Pounding grain makes you cry, begins the second poem of this section. The song draws up a list of hardships which could be continued almost indefinitely. These poems are about farming and hunting, about pounding and foraging, about cattle-herding and cattle-raiding, and about warfare against neighbouring peoples and against colonial invaders. They deal with the difficulties of survival where famine, disease and violence are constant threats.
Hardship, though, is not the main theme of these poems. What is most striking is the satisfaction that comes with success. ‘A farmer is a king’, exclaims the farmer from Zimbabwe. ‘You are making me drunk by your many colours, you my fine heifer’, sing the cattle-herders from Tanzania, and a successful cattle-raid is an exhilarating experience (The Cattle Raid). Warfare causes appalling suffering (‘They will come and take out our eyes’), but even war throws up heroes such as Kanjunio and Kakuru at the battle of Tuma Tumu hill.
Some of these songs are sung to accompany work, the words and music providing a rhythm for marching or for pounding grain. Such songs are often simple and repetitive, lasting as long as the job does or until the singer starts another song. At the opposite extreme is the elaborate art of the hunters’ poems. As pure description, they are superb: the chimpanzee, ‘old man with a ragged cloak’; the duiker, ‘smooth as an old hoe and smooth-backed like a young mother’; the hyena, ‘that walks along all humped up because it is plain it has come from stealing something’.
But there is more than description involved in these animal poems. Those from southern Africa are often Clan Praises, the descriptions of the lion or the baboon or the zebra becoming metaphors for the qualities of whole communities. Those from Nigeria, the Yoruba Ijala, are the poems of professional hunters. The art of Ijala is governed by complex rules of composition and performance, and it ranges over a wide variety of subjects with a notable vitality and humour. The examples in this section demonstrate the intimate knowledge of animals that is part of the hunter’s skill, and they are his salute to the creatures which provide his livelihood.