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Cassava From Jang'ombe

             Taarab song by Siti Binti Saad (1880 - 1950)

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

I'll give away the ending. I won't buy any cassava.

It wasn't Maimuna who pulled it up from the soil.

She caught chicken pox and now she's sick with measles.

 

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

Eating pearls, eating pearls, the cooking pot's convulsion.

A cap with all its stitching, sumptuously embroidered.

It's me, it's me! I'm the one with the oil-lamp chimney.

 

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

When God wants to bless you, he doesn't bring you a letter.

He gives it to you in your sleep without you knowing better.

Rushing isn't receiving; you stress out for nothing.

 

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

When the bow-legged man comes, he takes any shortcut.

I lay out my conscience, unlatching my baubles.

God, I changed my mind. No creature has just one mate.

   

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

Go tie that goat! Go tie him, that goat of Athumani.

Tie him up or tie him down, some place where it's grassy.

Running from stern to bow only lands you in the bilge.

 

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

I lust not, I lust not. I don't wish to be cheated.

I'm clever, far too clever to ever wind up cheated.

Be choosy, be choosy. For two is never charming.

 

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

Why does all this blood spill when there is no trouble?

You will hold the spoon carefully when it's time to ladle.

If you crave the burnt crust, you will only pierce the pot.

 

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

I ask about these issues, but none of you give me answers.

After people eat their fill, they turn to gossip and slander.

But when no drum is beating, how will the devil ride you?

 

Cassava from Jang'ombe, I haven't licked the spoon.

Don't curse at the midwives while you still have a womb.

 

 

The Song of the Trees

             Song by an unknown author

“Taylor" (or “Tela” in the original text) refers to William Ernest Taylor (1856 - 1927), a British missionary and scholar of Swahili poetry who lived in Mombasa at the end of the 19th century. His habit of translating Christian hymns into Swahili and performing them in public places inspired Mombasa's poets to compose mocking retorts. This line echoes the chorus of one such song warning about his blasphemy.

 

Yesterday         I saw something messed up

Again              you geniuses, tell me what's up

Date Palm and Lime Tree were beating each other up.

Suddenly         Guava Tree came running

Behind it         Mango Tree was fuming

And Grapevine spoke, “It's dumb to say nothing.”

Next up           Trouble Tree gave witness

Its face            bristling with fierceness

As it told Guava Tree, “For us, life's no picnic.”

Right then       Chili Pepper came to see

And there        declaring its animosity

Swore up and down, “I don't give a damn about you, trees!”

Shortly            before they were all sapped

Yonder            one more tree on the path

It was Pigeon-Pea with a shield and machete to flash:

“War!              we're not afraid to get murdered

Bow!               with bows and arrows we're girded.”

When Baobab passed by, it stood a moment then blurted,

“Hey now         what's with your ludicrous racket?

Taylor                could make you look like a dimwit;

There's one tree who's even slicker than the rabbit.

This trunk       holds all the truth I have fathomed

So fine             I know the crux of our problem:

That Pumpkin is the creeper who garnished all these blossoms.”

 

It's No Big Deal To Catch Some Fish

             Poem by Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (1776 - 1840)

All you fishermen these days don't know the right way to fish.

You're so inured to your ways. Forsaking them is anguish.

You get some chow on your plates to mix with rice and relish.

The biggest catch is rubbish. What counts is how you share it.

 

While bringing in your catch there, old salts and junior pupils

As you stand beside your gear, reeling in lines and seagulls

Remember it's best to share; everyone gets their handful.

A big catch isn't useful. What counts is how you share it.

 

So think about it seafolk, with cargo ships or dinghies

When you go around the coast, sleep in all sorts of shanties

You stay so long at your posts, like Mtwapa at Hurumzi

A big catch isn't fancy. What counts is how you share it.

 

You're devoted to your craft, like the child of a blacksmith.

But sharing just makes you laugh. You start to act so tactless.

Once Ngozoa's straits have passed, you pretend to be distracted.

It's no big deal to catch some fish. What counts is how you share it.

