2.1 East African Poetry & Drama: Do you understand the institute of ritual poetry in East Africa?



Chapter 2

Poetry in the Pre-colonial East Africa

 2.1 Analyze and appreciate the pre-colonial East African poetic forms as poetry in their own right.


It is often argued that Africans never had poetry. However when you critically look at the activities that Africans engaged in, you will find enough aspects of poetry in them. The rhythm if African life itself had a poetic touch. This lesson is going to look at some of the practices of Africans that had a poetic touch. Additionally, we will also look at the practice of writing and performance of poetry along the coastal strip of East Africa.


Objectives of the Chapter


It is expected that by the end of this Chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Name at least two poetic forms in pre-colonial East Africa
  2. Analyse at least three characteristics of poetry in Pre-colonial East Africa.
  3. Investigate the Swahili classical Poetry as part of Pre-colonial East African Poetry



Songs as Oral Poetry in East Africa

As noted earlier on, the rhythm of life of the Africans had a poetic pattern. Africans had a sense of poetry in nearly everything that they did. This poetry revealed itself through the composition and performance of songs. For every activity that they engaged in, Africans composed a song. There were songs for seductions, birth songs, songs for growing up, initiation songs, funeral songs, planting songs, harvesting songs, songs at the place of work, war songs and many other songs. Songs are simply oral poetry because they observe the principles of poetry. They are creatively and imaginatively conceived, brief in nature, embellished in style and communicate a message. All these songs were geared towards entertainment, socialization and education.



War songs

Before going to war, Africans sung songs to give them courage against the enemy. Nearly all the East African communites trained warriors and therefore they all had war songs. Performance of war songs was not just done before the war but also during and after the war itself. This was one of the ways in which allies would distinguish one another from the foe. The lead warrior would start the tune and the other warriors would simply understand the meaning of that tune. It may be a tune to signal retreat or attack more forcefully or to attack from a different front.




Write down a war song from one of Kenya’s cultural communities. Does it have some poetic elements like stylistic devices and theme?



Funerary poetry

There is nothing as solemn as loss of life. Therefore the best way human beings can come to terms with the loss of their loved ones is by singing the sorrow away.  Funerary poetry in East Africa was used to console the bereaved, to implore, command or even chase away death and also to provide some warmth and vivacity to the bereaved. Virtually every community in East Africa had and  still has funeral songs.




Funeral poetry has greatly influenced the written Poetry especially in Kenya. See the Poems, Christine Vakhoya by Loice Abukutsa in Boundless Voices, Nyalgunga by Amateshe in An Anthology of East African Poetry and The Death of My Father by Henry Indangasi in Poems from East Africa. These poems have been written following the rules of recitation of dirges.

2.2 Highlight the institute of ritual poetry in East Africa

Ritual Poetry in East Africa

This was Drama associated with rites especially religious rites and rites of passage.  Initiation songs and dances were practiced and performed as a way of entertainment, advice and rebuking bad behaviour.  During such performances obscenities were sung and fertility dances and songs performed.  Initiation Poetry was particularly vulgar in communities which initiated women.

Among the Luhya people of Western Kenya, the male initiation ceremony was characterized by singing and dancing around the village with specially made jingles called Enyimba. The initiates would cruise around the village singing and hurling insults or taunting the people who were considered social misfits in the society. Middle aged women would also taunt the initiates and dance very vulgarly to the initiates and challenging them both to show courage and preserve the dignity of their families and villages or risk being sung in the next initiation ceremony. In all these, one can notice the utilitarian nature of this Dramatic form. That on one hand, it was supposed to give the initiates the courage to face the knife while on the other it was supposed to correct the social misfits by exposing their bad actions through song and dance. All these were part of Dramatic expressions that these people used to engage in and in some parts of East Africa, People still practice these rituals.


