The Legend of Liyongo


Oh my child, be silent, do not cry;
Listen to the tale of the King of Bauri,
Listen to the tale of the exiled King
Who was cheated of election as the Ruler.
He left his renown, he left
In all silence King Mringwari.
Cease your sobbing, child, don’t cry,
Listen to my tale which is true:

The mercenaries were given money
To go and find the King of Bauri;
And Liyongo was dancing with the bush people
With his darling and industrious Mbwasho.
So they journeyed but never found the Lion;
He had taken hold of sword and dagger.
They returned home together with one accord
To tell the King Mringwari,
‘Liyongo cannot be overcome, he is like fire!
He is not mortal, that one, he is fire!’


Servant girl Sada, I am sending you, you have not yet been properly employed:
Tell my mother she is slow, she is not yet showing cunning:
Let her bake me a loaf, and inside it she must conceal a file,
So I may file through the shackles on my feet and break them,
So I may slip out and escape like a falcon,
So I may spread my wings wide and fly upwards:
Let me enter the sky, in the clouds, before the sun rises,
Gliding over the fields of reeds, the sandy plains, the beaches:
The roofs of the city, as well as the thatch of the huts, will collapse:
Tell her to bake and put a file inside the bran.


My child, I am telling you
The tale of Liyongo, King of the Bush:
He is not chained, he lives in freedom,
And they make him King of the plains people.

He has no cooked rice to eat, no silk to wear;
He eats simple millet and game from the bush;
He cuts it with his ceremonial dagger
But he does not eat the left-overs of others.

It is shared after being cut:
At night, they dance with the drum;
He lives with the wild bush people,
He teaches them to read a book.


Praise be to my bow with its haft of the wild-vine,
Let it be dressed with fat so that it shines like mirror glass:
The first time I set out to hunt, I pierced a snake through its throat,
Then I hit also an elephant through the ear as it trumpeted;
I also shot a piebald crow and a dwarf antelope running away;
Yet they tell me, ‘Hands off, son of Mbwasho, lay down your weapons!‘


I bathe and wash my clothes here where I found water;
I scoop it up, drinking some but leaving plenty – I never quench my thirst;
Whoever begs a draught of me, I never refuse, my friends and brothers,
I have no restrictions, I say. Drink! I did not finish it.


When I eat the fruits of the forest,
I have no need of the dishes of the palace:
I am a poor man, how shall I pay?
I will shake the ripe fruit down from the topmost branch.
The men of the bush were ordered, ‘Tie him up!’
He is no man, he is like a spirit!
And they do not tie up, they love guests!
You people, learn from the men of the bush:
Which food could make me healthier?
Pleasant words of gratitude,
Whoever is given them, how will he forget?
The people of the bush are friends in need;
Their kind nature I will never forget!

VII The Wedding Song

Dance leader, follow the merry drum!
Come, you are all invited by King Liyongo,
Come, you are invited by Liyongo the King,
And his brother, the shaha Bwana Mwengo!
Quick! You are invited, rise up and go,
Noble men and ladies of high birth.
At such a moment, people must not stay home,
There is already a crowd in the courtyard.

When you come, put on your best clothes
Such as fit perfectly on lovely limbs:
There is a gungu dance, the joys of a wedding:
Liyongo’s sister is marrying.
Burn aloe wood and ambergris,
Perfume your shapely garments,
Put on silken clothes
And buttonless sarongs,

Apply your finest unguents,
Spray yourselves with much perfume;
Let the best poets foregather,
Those skilled in composing knots,

Those who can make the dancers follow the rhymes,
Leading the dance with proudly swaying necks,
While the adults as well as the children are singing;
Let the dancers of the ringo assemble,
And Liyongo began his songs:
‘Choose the girls with the lovely ornaments,
With the lovely rhythmic voices,
Arise and let all dance for me,
Step together on to the floor of the dancing hall!’
Then the girls began singing
And danced with dignified elegance
So the people rejoiced exceedingly,
All the people exulted joyfully:
He is indeed a poet, the King, it is no lie!
This is the end of my composition, May all of you be in peace!

VIII The Song of Liyongo

This is my song of warning, here I begin, ending a multitude of songs,
As I proceed I am finishing, I a nobleman.
I, a nobleman, who sees your goat in trouble;
She was seized by the horns and milked by the milker.

A man who sees humiliation oppressing his home
Will not agree to die yet, as reproach would follow.

He that fights for his honour wins honour by fighting;
No scornful word is said to him as long as he lives.

I am lethal to people; when I take up arms I kill truly;
I am terrible in battle when I hear an evil word.

I am a young lion, I have instilled the wish to die in my heart;
I fear nothing but disgrace if my enemies see my back.

