In Swahili culture, a poet’s role is ordained by his ability to reciprocate the needs and wishes of his community. In order to perform this duty to the fullest extent, a poet must have a highly intimate rapport with his own context and therefore he must occupy a position from which he has access to various edifying sources from within the community. According to Swahili ideology, a poet can be described as one of the Mlozi wa mji (proverb meaning, ‘pillars of the town’), signifying that his presence is fundamental to the maintenance of civilised society. Poets are known within the community as Shaha or ‘Shah’, a sign of their high status; they understand more of God than ordinary people, and it is said, ‘poets go deep into the sea to find secrets’. Thus the social position given to poets in the Swahili community is one of respect and high status, defined by the acquisition of the dual qualities of heshima, ‘respect’, and elimu ‘knowledge’.
Through the use of various different modes of presentation, which the poet employs, he may challenge any of the existing hierarchies and institutions that form the nucleus of changing Swahili society. In order to accomplish this nature of social commentary without causing offence or even potentially endangering himself (especially in the case of political poetry), a poet relies upon a wealth of enigmatic and metaphorical language in order to make himself understood to his audience. Through the use of such richly metaphorical language and cryptic or encoded imagery, the poet’s message may remain ambiguously hidden, and in many cases an understanding can only be achieved through the application of specific social or political circumstances onto the poem’s patchwork of language and imagery. Only then will the poem’s inner discourse become clear to the audience. Indeed, in Swahili society, where the importance of speech and words is paramount, people naturally strive to cultivate speech into art, and a Swahili is often judged by his linguistic skill.
Contrary to the opinions of several non-Swahili scholars who have described Swahili poetry as ‘dull’ and unattractive, it must be emphasised that its function is not to be beautiful but to be useful. At the same time let there be no confusion that Swahili poetry, whether traditional versification or modem free verse, exemplifies the Kiswahili language in its most aesthetic form.
Swahili poetry has suffered further at the hands of foreign scholars with the constant reference to its ‘ethnic or local form’, or in the use of the term, ‘traditional poetry’. The term ‘traditional poetry’ implies that the form and content have become outmoded by another form of self-definition. The reality is quite opposite, and in fact Swahili poetry serves as functional a purpose in a modem context as it has done throughout history.
In Swahili poetry, both form and content are of equal importance, and a Swahili poet must adhere to numerous structural criteria in order to produce a piece of work that can be regarded by the community as high quality. With growing access to Swahili poetry in the media there has been an increase in poems written by amateur poets and consequently much of the poetry published in the newspapers stands accused of being mere versification at the expense of meaningful content.
Free verse has gained considerable popularity on the mainland despite strong opposition from Swahili poets who feel it represents a loss of poetic artistry and is a product of eurocentric scholarship. The debate continues until today.