Finding the poetry in East Africa and beyond | An article by Ruth Finnegan

Is this a poem?

I long for you, as one
Whose dhow in summer winds
Is blown adrift and lost,
Longs for land, and finds –
Again the compass tells –
A grey and empty sea.

Surely yes, this is a poem, says my heart. Yet it was not – as we literacy obsessed might think – written down. Nor was it designed for readers. It was composed and sung by a Somali lorry driver in the east of Africa. It was sung in town taverns, hummed by young men as they went about their labours, listened to with half (or more, or less) attention on the battery-operated radios and cassette-players carried by camel riders on long journeys across the desert.

It is an example of the Somali genre of poetry or literary composition known as balwo, whose development in the 1940s is credited to the singer/poet Abdi Sinimo. It is also popular in the neighboring Djibouti. The flavour is lighthearted but of profoundly felt emotion. It was popularised by the younger urban population, especially the lorry drivers. It is characterized by condensed imagery of love and nature, expressed in flowing lyrics and emotional language.

This particular brand of ‘poetry’ is not unique to Somalia and Djibouti, or to Eastern Africa. Unwritten songs or spoken words abound throughout the continent, which accompany people in their daily occupations and leisure. For instance, a Tanzanian Nyamwezi lover sings:

My love is soft and tender,
My love Saada comforts me,
My love has a voice like a fine instrument of music…

Whilst elsewhere in East Africa a cheerful love song by a young man goes (how lovely and right!)

All things in nature love one another.
The lips love the teeth,
The beard loves the chin,
And all the little ants go “brrr-r-r-r” together.

Are such songs ‘poetry’? When I embarked on the research that culminated in my Oral Literature in Africa I, like other researchers, had to face this question. The first thing I learnt was that in Africa, songs could indeed be poems: words musicalized. I should not have been surprised, however. Was this not how poetry began? Do we not speak often how equally lovely the words of hymns, Lieder or pop songs are?

So too with African songs, East African or other. When I listen to the sung words, there I find poetry. And all the better for the combination too; the arts that ancient and mediaeval thinkers so rightly joined together in the ancient concept of musica -‘sung words’. And if this is true of them, as of African literature, so too, surely, of Native American, or Indian, or Maori songs.

Sometimes these oral, unwritten, chants seem unappealing however. From the other side of the African continent, but alike in essence, take the opening (English translation) of a Ghanaian dirge:

Grandsire Gyima
with a slim but generous arm …

How – well, unpoetic! But the analysis in Nketia’s ground-breaking Funeral Dirges of the Akan People shows how each word has poetic associations and imagery, giving the whole an intense, emotional, and metaphorical depth.

I suspect that someone unacquainted with English literature would similarly find little poetry in the first line of a Shakespeare sonnet, full of ‘ordinary’ words:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end; …

Each word and its associations carry poetic weight. It is even more so when, as here, they are brought together in a metric line. Is not that depth and resonance of culturally recognized overtones another characteristic of poetry?

And the sound. When I look at published African poem-songs I want to read them aloud, at least in my mind. Their sound is so lovely. Not just the metre or the rhythm or the music, but the resonances within and between lines, flowing through and bringing sound and sense into the heart.

We surely demand of poetry that it should have something of this depth, of emotion, sound and sense, qualities that draw us somehow into the eternal, the universal. Blake put it so perfectly in his “Auguries of Innocence” – ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand… ‘.

We find this depth in Africa too, east, west, south, north and in unwritten literature throughout the world.

I learnt two other lessons, both from working on my Oral Literature in Africa and, in a more immediate way, in constructing my recent Poems from Black Inked Pearl. First, that the difference that we take for granted between ‘prose’ and ‘poetry’ in our printed-text traditions, is in fact problematic and culture bound: not, as it turns out in practice, contrast but continuum. And second, that multiple factors blend together – some more, some less present, as the case may be – to make up what we might, in the end, label by the felicitous term ‘poetry’.

The former point came across only too clearly to me when faced with the problem of extracting the ‘poetry’ from my prose novel (if it is prose). This posed a startling and unexpected challenge. Interesting too. Surely separating out the poems that studded my novel should be easy? Not so! I knew from my reading about oral literature in Africa, Native America and the South Pacific that the distinction between ‘prose’ and ‘verse’ is a slim one, intersection rather than division. Indeed when I re-read my novel aloud, or go, with ears open, to other examples of ‘poetic prose’ (James Joyce or Walt Whitman or Dylan Thomas, for instance) it often sounds like poetry. Somehow, as with many African stories, it almost all feels like a kind of blank verse.