 

Fishing at Iwe-Tini isn't like fishing Uvuzi,

Mkuna, Mashimoni, Chongoma or Tatazi.

That spot in Kudondoani is only good for anchovies.

A big catch is no trophy. What counts is how you share it.

 

At Mradi, Milizani, the cashew and coconut trees

At Kisiwa, Uwaani, and where the cuttlefish breed

You keep your paddle handy while you whistle melodies.

Your catch is not your legacy. What counts is how you share it.

 

An oar is like fatty meat; it leaves you feeling punished.

Rowing makes your arms weak while your shoulders languish.

But the fish are yours to seek, jumping in front of your eyelids.

A big catch isn't stylish. What counts is how you share it.

 

You Might Walk On Land, Hippo

            Poem by Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (1776 - 1840)

It's not my predilection to refrain from malice

Controlling my affection gives my writing its purpose

Pay donkeys no attention; they don't know their own target

Wander, hippopotamus. But your home is the water.

 

Don't wear yourself out scaling and descending mountain heights

You'll only wind up failing and be drained of all your might

If you get bored of wading, then rise up and be a fright!

Hippo, you might walk alright. But your home is in the water.

 

Sharks are good at growing fins, but so are tiny minnows

Jumping and spreading your wings hardly makes you a hero

Paying debt will save your skin and keep you out of limbo.

You might walk on land, hippo. But your home is in the water.

 

 

Amina

            Poem by Shaaban Robert (1909 - 1962)

Amina you left my sight, leading the way to death

Like a bloom shutting tight, the same day it effloresced

I'm praying for you, my light, that paradise grants you rest

The knot of love we fastened, there's no one to untie

 

I wanted to see you stand, and lift you up with my pleas

I didn't want you to end, carried away by disease

But with His merciful hand, God picked you out as he pleased

The knot of love we fastened, there's no one to untie

 

My grief cannot be worded, each moment reminiscent

My thoughts cannot be herded, reliving dreamy visions

I didn't know what death did, how it could end existence

The knot of love we fastened, there's no one to untie

 

I don't believe souls decay, or spirits disappear

We tag along to be saved, until the beyond comes near

My love you are on your way, approaching celestial spheres

The knot of love we fastened, there's no one to untie

 

There's one thing I remember. I know it for a fact, dear

Now you may truly enter that place where pain won't matter

That's why I feel such pleasure, although I must stay back here

The knot of love we fastened, there's no one to untie

 

What I have composed is done. I'm sending my prayers to you

The day dust gathers as one, and souls are given back too

And death itself is withdrawn, that's when our love is renewed

The knot of love we fastened, there's no one to untie

 

 

[O Tapper of Palm Wine]

            Poem by an unknown author

O tapper of palm wine from a coconut so ripe it's bitter

Decant from my jug what was drawn by my own tapper

Decant from my flask what makes a man spin and stagger

Decant from an earthen pot what's been boiled of all its vigor

I'll drink until I stand up drunk shouting for my sharpened saber

My hefty whetted saber with its hilt of euphorbia fiber

My saber hangs on a peg beside ivory trumpet and buffalo antler

There beside the royal drums and charmed spear-shafts of warfare

 

 

My Old Dowry Chest

            Taarab song by Abd al-Rahim Sa'id Muhammad BaSalim (1920 - 1978)

My old dowry chest lost its hasp, you see?

It locks from inside, and here is the key

So who jimmied it? He's broken its feet

 

Its shape is antique, not like modern crap

Crafted overseas, not Mombasan hacks

But don't make a fuss; I spent too much cash

 

            Oh pigeons today, what's with them today?

            Any rice I cook fills my in-law's plate

            I won't reach Muscat with my pigeon today

 

The old artisans are almost extinct

Those who stuck around vanished in a blink

Just cheap trash remains – so shoddy, I think

 

My camphor-lined chest, so firm in my grasp

Redolent of berries when it's unlatched

And scented with cloves, no rosewater splash

 

This chest is veneered with figs and ripe grapes

Nicely-rounded limes grow plump in their case

While bejeweled eyes are engraved in her face

 

            Oh pigeons today, what's with them today?