Birth songs

There were also songs sung for a new born baby. This was to celebrate the arrival of a new life and to thank the gods for having seen it fit to perpetuate the lineage of the family. At the same time it was also to wish the new born blessings so that it may grow into a respectable person who would bring honour and not shame to the family in particular and the village as a whole. Example of a birth song that is so common in Kenya is the Mwana wa Mbeli from the Luhya community




Enumerate some of the rituals that were or are still being performed in your community be they traditional or modern (including religious). Do they involve any dramatic or poetic actions?

Court Poetry

Before the advent of Europeans in East Africa, court poets worked in the Kabaka’s palace in Buganda to entertain and inform the people during big feasts organized by the Kabaka.  These were highly skilled composers, singers and dancers whose profession was solely to serve the king and the kingdom through performance. That tradition finds contemporary expression in the dramatic works of Ugandan playwrights like Robert Serumaga, Ryron Kawadwa, and Numa Sentango and Elvania Namukwonya Zirimu, who, at least in sentiment, perpetuate pro-royalist theatre in East Africa.

Court poets sang the praises for the King and valiant men of the society.  They were literally under the employment of the King and he honoured them by such gifts as recognition, food stuffs, cattle or land. They exulted and extolled his successes in ruling the people.  They also advised citizens to be obedient and hard-working in the society.




Compare court poetry to the songs that used to be sang during the Moi era of leadership like, Tawala Kenya tawala Rais Moi, Moi anapenda watoto,  Kanu yajenga nchi e.t.c. Do you find any similarities and/or any differences?


2.3 Enumerate the various characteristics of Oral Poetry in East Africa

Characteristics of Oral Poetry in East Africa



  1. It takes the form of collective responsibility and activity.  It is basically expressed in a language, cadence and idioms which the entire community understands and is able to give a collective/ communal response.
  2. It has ability to involve a long population of the community since it begs for oral delivery.  It is not a preserve of an individual but of the entire community.
  3. It also assumes an instant collective/communal response.  There is little space for choreographed audiences.  All people present are both audience and at the same time performers.
  4. It is a performed Poetry that is naturally dramatized.  Its performance is spontaneous and not forced.  It is taken as part of life itself.


Classical Swahili Poetry

It is believed that the ancient Swahili people living along the coastal strip and the islands of East Africa wrote and recited poetry just like it is done in the modern times. The earliest known Swahili poem of note is Fumo Liongo, which is dated by various writers anywhere from the 14th to the 17th century.

Coastal dramatic Poetry seems to have flourished due to the interactions of the coastal natives with the Arabic world.  Swahili Poetry was written in Arabic letters for over three hundred years. The oldest Swahili manuscript so far discovered according to Janheinz Jahn is Utendi wa Tambuka, a heroic poem written for the sultan (Fumo) in 1728. Among the later day Swahili poets, we have Muyaka who was born in Mombasa. Muyaka writes and recites on themes of war and politics as well as social lives.  Shaaban Robert is another poet who has extensively written poetry on issues affecting the Swahili world. He was a Tanzania native well known for the Ngonjera verses. Other Swahili poets include Matiasi Mnyampala, Amri Abedi and Ahmed Nassir Juma




Look for the definition of the term ‘ngonjera’ in a Swahili dictionary (Kamusi)

The Arabic world introduced Islam which depends on the teachings of Muhammad contained in the Qur’an.  The Qur’an itself is a highly poetic text and it encourages Poetry. Islamic prayers are also very poetic. These aspects made poetry easily flourish in the Swahili speaking world. Poetry was done for epic, heroic, moralizing and didactic subjects which were all connected with the glorification of Allah, Mohammed and Islam. Therefore anchoring itself in this religious setting, the Swahili Poetry started off as mostly religious in content but gradually became more secular. It is believed that Muyaka bin Haji (1776-1840) from Mombasa is the man who secularized the Swahili Poetry, bringing it ‘out of the Mosque and into the ‘market place’ and the outside world.


Swahili language itself is easily pretext into Poetry because it is rich and diverse.  Swahili tradition allowed presence of expert amateurs and professional reciters and this helped preserve the accuracy of the text.

