Throughout Somalia, poetry has always served as a means of communication and empowerment. The ability to compose beautiful verses entwined with wisdom, humour and several allusions was a seen as a rare commodity, only attainable by the very best. A man adroit in playing with alliterating words to convey his message was always held in high veneration.
Richard Burton, the British Explorer dubbed Somalia A Nation of Bards, and wrote in his book First Footsteps in East Africa;
“The country teems with ‘poets, poetasters, poetitoes, poetaccios’: every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines – the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetical expressions, whereas a false quantity or a prosaic phrase excite their violent indignation.”
Handed down to generations through Xafidayaal (memorizers), poetry in Somalia is a highly cherished national tradition, but this tradition is now somewhat sluggishly diminishing.
Here are a few translated Somali poems for the English speaking admirers of Somali poetry:
1 – This poem below was composed by Sayyid Mahamad A Hassan, arguably the greatest Somali poet that ever lived, for a departing friend;
Now you depart, and though your way may lead
Through airless forests thick with hagar trees,
Places steeped in heat, stifling and dry,
Where breath comes hard, and no fresh breeze can reach—
Yet may God place a shield of coolest air
Between your body and the assailant sun.
And in a random scorching flame of wind
That parches the painful throat, and sears the flesh,
May God, in His compassion, let you find
The great-boughed tree that will protect and shade
2 – This one below, is also by the Sayyid. This poem signifies the essence of Somali pastoral life. A camel, being the most cherished possession, has always been the subject of all forms of literature – poems, songs, proverbs, etc and its importance cannot be fully articulated in any poetry or prose. Thousands of poems have been composed for the beloved camel, but the few lines below very well describe the importance of one and more the value of a She-camel;
Nomads He who has goats has a garment full ofcorn;
A milk cow is a temporary vanity;
A he-camel is the muscle that sustains life;
A she-camel—whoever may have her—is the mother of men.”
3 – A Somali Nomad decided to try farming for a while and compare the merits of farming to his pastoral lifestyle. After a brief period of farming he returns to his wilderness and recites a poem:
It is said that one cannot pierce the sky to get rain for one’s garden,
Nor can one drive the farm, as one drives animals, to the place where the rain is falling.
Worst of all, one cannot abandon one’s farm, even though barren, because all one’s efforts are invested in it.
The farmer, in counter argument, replies:
A man with no fixed place in this world cannot claim one in heaven
4 – The imagery in this poem below is astounding; look at how Raage Ugaas compares his state to the things he describes:
Sida koorta Yucub* oo la sudhay korommo buubaal ah
Ama geel ka reeb ah oo nirgaha laga ka xaynaayo
Ama beelo keynaan ah oo kor u hayaamaaya
Ama ceel karkaarrada jebshiyo webi karaar dhaafay
Ama habar kurkii wadnaha lagaga kaw siiyay
Ama kaal danley qaybsatiyo kur iyo dhal yaabis
Shinni kaaluf galay ama siddii koronkorro oomi
xalay kololo’aygii ma ledin, kaammil reeruhuye
Like the ‘yucub’ wood bell tied to gelded camels that are running away,
Or like suckling she-camels being separated from their calve
Or like suckling she-camels being separated from their calves
Or like communities setting off for a desert trek
Or like a well which has broken its sides or a river which has overflowed its banks
Or like an old woman whose only son was killed
Or like the poor, dividing their scraps for their frugal meal
Or like the bee entering their hive, or like food crackling in the fry
Yesterday my lamenting roar drove sleep from all the camps
*Yucub is a tree that grows in the Mudug region of Somalia and has edible fruits. In the poem, the Koor (woodbell) of the camel is made of this tree.
*The gelded camels running away here refers to a young camel being trained (buub) in order to tame it.
5 – Again a camel is at the centre of this poem too, reaffirming the importance of one. A Nomad without camels had nothing worth living for, for a camel was life.
Nin geel badan lahaayoo
Guluf kala carraabay
Gallad wixii uu haystiyo
Gadhoodhkii uu dhamaayey
Gego madhan ka joogoo
Dhallaan gaajo haysiyo
Nirgihii ku gooheen
Daaa garan waxay gubee
Garwaaqso waad igu geftee
Like a man who once had many camels
But one afternoon they were taken by raiders,
His prosperity, and the sour milk he used to enjoy, all gone,
And who sits in an empty corral, his children hungry
And his camel-calves orphaned—thus am I ill with bitter grief.
You know what seared me—then judge it fairly, for you have
…More to come soon