            Any rice I cook fills my in-laws' plates

            I won't reach Muscat with my pigeon today



Original ↓

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

Kaditamati naapa, muhogo sitanunua

Haikuwa Maimuna aliyekwenda ung'oa

Kapata tete kuanga na ugonjwa wa shurua

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

Kula dori kula dori, mshindo wa sufuria

Bulibuli bulibuli, kofia ina viua

Ndiye mimi ndiye mimi nipataye ukowa



Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

Mungu akitaka kupa, hakuletei barua

Hukupa usingizini, pasi mwenyewe kujua

Kwenda mbio si kupata, bure unajisumbua

 

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

Mkato wake matege wakati anapokuja

Naliiweka dhamiri ya kumvulia koja

Wallahi nimeghairi, kiumbe hana mmoja

 

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

Kamfunge kamfunge, beberu wa Athumani

Umfunge umfunge pahala panapo jani

Endaye tezi na omo atarejea ngamani

 

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

Sina ngoa sina ngoa, kuhadaiwa sitaki

Ni mwerevu ni mwerevu, wala sihadaiki

Pambanua pambanua, viwili havipendeki

 

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

Ya nini kutakadamu kwa jambo lisilokuwa

Utahadhari na mwiko wakati wa kupakua

Ukitamani makoko chungu utakitoboa

 

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

Nauliza masuala, hamnambii jamani

Watu wake wakishiba huzidi umaluuni

Pahala pasipo ngoma, hupandwaje na shetani

 

Muhogo wa Jang'ombe, sijauramba mwiko

Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungaliko

 

 

Wimbo wa Miti

            Yana                niwene kisa adhimu

            Tena                tafusirini walimu

Miti yalikipijana         mtendeti na mdimu

            Hima               ukaya mbiyo mpwera

            Nyuma            muembe una hasira

Mzabibu ukisema       kunyamaa ni ujura

            Mara                ukadhihiri mtesi

            Sura                 zina ushiu na kasi

Ukiwambiya mpwera kwetu hakuna rakhisi

            Papo                ukaya mpilipili

            Hapo               ukinena kwa ukali

Ukiapa kwa ziyapo     miti pia siijali

            Punde              wasiyesa kani zao

            Nde                 wawene mti uyao

Nao ni mberemende   una panga na ngao

            Zita                  hatuchi twapo uwawa

            Uta                  na zembe tumetukuwa

Mbuyu ulipopita         ukasimama kwa muwa

            Hela                watani yenu mayowe

            Tela                 bure asiwazuzuwe

Kuna mti una hila       humshinda kitunguwe

            Shina               la mambo haya nayuwa

            Sawa               nimeziye kutambuwa

Muyungu ndio fitina   waloalisha mauwa

 

 

Kuvua Numbi Si Kazi

Enywi wavuvi wa leo kuvua hamkuwezi

Ni neno mzoleo, kuliwata ni majonzi.

Mwapata na kialio cha wali na mtuzi

Kuvua numbi si kazi, kuu ni magawioni!

 

Numbi pale mvuapo, mafundi na wanafunzi;

Mkisimama na t'apo mkivuta ngwe na k'ozi

Bora ni mgawanyapo kula mt'u shazi shazi

Kuvua numbi si kazi, kuu ni magawioni.

 

Zingatiani wanap'wa wenye sambwe na jahazi;

Mzungukapo na up'wa mkilalia malazi

Mwenenda mkioa-p'wa mtwapa nda Hurumzi

Kuvua numbi si kazi, kuu ni magawioni.

 

Mumejifunga kuvua kina Mwana Muhunzi

Kwawanya kwawasumbua, wat'u hamuwamaizi

Mkishafika Ngozoa hufumba yenu maozi

Kuvua numbi si kazi, kuu ni magawioni

 

Mavua ya Iwe-T'ini si mavua ya Uvuzi

Mkuna na Mashimoni Chongoma hata T'atazi

Ni kuko Kudondoani vidagaa na ukuzi

Kuvua numbi si kazi, kuu ni magawioni.

 

Mradi na Milizani Kaarashoni na Mnazi

Kisiwa na Uwaani hata Koo la Mkizi

Ni kasia mkononi na nyimbo na t'umbuizi

Kuvua numbi si kazi, kuu ni magawioni.

 

Kasia ni nyama nono, haliati kinaizi

Na kulegeza mikono, kunyong'onyeza mafuzi;

Na mavuo ni hayano, upeoni mwa mazoi

Kuvua numbi si kazi, kuu ni magawioni.

 

 

Ungenda Juu Kibok'o

Maovu kutoyatenda si yangu mimi matako;

Na mtima kuushinda ndiyo yangu maandiko.

Msinadhari ni p'unda msikujua endako!

Ungenda juu kibok'o, makazi yako ni pwani!

 

Sijisumbue kupanda milima na t'eremko!

Mwishowe vitakushinda, zishilize nguvu zako!

Utamani la kutenda, wondokee pujuliko!

Ungenda juu kibok'o, makazi yako ni pwani!

 

Mkuza pezi ni p'apa, nyama pia wangawako;

Kuruka na kujitupa ni kuwaonya vituko.

Akopaye akilipa epukene na sumbuko.

Angenda juu kibok'o, makazi yakwe ni pwani!

 

 

Amina

Amina umejitenga, kufa umetangulia,

Kama ua umefunga, baada ya kuchanua,

Nakuombea mwanga, Peponi kukubaliwa,

Mapenzi tuliyofunga, hapana wa kufungua.

 

Nilitaka unyanyuke, kwa kukuombea dua,

Sikupenda ushindike maradhi kukuchukua,

Ila kwa rehema yake, Mungu amekuchagua,

Mapenzi tuliyofunga, hapana wa kufungua.

 

Majonzi hayaneneki, kila nikikumbukia,

Nawaza kile na hiki, naona kama ruia,

Mauti siyasadiki, kuwa mwisho wa dunia,

Mapenzi tuliyofunga, hapana wa kufungua.

 

Nasadiki haziozi, roho hazitapotea,

Twafuata wokozi, kwa mauti kutujia,

Nawe wangu penzi, Peponi utaingia,

Mapenzi tuliyofunga, hapana wa kufungua.

 

Jambo moja nakumbuka, sahihi ninalijua,

Kuwa sasa umefika, ta'bu isikosumbua,

Kwayo nimefurahika, nyuma nilikobakia,

Mapenzi tuliyofunga, hapana wa kufungua.

 

Ninamaliza kutunga, kwa kukuombea dua,

Vumbi tena likiunga, roho likirudishiwa,

Mauti yakijitenga, mapenzi yatarejea,

Mapenzi tuliyofunga, hapana wa kufungua.

 

 

[Ewe mteshi wa uchi]

Ewe mteshi wa uchi wa mbata ulio utungu

Nitekea wa kikaskini tesheweo ni ngema wangu

 

Nitekea wa kitupani uyayongao kwa zungu,

Nitekea ulio nyunguni ulopikwa kwa kunyinywa nyungu

 

Hishirabu nikema kuwewa nilitake embekungu langu,

Embekungu la mani ya tuma mpiniwe mba tungutungu.

 

Embekungu kangika changoni pangikwapo siwa na mavungu

Pangikwapo magoma ya ezi na mawano-mawano ya bangu

 

 

Kasha Langu la Zamani

Kasha langu la zamani            Kasha lisilo t'umbuu

Kitasa ndani kwa ndani          Na ufunguo ni huu

Alofunguwa n'nani                 Amelivunja maguu 

 

Kasha muundo wa kale          Si muundo wa kisasa

Ni kazi ya watu wale              Si hali ya kiMombasa

Usifanye makelele                  Melipa mengi mapesa 

 

            Aah na njiwa leo, Aah na njiwa leo

            Sipiki chungu hamnyima mkwe

            Sendi manga na njiwa leo

 

