OF SWAHILI POETRY: A LETTER FROM KENYA

by Cynthia Abdallah

Growing up in Kenya, in a literary tradition that stresses orality and community in poetic pieces, I came to be particularly attuned to rhythmic sounds and counterpoints. These stylistic features play a huge role in determining the strength in a poem. Inventive rhyme schemes are given a lot of attention and regard in Swahili poems and the beauty in the poems majorly lies in the consistency of the rhyme schemes and the overall musical tone.  Singing a Swahili poem showcases not only its musicality also the vast vocabulary in the language itself.

Swahili poems are a part of the Swahili literature that is introduced broadly at the high school level and reading poets such as Khamis Nassor Al-nabhany, Ali bin Said, Ahmed Sheikh, etc, exemplify these authentic aesthetic features.

Sound is essential in Swahili poems because most poems were to be sung and musical tones and rhythms were derived from the Islamic religion. It was then essential for a poem to be memorable and enjoyable to the reader and his audience. And the only way to create this was by use of stylistic features like rhyme and repetition.

The poems below display these aesthetic values in Kenyan Swahili poetry where a poem is also appreciated for its ethical and educational import.

NALIYA by Khamis Nassor

Naliya nasikitika, kuninyima harusiyo
Naliya nahuzunika,sijui niyasemayo
Naliya nikikumbuka,kunikhasimu kakeyo
Naliya ndani ya moyo,kwa kuninyima harusi

VYAKO by Ali Said

Vyako ukiviandama- huja kusibu pekeyo
Vyako vyako ni hasama- kugombana na wenziyo
Vyako haiji kwa wema- vayke uijuwe siyo
vyako hubadili moyo- ukagombana jirani

Notice how the two poems above use the rhyme and repetition technique.

In the poem NALIYA, the mid rhyme is created by the –ka while the end rhyme is created by the –yo while the poem VYAKO has the –ma as the mid rhyme while –yo is placed at the end.

There is also a tendency of repeating the last line in a poem in every stanza. This is looked at as a way of emphasizing the main theme in the poem. For example, the last lines in the poems above are consistent throughout the entire poem regardless of the number of stanzas so are the initial words in every line.

Although this trend is slowly shifting towards an appreciation of free verse, the formal ways of writing Swahili poems, will always be looked at as authentic in the Swahili traditions of writing.

(Swahili language is easy to read as the words are pronounced as they appear while stress is put on the penultimate syllable.)

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