Classical Swahili Poetry :  the Utenzi tradition

Swahili poetry has a long and rich history among the Swahili people of the East African coast, predating the emergence of other literary genres by several centuries.  Central to this poetic tradition was the utenzi or utendi, which is usually translated as epic or struggle.  These poetic works characteristically were quite lengthy and, in the earliest extant examples, chronicled important battles in the advance of Islam or praised the life of Muhammad (Mazrui, 2007: 16).  As the tradition evolved over the centuries, themes of expression became both secularized and indigenized to reflect issues of concern within East African society.  Prescribed patterns of meter and rhyme were borrowed from the Arabic literary tradition and were considered mandatory forms of expression by Swahili literary scholars of the time.  Until the beginning of the twentieth century, these poetic works were written in an ajami-like script derived from and closely resembling the Arabic script in use at the time. 

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