Where to find Africa's poets - forget stuffy literature departments, and head to the scrubland

Pastoralist communities in Africa rarely use drums as an integral part of their musical repertoire; Somalia has been called a nation of poets

NOBEL laureate poet and playwright Wole Soyinka was widely tipped to become Oxford University’s next Professor of Poetry, but missed out in last week’s nomination to Simon Armitage.

Armitage, poet, playwright and broadcaster, secured 1,221 votes – 301 more than Soyinka.

It was a controversial race, but not for the reasons you might think.

Soyinka initially led the way with the greatest number of nominations in the early stages of the election last month, and would have been Oxford’s first black professor of poetry – one of the most prestigious such positions in the UK, second only to the poet laureateship.

But murmurs began circulating that he was “too grand” for the position.

Golden age of poetry

Soyinka hit back, calling it “curious” that anyone would even speculate that he would allow people to waste their time nominating and campaigning on his behalf for such a prestigious position if he were not serious about contesting.

The whole thing might seem like a small storm in a far-away teacup, but if you’re looking for the story of poetry in Africa, you might not find it in hallowed halls of places like Oxford.

In the first place, Africa’s poetic heritage takes different – mostly communal – forms, such as songs, dirges and elegies, traditionally memorised and sung by the whole community.

But in some places in Africa, poetry takes a more individualised form, with the poet having his/her individual prestige, such as in the modern day position of Poet Laureate.

In West Africa, griots – who were sometimes travelling musicians, akin to the troubadors or minstrels of medieval Europe –were historians, praise singers and poets, often acting as advisors to rulers due to their immense repository of knowledge; essentially they were “walking history books”.

The “Golden Age” of African poetry was probably in the early post-colonial period, where poets would take African poetry into a written, “modern” form.

They included Nigeria’s Christopher Okigbo and J.P. Clark, and later, Ken Saro-Wiwa; Uganda had Okot p’Bitek, whose work Song of Lawino has been described as a “breakthrough” work in African literature.

Malawi boasts Jack Mapanje and David Rubadiri, while Sudan can claim Taban Lo Liyong, who called for the educational system to emphasise the oral tradition, as a key traditional African form of learning.

Ah, those pastoralists

But at the grassroot level, some of the most lyrical and deeply rooted poetry traditions are found among pastoralist societies in Africa, such as among the Somali, Hausa and Tuareg.

Pastoralist communities in Africa rarely use drums as an integral part of their musical repertoire, simply because the nomadic lifestyle makes it impractical to carry around any large instruments. Without the drum as a “prop”, lyricism flourishes.

The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, for example, do not use any instruments at all; their distinctive music is paced by a kind of throaty grunt, and multi-part harmonious singing.

In the Middle East, poetry (known in Arabic as sha’ir) is an integral part of culture, regarded as the epitome of Arabic literature. The poems are typically monorhyme with sixteen metres, making it easy to memorise.

Indeed, the troubadors of medieval Europe are thought to have derived their sense of form and structure from the Moors of Iberia, Muslims of Arab or Berber descent who ruled Spain and Portugal for about 700 years.

Even today, the sha’ir tradition is alive and well. One of the most popular television programmes in the Gulf region today is Sha’ir al-Million, a poetry contest modelled on American Idol where dozens of hopefuls recite their own verse in front of a studio audience.

Last year, the programme had 70 million viewers worldwide, and the winner of the show received $1.3million, more than the Nobel Prize in Literature, the show’s promoters are fond of saying.

recent article in The New Yorker even outlined the centrality of poetry to the Islamic State, arguing that if you want to understand the jihadists, read their poetry.

The slick videos of beheadings and burnings are made primarily for foreign consumption, Robyn Creswell and Berhard Haykel write, but “poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.”

Epic poems

Among the Hausa and Fulbe (Fulani) of Sahelian West Africa, epic poems narrating great historical events form a cornerstone of the literary tradition; poems also take religious themes through which rhymed sermons are memorised.

Alhaji Umaru and Akilu Aliyu are remembered as some of the greatest Hausa poets of the 20th century.

In Swahili, poems are called shairi (derived from the Arabic sha’ir), structurally arranged in 16 metres just as in Arabic. The shairi of Shabaan Robert (1909-1962) are still studied in schools in Kenya and Tanzania today.

In Somalia, poetry looms even larger over popular culture. Somalia has been called a nation of bards, and Richard Burton, an 19th English explorer, is said to have exclaimed that the country “teems with poets…every man has his recognised position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines.”

Revolutionary rhymes

One famous poet was Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, a religious and nationalist leader who rallied the Somali against colonialism in the early 20th century.

Derogatorily referred to as the Mad Mullah by the British, Hassan’s stirring poetry and charisma helped sustain a 20-year resistance campaign in Somaliland against British forces.

And during the dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre, opposition groups relied on oral poetry, either recorded on cassette tapes or broadcast through the Somali language service of the BBC to voice dissent.

So when the British considered closing the Somali language service down for financial reasons, a delegation of prominent Somali leaders are said to have met with the British, saying that much as they appreciated the ambassador personally, it would be better to close the British embassy rather than terminate the BBC broadcast.


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