Omanis’ Contribution to Swahili Poetry: A Tale of Kamange and Sarahani of Pemba

Kamange and Sarahani, among many others, were great poets of their time and, though both were of Omani origin, they were proud Swahilis and contributed to the richness of their East African ancentry. Their tale is a tale of these two inter-connected worlds.


Three facts are worthy noted in compressing this theme, which is otherwise a very voluminous subject, namely: the Arabic nature of the Omani literature, the ancient existence of Arabs, in general, and the Omanis, in particular, in the coast of East Africa, and the fact that many famous Swahili poets have Omani roots.

Omani Literature as an Integral Part of Arabic Literature

Though not the central argument of this discussion, it is important to note that when Arabic literature was documented during the era of great renaissance in Islam, Oman was not at the centre of power due to some reasons. Dr. Asyah Al Bualy writes in her paper “Zanzibar in Omani Literary Genres” that among reasons of why the Omani literature was not documented during this golden age were connected to geographical distance from the seat of Abbasid Caliphate and hence many Arabic documented literatures were coming from other Arabian capitals, such as Baghdad, Makkah, al-Medina, Damascus, Cairo, Cordola and Khorassan (Al Bualy, 2011).

This does not say, however, that there was not Omani literature at that time, but since the mighty made their fingerprints on the books of history, the Omani marks were more or less not presented at that time.

However, these “other” documented Arabic literatures reached Oman as they reached the coasts of East Africa, the home of the Swahilis. In this scenario, both the Omanis and the Swahilis were influenced by and did influence them too, though to the Omanis, it was a first-hand influence as it was in their own language (or at least close to their mother tongues), and helped others to “get influenced” as well. Some examples can be traced to the collections of Alf-Lela-U-Lela, the tales of Caliph Haroun Rashid and Abu Nuwas, Juha wa Raaha, and many others.

Dr. Asya Bualy
Dr. Asya Bualy presenting her paper at the conference

Ancient Existence of Omanis in the Coasts of East Africa

Many centuries, even before the coming of many African tribes including the Bantu – let alone European explorers and rulers, Arabs, mostly from Yemen and Oman, had been in the coast of East Africa and made what today known as “the Swahili Coast” their own home. Writing in his book titled: “Will Zanzibar Regain Her Past Prosperity?”, Sheikh Issa bin Nasser Al-Ismaily has this to say:

“The renowned author of Periplus of the Erythraean Sea visited East Africa in the middle of the first century of the Christian era… found that Arabs had settled on the East African coast and the adjacent islands centuries before his visit recognizing as their Sovereign, the Ruler of Yemen.” (Al Ismaily, 2015).

On the other hand, talking about the Bantu immigration to the area, Nasser bin Abdullah Al Riyamy writes in his book titled: “Zanzibar: Personalities and Events (1828 – 1972)” that:

“The Bantu reached the Great Lakes between 1000 and 1500 A.D from where they sent forth two groups. One went Southern Africa, the other to Somalia. From Southern Africa, a splinter group of the Bantu called the Zimba moved along the coast of East Africa early in the 16th Century, invading city after city and according to Portuguese eyewitnesses who arrived at the same time, devouring its Arab inhabitants and taking others as slaves and as means pf protean.”

Nasser Al Riyamy
Sheikh Nasser Al Riyamy presenting his paper at the conference

Many other historians, such as J. M. Gray and W. H. Ingrams, talk of around two thousand to four thousand years of Arab existence in the coast of East Africa, though the more recent studies are speaking of more than five thousand years of historical estimation, in which Arabs were already existing in the area.

This fact explains three crucial points of our discussion: first, the language or languages of Arabs (not necessarily the current spoken and written standard Arabic) was the medium of communication in the area and, therefore, the language of literature. Second, the current Swahili language is itself very much influenced by Arabic. Third, Swahili documentations were for many years recorded using Arabic orthography. There is even an academic debate on whether Swahili is one of the ancient Arabic dialects, an arabized African language or an africanized Arabic language.

