Swahili Tales/Preface


The following tales were taken down in the first place as a help to my own endeavours to master the language of Zanzibar, and are now printed chiefly as a help to those who are to follow me in the same work. I have tried therefore to make the translation as literal as possible, and to reproduce in English something like the mixture of familiar phrases and unfamiliar ideas which makes up the originals.

All the tales are printed exactly as they were related, and most of them have some touches put in by the narrator on the inspiration of the moment. Of this kind is the substitution, out of compliment to us, of church for mosque in the story of the 'Kites and the Crows.' Another piece of local colouring occurs in the story of 'Mohammed the Languid,' where the merchants fire their cannon when they get home, as all dhows do when they enter the harbour of Zanzibar, though there is not a hint of such a thing in the Arabic original.

I cannot pretend to give any complete account of the sources whence the various tales are derived. Three of them occur in the Arabian Nights, 'Mohammed the Languid' (p. 149), which is Chapter XIV. of Lane's translation, under the title of 'Aboo-Mohammed the Lazy (it will be seen on comparison that the variations of the Swahili are almost all by way of abridgement); 'The Cheat and the Porter' (p. 411), and 'Hasseebu Kareem ed deen' (p. 331), which are not included in Lane's translation. We have an Arabic MS. in the mission library at Zanzibar, containing the story of 'Hasseebu,' but differing in many of the names and circumstances from the form given in the Arabian Nights. I do not know how far others of the tales may come from Arab sources. It must be remembered that as a Swahili is by definition a man of mixed Negro and Arab descent, he has an equal right to tell tales of Arab and Negro origin.

The 'Story of Liongo' (p. 339) is the nearest approach to a bit of real history I was able to meet with. It is said that a sister of Liongo came to Zanzibar, and that her descendants are still living there. Sheikh Mohammed bin Ali told me that in his young days he had seen Liongo's spear and some other relics then preserved by his family: there seem, however, to be none such now remaining. No one has any clear notion how long ago it is since Liongo died, but his memory is warmly cherished, and it is wonderful how the mere mention of his name rouses the interest of almost any true Swahili. There is a long poem, of which the tale at p. 339 is an abridgement, which used often, to be sung at feasts; and then all would get much excited, and cry like children when his death was related, and particularly at the point where his mother touches him and finds him dead. The poem at p. 455 is a later composition. Though described by the author himself as in stanzas of five lines, and rhyming accordingly, the last two lines of each stanza are always written as one; and I was told that they are supposed to have been Liongo's own, to which the three first were prefixed by Sheikh Abdallah as a sort of commentary. The long lines may be read consecutively, and make as good sense as the rest of the poem.

The most curious thing in this collection is perhaps the latter part of the tale of 'Sultan Majnun,' from p. 254, where every one present joins in singing the verses, if they may be so called, which besides are not in Swahili. The words niulaga for the Swahili nimeua, and nilawa for nalitoka, are such as occur in more than one mainland language. I have heard stories referred to and partly told in which the verse parts were in the Yao and the Nyamwezi languages. But it is a constant characteristic of popular native tales to have a sort of burden, which all join in singing. Frequently the skeleton of the story seems to be contained in these snatches of singing, which the story-teller connects by an extemporized account of the intervening history. Something similar is very common in the songs of the mainland peoples. Thus as Bishop Tozer and myself were descending the Zambesi in a canoe, the boatmen sang a favourite ditty, the burden of which is a wail over the ills caused by the wars of the Portuguese outlaw Mariano, or Matekenya. The chief boatman took up the solo part, and instead of the old verses made new ones on us, our losses, our generosity, and future intentions, of which unfortunately we understood but very little.

The late M. Jablonsky, who was for a long time acting French consul in Zanzibar, and who knew far more than any other European of the habits and superstitions of the people, had a large collection of native stories, which, however, he had unfortunately written down, not in Swahili, but in Polish, his reason being, as he told me, that he could translate their niceties of expression and familiar details into no language so well as into his own mother-tongue. Almost all these stories had sung parts, and of some of these even those who sung them could scarcely explain the meaning. I suppose they had been brought down from the interior by slaves, and perhaps corrupted by them as they gradually forgot their old language.

It will be observed that the place of the fox in our stories is here taken by the Sungura, which I ought perhaps to have translated by rabbit, as European rabbits are called Sunguras. I asked a native friend why Sunguras should be thought so cunning. He said, "Look at one; it is always moving its mouth, as though it had something to say about everything." It is very common in the streets of Zanzibar to hear one person call out to another—Ee Sungura wee! as much as to say—You fox, you! but there is more of reproach in the Swahili than in its English equivalent. There is a famous story of all the beasts agreeing to dig a well, and the Sungura alone refused to help. When it was finished, they watched in turn to prevent his getting water, but he cheated them all except the spider. Again, whenever a snake is mentioned, something more or less magical is sure to be connected with it.

