Ustadh Mau’s poems are often concerned with teaching and guiding his community. Much of his poetry centres around basic ethical questions: What is good or bad? How ought one to live? Drawing on Michael Lambek’s notion of “ordinary ethics” and his emphasis on “doing ethics,” Clarissa Vierke takes this perspective as a way of entering into and listening to Ustadh Mahmoud Mau’s poetic voice. She studies Ustadh Mau’s poetic practice not as promoting a list of well-defined and unchangeable rules, but rather as a continuous struggle toward the right path and a major site of “doing ethics”—finding a language for it, weighing arguments, and judging and criticizing in relation to life situations and occurrences. Taking the example of three very different poems, Clarissa Vierke shows how his poems make use of different references, means of depiction but also vary in the way they involve ethics: sometimes as part of proclamations, other times in less explicit modalities of doubt and uncertainty. Considering ethics as part of poetic practice accounts for a dynamic perspective that goes beyond a functional analysis of a literary text and demands a close reading. She shows how not only the ethical permeates the poems, but the poetic, its means of expression, its imagery, its dialogues and sentiment and its way of relating to the world, also shape the ethical.
The chapter “Born on the Island: Situating Ustadh Mau’s Poetry in the Context” by Clarissa Vierke characterizes the relation between Ustadh Mau and Lamu, in three ways: Firstly, it is the context his poetry reacts to: Ustadh Mau writes his poetry particularly to guide his community facing more and more social, political and economic challenges and tensions in the present. Secondly, it shows how Lamu’s intellectual tradition of writing poetry as a way to reach wider Muslim audiences, largely shaped by the Sufi brotherhood of the Alawiyya, has made an impact on him—as it had also done on his grandfather and father. His family history and his own biography are much entangled with the local Sufi tradition as well as wider Indian Ocean links, as the chapter shows. However, as the contribution underlines, his poetic practice does not merely emphasize continuity with a great poetic tradition, Ustadh Mau has also developed his own critical, modernist stance, significantly diverting from previous ideals. Thirdly, the chapter zooms in on Ustadh Mau’s poetics putting an emphasis on Lamu as a poetic locus, which does not only provide him with topics to write on and an audience to speak to, but also addresses his senses and gives him the imagery, characters, the rhythm and a sensitive language to write with. It is the figurative language, as the chapter argues drawing on Blumenberg’s exploration of metaphorical language as part of intellectual history, that is deeply linked with the poem’s capacity to captivate its audience, but also to produce its own kind of reflection.
The Swahili poem of “The Hawk and the Dove” (Kozi na Ndiwa) has long been popular along the Swahili coast. In brief, the poem tells the story of the prophet Musa, who is put to the test by the angels Mikaili and Jibrili, disguised as a dove and a hawk. The dove, fleeing the famished hawk, finds refuge in the folds of Musa’s clothes. The bird of prey, approaching Musa, claims its right to the dove, since it is hungry. Musa faces a dilemma: he understands the hawk’s argument but is also full of pity for the dove. When he finally offers to cut off a part of his own right thigh to feed the hawk, the birds reveal themselves as the two angels and praise the prophet.
“The Hawk and the Dove” has been a travelling Islamic poem par excellence: like many other popular Swahili Islamic poems dating back to the eighteenth, but mostly the nineteenth century – the heyday of Swahili Islamic poetry, having flourished amid the Sufi movements and their emphasis on poetry in vernacular languages as a means to ignite religious zeal in wider audiences – the poem is also based on sources that have widely travelled the Indian Ocean. Swahili poets creatively adapted them into Swahili verse, just as other Muslim poets in North Africa, West Africa, and, earlier, the Iberian Peninsula did for the discourses relevant to their own contexts. This contribution takes the double optic of providing a first text edition of the most ancient surviving Swahili manuscript of the poem. Secondly, I view the poem amid a longer history of circulation beyond the Swahili coast, as well as compare it with other popular, vernacular versions in the Arabic dialect of Algeria, Hausa in Nigeria, and the earlier adaptations by moriscos from the Iberian Peninsula in Aljamiado. This kaleidoscope of various rewritings of the story allows me to see the Swahili-specific readings more clearly in contrast.
This paper interrogates the notion of intervention in popular poetry. It takes the example of popular poetry from Dar es Salaam, which has so far not received much scholarly attention, since it can neither be classified as traditional nor avantgarde. The urban poets struggle to make ends meet, but regularly publish their poetry in the newspaper or through social media and organize themselves in networks. They often remain without a voice in their society, but, contrary to a romanticist perception of the downtrodden, also do not seem to do much to criticize the status quo. Rather than following patterns of postcolonial paradigms which reduce poetry to a political message, I will argue for the potential of the aesthetic experience of poetry, whose imagery stirs the imagination of alternative worlds. Taking the example of a poem by the a female poet, Bi Jalala Sikudhani, I will show how the poem offers alternative views on her lifeworld.