African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Oriki Ìnagije

A Yoruba praise poem or Oriki, commemorating the figure of Balógun Ìbíkúnlé, the great ruler and commander-in-chief of Ibadan forces in the nineteenth-century. Ìbíkúnlé was born in Ogbomoso, a city in Oyo State, south-western Nigeria, during the first decade of the nineteenth century. This was at a time when the Fulani jihads were beginning to make incursions into various territories within Yorubaland.

Ìbíkúnlé joined the Ogbomoso army and rose to an influential position within the war council in his twenties. Observing that Ogbomoso lacked the numbers to effectively banish the Fulani jihads, Ìbíkúnlé moved to Ibadan in the 1830’s. Ibadan contained the largest concentration of warriors in Yorubaland at the time and Ìbíkúnlé aligned himself with an Ibadan war-chief known as Toki Onibudo. Through the 1840’s – 1850’s Ìbíkúnlé had led a series of successful conquests that made Ibadan the most formidable power in Yorubaland. An interesting biography of Ìbíkúnlé can be found at Ibadan Insider.

The Oriki that follows celebrates Ìbíkúnlé’s courage, martial prowess, prosperity and leadership qualities. In addition to being an accomplished soldier and commander in chief, he is also praised for his wealth and generosity.

Ìbíkúnlé, the Lord of his Quarters,
The proverbial magnificent doer…

Ngwane III

Ngwane III is considered the first king of Swaziland, because during his reign from 1745 to 1780, he moved his people north of the Pongola River into what is today the Shiselweni district in the south-east of Swaziland, establishing his capital at Zombodze. In this tibongo by Maboya Fakudze, the most prolific of the imbongi at the court of Sobhuza II, Ngwane III is presented a man of utterly irrational violence until, in the course of his migration to Zombodze he comes to Ngwane’s Rock and the scene of desolation brings him to his senses and he begins to govern properly.

Angry one, of Dlamini.
Ngwane, angry at home…

He Who Had Stamina Gained his Intent

Here’s something very unusual, a Somali Gabay that makes fun of the form. Specifically, this is a mock-heroic version of the poem The news to Rome, with its celebration of holy war and camel raiding. In this version, the “true men” launch an expedition to a brothel where they eat the addictive stimulant “qaat”. One thinks of parody as a written form, but here is an oral example (for another, see The Incompetent Hunter). Nothing, in fact, could illustrate how well these poems are known than the fact that they could be mocked in such detail – as described in the footnotes. Notice the reference to the “Allah-supported” poet in the brothel. Part of the satire’s point is that Somali poets no longer perform at meetings of the tribal elders but in public bars. The poet is Abdisalaam H. Aadan, famous for his satires on the older Dervish poets in these qaat-chewing forums. The poem was recorded in 1977.

By the Herer ravine, if at noon, you gulp down an unpalatable lunch
Sleep you should not enjoy – you must wage a holy struggle for the soul…

The News to Rome

Another Somali Gabay, describing a camel raid and once again the fate of the British officer Corfield in 1913 (see The Death of Richard Corfield). This version is notable for its emphasis on the role of the poet in pastoral warfare. His task is to pray for the success of the expedition and to curse the enemy clan. Should the raid be successful, the poet was awarded an extra camel, in addition to his regular share of the booty. This poem, by the famous Dervish poet and general Ismaa’iil Mire, was composed shortly after the raid in 1913.

Residing at Taleeh, we raised the question of holy war.
At once seventy hundred Dervishes selected powerful horses…

At the New Moon

Another Nandi children’s song from Kenya (see also Who will throw goat’s dung at me).

When the moon is new
The children, if they are Nandi,

The Incompetent Hunter

Another Yoruba Ijala (Hunting Poems), addressed to the guinea fowl, but with this difference – that instead of celebrating, the hunter makes fun of himself.

Fowl, we greet you, Guinea Fowl, we call you,
Your legs are slender like the ribs of palm leaves…

Buganda Songs

The Kingdom of the Ganda people is the largest of the traditional kingdoms making up Uganda, comprising all of Uganda’s central region, bordering Lake Victoria, and including the capital Kampala. The ruling dynasty dates from the 14C. Abolished in 1966 after Uganda’s independence, it was officially restored in 1993 and now enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy. These songs date from well over a century ago. They were transcribed long before the days of portable recorders, which may explain their brevity.

Nanayanja,
beat the drum, let it speak out…

Zulu War Song

A song composed to celebrate the defeat of the British army under Lord Chelmsford at the battle of Isandlwana in January 1879. The defeat brought a decisive end to the first British invasion of Zululand. The Zulu king was Cetshwayo, son of Mphande and grandson of Senzangakhona, and his chief Nduna, or commander of the Zulu army, was Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khjoza.

Thou the great and mighty chief!
Thou hast an army!..

What Happened in Olenguruone?

Olenguruone is in Nakuru County, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, at the heart of Gikuyu homeland. In the days of Mau Mau, when the fighters for Kenya’s independence made the neighbouring forest their base for attacks on British settlers, the colonial authorities cleared the region under a forced reseettlement (or “villagisation”) programme, deporting those who resisted to the detention centre at Yatta or to prisons in Nakuru and Nairobi (see also The Day Kenyatta was Arrested). In 2012, in the High Court, survivors of the Uprising won their case for maltreatment against the British government.

The great sadness occurred in Olenguruone.
Children and livestock were weeping in the heavy rain and bitter cold..

Defeat of the Infidels

This Somali gabay was composed by Muhammad Abd Allah al-Hasan (1856 – 1920), the religious and military leader. Known to the British as the “Mad Mullah”, he established the Dervish state in Somalia, and fought against British, Italian and Ethiopian forces, before eventually being defeated by the British in 1920. The poem may have been inspired by an incident in 1899 when some British officers sold al-Hasan a gun, which they later accused him of stealing, making it the pretext for an attack which al-Hasan got the better of.

To begin with, I had neglected poetry and had let it dry up
I had sent it west in the beginning of the spring rains…

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African Poems