Thursday, 29 August 2013


by Martin Walsh

The relevant passage in W. E. Taylor's African Aphorisms (1891: 93)
In an earlier note on A click in Swahili I drew attention to the Reverend W. E. Taylor's description of an interjection/ideophone in the Mvita (Mombasa) dialect that contains a dental click (1891: 93). Taylor struggled to render this unusual sound in print, and offered three different transcriptions for it in his African Aphorisms, as can be seen from the entry that is reproduced here. Judging by the eccentric composite -- "Mng'wpc" -- that appeared in Burt's Swahili Grammar and Vocabulary (1910: 13, fn. 1), Taylor was never able to settle on a satisfactory solution. This wasn't really his fault, given that there was little agreement on how to write down clicks and the languages using them at this time.

Abdulaziz 1979
When I posted my note in June 2010 I wasn't aware of any other references to Taylor's Mvita click-bearing interjection, though I did know of the occurrence of a nasalised dental click in similar contexts in different dialects of Digo, spoken to the south of Mombasa island (Walsh 2006). Last night, however, leafing through the edited verses of Mombasa's most illustrious bard, Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (c.1776-c.1840), I stumbled across what seems to be an earlier example of its use. Most of Muyaka's poetry is thought to have been written between roughly around 1810 and his death. We owe the survival of his corpus to the extraordinary collaboration between the Mombasa scholar Mwalimu Sikujua bin Abdallah al-Batawi (who collected and wrote down Muyaka's Swahili poems in Arabic script) and the same Rev. Taylor (who transliterated them in Roman script and added linguistic and other notes). The originals are in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London: I owe my own access to Muyaka's poetry to Mohamed Hassan Abdulaziz's study (1979), which I never tire of dipping into.

The poem in which the Mvita interjection appears is in his compilation of the many 'Miscellanous Verses of Muyaka' (1979: 156-335). Abdulaziz's brief gloss on the whole poem is that 'Muyaka here makes fun of certain Wachangamwe women folk (one of the Three Tribes of Mombasa) who are pictured as having maltreated a certain Bacheni' (1979: 287). The Wachangamwe were the inhabitants of Changamwe and thereabouts on the mainland to the west of Mombasa island; in the 19th century they spoke their own variety of the Mvita dialect (Lambert 1958), and were evidently looked down upon by their more cultured island cousins. The identity of Bachemi or Ba Cheni (Baba Cheni, 'Cheni's father'?) seems to have been forgotten: all we have to go on is the poem itself. It is reproduced below, complete with the inconsistencies of spelling in Abdulaziz's edition -- note though that the italicisation of dental /t/ and /d/ is Taylor's. In the book Taylor's transliteration and Abdulaziz's English version are on facing pages (1979: 286-287): here each Swahili verse is followed immediately by its translation. Perhaps understandably, Abdulaziz didn't attempt to translate the poem's title:


Habari ya Wachangamwe niwambiapo mwateka,
Watoshile kamwe kamwe si wake katika rika
Wake washinda waume siombe wakihizika;
Ba Cheni walimshika wakamfanya mng'wa!

Digo mother and child, 1985
When I tell you about the Wachangamwe you first laugh.
They exceed the bounds of acceptable behaviour!
Women can be worse than men when they go astray,
They got hold of Bacheni and bit his lip "Mngwa".

Ni watenzi Wachangamwe hutenda vikitendeka,
Wajipatishile sime zatinda kama kitoka
Ni kweli wake si wamwe, siombe wakipotoka,
Ba Cheni walimshika wakimtinda mng'wa!

The Wachangamwe are people of action, what they do they do well!
Their short swords stuck in their belts, cut clean like hatchets
It's a fact that women are mischievous, beware of them when they get out of hand.
They got hold of Bacheni and cut his lip "Mng'wa."

Ukitakapo hakika kamwulize Mwanasha;
Ati aliyekipika, taa asijaiwasha;
Achondoka kutandika awele kubishabisha.
Habariye isikwisha na kumtenda mn'gwa!

If you want to know the truth go and ask Mwanasha
Who was supposed to have been cooking even before she had lit the lamps.
But when she went to make the beds she was already nagging?
And the whole thing ended with her biting "Mng'wa."

