Serenades of a Somali nomad

The following is a transcription from an anthology of translated Somali poetry¹. Being a translation of an eloquent language that only had mouths and minds as mode of transmission,as books and ink,as a legacy – it goes without saying that the intricate beauty cannot be transported to another country,another language. One particular poem that soothed me was preceded by this short commentary :

It was the custom that when a man was seeking a girl in marriage and her family looked on him with favour, he would pay a visit to her homestead,bringing gifts. With him would come some of his kinsmen, to add solemnity to the visit and protect him, and the gifts, on the journey. In his youth, Cumar Ostreeliya accompanied his cousin Maxamed on such a journey to the home of Weris, Maxamed’s bride-to-be, and he composed this poem in her honour.


If in these verses, linked by the sound of ‘S’

I were to give a true account, O Weris, of your qualities

Unlocking the coffers of my skill

And opening my breast where clocklike beats my heart,

And were I to describe your appearance

Just as it was first created-

Why,the men who dwell in distant Sirow

Would all come here to seek you out!

But since the evil eye of jealousy

Is not wont to miss its aim,

I shall instead speak simply

Listen, then, to my words tonight,

For this is no time to sleep-

See,we have brought fire and pulled aside

The barrier gate of the thorny fence!


It was for your sake, Weris,

That my body was scorched and thirsty in the waterless plain,

That Maxamed’s skin was burnt in the sun’s fierce heat,

That our backs were torn by the belts and bandoliers we wore!

Time and again we barely survived the dangers we had to meet

From hostile warriors,from spies who roamed the land,

From the silent-footed lion-

All for your sake, Weris!

For you we had picked out horses,powerful geldings,

Then from among the camels we chose some females

And threesomes of suckling,dam and foster-dam

And more young females not yet mated.

If we are such men as this,

Then the sheer love you must feel for us

Will surely make you abjure your food!

I have not botched these verses-

Have I not steered them along the proper path?

Men who have not learnt to compose verses linked ‘S’

Will digress and lose their way

But I- have I not linked like a chain

That was made by an Indian goldsmith?

I have more to speak in praise of Weris,

Words which I warrant to be true.

In our party there are Cismaan and Jibriil

The finest ribs of the Jaamac family,

Young men fashioned by God to be of equal stature

Who are like the tall siiq trees by the river-

Elegance has been our lot, and the gift of nobility!

Eight cousins we are , armed with Martini rifles

And bringing two bundles of dates wrapped up in fibre mats

And rolls of silk protected well with skins

Here at her people’s encampment we had been expected,

And a courtyard screened from sweeping winds was given us

With a well-sheltered place to stack our firearms

We have been offered the guest food proper for marriage-kin-

Dishes of cooked grain,sour camel’s milk,ghee in a painted bowl-

But our eyes are for her and her alone

As the man brings in the food and carries it away again

We are overcome as we look at her,

Her body is as erect, it seems to us,

As a ladder standing upright.

They have adorned her with jingling armbands

And an amber necklace has been placed around her throat.

A long dress covers her form,

And a shawl of calico, brought from Berbera,

Allows nothing to be seen but her eyes,

A striped shift of many colours

Enhances the beauty of her apparel.

Her sandals, solidly-soled and finely-balanced,

Are cut from the finest cow-flank leather.

As she passes along an encampment lane

The clatter of her jewels

Makes the sound of bullets or a cracking whip.

In salute we fire three times into the sky.

Then greetings are exchanged, and pleasant conversation.

The words a dimwit chooses come out garbled

But not so those of Weris-

Is it not true that by the age of nine

She had been taught to learn by heart

The lines of the Sacred Knowledge?

Her eyebrows are closely knit,

Her face suffused with radiance.

Both a pure body and a beauteous shape

Were given to her by God.

See how her hair is plaited,

Like the feathers of an ostrich cock

When he has folded them smoothly down!

A man who has gazed on her for even one hour

Will need no other joy until he enters Paradise

Are her lips not outlined

As if they were drawn with charcoal ink?

O,they are such wonders!

See how the flying dust never settles upon her form-

Can it be that she is a kinswoman of the Turkish sultanss

Or perhaps of the lords of Arabia?

O Weris, thanks to the pattern in which God shaped you

And the wealth that your family possesses,

No woman is your peer,

You who appear as a lantern shining bright!

¹ An Anthology of Somali Poetry ( 1993)

Translated by B.W. Andrzejeweski with Sheila Andrzejewski

Poem by Cumar Xuseen Ostreeliya