I learnt that from Sierra Leonian story-telling (Finnegan 1967). Yes there were indeed clearly distinct songs inset in many of the tales – a species of poetry. The rest I took as ‘prose’. But when I listened again to my tapes, too long neglected, – oh, in the descriptive passages what cadences, what melody of phrasing, what – yes, music! Certainly these passages were different from the ‘poems’. But neither were they, apart from the everyday-like dialogues, plain ordinary ‘prose’. They were something in between, a ‘something’ that I then realised is far from unparalleled in the world of verbal art, early or late, east or west.

It is a continuum and an ambiguity not unrelated to the controversy I was once (but thankfully no longer) embroiled in: was there traditionally ‘epic’ (conventionally assumed to be a ‘verse’ form) in Africa, or primarily ‘saga’ (similar or the same stories in prose – see Finnegan 1970/2012, chapter 4). It was a hotly fought battle. But the opposing lines were arguably drawn up on mistaken assumptions: they based themselves on a supposed position between verse and prose opposition, not taking account of continuity and overlap. For a subtle and mind-opening take on this, see the brilliant account in Okpewho 1979. My position was – and still is – that the overlap between verse and prose in ‘spoken’ words is important and inherently necessary in composing the structure and style of the form.

Or take the many praise poems of Africa, so rightly famous. Are they prose or poetry (assuming for the moment that this is indeed a two-fold choice)? The convention in recent years has been to write them in lines – as ‘poetry’. But that has depended almost wholly on the decisions by the transcriber who transformed the spoken (or in this case shouted) words into discrete lines on a printed page. Such a passage as one of the Zulu praise poems could equally be written as piece of dramatically delivered oratory, like this:

The Driver Away of the old man born of Langa’s daughter, the Ever-Ready-to-Meet-Every-Challenge, Shaka! The first born sons…

In the published version we get

The Driver Away of the old man born of Langa’s daughter,
The Ever-Ready-to-Meet-Every-Challenge.
The first born sons… (Grant 1927/9).

Nor is that choice arbitrary. There are the metaphors and images; the traditional poetic praise names with all their rich overtones; the parallelisms and rhythms; the sounded resonant echoing (in the original) of vowel and consonant; the pauses between what can be represented as separate lines; the heightened lofty style of panegyric. And when we have a description of the declaimed mode of delivery with its sense of occasion, its high note, and the special instruments and garb expected of it – why then from these many indications it is easy to conclude that, here, is a species of poetry?

So – it is just a matter of several factors not just one (as we too typographically hooked-up people may imagine: something about jagged right margins). No one can be the decider, it has to be many. Among them we must count the complexity of such interrelated aspects as music, sound, sense, imagery, sonic and poetic associations, repletion at a number of levels, local classification/genre recognition with its accepted poetic conventions; a feeling of beauty and emotional intensity, a sense of universality behind often quite ordinary words: a path for living. All these things, for me, together make up what I wish to call a poem.

But in the end, of course, none of that is enough. No single factor, that is, or even a multiplicity. Whether anywhere in Africa, Asia-Pacific, or Elizabethan England, a poem can only live in the response of the individual soul, the reader, the listener.

Bronislav W. Andrzejewski, ‘The art of the miniature in Somali poetry’, African Languages Review 6, 1967, reprinted in B W Andrzejewski, In Praise of Somali Literature, Callender Press, 2013.
Ruth Finnegan, Limba Stories and Story-Telling, Clarendon Press 1967.
Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa, 2nd edition, Open Book, 2012. (accessible online:
Ruth Finnegan, Black Inked Pearl, a poetic novel, Garn Press, 2015.
Ruth Finnegan, Kate’s Poems from ‘Black Inked Pearl’, Callender Press, 2016.
E W Grant. ‘The izibongo of the Zulu chiefs’, Bantu Studies 3, 1927/9.
J H K Nketia, Funeral Dirges of the Akan, Achimota, 1955 (no publisher)
Hugh Tracey, ‘Behind the lyrics’, African Music 3,2,1963.

This article was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa