Liyongo, the national hero of the Swahili people, lived in the area of the delta of the Tana River, north of Mombasa. His father, ruler of the city-state of Shaka, had two sons — Liyongo the elder, and Mringwari.
On his father’s death, Mringwari was chosen as ruler and Liyongo was imprisoned: he escaped, joining the villagers and ivory hunters on the mainland, and building a reputation for bravery, chivalry, generosity and justice. Many of the poems praising him are said to have been composed by him, so that he is also celebrated as a poet.
Oh my child, be silent, do not cry;
Listen to the tale of the King of Bauri, (1)
Listen to the tale of the exiled King
Who was cheated of election as the Ruler.
He left his renown, he left
In all silence King Mringwari.
Cease your sobbing, child, don’t cry,
Listen to my tale which is true:
The mercenaries were given money (2)
To go and find the King of Bauri;
And Liyongo was dancing with the bush people
With his darling and industrious Mbwasho. (3)
So they journeyed but never found the Lion;
He had taken hold of sword and dagger.
They returned home together with one accord
To tell the King Mringwari,
‘Liyongo cannot be overcome, he is like fire!
He is not mortal, that one, he is fire!’
Servant girl Sada, I am sending you, you have not yet been properly employed: (4)
Tell my mother she is slow, she is not yet showing cunning:
Let her bake me a loaf, and inside it she must conceal a file,
So I may file through the shackles on my feet and break them,
So I may slip out and escape like a falcon,
So I may spread my wings wide and fly upwards:
Let me enter the sky, in the clouds, before the sun rises,
Gliding over the fields of reeds, the sandy plains, the beaches:
The roofs of the city, as well as the thatch of the huts, will collapse:
Tell her to bake and put a file inside the bran.
My child, I am telling you
The tale of Liyongo, King of the Bush:
He is not chained, he lives in freedom,
And they make him King of the plains people.
He has no cooked rice to eat, no silk to wear;
He eats simple millet and game from the bush;
He cuts it with his ceremonial dagger (5)
But he does not eat the left-overs of others.
It is shared after being cut:
At night, they dance with the drum;
He lives with the wild bush people,
He teaches them to read a book.
Praise be to my bow with its haft of the wild-vine,
Let it be dressed with fat so that it shines like mirror glass:
The first time I set out to hunt, I pierced a snake through its throat,
Then I hit also an elephant through the ear as it trumpeted;
I also shot a piebald crow and a dwarf antelope running away;
Yet they tell me, ‘Hands off, son of Mbwasho, lay down your weapons!‘ (6)
I bathe and wash my clothes here where I found water;
I scoop it up, drinking some but leaving plenty – I never quench my thirst;
Whoever begs a draught of me, I never refuse, my friends and brothers,
I have no restrictions, I say. Drink! I did not finish it. (7)
When I eat the fruits of the forest,
I have no need of the dishes of the palace:
I am a poor man, how shall I pay?
I will shake the ripe fruit down from the topmost branch.
The men of the bush were ordered, ‘Tie him up!’ (8)
He is no man, he is like a spirit!
And they do not tie up, they love guests!
You people, learn from the men of the bush:
Which food could make me healthier?
Pleasant words of gratitude,
Whoever is given them, how will he forget?
The people of the bush are friends in need;
Their kind nature I will never forget!
Dance leader, follow the merry drum!
Come, you are all invited by King Liyongo,
Come, you are invited by Liyongo the King,
And his brother, the shaha Bwana Mwengo! (10)
Quick! You are invited, rise up and go,
Noble men and ladies of high birth.
At such a moment, people must not stay home,
There is already a crowd in the courtyard.
When you come, put on your best clothes
Such as fit perfectly on lovely limbs:
There is a gungu dance, the joys of a wedding: (11)
Liyongo’s sister is marrying.
Burn aloe wood and ambergris,
Perfume your shapely garments,
Put on silken clothes
And buttonless sarongs,
Apply your finest unguents,
Spray yourselves with much perfume;
Let the best poets foregather,
Those skilled in composing knots,
Those who can make the dancers follow the rhymes,
Leading the dance with proudly swaying necks,
While the adults as well as the children are singing;
Let the dancers of the ringo assemble,
And Liyongo began his songs: (12)
‘Choose the girls with the lovely ornaments,
With the lovely rhythmic voices,
Arise and let all dance for me,
Step together on to the floor of the dancing hall!’
Then the girls began singing
And danced with dignified elegance
So the people rejoiced exceedingly,
All the people exulted joyfully:
He is indeed a poet, the King, it is no lie!
