1. Home
  2. Countries
  3. HAIKU IN EAST AFRICA

HAIKU IN EAST AFRICA

While Japanese poetic genres were undoubtedly known to some poets and critics in East Africa from the work of the European and North American scholars and translators in the early 20th century, there was little if any local activity until the 1990s and early 2000s. Even now, the hotspots of haiku activities in the region are haiku clubs in Nairobi, Kenya, secondary school clubs in the Nairobi suburbs, and a haiku contest conducted in conjunction with a poetry festival in Kampala, Uganda.


SOMALIA

Pretoria-based editor and scholar Raphael d’Abdon interviewed the prominent Somali literary scholar Ali Jimale Ahmed, now a professor at Queens College in New York City, for The Mamba 4 (2016). Asked to list the poets he most admired, Ahmed mentioned the American Richard Wright and his haiku. The interviewer then asked about a poem that Ahmed had included in his 2002 collection, Fear is a Cow, titled “Haiku-ish”:

All eurekas are
A poem of pain. Feet must 
Complement Miss Luck.

Ahmed shared his views of haiku on the African context:

When I set out to write “Haiku-ish” I had in the back of my mind a Somali poetic form called shirib, about which we will talk more in the course of this conversation. I was always intrigued by how the shirib had some uncanny resemblance to the haiku, and not only in terms of its antiphonal structure, its provocative amplifications and implications, but also in the way both forms communicate a feeling or impression in the most succinct and taut manner. I called it “Haiku-ish” to playfully downplay or better yet ironize my intentions. With the exception of the 5–7–5 structure, there is nothing else that demonstrates its being haiku. On a serious note, though, I was not sure if I could do justice to both poetic genres—the shirib and the haiku. To further ironize my intentions there is another poem in the collection titled “A haiku with a Tail.” Beyond that, it is difficult to comment on [one’s own] work. I leave that to you and other scholars who are better equipped than I to comment on my work. Suffice it to say, there is so much at work before, during, and at the moment of writing.

In the same interview, Ahmed explained the cultural context of the shirib in Somalia and to compare this Somali poetic form to Japanese short-form poetry.

The only other Somali poet writing haiku in international journals is Roundsquare Chomulet, who saw this haiku of his published in issues 1 and 3 of The Mamba:

monsoon rain
rinses the beggar’s eyes
his supplications clearer now

KENYA

The prominent haiku poet Uchida Sonō served as Japanese ambassador in Senegal and Morocco in the early 1980s, and he was instrumental in bringing haiku to these countries, setting up haiku lectures and meetings and holding haiku contests. Uchida later served as ambassador in Nairobi, Kenya, and it is reasonable to suppose he brought his haiku evangelism to East Africa as well, but no documentation of this has been found.

Local haiku activities in Kenya started up strongly in the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, with the encouragement of Gabi Greve, the founder of the online World Kigo Database in Japan, and Susumu Takiguchi, chairperson of the World Haiku Club (WHC), based in Oxford, England. Under the direction of Greve, Isabelle Prondzynski, a secondary school teacher from Ireland and a WHC member, founded the Kenya Saijiki, an Internet discussion forum collecting a kigo database (i.e. saijiki) for Kenya and similar tropical regions, in early 2006. The group began with some 100 members and six local coordinators, and it has stabilized and grown from there. 

The existence of the Kenya Saijiki provided an opportunity for the country’s poets to grasp the aesthetics of haiku art and thus to be able to write about their local seasons, their immediate environment and their culture, which they shared on the world stage through participation in competitions and contributions to journals, blogs, and magazines. Haiku is now included as part of the national curriculum for Kenyan secondary schools. Representatives of the Japan Information and Culture Centre in Nairobi attended the first meeting of Kenya Saijiki in 2006, and in recent years members have been sent to Kenya Saijiki events as part of its mission to promote Japanese culture. 

Prondzynski also initiated the Haiku Clubs of Nairobi, a cluster of groups in secondary schools in the Kenyan capital area. The first such club was organized in the suburb of Kayole in 2006. The Haiku Clubs of Nairobi regularly invite new haijin to join, and have thus passed on their love of haiku to ever-new populations. They meet at least twice yearly for an all-day kukai. They now have active members in several regions of Kenya, as well as writing haiku when traveling to neighboring countries.

