Saturday, October 15, 2011

Kiswahili Poetry

For more than a thousand years before the colonial period began, the Swahili people of East Africa conducted thriving enterprises and built up a notable civilization.  They built a three thousand mile string of city-states along the coast which traded heavily with the people of Arabia and India.  Their power did not depend on the conquest of territory, but on their ability to act as middlemen between the sea-merchants of the Indian Ocean and the gold or ivory producers of Interior Africa.  Each city-state looked after its own welfare, yet they had the ties of unity based on their language, religion, and trade.

Over the centuries of contact with the Arabs, Indians, and later, the Portuguese, the Kiswahili language underwent an expansion; enriching itself with many new words and expressions.  The Swahili poets and singers composed poetic verses and stories long before they wrote them down.  They did this for the delight and instruction of kings, traders, farmers, and fishermen.  By 1700 this language had acquired great power and beauty.  There are different kinds of poetry for different purposes, with the best known being the Untendi -- heroic poems which tell of the deeds and lives of famous men and events.  One of the best known Untendi poems was written by Sayid Abdullah, a member of an honored family of poets, around 1810.  It is called the “Untendi wa Inkishafi”.

How many rich men have you seen
Who shone like the sun
Who had control of the weapons of war
And stored up silver and gold.

All the world paid them homage
And their world was straight ahead of them
They walked with heads held disdainfully
And eyes closed in scorn.

Swinging their arms and arching their necks
While behind and front crowds accompanied them
And everywhere they had seats of honor
And troops of soldiers to attend them.

Their lighted houses were aglow
With lamps of crystal and brass
The nights were as the day
Beauty and honor surrounded them.

They decorated their houses with choice porcelain
And every goblet was engraved
And in the midst they put crystal pitchers
Amongst the decorations that glittered.

For even though wealth has its boasting
They were taken on the great journey
And went down into the mansions of the grave
Where the crumbling earth demolished them.

Their lighted mansions are without people
The young of bats cling up above
You hear no whispering nor shouting
Spiders crawl over the beds.

Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Wild birds make nests for their young
Owls hoot within these chambers
Birds and ducklings are their guests

Where are the brave men of the strong Pate
Men of noble and of brilliant life?
They lie in the mansions of the sands
Power and strength are taken from them.

May the peace of Christ be with you,
Br. Nathan Dunlap

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