I am a young eagle soaring up, soon out of sight;
I am a terror for the birds, I seize them in flight.

I am like the buzzard when I mount in the sky,
Devouring the young, just like the lion, king of beasts.

But both my feet are in shackles,
And around my neck an iron ring has been forged.

Yet when in the sea the surf begins to roar,
When the high sea comes rushing in at Ungama,
you will not be capable of standing up!

I am a gallant prince, enjoying the bliss of dying,
To put an end to the enemy who slanders me …
Dying for God and the ship that goes to meet Him,
Do not fear the people of the world even if they hit you with ten thousand arrows …
The poet will receive a reward, the generous God will pay him
On the day of retribution when he will pay the wicked and the good:

The poet is full of generosity, proof of God’s goodness, and famous,
In his days there was no one like him.

IX The Death of Liyongo

And thus he thought on his way, with fear in his heart, and on the second day in the evening he came as far as Shaka, and entered the city.
He went into his father’s house, and his father was glad for him and welcomed him with joy, giving him a place to rest his limbs,
Massaging his limbs, together with his whole body, because of the weariness of the journey, with the idea of soothing him.
The youth took rest and then came out into the street, talking and laughing with his friends as he walked about;
Yet in the folds of his garment he had hidden the dagger, but no man saw it as he sought a way of killing his father.
Each day as he went to him, Liyongo was asleep. He could by no means find a way, and the youth was worried.
Then, when he saw his father asleep, he would call him loudly so that his father would be startled, and if not so then he would kill him.
But he would always quickly wake and rise up for whatever reason, and the youth would say, ‘Give me food for I am hungry’, he would say.
The youth was worried and overwhelmed with terror, but he kept his purpose and the days were consumed up as with fire.
As the days sped by, the Lord of Pate sent him news, saying, ‘Here we are ready to prepare for your wedding day.’
On the day that he received the letter, his father was tired, and lay stretched out in sleep. Understand, he was deeply unconscious,
His breathing sounded loudly like thunder in the rain; the youth understood that indeed he was wrapt in sleep:
He knew that his father was unconscious; the youth intended evil for the yearning that he had to go and seek out a wife.
He pierced him in the navel as he lay flat on his back: when Liyongo awoke, he did not see him for the youth had fled.
His father waking up and seizing arrows and bow, he went outside, going into the town,
And he sank on one knee and drew an arrow to its aim: as was his custom during life, he put an arrow in the bow-string.
And that place, I will say, was near to a well, but people did not stand about for all had fled;
No one drew water there, man or woman, the news through all the land had spread
That Liyongo is standing, he is there by the well: now people have stopped, they have no way to get water;
There is no one to get it, no person to draw water: everyone stays at home, there is no one who appears.
The people of the town, for water for the mosque, take it in a jug until it is all finished up.
Soon all the water came to an end and none remained in the jugs, but Liyongo does not leave off, for he has placed the arrow in the bow-string.
From hunger they buried people and all were distressed: they arranged a council meeting to arrive at a decision.
The decision was unanimous: we had better go to his mother; if his mother comes, she will calm him with her sympathy .
They went to his mother and his mother agreed, and they all left together and came outside the city wall,
And his mother besought him, singing songs of lament deliberately to lead him, but Liyongo did not hear,
And his mother approached him, trembling in fear; from afar she regarded him with countless beseechings,
And they did not understand that Liyongo had already died; for the fear that overcame them they did not go near him:
So each day, going to him, his mother cried, but he did not get up, even for a single hour, and it was thought he was angry.
When she returned from her pleading, his mother explained, ‘I do not know what he blames, but anger has taken hold of him:
My son is angered: it is not his custom not to hear; he has refused to get up, and I do not know what is our misdeed:
This is not his usual way, for if I go to him with a request he listens at once, but now he is gravely vexed.’
His mother crept nearer to him, laying aside her danger, and anger swept over her at all she then saw:
It is not possible now for him to kill if he is angry: he does not speak;
it is the throes of death and the groaning.
His mother marvelled, saying, ‘It s a cruel shame. All in this hour my son has died, he has refused to hear my voice.’
And so within the span of a day, he fell to earth a corpse, and all the people realised Liyongo had passed away.
They all drew near, his mother and the people as well; they all looked at him intently. It is a dagger, he has been stabbed!
He has been stabbed in the navel! Know you, it is a copper dagger!
They bore him to the town and he was buried without delay.
The news spread until it reached Pate, and when the Sultan was told he was filled with joy.

Sections I‑VII from Four Centuries of Swahili Verse (1974),by Jan Knappert

Section IX from The Epic of Liyongo (1913), by Muhammad Kijuma


Trending Poems

Related Articles

Leave a Reply