The coordinator of the Haiku Clubs of Nairobi is Patrick Wafula Wanyama, a secondary school teacher at Bahati Community Centre in Kayole. He was a 2010 Shiki Internet Kukai runner-up with this haiku: 

full moon —
cumulus clouds 
slowly form a wolf 

Caleb Mutua, a journalist and alumnus of the Haiku Clubs of Nairobi, was the first Kenyan to be published in Shamrock Haiku Journal 18 (2011):

on the campus lawn, 
fresh anthills surrounded 
by fresh mushrooms 

One of the most respected Kenyan haiku poets is Mercy Ikuri, who has written prizewinning verses on Kenyan themes. This one of hers, for example, won an Honorable Mention in the 5th Japan-Russia Haiku Contest, 2016:

sunny savanna
the lion starts to yawn 
then roars

Ikuri is one of the few poets on the continent to have published haiku in an indigenous African language, in this case, Swahili (Kiswahili), the lingua franca of the Great Lakes Region of East Africa.1 This haiku of hers was published in Autumn Moon Haiku Journal 1:2 (Spring/Summer 2018):

mbalamwezi    
matembezi yetu           
yawa murua zaidi       
sugar moon
our walk
made sweeter

Other Kenyan haiku poets have been introduced in The Mamba, including Makarios Wakoko, Michael Kang’a, Teddy Kimathi, Catherine Njeri Maine, Nyamu Kariuki, Mkhadar May, and Richard Nduor Oduku.

UGANDA

The Babishai Haiku Award grew out of the annual Babishai Poetry Festival, founded in 2009 by the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation in Kampala, Uganda. The festival’s first haiku contest was held in 2016; the second took place in 2017 and the third is scheduled for 2020. Any poet who resides in Africa and is over 18 years of age may submit haiku in English. 

The 2017 Babishai Haiku Award winner was Kariuki wa Nyamu with this haiku:

last night’s rain
in the morning mud
fresh toad prints

Susan Nalugwa Kiguli, a prominent poet and literary scholar from Uganda, became interested in haiku and wrote a few of her own inspired, she said, by the work she read in the African haiku journal The Mamba and the Babishai Haiku Award.This one of Kiguli’s appeared in The Mamba 4 (2017):

a fast red river—
young Ugandan village girls 
cannot cross to school

Ingrid Baluchi, an Iran-born British poet, lived in Uganda in 2017–2018. She won an Honorable Mention in Iris magazine’s Little Haiku Contest in 2017, during her African sojourn and before she moved on to North Macedonia:

my Nile Valley swallows
could be yours 
this coming Spring

ZIMBABWE

Ted Goossen, a professor from York University with a specialty in modern and contemporary Japanese literature, who brought Japan’s culture to Zimbabwe through public and academic lectures, on subjects as diverse as the tea ceremony, ancestor worship, and haiku composition. Goossen’s lectures yielded results, as he returned to Toronto with some delectable Africa haiku written by his students as a memoir: 

In the middle of the night 
Two frogs are croaking
At least I have some company 

Cynthia Chigiya
A pool of water
Covered with wings
Where did the flying termites go?

Takvra Whande
Falling raindrops
Flying ishwa
Companions on a chameleon’s tongue

Anonymous
On the fallen leaves 
The grasshopper squats 
Praying for rain

Anonymous

ELSEWHERE IN EAST AFRICA

Little is known about organized haiku activities in other East African countries, but a few individual poets have emerged onto the international scene: 

the bully walks slow
to the principal’s office
second time this week 

        Judy McIntosh, Tanzania, Our Daily Online Haiku,
        USA Today websiteJanuary 2003
a committee
gathers in celebration 
dying buffalo 

          Nshai Waluzimba, Zambia, 17th HIA Haiku Contest 2015,
          Honorable Mention
African summer 
elephants trumpet 
in the dusty plains 

          Rakotomahefa Diamondra, Madagascar,
          The Heron’s Nest 17:3 (September 2015)

AUTHOR: Adjei Agyei-Baah & Haikupedia editors

ADAPTED FROM: Adjei Agyei-Baah, “A History of African Haiku”

SOURCES / FURTHER READING (PRINT)

SOURCES / FURTHER READING (ONLINE)

Haiku in North Africa

Haiku in Southern Africa

Haiku in West Africa

NOTES

  1. Probably the first haiku printed in Swahili were translations of English originals by Anita Speer Smith of Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A. and published in American Haiku in 1964. The article, “Haiku in Swahili,” was reprinted in American Haiku editor Clement Hoyt’s book, Storm of Stars in 1976. On his Graceguts website, Michael Dylan Welch includes five haiku of his that were translated into Swahili by Caleb Mutua of Nairobi, Kenya, in February 2011. []
Updated on September 6, 2020