Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: The Story of the Star Poet of the Swahili

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassaniy: The Star Poems (Swahili community) (2020) by Shujaa StoriesNational Museums of Kenya

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili
In Kenya, the Swahili people are known for their unmatched skill in poetry, dating centuries back. Sadly some of the earliest authors of secular poems in Kiswahili remain unknown.

However, the work of one outstanding poet has been recorded and he is remembered by name: Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy, born in 1776 in Mombasa on the East African coast.

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

His poetry dates from the first half of the nineteenth century but was recorded in the late 1880s in Swahili-Arabic as well as in Roman transliteration. It describes, criticises and makes fun of topical events, at the time.

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

Muyaka used Kimvita a Swahili dialect commonly spoken in Mombasa. He enjoyed word play and double meanings using a rich and extensive vocabulary, often with archaic words but all the while respecting the dictates of the popular Mashairi verse form.

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

Mashairi is lyric poetry characterised by strict thematic and stylistic concerns. In Muyaka’s time, any violation could lead to the exclusion of the deviant author from the ranks of accepted poets.

Muyaka is recognised particularly as an outstanding composer of quatrains which were considered the ideal for philosophical and topical themes. A Quatrain is complete in four rhymed lines.

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

However, Muyaka also experimented with other poetic styles, on topics such as love politics and domestic life. In the last category he used his own experience to write about the challenges posed by marital relationships, especially polygamous ones like his own.

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

Muyaka’s concern with the political situation in the early 19th-century is shown in poems that encourage the Mazrui rulers of Mombasa to oppose the overlordship of the sultan of Muscat, who was then ruler of the city states along the Kenyan coast.

The preface to his collected poems, “Diwani ya Muyaka”, gives us an insight into his dual role as a commentator on his times and a voice of contemporary opinion.

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

One of Muyaka’s poetic epics “Bao Naligwa” is about a traditional board game called Bao, commonly played in East African communities.

Nalipohiteza Bao, Bao la mti haiba,
nali hiishika ngao katikati hajishiba;
nikiteza kwa vituo hafunga kwa namu haba
ndipo nambapo 'shurba' oani Bao naligwa!

Mtaji nalohiuta nalihiuta hashiba
nami nikaziokota hata hajaza kibaba
Baole likatakata msi namu ya akiba
ndipo nambapo 'shurba' oani Bao naligwa!

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassani: Star Poet of the Swahili

The words mtaji, namu and takata are common in the game of Bao and Muyaka uses different interpretations of them in his play on words.

Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy died in 1840 and is not only remembered for his own poetry but also for the inspiration he has had on contemporary Kiswahili poets.

Muyaka Bin Haji Al-Ghassaniy's legacy lives on
The East Africa coast supports rich wildlife populations, some which are found nowhere else in the world. In terms of biodiversity, coastal forests in Kenya such as Shimba Hills, Lower Tana River forests, Witu Forest Reserve, Arabuko- Sokoke Forest; Diani Forest and Kaya Ribe, host all globally threatened species occurring along the coastal strip.

The region also has a rich cultural diversity. There are over 1,200 documented cultural and historical sites and monuments at the Coast under the National Museums of Kenya.

Credits: Story

Credits: Story
Research field work was undertaken in Samburu and Marsabit (for Gabbra, Samburu, Rendille, Saakuye, Dasanach, Elmolo, Waayu a.k.a Waata, and Burji superheroes/heroines), Embu and Tharaka (for Aembu, Tharaka, Ameru and Mbeere superheroes/heroines), Mombasa ( for Boni, Swahili, Pokomo, Segeju and Bajuni superheroes/heroines)and Taita-Taveta/Voi (for Taveta superheroes/heroines) capturing all information about the heroes from the 40 selected ethnic groups/communities by Museum’s research team. The illustrations were done using digital media by Shujaa Stories Limited.

National Museums of Kenya - Contributors
Mzalendo Kibunjia (PhD) - Director General
Purity Kiura (PhD) - Director Antiquities, Sites & Monuments
Julias Juma Ogega - Senior Curator/Research Scientist
Njuguna Gichere - Research Scientist
Lydia Gatundu - Art of Curator
Emmanuel Kariuki - Exhibit Designer
Philemon Nyamanga - Curator/Research Scientist
Mercy Gakii - Curator/Research Scientist
Imelda Muoti - Curator/Archivist
Innocent Nyaga - Marketing Officer
Suzanne Wanjaria - Exhibits Designer
Ray Balongo Khaemba - Senior Collection Manager
Raphael Igombo - Education Officer
Eddy Ochieng – Photographer/Videographer

Concept Developer:
Shujaa Stories Ltd

Creative Direction:
Tatu Creatives Ltd
Shujaa Stories Ltd

Shujaa Stories Ltd – Contributors
Masidza Sande Galavu - Illustrator
Jeff Muchina- Editing
Martha Shavuya Galavu - Illustrator
Brian Kiraga – Research and Writing
Daisy Okoti - Editing
Shani Mutarura - Editing
Juelz Laval – Photography/Videographer
Linda Tambo - Photography

Other Contributors
Nature Kenya- The East Africa Natural History Society (EANHS)
Spellcast Media

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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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