African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Category: Survival Poems (Page 1 of 5)

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…

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!..

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…

The Death of Richard Corfield

A famous Somali gabay composed by Muhammad Abd Allah al-Hasan (1856 – 1920), the religious and military leader who established the Dervish state in Somalia. Richard Corfield (1882-1913) was a British colonial police officer, appointed in 1912 as commander of the Somaliland Camel Constabulary, charged with maintaining order but instructed to avoid any confrontation with`Abd Allāh al-Hasan. Disobeying this order in August 1913, he launched his 110 Camel Police against a Dervish force of 2,750. Most of his men were elimated and Corfield himself was killed. The poem is vivid for instructing Corfield what story to tell when he arrives in hell.

You have died, Corfield, and are no longer in this world,
a merciless journey was your portion…

A War Gabay

Another Somali Gabay (see Bitter & Sweet: a Somali Gabay for details of the form). This one was composed by chieftain belonging to the Ogaden clan, living in eastern Somalia, and his dispute is with the Isaaq clan, living to the north-west. His son has been killed in a skirmish with the Isaaq, and he has demanded 200 camels in compensation. He has been offered 100 and, rejecting that, chants this war song composed of a single long and alliterative sentence, ostensibly addressed to his horse ‘Aynabo, but in fact to the enemy. This gabay was recorded in 1951 by Margaret Lawrence, whose husband Jack was a civil engineer in what was then British Somaliland.

If you, oh ‘Aynabo, my fleet and fiery horse,
Do not grow battle-worn, and slow of foot, and weak…

Hunting Song – Ambo

An Ambo song, for men out in the bush hunting game. The Ambo are a tiny group in northern Zambia, numbering less than 3,500, and speaking a language related to Bisa. The father tells his son that the hunt is taking them too far for him to accompany them.

A little child has cried:
I’ll go with you, father…

The Cattle Killing

The subject of The Cattle Killing is one of the most baffling and controversial events in African history. In the spring of 1856, a teenaged Xhosa girl called Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha river. On her return, she told Mhlakaza, her uncle who was a diviner, that she had spoken with a group of the ancestors. They had promised that if the Xhosa killed their cattle and burned their crops, British settlers at Cape would be swept into the sea, and the ancestors would return to life, bringing fresh, healthy cattle and abundant stocks of grain. Mhlakaza told this to Sarhili, the senior Chief of the Gcaleka, who believed the prophecy and ordered compliance. No one knows for sure how many cattle were slaughtered – perhaps 60,000, perhaps 400,000…

Lament (Ngoni)

An Ngoni song from northern Malawi, sung at girls’ initiation ceremonies. The Ngoni were driven into exile by Shaka Zulu’s conquests, and this song presents Shaka’s achievements from the point of view of people who suffered from them.

Zwide was the chief of the Ndwandwe whom Shaka defeated in 1818 (see the poem Shaka). Soshangane, who established his own kingdom in southern Mozambique, was originally one of Zwide’s generals. See also the poem The Dirge of the Warriors’ Widows.

It is because of Zwide, chief of the Soshangane people
That though I lie down I cannot sleep…

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African Poems