Sometimes the things we don’t understand become considered less worthy then what the tradition has deemed the acceptable norm. This is the case with the perception of African tribal poetry which has historically been measured against the standards set by a western view of what constitutes this art. The English poet and critic Theodore Watts-Dunton describe poetry as ‘the concrete and artistic expression of the human mind in emotional and rhythmical language’.

Some may argue that nowhere is this more apparent than in the highly rhythmic and evocative sounds of the African songs and stories that define and record the culture. It is a universal truth that the experiences of any peoples can be found recorded in their oral history and, eventually, the written word, once such language eventually emerged. As with all cultures, the need to express feelings, describe emotional responses and come to terms with one’s surroundings and life experiences is a common factor in the content of the poetry.

The Type of Poetry

The richness of the tribal expressions, portrayed in various ways in verse and song, may be characterized as praise poems or lyrical and dramatic verse. A consideration of these two genres helps build an appreciation for the diversity and quality of the African voice and serves to illustrate that the similarities between peoples, as expressed through their literature, are greater than any perceived differences.

Praise poetry, as the name suggests, focusses on an object of admiration from the smallest of inanimate objects to a mighty tribe or nation. Much like the epic narratives in the Homeric style, the poem may use highly figurative language to both richly describe and narrate the story. Traditionally, the story was part of a tribes’ oral history and performed by one chosen to best remember and relate the content with artistic skill and wit. To become the public reciter would be a position of great status among the tribe and thus aspired to by many young ones. It is a wonderful element of the tribal culture to note – the fact that young boys were expected to be able to recite their own praises, about the things they admired in nature perhaps. What finer way to preserve this literary appreciation then to make it a natural part of the living community and those of the next generation. To see such examples of this type of verse you may enjoy exploring the anthology of Xhosa praise- poems compiled by Rubusana.

Poetry Through Song

Like other cultures, the poetry of many of the tribes existed through song. The Xhosa as a tribe were no different and expressed their loves and losses in much the same way as modern-day song writers and poets. Part of the beauty of the tribal rendition is that the lyrical verse is sung by the characters and supported with a chorus, and often movement that helps to convey intensity of the sentiment is included in the performance. One poem may convey a young girl’s apprehensions facing marriage whilst another readies the warriors to go hunting. No doubt, the simplicity and sincerity of the tribal poetry in all its forms adds to the richness of their culture and the global appreciation for such diversity. It has much to teach about the value in preserving tradition and never forgetting the power of words, be they written or spoken.