Twenty-six items from Special Collections

Exhibit 'A': Swahili. (Ahmad Nassir bin Juma Bhalo, "A bone is not cookable," and "Though you toast the popcorn")

Bibliography: Poems from Kenya: Gnomic Verses in Swahili by Ahmad Nassir bin Juma Bhalo, translated and edited by Lyndon Harries (University of Wisconsin Press, 1966). ¶ The front flap of the dust jacket includes a picture of the poet. He looks about thirty. The book includes the Swahili originals en face.

Two poems: "A Bone Is Not Cookable" ["Haupikiki Mfupa"], page 24 ff., and "Though You Toast the Popcorn" ["Mungazikaanga Bisi"], page 126 ff.


A Bone is Not Cookable

The male lion is on the path        listen, O babbler
do not criticize me secretly        while ostensibly supporting me
it is better to master yourself        so restrain yourself
such behavior is like finishing up the firewood        a bone is not cookable.

Reflect and take measure of the world        though you talk nonsense
don't do what is meaningless        these things are not proper for a man
don't shame yourself        I give you what is true
though you put wood on the fire        a bone is not cookable.

Quiet your mind        forsake your pretensions
don't try and surprise me        with a lot of vain babbling
your foolish friends are not around        and if they are, they are not here
here there is only your superior        a bone is not cookable.

What shall I say for you to understand        come now, restrain yourself
don't make yourself stupid        know yourself, you are wasting yourself
tasks are for those who can do them        things don't call for impulsiveness
I am not the same as you        a bone is not cookable.

Madness has many facets        consider how you waste yourself
poetry is not just a story        nor does it call for overeagerness
the companion to a pestle is a mortar        I have given you advice, so keep it
do not deceive your own people        a bone is not cookable.

My playmate is the great whale        or the big chongowe fish, not just a shark
for my part you are not yet an orator        though you give yourself that status
it is I who am your teacher        if you do wrong I will slap you
you had better watch your tongue        a bone is not cookable.

They are really astonishing        your [pretensions], you babbler
you who lack seemliness        who do not know your place
the waters are deep, not shallow        the waves will pass over you
though you hold on to friends        a bone is not cookable.

Love what is straightforward        that is what a man should do
what you have taken upon yourself        know that you are throwing yourself away
what you hold on to is a rotten rope        understand well, O hasty one
you will be ashamed        a bone is not cookable.

How many great men there were        who used to come here
and an illustrious company        who had no restraint
and after the event        they were filled with remorse
so with you, let it be this, not that        a bone is not cookable.

Give up your stubbornness        and the foolishness you give yourself
do not reply        just spouting out words
learn the alphabet        when you know it, come here
do not break your heart        a bone is not cookable.

You will stop running        you can't trap me and overthrow me
your intention cannot be fulfilled        what you intended here
this [orating] is my gift        my God has given it to me
and even though you make a special effort        a bone is not cookable.

He has created me by decree        He has given me my measure [of gifts]
oratory and poesy        for me to embellish it without effort
and that hearts may rejoice        theirs who are here and there
but you, stay and don't deceive yourself        a bone is not cookable.

Give up your many pretensions        I give you this advice
do not be like a blind person        or make yourself deaf
open your eyes and look        see here and see there
do not harm yourself in vain        a bone is not cookable.

Take a look at me        we who are here hold the mysteries
break it, take out the inside        rattle it, then eat it and throw it away
sheer strength is no good        I tell you it needs intelligence
do not strive with the world        a bone is not cookable.

I have reached verse fifteen        this is not the place to finish
while I have so much more        I will give it you, O impulsive one
now, I have said nothing yet        this is merely the preface I have given you
you will be full of remorse        a bone is not cookable.

The sixteenth verse        I give you my name
the wise composer        a youth who is not impulsive
it is that same lion of the bush        skilled Bhalo who is here
I rouse the foolish        a bone is not cookable.

The end, I go no further        this is where I have reached
I am of the company of the travellers        understand well, O hasty one
you are holding a snake by its coils        if you are bitten do not be startled
though you pretend to be an expert        a bone is not cookable.


Though You Toast the Popcorn

[Note from the Introduction: In "Though You Toast the Popcorn," the poet writes to a couple who have begun to live together without being legally married. Ahmad uses the term -oana kwa siri, "be married in secret," but this could not have been a secret legal marriage, for there is no such thing in local village life on the Swahili coast. Only when a person goes away and comes back married, secretly, could this happen. The couple think nobody knows of their living together, but Ahmad tells them different: "Though you toast the popcorn we [the elders] are here under the potsherd." The elders are not angry, but only sorry not to have been told. It is not wrong to marry. People should tell one another things. "This world has no secrets especially among ourselves."—Lyndon Harries]

I lead the way with a poem        to sing for the wedded
who have got married secretly        without our knowing about it
the Lord fill them with happiness        that they may live in peace
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

I am not jealous about this        nor am I upset
I will make quiet my mind        so that I can eat and clothe myself
what you do I will put up with        if I fail, well, I will say so
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

I shan't protest and upset myself        and make myself sorry
and everything you do        I will pay close attention to it
but I will not make haste        wanting to pry into your affairs
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

Trust means mutual obedience        and mutual agreement
it is not good to be at variance        especially you and us
understand it is ignoble        even though you do it, it is still wrong
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

People should tell one another things        consultations are not strife
hiding things from one another is wrong        understand this well and pay close attention
the world has no secrets        especially among ourselves
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

Begin thinking about it        the world is powerful
don't follow after its deceits        the wiles of the Devil
know that these things are not good        bear it in mind and ponder
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

To marry one another is not wrong        it is the law of the fortunate
adultery is sin        it is antagonism towards God
and that you did not tell us        we shall not upset ourselves about that
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

People are those who love one another        they do not attract strife
do not hold to what these bad people do        understand you will degrade yourself
they become increasingly proud        investigate yourself and consider yourself well
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.

I have concluded my poem        where I stopped that is enough
many things I will not proclaim        although you have let us down
it is I the pauper-slave        Ahmad son of Nassir
though you toast the popcorn        we are here under the potsherd.