Some likenesses to well-known English tales will strike every one. 'Sultan Darai' is in its first part like all tales of stepmothers, and in its last curiously like 'Puss in boots.' In 'Sultan Majnun,' the hero has a name as nearly like Cinderella as may be (p. 241), and his exploits after all his elder brothers have failed are quite in the old track. 'Goso the Teacher' (p. 285) is absurdly after the pattern of the 'House that Jack built.' Other stories will interest those who are fond of comparing the fairy tales of all nations.

There are specimens of several styles of Swahili. The best and purest language of Zanzibar is represented by the tales told to me by Hamisi wa Kayi, as he is commonly called, though his name is written Khamis bin Abubekr. They are 'The Washerman's Donkey' (p, 1), 'An Indian Story' (p. 139), 'Hasseebu Kareem ed deen' (p. 331), 'The Kites and the Crows' (p. 363), 'The Hare and the Lion' (p. 369), 'The Spirit and the Sultan's Son,' (p. 379), 'Blessing or Property' (p. 391), and the 'Story of Liongo' (p. 439); to these may be added the short tale (p. 411), 'The Cheat and the Porter,' told to me by Mohammed bin Khamis.

The dialect spoken by a class less refined and educated, less exact in its style and with more Arabic words, is represented by the tales told me by Masazo, who was for a long time our cook and house steward. They are 'Sultan Darai'(p. 11), 'Sultan Majnun '(p. 197), and 'Sell Dear' (p. 295).

A third style is that represented by the story of 'Mohammed the Languid,' which was begun by Mohammed bin Abdallah bin Ali, and taken up at p. 160 by another Mohammed, who unfortunately died when he had got as far as p. 180. It was completed by Mohammed bin Abdallah. This tale may be said to be in the court dialect, which is more Arabic in its forms and vocabulary than the rest, and is characteristically represented by a strict translation of an Arab story.

The dialect of Mombas has furnished only two short pieces, 'Goso the Teacher' (p. 286), and 'The Hare, the Lion, and the Hyæna' (p. 325). They were written out for me by Mohammed bin Abd en Nuri, commonly known as Kathi, who is on his mother's side a grandson of the great Sheikh Mohe ed din, of whom Captain Burton said that he was the one learned man of the east African coast.

The tales of 'The Lion, the Ape, and the Snake' (p. 423), and 'The Lioness and the Antelope' (p. 435), were told me by Munyi Khatibu, a native of Mtang'ata, a place on the main land opposite the island of Pemba. They represent the dialect of that coast, which has many small peculiarities.

Nearly every Swahili town has some little difference in its talk, and even the various quarters of the town of Zanzibar have their varieties. Thus Kokoni is the home of a colony from Lamoo and Mombas who speak very good Swahili; Baghani was till lately inhabited by the Harthi Arabs, who spoke a very corrupt Arabized dialect; while the people of Ng'ambo, being chiefly freed slaves, have a twang and a dialect peculiar to themselves.

I am sorry not to be able to exhibit a larger collection of proverbs and enigmas. The former may be supplemented out of the story of 'Sultan Darai,' where the Gazelle's speeches are chiefly composed of proverbial sayings. Some of these are in old or poetical Swahili, as in Kazi mbi si intezo mwema? which in Zanzibar would now stand Kazi mbaya si mchezo mwema? The word for bad, mhi, is not now used in spoken Swahili: it is the common word in Nyamwezi. The proverb itself was explained to me by the paraphrase, "Is it not better worth while to quilt a scull cap however badly, than to go to a dance however good!" A very common means of earning a little money among the poorer classes of men in Zanzibar is by stitching or quilting patterns on the white linen scull caps which form the basis of a turban. This custom is referred to in the 'Indian Story' (p. 143).

I am not sure whether the language in which Swahili poetry is written was ever generally understood. It certainly is not so now, and the story of Liongo turns upon the fact that it was not so in his time, though the drift of the particular verses about the files (p.443) would now I should suppose be clear enough to most people. Some of the words used are Arabic, but many of the words and inflexions are borrowed from other negro languages. Some verses, of which a copy was given me by their author, introduced amongst others a Galla word which happened to suit the metre. All these verses are intended to be sung, not read, and they have their proper melodies, which resemble those of Gregorian hymns and antiphons more than any other European music. The first impression which all negro singing makes is that it is a mere discordant jangle; but when the ear is accustomed to it, it is found to be music, and even to have its beauties and some very artificial constructions, though the modes and progressions of sound are so unlike ours that no European can at all successfully imitate them.

