Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 5,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

inkishafi-sayyid-abdallah

300 years before Ngugi wa Thiongo or Binyavanga Wainaina became monuments of East African literature, men like Sayyid Abdallah bin Ali bin Nasir were writing very beautiful things in Swahili.

The fact that Sayyid Abdallah is not well known among lovers of African literature shows just how much we’ve come to see African literature a 20th-century phenomenon—something invented by Chinua Achebe’s generation.

But Sayyid Abdallah, who wrote Swahili poems in Arabic script, is one of the earliest known pioneers of classical Swahili poetry.  That’s why we’re so delighted to share with you an excerpt from Abdallah’s most popular work, Al-Inkishafi, sometimes translated as “The Soul’s Awakening.”

As a muslim theologian, Abdallah wrote poems using Islamic ideas to think about history, power, and the transitoriness of life and human institutions.

The poem, “Al-Inkishafi”—written after 1749— is a fragment of a longer work that Sayyid did not get to complete. But even in its unfinished state, it is a 308-line meditation on the decline of a powerful East African sultanate.

Much of the poem is evocative of ruin and decay. It gives account of a poet addressing his own heart.  Confronted with the rise and inevitable fall of human empires, the poet tells his heart to refrain from seeking power, wealth, and other vain things.

Here is a tiny fragment of the poem for your enjoyment!

The Inkishafi by Sayyid Adballah

11
What keeps you from awakening, my heart?
That thing that works upon your vanity
Whatever face it wears, I will agree
To meet it, if you show me.
12
My heart, why have you not yet grasped the stakes?
We say that you are clever at decisions,
But you ignore the folly in the world,
The paths of doubt that follow,
13
Till all creation seems a storm-roughed sea,
Shoaling everywhere and full of reefs.
Take whoever rides it for a rogue,
And watch his losses mount.
14
It is like a well without a bottom,
Nearby the horned and pawing bull that strikes
The one who goes to draw his water down.
No one gets his drink there.
15
Or think of dust that tumbles in the light
At the moment daybreak fills the window;
Who approaches it and tries to seize it
Finds nothing in his fist.
16
Imagine a mirage seen at the hour
The cresting sun has set it shimmering;
The thirsty will insist that there is water
And run at it to reach it,
17
And on arriving feel the sun ablaze,
The water they desired dissipated.
All their efforts ransom only doubt.
Regret will not soon leave them.
18
Every wretchedness and shortcoming,
The faltering that has you in its clutch,
These make up the world that you revere
In all of its abasement.
19
A corpse, this world. Do not go near it.
It bears a greater love for dogs than men.
Tell me, clever one, what good has come
Of squabbling with jackals?

********************

Translated from the Swahili by D.H. Tracy, published in Poetry journal.

Image source: SOAS Digital Library

Post reference: What-When-How

Tags: , , ,

Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

6 Responses to “The 18th Century Swahili Poet Every Lover of African Poetry Should Know and Read” Subscribe

  1. Eugene. O February 17, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    Amazing. Would be wonderful to be able to read it in it’s original language. Someday perhaps.

  2. Caroline February 18, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    Thank you for sharing. It would be great to be able to read (or listen to) a few verses in original, even if I can’t translate them, just to get a feel for how it is supposed to sound and flow.

  3. hellenmasido January 4, 2016 at 4:13 am #

    I would so love to read its original format even though this translation is still really good. Still there’s so much in style that gets lost in translation.

  4. Abraham November 7, 2019 at 11:01 am #

    verse 14, 15, 16
    Really captivating. I would to read from this writer

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The 18th Century Swahili Poet Every Lover of African Poetry Should Know and Read | Inko - February 18, 2015

    […] by HawkFlyingOver [link] […]

  2. Lost in Translation Pt. 2 – Linguistic Exile | that Kigali kid - July 16, 2015

    […] We seek affirmation in the likes of Shaaban bin Robert, we reach out farther into history for the Sayyid Abdallah bin Ali bin Nasirs, and we walk taller knowing that Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other hailed and unhailed gatekeepers […]

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."

Archives

July 10 | Sarah Ladipo Manyika Hosts Strive Masiyiwa on Conversations Across the Diaspora

July 10 _ Sarah Ladipo Manyika Hosts Strive Masiyiwas on Conversations Across the Diaspora

Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of In Dependence (2008) and Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun (2016), has teamed up […]

Bernardine Evaristo Becomes First Black Writer to Win Author of the Year

Bernardine Evaristo Becomes First Black Writer to Win Author of the Year in the British Book Awards

  Bernardine Evaristo’s winning streak continues as she dominates two categories of the 2020 British Book Awards: Best Fiction Book […]

Apply for the 2020 Morland Writing Scholarship | £27,000 for Nonfiction, £18,000 Fiction

Apply for the 2020 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship

The Miles Morland Foundation is currently accepting applications for the 2020 Morland African Writing Scholarships. The awards offer a fiction […]

The Million Naira Nigeria Prize for Difference and Diversity | Here is How to Nominate Someone

The Million Naira Nigeria Prize for Difference and Diversity _ Here is How to Nominate Someone

Nominations for The Nigeria Prize for Difference & Diversity is officially open. The new prize, co-presented by digital media platform […]

This is Why I am Endowing a N1 Million Prize for Difference and Diversity in Nigeria | Chude Jideonwo

This is Why I am Endowing a N1 Million Prize for Difference and Diversity in Nigeria _ Chude Jideonwo (2)

Last year, I wrote a piece on CNN during Pride Month​—​a month set aside to celebrate sexual and gender diversity […]

Derek Owusu Awarded 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize

Derek Owusu Awarded 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize (1)

British author of Ghanaian heritage Derek Owusu has been awarded the 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize for his debut novel That […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.