This is the end of my composition, May all of you be in peace!
This is my song of warning, here I begin, ending a multitude of songs,
As I proceed I am finishing, I a nobleman.
I, a nobleman, who sees your goat in trouble;
She was seized by the horns and milked by the milker.
A man who sees humiliation oppressing his home
Will not agree to die yet, as reproach would follow.
He that fights for his honour wins honour by fighting;
No scornful word is said to him as long as he lives.
I am lethal to people; when I take up arms I kill truly;
I am terrible in battle when I hear an evil word.
I am a young lion, I have instilled the wish to die in my heart;
I fear nothing but disgrace if my enemies see my back.
I am a young eagle soaring up, soon out of sight;
I am a terror for the birds, I seize them in flight.
I am like the buzzard when I mount in the sky,
Devouring the young, just like the lion, king of beasts.
But both my feet are in shackles,
And around my neck an iron ring has been forged.
Yet when in the sea the surf begins to roar,
When the high sea comes rushing in at Ungama,
you will not be capable of standing up!
I am a gallant prince, enjoying the bliss of dying,
To put an end to the enemy who slanders me …
Dying for God and the ship that goes to meet Him,
Do not fear the people of the world even if they hit you with ten thousand arrows …
The poet will receive a reward, the generous God will pay him
On the day of retribution when he will pay the wicked and the good:
The poet is full of generosity, proof of God’s goodness, and famous,
In his days there was no one like him.
And thus he thought on his way, with fear in his heart, and on the second day in the evening he came as far as Shaka, and entered the city.
He went into his father’s house, and his father was glad for him and welcomed him with joy, giving him a place to rest his limbs,
Massaging his limbs, together with his whole body, because of the weariness of the journey, with the idea of soothing him.
The youth took rest and then came out into the street, talking and laughing with his friends as he walked about;
Yet in the folds of his garment he had hidden the dagger, but no man saw it as he sought a way of killing his father.
Each day as he went to him, Liyongo was asleep. He could by no means find a way, and the youth was worried.
Then, when he saw his father asleep, he would call him loudly so that his father would be startled, and if not so then he would kill him.
But he would always quickly wake and rise up for whatever reason, and the youth would say, ‘Give me food for I am hungry’, he would say.
The youth was worried and overwhelmed with terror, but he kept his purpose and the days were consumed up as with fire.
As the days sped by, the Lord of Pate sent him news, saying, ‘Here we are ready to prepare for your wedding day.’
On the day that he received the letter, his father was tired, and lay stretched out in sleep. Understand, he was deeply unconscious,
His breathing sounded loudly like thunder in the rain; the youth understood that indeed he was wrapt in sleep:
He knew that his father was unconscious; the youth intended evil for the yearning that he had to go and seek out a wife.
He pierced him in the navel as he lay flat on his back: when Liyongo awoke, he did not see him for the youth had fled.
His father waking up and seizing arrows and bow, he went outside, going into the town,
And he sank on one knee and drew an arrow to its aim: as was his custom during life, he put an arrow in the bow-string.
And that place, I will say, was near to a well, but people did not stand about for all had fled;
No one drew water there, man or woman, the news through all the land had spread
That Liyongo is standing, he is there by the well: now people have stopped, they have no way to get water;
There is no one to get it, no person to draw water: everyone stays at home, there is no one who appears.
The people of the town, for water for the mosque, take it in a jug until it is all finished up.
Soon all the water came to an end and none remained in the jugs, but Liyongo does not leave off, for he has placed the arrow in the bow-string.
From hunger they buried people and all were distressed: they arranged a council meeting to arrive at a decision.
The decision was unanimous: we had better go to his mother; if his mother comes, she will calm him with her sympathy .
They went to his mother and his mother agreed, and they all left together and came outside the city wall,
And his mother besought him, singing songs of lament deliberately to lead him, but Liyongo did not hear,
And his mother approached him, trembling in fear; from afar she regarded him with countless beseechings,
And they did not understand that Liyongo had already died; for the fear that overcame them they did not go near him:
So each day, going to him, his mother cried, but he did not get up, even for a single hour, and it was thought he was angry.
When she returned from her pleading, his mother explained, ‘I do not know what he blames, but anger has taken hold of him:
My son is angered: it is not his custom not to hear; he has refused to get up, and I do not know what is our misdeed:
This is not his usual way, for if I go to him with a request he listens at once, but now he is gravely vexed.’
His mother crept nearer to him, laying aside her danger, and anger swept over her at all she then saw:
It is not possible now for him to kill if he is angry: he does not speak;
it is the throes of death and the groaning.
His mother marvelled, saying, ‘It s a cruel shame. All in this hour my son has died, he has refused to hear my voice.’
And so within the span of a day, he fell to earth a corpse, and all the people realised Liyongo had passed away.
They all drew near, his mother and the people as well; they all looked at him intently. It is a dagger, he has been stabbed!
He has been stabbed in the navel! Know you, it is a copper dagger!
They bore him to the town and he was buried without delay.
The news spread until it reached Pate, and when the Sultan was told he was filled with joy.
Sections I‑VII from Four Centuries of Swahili Verse (1974),
by Jan Knappert
Section IX from The Epic of Liyongo (1913),
by Muhammad Kijuma
Nine Swahili poems making up the story of Liyongo, the Swahili national hero. The first eight are well known Swahili songs, most of which were first written down in the late nineteenth century though they are probably very much older than that. The ninth poem is an extract from The Epic of Liyongo, composed in 1913 by Muhammad Kijuma, one of the greatest Swahili poets. This epic, which was composed for public recitation, brings together in written form the different parts of the legend which had been transmitted orally. This point is extremely important in the history of Swahili poetry which became truly Swahili only when it moved away from Arabic influences and began to incorporate oral songs and narratives.
As with the Sundjata epic, there are many different versions of the Liyongo legend, each Swahili community finding its own meaning in the story. The account given on pp. 162–3 contains the broad outlines. Who Liyongo was, if he ever really existed, will remain a mystery until much more research is done on the early history of the East African coast. Estimates of when he may have lived vary from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and the site of the city-state of Shaka (or Shagga) has yet to be located.
It is clear from the poems, however, that the legend has something to do with the clash between African and Arab strains in Swahili culture. Nos. I, III, IV, V and VI all deal with Liyongo’s life on the mainland, after his escape from Mringwari, when he lived with the villagers and the ivory hunters. During these years, he abandoned completely the aristocratic life of the coastal Arabs to eat millet and game, to ‘dance with the drum’, to hunt with a bow and to drink from forest pools. The kindness, self sufficiency, and communal responsibility of ‘the men of the bush’ stand in sharp contrast to the luxury and treachery of the city-states. Liyongo’s abilities as a ruler depend on the qualities he developed while living in exile. Unlike the Sundjata epic, in which African traditions are conquered by Islam, the Liyongo legend is a story of assimilation, of the bringing together in an ideal hero of two different ways of life.
- King of Bauri: Liyongo is said to have belonged to the Bauri clan.
- The mercenaries: after Liyongo’s escape to the mainland, men were sent after him to kill him (see also No. VI).
- Mbwasho: Liyongo’s mother, like Sundjata’s, accompanied him into exile.
- Sada: the name means happiness. When Liyongo was jailed by Mringwari, he escaped when his mother sent Sada with a bran loaf containing a file.
- Ceremonial dagger … left-overs of others: it is stressed that Liyongo retains his royal status, though living a simpler kind of life.
- Lay down your weapons: Liyongo, revelling in his skill with the bow, scorns Mringwari’s message that he should surrender.
- No restrictions: it is in the bush that Liyongo learns to share things equally without regard to rank.
- Tie him up: one version of the story states that the mercenaries (of No. I) were in fact the villagers whom Mringwari tried to bribe into killing Liyongo. The message arrived at a time of famine. There was a plan that Liyongo should climb a tree to pick the fruit and would be shot while he was climbing. Liyongo, however, shot the fruit down with an arrow and the men of the bush instantly became his friends.
- The wedding of Liyongo’s sister follows his return to Shaka after Mringwari’s death (or downfall).
- Shaha means ruler.
- Gungu dance is a dance associated with Liyongo at which poems are composed as part of the entertainment.
- From this line onwards, Liyongo himself gives the lead with a song of his own.
- The Song of Liyongo is clearly a Praise-Poem of the self-praises kind, and may well be among the very oldest of these songs. It is a song of triumph and of retribution. Personal honour and personal supremacy are the two supreme virtues, both of them more important than death itself. Only in the last lines, which are clearly added by another poet, are any different standards applied to Liyongo’s career.
- The Death of Liyongo: This is the final section of a long narrative poem or utendi composed in 1913 by the great Swahili poet Muhammad bin Abubakar bin Umar al-Bakari. In this utendi, the poet has brought together all the oral traditions about Liyongo in a poem composed for public recitation. The situation is that Liyongo is ruler of Shaka. His son is impatient to be king himself, and is bribed by the sultan of neighbouring Pate to murder his father.