African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: War Poems (Page 1 of 2)

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…

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…

The Victory of Ali, Son of Abdu

A Hausa song from northern Nigeria, unusually for a war song performed by women. The song was recorded by the Hausa scholar C.G.B. Gidley in 1964. Among his informants was Mallam Isa Ahmed Kurawa, who remembered it being sung during his childhood by an old lady in Kano, to the accompaniment of the shantu, a cylindrical gourd laid across their thighs by women drummers.

It describes the so-called victory of Aliyu (Ali), the Emir of Kano, over Amadu, Sultan of Damagaram, at the battle of Tiittarawa outside Kano in 1898 (‘so-called’, because Ali was actually defeated in this war). The causes of the war are not precisely known, but the two states had long struggled for control of the Saharan slave trade.

Great Visitor, Son of Abdu,
Water it is that drowns whoever goes against it…

The Sinking of the Troopship Mendi

A popular Zulu song about the sinking of SS Mendi in February 1917 as it carried African Battalions belonging to the South African Native Labour Corps on their way to World War 1 in France. The ship collided in fog off the Isle of Wight with an empty merchant vessel bound for Argentina. 646 men were drowned, in one of the worst ever marine disasters…

The Invaders

Three poems of the Sukuma people of Tanzania, referring to the colonial invasions. The first two poems are songs of resistance, dating from the 1890s, when the German armies first arrived. Note the references helmets, wooden legs (i.e., long khaki trousers with tall boots) and rifles.

The third poem refers to World War I when British and German armies fought each other throughout East Africa, while the Belgians, with their reputation for atrocities, waited over the border in Zaire.

You my wife, Mama Mgumba, stop here:
Let us expel him out of our house!…


A Hausa Praise-Poem from northern Nigeria. Rano was a chief killed in battle around 1870. The poem’s emphasis is placed very firmly and vividly on Rano’s exploits in battle up to the time of his death.

Line’s 5-8 are Rano’s own words, as he rejects food to get on with fighting. He is remembered as a ruler who bound people into new relationships – which explains the epitaph that, since he died, ‘marriage has become unmanageable’.

Sarkin Rano is a beloved of God;
Since he fell in battle, marriage has become unmanageable…

Coward, Crawl Back

An Acoli poem from Uganda.

Coward, crawl back into your mother’s womb!
We are sons of the brave

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African Poems