tumbuka marriage had been matrilocal, men living in their wives’ villages, and land inherited in the female line. Taking wives from among the Tumbuka, the Ngoni demanded they lived in the husbands’ homesteads, subject to the control of the patrilineage, and forced to accept polygyny.

Over the decades, Tumbuka women have protested vigorously against this “slavery”. The form of their protest is called Vimbuza, a ceremony in which women are exorcised of the angry spirit believed to be possessing them. The possessed women are astonishingly arrogant, complaining bitterly about family members who have ill-treated them in songs to which no one can respond. They are rewarded with gifts, and with promises that their complaints will be attended to.

Individually, the songs can appear to be narrowly focussed. But the range of grievances is wide and, taken together, a consistent over-arching theme appears, in a general complaint about Ngoni overrule, about patrilineal marriage, about polygyny and the effects of labour migration. While the Ngoni boast about migration and conquest, and while the Tumbuka men are nostalgic for their pre-Ngoni empire, the women’s songs present an alternative history, an alternative vision of how life should be lived. They look back to a time of stable and harmonious relationships, when freedom from poverty, disease and spirit possession were guaranteed by the matrilineal extended family.

The following song was sung by NyaChisi, at Chimpeni village, Lundazi district, Zambia, on 25 March 1975. The references to “Orphans” and later “guarded wanderers” are powerful descriptions of how Tumbuka wives felt themselves to be outsiders in their Ngoni husbands’ homesteads.

We, today’s orphans,
We, today’s orphans…

The Untiring Singer

A song of the Luo people, from Kenya. This is a courtship poem, sung by young women as they approach where their lovers are staying. It is sung in a curiously artificial style, intended to show off the girls’ voices. The doree ree yo is a passage of very high-pitched vocal acrobatics, compared by the singer to birdsong.

I am possessed,
A bird bursting on high with the ree lament

Page 2 of 3

African Poems