Among great pioneers of this debate are Professor Ibrahim Noor Al Bakry of the Sultan Qaboos University and Professor Al-Amin Mazrui. These two scholars believe that the creation of current Swahili is a result of a give-and-take process between Arabic and Bantu languages in their integration.

Some Renowned Swahili Poets With Omani Roots

On the third fact, which is telling the main point of this presentation, some of the best artists and poets that Swahili coasts have ever produced do have Arab roots, in general, and in particular – as is the case of this discussion – are originated from Oman itself. The list includes the 19th century guru, Muyaka bin Hajj Al Ghassany (1776 – 1840), who is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “the first Swahili-language secular poet known by name… an outstanding composer of quatrains…his work ranged widely in type from didactic verse to love poems and from poems on domestic life to political satire.”

There are also Sayyid Umar bin Amin al-Ahdal (1790 – 1870) who wrote the famous poem Dura Mandhuma, which later became a poetic style of itself; Sayyid Abdallah bin Ali bin Nassir (1720 – 1820), who also wrote Inkishafi, which similar to Dura Mandhuma, became a style of its own, Ruqayya bint Fadhil Al Bakry (1892 – 1968), who established her own style known as Tiyani Fatiha, Suudi bin Said Al Maamiriy, Muhammad bin Jumaa Al Kharusy, Hemed bin Seif Al Ismaily, and the list goes on. (Shariff, 1988).

All these were Swahili poets with Arab and Omani origins, who have contributed a great deal of their knowledge and scholarship to Swahili literature. Influenced by both Arabic and Islam, they made Swahili poetry stands as it is today.

Professor Ibrahim Noor
Professor Ibrahim Al Bakry, one of the strongest defenders of Omani-Swahili connections.

Now let us narrow down this presentation and dwell on two poets of the early 20th century from my birthplace, Pemba, or as known by first Arab explorers Jaziiratul Khadhraa, due to its greenness and fertile lands. These poets are Ali bin Said bin Rashid Al Jahadhmiy, famously known for his poetic name Kamange, and his friend and competitor, Sarhaan bin Matwar bin Sarhaan Al Hudhury Al Hinawy, who was known by his first name, Sarahani. Both poets were born, raised and lived in Pemba, but their poems were read and recited all over Swahili coasts and even to the interior of East Africa (Abdalla, 2011). Their contribution, I argue, is the contribution of Omani literature to the Swahili poetry.


Ali bin Said bin Rashid Jahadhmy was born in 1830 in Bogowa, Pemba. Jahadhmy are famous people in the coast of East Africa, especially in Pemba, Unguja, Mombasa and Lamu, having produced many scholars. In Pemba, Jahadhmy are found in Bogowa, in Wete District in the north of the island. Their roots are in Oman, but they are believed to have resided in Pemba even before the coming of Sayyid Said bin Sultan al-Said in 1822.

When they came to East Africa, like many other people from Oman, they intermarried with others and their children became Swahili people. However, they kept the tradition of teaching their children the basic knowledge of life similar to what was done in Oman during their times. In the book titled “The Ancient Pemban Poets”, it is told that Kamange was taught how to fight using swords, arrows and guns and also was good in hunting. On one of his poem, “Kamange Hali Makombo” (Kamange Never Eats the Remains), he boasts himself that as a good hunter, he could never eat the rests of food from another person, but would rather hunt for his own. Though being a work of literature that is subject to many interpretations, this poem might have meant some other hunting and not necessarily the hunting of animals in the forest, it still says a lot about his hunting skills:

Akhuwa mwaarifiwa, Pemba mbiu ya mgambo
Sarahani wakhusiwa, mwenye kondo za vigambo
Bahati nimejaliwa, tangu azali kitambo
Kamange hali makombo, ala alichokiwinja

O the informed friend of mine, let all Pemba hear
To you Sarahani who boasts yourself for petty things
I am but a lucky guy from the timeless eternity
Kamange never eats the remains, but what he himself has hunted.

Katwa sirambi kiganja, naapa sili makombo
Nachaguwa nikiwinja, kilicho sura na umbo
Dudu kome talipunja, sichi vita vya kimwambo
Kamange hali makombo, ala alichokiwinja

Never do I take from others hands, I swear never to eat the remains
When hunting I select the best of figure and beauty
The ugly I leave away for am not afraid of fighting
Kamange never eats the remains, but what he himself has hunted.