Performance of Classical Swahili Poetry

Classical Swahili Poetry conforms to the rules of Swahili antiquity.  It is that in which a poet feels with the Swahili philosophy, thinking and expression. These verses were recited when a suitable occasion arose.  For example, Mwana Kupona, one of the highly acclaimed ancient Swahili verse would be recited by mothers to children at any time or place. However, difficult and longer verses were recited when people happen to be gathered in a suitable milieu.  A member of the society who was known to be a professional reciter of a certain poem was called upon to perform as the audience made timely and appropriate interjections and contributions.  Therefore such poetry would be heard in family circles or wherever friends were gathered or even a random group.  A random group may be at work or a communal gathering or during sailing or fishing or any other social gathering.


Utendi wa Mwana Kupona:  A Swahili Classic




The following notes on Utendi wa Mwana Kupona are supposed to be read alongside the poem itself. To help you achieve this, I have appended a copy of the poem at the end of this module.


This is one of the best-known ancient Swahili poems. Utendi wa Mwana Kupona is fairly short poem with only 99 verses.  It is also fairly easy in language and rich in form and content.  It was written by Mwana Kupona, an ailing lady in Pate to her daughter Mwana Itashima binti Sheik.  Classical Swahili verse was written to be sung and Mwana Kupona’s poem may be treated as a ‘feminine’ poem, written by a woman for her daughter and to be sung by mothers to their daughters or any other women.

This is a didactic poem, the advice of “Mwana Kupona” upon the wifely virtue.  It comprehensively depicts the model ancient Swahili wife.  Mwana kupona commences her poem by a general advice presented as religious and social teachings.  She implores the daughter to be steadfast in religion, have good manners and be trustworthy and honest. A woman, accordingly, has five masters to whom she must get approvals from in her life.

These are:

1)         God

2)         God’s prophets

3)         Her father

4)         Her mother

5)         Her husband

Mwana Kupona seems to take exception of the first and the last.  She advises the daughter to respect, fear and worship God for it is enshrined in Religion (vs 12).

La kwanda kamata dini                       The first thing is to hold

Faradhi usiikhini                                 stead fast on your religion

Ma sunna ikimkini                               not rejecting the ordinances of God,

Mi wajibu kuitia                                  and when possible it is your duty to

                                                            follow the traditions.


Then she goes on to soundly advise the girl on the do’s and don’ts in life.  But one realizes that she dwells so much on the issue of loyalty to the husband and good wifely virtue. Other themes that come to the fore include the ancient Swahili philosophy, religion and the place of the woman in the society.

This poem was passed on orally and in manuscript to generations of young girls being prepared for wifehood. We also need to note that this poem is a clear statement of the ancient East African ideals of wifely virtues and how extensively the patriarchal ideology diffused itself into the lives of women.  The poem in essence justifies male chauvinism and condemns a woman to subservience.  A submissive wife is praised and submission in a woman is exalted. To say that a woman should live her life pleasing her husband is to reduce her to his servant.  But we also need to understand that those were the dictates of the society and they were put in place to maintain societal harmony.




The poem was passed orally from one generation to the next. It is only later on that it was written and distributed as a written text.

One also notices that the whole structure of the poem seems to revolve around benefaction by doing good and also the relationship between approval and good fortune in this world and the next.  This argument is strengthened by considering the type of actions described and recommended in the poem


Things to think about on this subLesson:


  1. Is Mwana Kupona justified to advice her daughter to serve her husband so submissively?
  2. What is the place of the woman in the family?
  3. How do you think a man should threat his wife in the family and how should a woman treat her husband?
  4. Carry out a mini research of how women were treated in your community and how they are treated now. Which treatment do you find better?





Read carefully the text Utendi wa Mwana Kupona and identify some of the major themes present in the text.



References on this Lesson

Allen, J.W.T. (1971). Tendi; Classical Swahili Verse. London, Heinemann Educational

Jahn, J. (1960). A History of Neo African Literature

Amateshe, A. D. (ed) (1988), An Anthology of East African Poetry Nairobi, Longman.


[1] The text of the poem Utendi wa Mwana Kupona and its English translation that I have used in this module comes from J, Allen’s work titled Tendi.


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