Swahili verse is generally marked by a sort of anapæstic accent, as in a couplet directed against the people of Kilindi, a suburb of Mombas, who sided with Seyed Sa'eed when he attacked that town.

Wakilindíni si wátu ni púnda milía,
Walikúza nti yáo kwa reále mía.

The people of Kilindi are not men, they are zebras,
They sold their country for a hundred dollars.

A poem was written on the struggle between the present Sultan and his brother for the dominion of Zanzibar, of which I tried in vain to procure a copy. I could only get the first line; it is this:—

Kushíndwa ná mashujáa si unyónge.
To be beaten by heroes is no mean thing.

There is a sort of rhyme made by the final syllable, which is generally the same in each line throughout the piece. Thus the 'Dance Song' at p. 473 has zi for the final syllable, and that at p. 480 has ma. In the 'Poem of Liongo,' which is one of the best known and most famous of all Swahili poems, the first four lines of each stanza rhyme together, and the final syllable of the stanzas is identical throughout the poem. The 'Utenzi on Job' exhibits another form of versification. In all these cases, however, the rhyme is to the eye more than to the ear, as all the final syllables being unaccented, the prominent sounds often destroy the feeling of rhyme. I suppose this system of identical endings is copied from the Arabic, of which the accentuation is very different.

The two chief kinds of poetry are the Dance Songs and the Utenzis. It is the custom to meet about ten or eleven at night and dance on until daybreak. The men and slave women dance, the ladies sit a little retired and look on. I have a roll about two yards long containing songs for one evening, of which two are printed at p. 473, the rest are in a similar style. The first figure is danced by a single couple, the second by two couples: the names refer to the sort of steps in which they are danced. Each piece takes a long time to sing, as most of the syllables have several notes and flourishes or little cadences to themselves.

The Utenzis are religious poems. One, of which I had a rough copy, was composed of an account of the sufferings after death of those who break the Ramathan fast, and omit the regular forms of prayer. Another was an account of a dispute between Moses and Mohammed as to which was the greater, ending of course in the triumph of the latter. I should have been glad to have exhibited the whole of the 'Utenzi on Job,' which was the best I met with, but my authority could give me no more than the beginning, my copy breaking off short in the council of the fiends as to how to avail themselves of the permission to vex Job. The stanzas I have printed are followed by a confession of God's greatness and a long commemoration of Mohammed, his family, and chief followers. Then there is an account of Job's prosperity, mentioning amongst other things the ducks and fowls which he had; then the colloquy between Satan and the Almighty, and the planning of the temptation. The language of this Utenzi is singularly clear and intelligible.

There are also current a number of epigrams, of which I subjoin one, which is said to have been composed by a famous poet of Mombas some fifty years ago. He went with his king to fight against the people of Lamoo, and was struck by an arrow. He asked the king to take it out, which he refused to do until the poet had made some verses upon the occurrence, so he recited to him the following:—

Nalishika gurumza kwa mkono kushoto,
Na mato hiyang'ariza yakawaka kana moto,
Waamu hiwafukuza kama mbuzi na ufito;
Nikatupwa majini, hapigwa chombo kizito.

I held a musket in my left hand,
And glared with my eyes, they blazed like fire,
Driving the people of Lamoo like goats with a switch,
And I was cast into the water, and struck by a heavy weapon.

The translation of the 'Poem of Liongo' into the current Swahili of Zanzibar was made by Hassan bin Yusuf, and revised by Sheikh Mohammed bin Ali, to whom I was indebted for a copy of the original with an interlinear version in Arabic. The translation of the dance songs was made by Hamisi wa Kayi.

Some of the obscurities and difficulties of the tales are explained in the notes at the end of the volume. For all that relates to the language I must refer the reader to my handbook of the Swahili of Zanzibar, which is now ready for the printer's hands, and will I hope soon be published. In order to read the Swahili it is only necessary to remember that the vowels are pronounced as in Italian, the consonants as in English, and that there is always an accent on the last syllable but one.

A short account of the town of Zanzibar and its inhabitants has been published by Messrs. Bell and Daldy, as the Occasional Paper of the Central African Mission, No. IV.

Edward Steere.

Little Steeping,
Michaelmas, 1869.