African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Category: Praise-Poems (Page 1 of 6)

Two War Songs of King Mphande

Two war songs relating to King Mphande, Zulu king (1840-72), (see Praises of King Mphande). Half-brother to both Shaka (1816-28) and Dingane (1828-40), Mphande was regarded as too weak to be a threat when Dingane assassinated Shaka in 1828 and seized the throne. Mphande eventually takes revenge on Dambuza by refusing to join him in arms against the Boers at the battle of Maqongqo in 1840, which eventually leads to Mphande becoming installed as king.

He was rejected by Ndhlela
He was rejected…

Praises of King Mphande Zulu (second version)

Another set of izibongo praises for King Mphande (see Praises of King Mphande Zulu), recorded by E.W. Grant in the mid-1920s.

Here are the praises of Mpande of Noziqubo,
Umamiude who appeared by the head-crest…

Praises of King Mphande Zulu

Mphande kaSenzangakhona, Zulu king (1840-72), was half-brother to both Shaka (1816-28) and Dingane (1828-40). When Dingane assassinated Shaka in 1828, and seized the throne, Mphande survived the general massacre of Senzangakona’s descendants, a sign of Dingane’s contempt. But after Dingane’s catastrophic defeat by the Boers in 1838 at the Battle of Blood River, Mphande refused to join his half-brother in an attack on the Swazi, instead leading thousands of Zulus into the neighbouring Boer republic of Natalia. The Boers then moved again against Dingane, defeating him at the battle of Maqongqo in 1840, and effectively installing Mphande as king. Dingane was murdered shortly afterwards. It would be wrong to read too much into this. This was long before the days of apartheid, and the Boers then were little different from the other marauding groups – Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, Gaza – raiding each other for cattle, land and people. Historians, including Zulu historians, are divided as to whether Mphande was a reluctant king, hating the responsibilities of power, or whether he was a smart operator, successfully manipulating the forces against him in a dangerous world. This izibongo credits him with destroying many Sotho and Swazi enemies, but capable of being smart, as in the incident with the Boers’ cattle. The following poem was recorded & translated by James Stewart, a magistrate in colonial Zululand from 1888. He spoke fluent Zulu and assembled a vast archive of oral recordings, indispensable to modern researchers. The imbongi’s name is unknown.

Mdayi make reply to the land across:
Who is he that can dare to summon Mdayi?…

The Shumba Murambwi Praise Poem

One variety of praise poetry common across Africa are praises for one’s own clan. The Shumba Murambwi praise poem celebrates the ancestors and lineage of a Shona clan from Zimbabwe. Whilst recorded by Hodza in 1985, many of the allusions to events, personages and places within this poem are provided by Alec Pongweni from his fascinating book The Oral Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe.

To understand the poem some of the history of the clan must be described. At some point estimated to be in the late 18th century, an early ancestor of the clan named Chikanga is murdered on his way home after trying to settle a dispute with the Warozi, a neighbouring ruling family. One of Chikanga’s sons, Muchinadzo, flees and adopts an alias to disguise himself, Chivunguvungu of the Ngonya – later shortened to Chibi, and is eventually invited to settle on the territory of Mhungudza under the protection of the local Paramount Chief. Chivunguvungu overthrows his host, taking over the kingdom until his grandson, Tavengegwei, succeeds him.

Until this point the family had maintained the alias used by Muchinadzo to hide himself from the murderers of his father, Chikanga. The descendants of Muchinadzo seem to acknowledge that Chikanga may have provoked those who murdered him due to his anti-social behaviour (Chikanga appears to have been a talented cattle thief), but regard themselves as unfairly associated with his crimes. This seems to be the reason why Tavengegwei chooses the name Murambwi, “the rejected one”.

Disputes over land for cultivation creates divisions of the tribe, leading to separate dynasties emerging from Tavengerwei’s cousin, Ndema, and later a large family calling themselves the Mhari splits from the descendants of Ndema.

Whilst these various dynasties are all referenced in the Shumba Murambwi Praises, the heart of the poem glorifies the Lion (Shumba), the totem animal that the Mhari adopt to represent their clan. The lion seems to be universally recognised as a emblem of courage, nobility, ferocity and supremacy in the popular imagination, but what makes the poem particularly vivid is that the Mhari were directly familiar with the lion in its natural habitat. The clan has tracked, hunted and fought with lions and thus glorify the animal with an intimate familiarity of its behaviours and habits whilst also invoking these qualities to define their tribe. The poem expresses gratitude to the ancestors of the clan and to the lion who triggers awe and shock when met face-to-face in the wild.