Mafundi wote wa kale           Kwa hivi sasa hakuna

Na walobaki wafile                 Kabisa hutawaona

Ilobaki npulele                        Na kazi sijaiona

 

Kasha langu la mkafuu           Madhubuti sawasawa

Lenya harufu ya fuu               Kula ukilifunguwa

La nukiya karafuu                   Na waridi isotiwa

 

Kifuwa cha kasha hilo           Zabibu t'osa na tini

Mviringo ndimu zalo              Wanda mwake kifuwani

Mato johari iyalo                    Umbiwa mwake usoni

 

            Aah na njiwa leo, Aah na njiwa leo

            Sipiki chungu hamnyima mkwe

            Sendi manga na njiwa leo

Translator's Note

The Swahili language is host to a historically and globally significant poetic canon dating back to at least the mid-17th century. This selection includes a sampling of both songs and poems. In the Swahili poetry tradition, poems were typically intended to be sung, and in the taarab musical genre, lyrics are often taken straight from poems or composed by renowned poets. As such, all of these works employ rhyme, and many of them make use of a refrain. So my first choice as a translator is how closely to follow the form. In most cases, my preference is to follow it as closely as possible. Classical Swahili poets took their prosody very seriously, and likely wouldn't have recognized any non-rhyming translation effort as poetic. Their poems aren't translated often, and when they are, it is usually by academics providing literal translations for research purposes, with little regard for aesthetic value. While this approach is useful, when it is the exclusive approach, it diminishes the artistic accomplishments of the Swahili canon by treating the poems as archaeological data points, not aesthetic achievements in themselves. As a translator who identifies first and foremost as a poet, I believe in offering my loyalty to the artist and their own poetic convictions. Several of these poems follow or take inspiration from the mashairi quartet form, of which Muyaka bin Haji was a pioneer. In this form, each stanza is comprised of eight hemistiches of eight syllables each with a caesura in each line, usually rhyming in the scheme of abababbx, where x rhymes throughout the rest of the poem. I particularly appreciate this inversion at the end of the stanza, and the way it creates surprise, juxtaposition, and concatenation at every juncture of the poem. So I try to follow this rhyme scheme, and provide a caesura to preserve that sense of break within the line. I often default to seven-syllable instead of eight-syllable hemistiches in my translations.

Since I take very different approaches to the six different authors featured in this selection, I won't speak to my process and choices made in translating each individual poem. I will only make a general note at my efforts to convey each artist's unique voice into English. Muyaka wrote in Kimvita, the Mombasa dialect (whereas standard Swahili  took the Zanzibar dialect as its model). And his early 19th century vocabulary often chose words and phrases long obsolete from modern Swahili. While this makes his work sound  archaic and arcane to the modern Swahili speaker, I believe he was a highly populist literary figure, and I try to capture his voice accordingly. Whereas Siti Binti Saad was also a populist figure, and a lot more modern, her lyrics, with their acerbic tone and dense thicket of sexual metaphor, call for a more recondite approach. Meanwhile, a poem such as “[O Tapper of Palm Wine]” wears its archaisms on its sleeve, perhaps in a nod to its place in the Fumo Liyongo epic cycle. The archaic language of Swahili poetry leads to many philological difficulties in translating it. While I am not interested in producing overtly literal translations that wring the poems of their flavor, I do make every effort to choose vocabulary that conveys the sense of the cultural setting of 19th or early 20th century East Africa. If these authors were widely-known and frequently-translated, I might allow myself greater flights of fancy. But when the average reader is unlikely to be familiar with their work, I see greater interest in staying accurate to the author's words, as well as their worldview and lived experience.I believe the only serious exception I allowed myself in this selection of translations was the word “limbo” in “You Might Walk On Land, Hippo”. I had reservations about putting a word with such Catholic connotations in the mouth of Muyaka, an Islamic scholar from a predominantly Islamic setting. But I think he would forgive my pursuit of a suitable rhyme for “hippo”.


Richard Prins

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