(Al Alawy & Al Maawy, 2011)

His poems also show that he was imparted with a great deal of knowledge on the Qur’an, Fiqhi, Hadeeth and Taarikh, the tradition many Omani families kept alive even after years of moving to East Africa. In one of his poem titled with the Qur’anic Verse Innash-Shaytwaana Lakum ‘Aduwwun-Mubyn, Kamange speaks against corruption, misuse of power and bribery amongst government officers in Pemba:

Ilaa kaafatil-‘ula, wa jamii qudhwaakum
Kubarai wal-‘ula, salamun alaykum
Leo hapana kulala, kitaabun ataakum
Innash-Shaytwaana Lakum ‘Aduwwun-Mubyn

‘Aduwwun-mubynu, ghadaa tahta Rabbikum
Hilo maalumu kwenu, lakini nadhwara fiykum
Halifai gube lenu, musiwafuwate hawaakum
Innash-Shaytwaana Lakum ‘Aduwwun-Mubyn

Makhasusi wuzarai, tabiy-‘un amrakum
Aalimul-‘ulamai, dhwahiru wa fawqakum
Piya nyote sukarai, taraghani mithlakum
Innash-Shaytwaana Lakum, ‘Aduwwun-Mubyn

Kamange was known for his great passion in poetry ever since. He was outspoken and had no boundary. He spoke of love and beauty, of life and politics, and, as in very traditional Omani and Arabic poetry, for him poetry was the platform to curse his enemies with such bitter and strong satires. One time, he got detained by the police officer known as Mnyasa (maybe he was from Nyasaland, now Malawi) and had to stay in detention till the Deputy Commissioner of Pemba, Sheikh Mohammed bin Seif Al Jenneby, intervened. Upon his release, he wrote a poem to curse Mnyasa and promised to fight him back, titled “Mashumu Yangu” (My Bitterness):

Tampigisha kwa buo, gombe pofu; kongwe pungu
Aihajiri Takao, Kamange kwa koma zangu
Juweni hana makao, nilivyomeza machungu
Inshallah mashumu yangu, Mnyasa yatamwondoa

I will beat him down, this blind old bull
He will lean to my pressure and leave Takao
You better know he has no more time, since so bitter I am
For God’s will, my bitterness will chase away Mnyasa

His poems were cherished all over the region, having recited and sung in Tanganyika and Kenya and even beyond. There were camps under his influence, the one whom we can call Kamangeists, all over the region. Those who were waiting for his poems, reciting, creaming and using them in their daily life. He commanded a fellowship of his own.

His nickname Kamange has about three meanings in my dialect – Kipemba: i. a tricky person, who is able to win arguments due to his tricks, ii. a big male monkey who leads his group and considered the master of the group, iii. A person who is brave and cannot be defeated in the fight.

Ali bin Said Al Jahadhmy died in 1910, few years before the First World War. His death was such a great loss in Swahili coast that it is said the whole area was grieving in darkness and sorrow. Abdurrahman Saggaf Alawy and Ali Abdallah Al Maawy, who collected and published some the poet’s works in their book “The Ancient Pemban Poets”, write that “if all obituary poems on Kamange’s death were to be collected at that time, there could have been a book of at least 100 poems. One of those obituaries was written by his best friend and competitor, Sarahani, titled “Naliya Leo Sinaye” (I Mourn As I have Him No More):

Ufati wa l’azizi, mswiba nnao miye
Kaniwacha na majonzi, naliya kama nduguye
Jina langu siku hizi, litakufa kama yeye
Naliya leo sinaye, yaa mawadda na swafawa!

“I am but sorrowed by the death of my beloved
He has left me with tears, crying as his brother
Now my name will too die together with his
I mourn as I have him no more, the one I loved and understood”

When young, he was also known as Basha Ali, the name believed to be deriving from Egyptian or Turkish military ranks (Pasha) due to his skills of leadership among others. While he continued to use this nickname all his life, it was the Kamange that made him known, and which we cherish here today.


