Why Was Early African Poetry Written and How Was It Performed?

Early African poetry, rich and diverse in form and content, reflects the cultural, spiritual, and social life of different African societies. It provides unique insights into the beliefs, customs, and history of the people. The written and oral traditions of poetry in Africa serve as both a record of cultural heritage and a means of communication, education, and entertainment. This article explores why early African poetry was written and how it was performed, including the use of specific examples to illustrate these concepts.

Why Was Early African Poetry Written and How Was It Performed?

Reasons Early African Poetry Written included the preservation of history and culture, serving as an educational tool, forming a spiritual connection, and providing social commentary and critique. It encapsulated the beliefs, customs, and moral values of different African communities, offering guidance, celebrating heroic deeds, and voicing social concerns. Examples such as the Zulu praise songs in South Africa and the poetic proverbs of the Yoruba people in Nigeria illustrate these functions. It Was Performed in this manner through oral transmission by griots or professional storytellers, often accompanied by musical instruments like drums or the mbira, as seen among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Dance, gestures, and community participation were also integral to the performance, adding layers of meaning and engagement, as evidenced in the call-and-response techniques used in Swahili wedding poetry. These combined elements made the performance of early African poetry a multifaceted and resonant cultural practice.

The Purpose of Early African Poetry

Early African poetry served several interconnected purposes that resonated deeply with the African way of life.

  1. Preservation of History and Culture: Poetry was a means to preserve the history and culture of a community. Through poetic verses, tales of heroes, ancestors, creation myths, and significant events were kept alive. For example, the praise songs of the Zulu in South Africa would extol the virtues of a king or a warrior, preserving their deeds for future generations.
  2. Educational Tool: Poetry was used to impart wisdom, moral values, and social norms to younger generations. The proverbs and metaphors embedded in the poetry served as guides for proper conduct and understanding of the community’s values. The Yoruba people of Nigeria, for example, have an extensive collection of proverbs used in poetic form to teach and advise.
  3. Spiritual Connection: Poetry was also deeply connected to spirituality and ritual. It was used in ceremonies, prayers, and rites of passage. The Dinka people of Sudan often employed poetic language in their prayers to the divine, invoking blessings or seeking guidance.
  4. Social Commentary and Critique: Poetry provided a platform for social commentary and critique. Through subtle metaphor and allegory, poets could comment on social issues, political leadership, and injustice. An example might include the poems of the Ewe people of Ghana, which were used to express dissatisfaction with leadership.

Performance of Early African Poetry

The performance of early African poetry was as vital as the words themselves, adding layers of meaning and creating a multi-sensory experience. Here’s how it was typically performed:

  1. Oral Tradition: Most African poetry was transmitted orally. The griots, or professional storytellers, were responsible for memorizing and reciting poems, often accompanied by musical instruments. In West Africa, griots performed epics like the “Sundiata Epic,” telling the story of the legendary Malian king Sundiata Keita.
  2. Musical Accompaniment: Music and rhythm were integral to the performance of poetry. Drums, harps, flutes, and other traditional instruments were used to create a musical landscape that complemented the words. The Shona people of Zimbabwe, for example, used the mbira (a thumb piano) to accompany their poetic performances.
  3. Dance and Gesture: Movement and dance often accompanied the recitation of poetry, adding a visual and physical dimension to the performance. The Xhosa people of South Africa included specific gestures and dances in their performances of praise poems.
  4. Community Participation: Poetry was often a communal experience, with call-and-response techniques that allowed the audience to participate. During Swahili weddings, for instance, poetic exchanges between the bride and groom’s families would involve the entire community.


Early African poetry was not merely an artistic expression but a multifaceted cultural practice that served various social, educational, spiritual, and political functions. The rich tapestry of African poetry, woven with words, music, dance, and communal participation, continues to be a vital part of African heritage. The examples from different African communities, including the Zulu, Yoruba, Dinka, Ewe, Shona, and Xhosa, demonstrate the diversity and universality of these poetic traditions. Whether preserving history, imparting wisdom, connecting with the divine, or critiquing society, African poetry remains a profound and living testament to the complexity and beauty of the African experience.

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