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Cultural Close-up: Swahili Poetry


Swifa za Mahaba (In Praise of Love)
Nimechoka (I Am Tired)
Uzee (Old Age) by Shaaban
Kiswahili (The Swahili Language) by Ahmad Bhalo

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Swifa za Mahaba

Nipa loho ya kihindi
wino na kalamu kandi
nikuswifie mapendi.

Yameningia moyoni
kwa sahihi ya aini
kana wanja wa machoni.

'Takutunza uje kwangu
kana wa kwanza mwanangu
yako si nusu wa yangu.

Mapendi nikuswifie
nilo nayo nikwambie
moyoni unangalie.

Umejaa pendo lako
Lau una kifiniko
ningalifunua kwako.

Kwako ningalifunuwa
mahaba ukayajuwa
ya ndani huyapasuwa.

Hunipasuwa ya ndani
wala uchungu sioni
kwa kukupenda fulani.

Sururi tunda ya huba
yatimupo matilaba
heyati takupa hiba.

Sikuachi kwa heyati
hata yafwate mauti
na tuishi kwa widati.

In Praise of Love

Give me a writing board of Indian wood,
ink and a precious pen,
let me praise love for you.

It has entered my heart
forsooth, oh pupil of my eye,
you are like cool antimony.

I will care for you, come to me,
like my eldest child,
your love is not half as strong as mine.

Let me praise love for you
let me tell you what I feel,
so that you can look into my heart.

My heart is full of love,
if it had a lid,
I would open it for you.

For you I would open it,
so that you would know my love,
it is bursting my inmost being.

It is splitting my inside,
and yet I feel no pain,
so much do I love you.

Joy is the fruit of love,
when my purpose
    [to make you love me]
    is accomplished
I will give you a present for life.

I will not leave you all my life,
until death may follow,
may we live in mutual affection.

The first line of this poem is identical with that in many epics. It refers to the ancient method of writing on a wooden tablet, with a calamus, a reed pen. Wanja is eye-black, the main ingredient of which is antimony, a metal that has the quality of cooling the eyelids, according to Arabic traditions. It is therefore a frequent term of poetic address to the beloved: 'coolness of my eye'. An eldest child, the first-born, usually receives extra attention in traditionalist families, so the poet compares his love to that of a mother for her first-born. The poet compares his heart to a treasure chest, which he would invite his beloved to look into, if it had a lid. The heart is so full of love that it is bursting open.

Source: Four Centuries of Swahili Verse by Jan Knappert. Heinemann, London. 1979.

Swifa za Mahaba (In Praise of Love)
Nimechoka (I Am Tired)
Uzee (Old Age) by Shaaban
Kiswahili (The Swahili Language) by Ahmad Bhalo


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