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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

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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

  1. Eugene. O 2015/02/17 at 10:32 #

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

  2. Caroline 2015/02/18 at 10:37 #

    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 2016/01/04 at 04:13 #

    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.

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  1. The 18th Century Swahili Poet Every Lover of African Poetry Should Know and Read | Inko - 2015/02/18

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  2. Lost in Translation Pt. 2 – Linguistic Exile | that Kigali kid - 2015/07/16

    […] 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 […]

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