Sarhaan bin Matwar bin Sarhaan bin Muhammad bin Masoud bin Nasir Al-Hudhury Hinawy was born in Pondeyani in Chake Chake District, Pemba, in 1841. His grandfather came from Al-Hoqeeni, here in Oman.  His father was born in Mombasa and then moved to Pemba, where he married Sarhaan’s mother, Atiye bint Jadi bin Nasser Al Ruqaishy, who was born in Pemba.

Omani Nadi Thaqafa
Some of the participants following presentations.

As it was for his long-time friend and competitor, Kamange, Sarhaan also grew up in the house which preserved many of Omani culture components. He was also taught Qur’an, Hadeeth and Taarikh, but went further to become one of Islamic scholars of his time, who taught in Pemba, Tanga and Mombasa. Though he was originated from Ibadhi family, he learned from many Sunni scholars of his time and even practiced Sunni during his youth and returned back to Ibadhi in his late years. His father was a good businessman who owned many big clove plantations in Pemba and other properties in Mombasa. That’s why he inherited good wealth and was himself known as very kind and generous person.

In poetry, Sarahani was in the top level amongst Pemban poets. That fact that he was a constant competitor to Kamange, who was even ten years older than him, says a lot about his prowess in poetry, as in Swahili and Arab culture we do not show any match to those who are older than us. But Kamange accepted him because he was really a guru.

As he admitted himself when crying for the death of Kamange, Sarhaan was better known when in dialogue with his best friend than when he was writing poems on other things, such as his favourite topic of Islamic preaching. In one of those poems, “Rabbi Ondowa Nakama” (O God, Take the Disaster Away), he used the Arabic alphabet from Alif to Lam-Alif, Yee to ask God to get rid of many social disasters that his community in Pemba was facing during British colonialism.


Kwa harufu ya Alifu, tunayosoma daima
Ili tupate tatufu, jamii bin-adama
Uchao huja sufufu, na juu yetu huduma
Rabbi ondowa nakama, wajao tu mashakani

Using the letter Alif, which we always read
So we have a solution to all human beings
Many things are daily happening with which we have to deal
O God, take away this disaster, we, your slaves, are in trouble

Even when he was angry and wanted to speak against his enemy, the influence of both Arabic was so evident in Sarhaan’s poems. Once someone reported to trick him and took his property, and Sarhaan took on him through the poem “Mja’aliye Isqamu” (Oh God, Give Him Illness):

Allahumma staani, bi-ismikal adhwimu
Naduuka ya Mannani, niamuwe na khasimu
Iwe kun-fayakuni, haya nnayonudhumu
Mja’aliye isqamu, utakabali amina

For your great name, O Allah I come to ask
I ask you my God to decide on my enemy
Make what I ask to be for your order
Give him illness, my God please accept my request

He wrote also of love and beauty, as he once talked about his satisfaction and desire to spend the rest of his life with a woman of his choice in the poem “Sitaki Tena Mwengine” (I Need No Other One):

Thamma kanifurahisha, kulla siku ni harusi
Adabu tena bashasha, hana kiburi mchesi
Jeuri ameondosha, na maneno ya matusi
Anitosha yeye basi, sitaki tena mwengine

And then he makes me happy as every day is her wedding day
Well-cultured and charming, smiling and no arrogance
She keeps no grudges, she utters no insults
She is enough to me, I need no other one

As we said, many a time Sarhaan was in fight against his best friend and competitor, Kamange. One time, after Kamange was released from detention where he was sent the police officer Mnyasa, Sarhaan sent him a letter which was comforting him in a satire:

Basha Ali mwambiyeni, sasa ni kutulizana
Zimegeuka zamani, ukamange hapo jana
Juzi Mzambarauni, fundi alipatikana
Nusura angaliona, lizamu na darizeni

Tell Basha Ali that from now on, he has to cool down
Times have changed, his prowess is out of date
Recently the guru was caught helplessly
And narrowly was he to taste prison and twelve whips

