African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Somalia (Page 1 of 2)

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…

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…

Bitter and Sweet – A Somali Gabay

The following poem, ‘Macaan iyo Qadhaadh’ or “Bitter and Sweet”, was composed by Axmed Ismaciil Diriye Qaasim, who died recently in exile. Qaasim was a legendary Somali poet and a scholar who served under the British Colonial Administration as an officer in Odwayne District Commission.

More Somali Balwo

Another group (see Balwo) of love songs from Somalia. Balwo means ‘sorrow’, and the subject of this type of song is invariably unhappy love which is described briefly in striking and unusual images. These songs are immensely popular in Somalia and are regarded by the orthodox as blasphemous (see no. 1: “let not now the imam / drive you from your song”). Abdi Simino, b. 1920s, is credited with having devised and popularised the form.

Since, when you die, delight
By earth’s silence will be stilled…

Which is the Better for Me?

A Somali song from the days of Turkish rule. The singer’s ironically compares his troubles – the Mahdi making war, the locusts eating his crops, his wife’s grumbling, the ants eating his stores, the Sultan’s men who have stolen his horse, and the soldiers camped nearby.

Between the Sayyid who upsets wealth and exterminates people
And the locust who has eaten the buds, which is the better for me?..

The Best Dance

A wonderfully self-confident dance song from Somalia. The poem distinguishes the best grass for grazing and the best for hay-making or winter fodder.

The best dance is the dance of the Eastern clans,
The best people are ourselves…

The Mahdi’s Boast

A war song from Somalia. The Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, was a nationalist and religious leader who expelled British forces from the Nile valley and governed the whole region for ten years before the British returned in 1898 to impose colonial rule. See also The Sacrifice.

No man exists who can lay hold of a wild elephant and lead him around,
No man exists who can grip a lion by the nape of the neck and give him a punch…

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African Poems