African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Sudan

Songs of the Baggara

The Baggara, meaning “cow-herders”, are composed of several Arab groups living in that part of the Sahel region between Lake Chad and southern Kordofan. The majority live in Chad, but being nomads they move between borders, entering Sudan’s Dafur region following the rains. As elsewhere in the Sahel, this brings them into bitter conflict with settled farming communities, conflicts aggravated as the Sahel spreads south. During the long civil war against the Peoples Liberation army of South Sudan, the Baggara were armed by the Sudanese government, becoming notorious as the paramilitary Janjaweed, seizing cattle, people and land as a perennial local struggle became national in scale. The following songs, recorded in the 1920s by Sigmar Hillelson of the Sudan Civil Service, show them in a different light, as warriors, lovers and poets. The groups mentioned are the Messiria, the Humur, and the Rizeigat, but there are others.

The fair ones, Mahmud’s three daughters,
Umm Misel daughter of Kir…

The Refugees

A Dinka song from South Sudan. It describes the plight of refugees who fled into Zaira in the 1960s from the war between the Khartoum government and the Anyanya nationlist movement in the south.

Gentlemen grind their grain in the land of the Congo;
The Dongolawi, the Arab, has remained at home…

Leaving town

A Dinka song from South Sudan. The singer can’t wait for morning so he can leave the town he abominates and return to his village and his cattle. The poem is a succinct catalogue of everything that is wrong with modern life from the perspective of an intelligent herdsman.

O morning, come soon,
My curve-horned Ox, Mading…

What about the White Clothes and my Pen?

A Dinka song from South Sudan. The young men singing this song consider themselves as a special age-set, using their education to ‘change the land’. Their mothers must learn that, in the modern world, clothes and pens are more important than cattle as wealth.

Our junior age-set in white gathers at Abyei,
The school is convened…

The Man to be Envied

A Hadendoa poem from northern Sudan. The Handendoa live in northern Sudan, bordering the Red Sea. They supplied the majority of the supporters of Muhammed Ahmed el Mahdi (‘The Mad Mullah’) in his revolt against the British (see also the poem The Mahdi’s Boast). Like the poem Why Do We Grumble, it accepts that ‘wealth has a coat of many colours’.

I have good cultivable land sown and watered,
I have men who load my camels with trade goods…

The Jilted Man

A Dinka song from South Sudan. The singer complains of the breakdown of the marriage arrangements made when Ajok was a baby.

O Ajok!
Ajok whom I chose when she was carried in a sling…

The Sacrifice

Two versions of a Dinka poem from South Sudan. During the time of the Mahdi, the Dinka ruler was required to sacrifice his son as proof of his loyalty. Both versions are horrified by the demand.

The old are asked about the distant past:
Ask your father about the distant past…

I saw a Gentleman the other day

A Dinka song from southern Sudan, commenting in satirical fashion on the vanity and greed of the gentleman in question.

I saw a gentleman the other day:
He had coils on his lower arm…

Who Knows What the Government is Pregnant With?

A Dinka song from southern Sudan. The situation is the civil war between the Khartoum government and the Anyanya movement which began in 1958, soon after Independence. In the early stages of the war, the northern army was ruthless in responding to southern discontent. This song, though, is more than just a protest about government violence. It is an attempt to understand violence, calling on God and the ancestors in ‘the Court convened between the clouds’ for an explanation and a response.

How does the spoiling of the world come about?
Our land is closed in a prison cell!

Work Songs I

A Mandari song from southern Sudan, from the days of British rule (‘Tali’ government is Mandari government, Chief Iyon being appointed by the colonial authorities). The complaints are about taxation and forced labour.

The Tali government is oppressive,
Passing its time in harsh punishment

African Poems