Thank you, The Rejected One
Thank you, the Lion…

The Train

The Basotho have been selling their labour to South Africa first on the railways, then in the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg since the days when Moshoeshoe successfully repulsed attempts to absorb his mountain kingdom. Today, labour migration is the pervasive reality of Basotho life, involving 80 per cent of men and an unknown number of women for long periods of their working lives. Sefela, or to use the full name, sefela sa setsamaea-naha le separloa-thota, “songs of the inveterate travellers” (or as one singer put it, “songs of those who have seen the places and the spaces in between the places”), are the poetic autobiographies of these adventurers.

The trains that take the migrant labourers to the mines become a key theme of sefela poetry with poets competing to re-create evermore vivid metaphors for the “hundred-wheeled centipede of the plains”. The trains have been described as a manifestation of the mythical snake diety, Khanyapa. The shaking, writhing movements of the carriages compared to the dances of possessed spirit mediums.

The following poem was recited by thirty-four year old migrant poet Majara Majara aka Ngoana Rakhali and collected by David Coplan.

We came to the railway magistrate;
We came and asked him where our deserters’ train was…

The Self-Praises of Kola Khoali

Lithoko are praise poems from Lesotho, which is today a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. These may be sung to praise chiefs such as Moshoeshoe the founder of the Sotho kingdom, there are also, lithoko tsa makoloane, praises performed at initiation rites and lithoko tsa bafo, the praises of male commoners.

The following self-praises of one commoner, Kola Khoali, was documented by Hugh Tracey in 1959 during his recording tour in 1959.

Be quiet and listen to celebration,
Mixed with cries of weeping…

Praises of Sobhuza II (second version)

This is a second version of the Praises of Sobhuza II. This version of Sobhuza’s tibongo, sung by Mhlabeleli Dlamini, another member of the royal house, focuses on the later part of Sobhuza’s reign after his position had been secured. It begins with Sobhuza’s dispatch of the regiments in World War 2, and continues with his later political campaigns, culminating in national independence and the triumph of the royalist party in parliament.

The hurrying one of Mahlokohla
Who hurries to Egypt…

Praises of Mbandzeni

While Mswati II (1840-1868), who expanded Swazi land beyond its present boundaries, is celebrated as the greatest Swazi king, his son Mbandzeni (1875-1889) was beyond all doubt the worst. He was forced to accept borders imposed jointly by the British and Afrikaners in 1881 and 1884, which left thousands of Swazis stranded in the eastern Transvaal. But he was also largely responsible for selling off what remained of his kingdom to White concession hunters. These included grazing and mineral rights, often for the same patch of land, rights to collect taxes and levy customs duties, and monopoly rights in every conceivable branch of the economy. Before the end of his reign, the Swazis had literally no right to live anywhere (except the eastern Transvaal), and no right to practice any kind of economic activity. Historians dispute whether Mbandzeni was a kind man out of his depth, or a vain and greedy man who cared little for his subjects. Imbongi Maboya Fakudze presents him, in this tibondo, as an unmitigated disaster.

Eater at noon,
By eating in the sun…

Praises of Mswati II

Mswati, also called Mavuso III, succeeded Sobhuza I as king, ruling from 1840 to 1868. There are seven modern versions of Mwsati’s tibongo, all sharing the same emphasis on the scale of his conquests from the Indian ocean to the Drakensberg Mountains and from Zululand into what is today southern Mozambique. The following tibongo is by Mcoshwa Dlamini, Mbanzeni’s grandson and a fellow member with Sobhuza II of the Balondolozi regiment. His poem is a celebration of military ferocity.

You of the inner circle!
Agitator of Mbelebeleni…

Praises of Sobhuza I

Sobhuza I (1780-1836) who ruled Swaziland from 1815 until his death, was also called Somholo, ‘the wonder’, because just before his birth his father Nduvungunye was struck by lightning. It was he who led his people away from the turmoil of the wars associated with the rise of Shaka Zulu, settling them in what is now central Swaziland. In this, he was a comparable figure to Mzilikazi, founder of the Ndebele nation, to Soshangane of the Gaza, and Zwangendaba of the Ngoni.

In a tibongo which is full of affection, Sobhuza is praised for rescuing his people, hiding them in the forests of the Drakensberg mountains until it was safe to emerge. Key verbs are “arrived”, “escaped”, “stands”, and “emerges”, key images of things threatened surviving, and of things buried coming to light. The Imbongi is Mutsi Dlamini, a cousin of Sobhuza II.

Let him alone, the son of Langa.
Let him go upstream the Crocodile river…

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African Poems