Monday, November 9, 2015

"Nyang'au:" A Swahili Poem by Haji Gora Haji

For a number of days, I have been reading Kimbunga, an anthology of Swahili poems by Haji Gora Haji of Zanzibar. I have also been drawn to translating some of them. Having translated "Kimbunga," I decided to translate "Nyang'au," a poem that draws from the oral tradition of story telling as do a number of other poems by Haji Gora Haji.

"Nyang'au" is built around two characters: a human being and a hyena. Interestingly, if not paradoxically, throughout the drama involving the two, we learn about the hyena's feelings and motivations, but not those of the man. This, I can say, is because the man is oblivious to the presence of the hyena. The fact that we, as witnesses, know everything that is going on affords the action a certain dramatic irony.

As an animal, the hyena carries sinister associations in the cultures of many parts of Africa and elsewhere. From ancient times, the hyena has been featured in paintings, sculpture and other art forms. In his Green Hills of Africa, in which he describes various East African animals, Ernest Hemingway expresses his dislike of the hyena.

Hyena features predominantly as the dupe in the folktales of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. Driven by greed, he always lands in deep trouble, on account of either his own stupid decisions or the trickster's intrigues. Haji Gora Haji's "Nyang'au," which we can read as a fable, belongs in a vast, age-old tradition of representation.


1.        Fisi alikichakani, mtu kapita haraka
          Kwa vile yuko mbiyoni, mkono unakwepuka
          Ndipo akatumaini, karibu ya kuanguka
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

2.       Kayanowa yake meno, tayari na kujiweka
          Ukidondoka mkono, afike na kuudaka
          Ajipatie vinono, ale na kufaidika
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

3.       Kafata huku na kule, hakuwa mwenye kuchoka
          Fisi nyuma mtu mbele, endako ajipeleka
          Kungoja mkono ule, apate kunufaika
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

4.       Hakujuwa kama vile, mkono kupeperuka
          Ndiyo yake maumbile, si kwa kuwa wakwanyuka
          Kafatia vile vile, kwa tamaa kumshika
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

5.        Yule anayemfata, anakokwenda kafika
          Ndoto aliyoiota, ikakosa uhakika
          Mkono hakuupata, bure alihangaika
          Majuto yakamfika, hakuupata mkono

                                The Hyena

1.       The hyena was in the bush, when a man hurried past
          Speeding as he was, his arm flagged about
          Raising the hyena's hopes that soon it would fall off
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

2.       He sharpened his teeth, positioning himself properly
          So that when the arm fell off, he should promptly catch it
          And enjoy a tasty treat, eating to satisfaction
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

3.       He followed hither and thither, not one to tire of striving
          Coming behind with the man ahead, the hyena trailed the man
          Waiting for that arm, hoping to feast on it
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

4.       Little did he know, that for the arm to flap about
          Was its natural wont, no harbinger of dismemberment
          He nevertheless kept following, choking with desire
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

5.       The one he was following, reached his destination
          The dream he had been dreaming, ended in uncertainty
          The arm he failed to get, in vain had he striven
          Deep regrets assailed him, for failing to get the arm.

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