He, too, as his friend wrote many poems using Quranic verses such as the one titled Innamaa Ashkuw Bath-Thiy Wahuzniy Ila-Llahi (Surely, I Rest My Sorrow on Allah’s Hands) in which he said:

Ilahi  nastajiri, aghithniy yaa Ghiyathi
Ndiwe alimu khabiri, Khaliqu kulla huduthi
Ni wewe pweke Mujiri, wa dhukuri na inathi
Innamaa ashkuw bath-thiy, wa huzni ila-Llahi

Sarhaan died in 1926, sixteen years after his best friend and competitor, Kamange. For many, his death was the death of poetry in Pemba. It was the death of an Islamic scholar and a symbol of prosing in my birthplace. One among his students and also a poet himself, was Sheikh Muhammad bin Jumaa Al-Kharusy, known as Ruweihy, who believed the death of Sarhaan and that of Kamange closed the best chapter of Swahili poetry:

Kulikuwa washairi, na wasomi wasomao
Wenye sauti nzuri, hutwibu wasikizao
Na huku mambo yajiri, kwa walao na wanywao
Nyamazani mtungao, shairi hakuna tena

There were the poets and the reciters who were
With beautiful voices that treat their listeners
While things were moving on for those who eat and drink
Say no more, o you who write, as the poetry is no more!


The last and the important question I might be asked here is why I insist these two poets to be a symbol of Omani contribution to Swahili poetry? Did they ever claim to be representing Oman in their poetry? To these questions, I don’t have the best answer other than the one given by Nasser Abdullah Al Riyami in his book that I mentioned earlier. Talking about the notion of foreigners and citizens in East Africa, amongst the Arabs, he has this to say:

“Important to mention here is that, the overwhelming majority of people of Omani and Yemeni origins, born in East Africa never viewed themselves as foreigners in the country of their birth.”

Actually, in many instances these two poets were taking pride of being the sons of their birth place, namely Pemba. Angered by the police officer Mnyasa who got him detained, Kamange took aim at him using his Pembanness saying:

Ndimi Kongwe la Kisiwa, la tangu Abu na tangu
Mnyasa hajanijuwa, aja niwaziya pingu
Bilashi ajisumbuwa, halichaniki hangungu

I am the guru of this Island, the old and the respected
Mnyasa has not yet known me to think of putting me in chains
He just wastes his time, the tough cloth can never be torn…

But does this fact deprive them from their Omaniness? Ali bin Said bin Rashid Al-Jadhamiy and Sarhaan bin Matwar bin Sarhaan Al Hudhuriy Hinawiy were the sons of this soil as well when it comes to the Arab social make-up. The fact that they are direct descendants of Omanis during the time when there was a very strong fabric between these two parts of the world makes the argument of Omani contribution to Swahili poetry much more valid.

In the United States, for example, people are happy to celebrate the contribution of African scholars and artists to the modern American culture. Poets like Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906), Jessie Fauset (1882 – 1961), Phillis Wheatly (1753 – 1784), Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000) and the famous Maya Angelou who died in 2014, were African Americans who already lost their African connections, when it comes to language and culture, but have been cherished as great African poets of their times and beyond (Ostrom & Marcey, 2005).

Similar can be argued when it comes to Omani descendants, born and raised in Swahili coasts but stayed culturally and even socially connected to the land of their ancestors and used the language of their birth places to contribute to the body of literature.

Kamange and Sarahani, among many others, were the great poets of their times and Swahili culture and literature have benefited a lot from them. Their tale is the tale of these two inter-connected worlds.

NOTE. This paper prepared and presented for the Oman Cultural Club in Oman on the Conference on Omani Literature Written in Swahili Language (21 March 2017) by Mohammed Khelef Ghassani – Swahili Journalist, Poet and Author

3 thoughts on “Omanis’ Contribution to Swahili Poetry: A Tale of Kamange and Sarahani of Pemba”

  1. Kamfundishe Mohammed Seif Khatib kuandika atoke kimasomaso.
    Nilisoma into tu ya kitabu chake cha Historia ya Taarab Zanzibar nikaona kichefuchefu.

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