Alipoakimrudi na maneno kumwambia,
Alikitunga mkadi ili kwenda kutembea;
Akema kumradidi una kijana walea,
Awele kumruk'ia na kumkata muomo mng'wa!

When he tried to tell her off and give her a good talking-to
She was stringing the mkadi flower, preparing to go out;
When he went on at her, saying you have a baby that you're (supposed to be) nursing,
She jumped at him and bit off his lip "Mng'wa".

I don't know whether the variant spellings of mng'wa are in Taylor's transliteration or errors introduced during the preparation of Abdulaziz's book. He glosses it as an 'onomatopoeic expression for cutting' (1979: 286, fn. 4), but to me this looks like an over-interpretation influenced by the lines in which it occurs, two of which refer explicitly to cutting. Instead I suggest that it should be read as an approximate rendering of the same interjection-with-a-click-consonant that Taylor tried to describe in African Aphorisms and that he defined as 'an expressive protest against impertinence' (1891: 93). In Muyaka's poem we might think of it as roughly equivalent in meaning to our own 'Hah! So there! Like it or lump it!' Without seeing the relevant archival material it's difficult to know why Taylor himself didn't draw the connection (or why Abdulaziz didn't pick up on it), but it may be that Mwalimu Sikujua's Arabic transcription of the Swahili interjection masked its distinctive enunciation, and that Taylor hadn't yet heard it being spoken. In any event, I've tried my hand at a more idiomatic translation of Muyaka's poem that incorporates this suggested new reading. I'm not an expert in 19th century Swahili poetry or the language in which Muyaka composed his verse: the Mvita that he spoke in Mombasa and the northern dialect forms that he blended in for poetic effect and credibility. But I've drawn on Abdulaziz's text and notes (it's not clear which of these might have come from Taylor), and like him, happily declare the tentativeness of my efforts. So, take it or leave it!

Screw pine, mkadi
You'll laugh when I tell you about the Changamwe
They're just too much and their wives don't act as wives should
The women have the upper hand, Oh beware their shamelessness
They seized Ba Cheni and treated him so!

The Changamwe are doers, and do what they set out to
They wear short swords that cleave like sharp axes
It's true that their wives aren't well-behaved, Oh beware when they misbehave
They seized Ba Cheni and slashed him so!

If you want the truth, ask Mwanasha,
Who was supposed to be cooking, but hadn't lit the lamp,
And carried on quarrelling when she went to make the bed
Which all ended up with her treating him so!

When he came back at her and told her off
She threaded a fragrant flower,* ready to go out
And when he complained that she had a child to look after
She turned on him and cut his lip so!

* A reference to the scented white flower of the Screw pine, Pandanus kirkii (Swahili mkadi)

Despite the superficial similarity, I don't think that there's any link between this Mvita interjection and another expressive nugget that occurs in imprecations in 19th century Swahili poetry, the use of Mngwa- or ngwa- to prefix subjunctive verb forms (Biersteker and Shariff 1995: fn. 254). This has been convincingly explained as a euphemistic contraction of the phrase 'Mungu a-', 'May God...' (Sacleux 1939: 683). Otherwise Sacleux seems to have missed Taylor's interjection and click.


Abdulaziz, Mohamed H. 1979. Muyaka: 19th Century Swahili Popular Poetry. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Biersteker, Ann and Ibrahimu Noor Shariff (eds.) 1995. Mashairi ya Vita vya Kuduhu: War Poetry in Kiswahili Exchanged at the Time of the Battle of Kuduhu. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Burt, F. 1910. Swahili Grammar and Vocabulary. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Lambert, H. E. 1958. Chi-Jomvu and Ki-Ngare: Sub-dialects of the Mombasa Area (Studies in Swahili Dialect III). Kampala: East African Swahili Committee, Kampala College.

Sacleux, Charles 1939. Dictionnaire Swahili-Français. Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie.

Taylor, W. E. 1891. African Aphorisms; or, Saws from Swahili-land. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Walsh, Martin T. 2006. A Click in Digo and its Historical Interpretation. Azania 41: 158-166.


  1. a good piece of history. thanks for the good job of telling us our past