Izibongo is an Nguni term literally meaning ‘clan names’. In SeSotho it is referred to as Dithoko, in SeTswana as Diboko and in SePedi as Diretho.
African oral poetry, the izibongo, are ancient praise poems which are a popular indigenous oral tradition in Southern Africa. Traditionally, it is used to praise kings, queens and all royalty; praise poetry is an essential part of our essence as African people.
It is the vessel of our history, our cultural heritage and our reference point on how to express ourselves.
Africans in general rely on praise poetry to identify themselves because many Africans have clan names which form the basis of our identity. These clan names are bound together in sequence or hierarchy relative to geography, history, lineage and major historical events.
Praise poetry is used to compile and narrate the history, heritage and lineage of a people, family, a nation, etc.
During the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa this ancient tradition was revived and widely used for protest poetry at large public gatherings.
This ancient tradition is also used to praise and celebrate the legacy of individuals of note and record events of great importance – battles, wars, famine, floods, marriage, births, deaths, arrivals of foreigners, freedom, etc.
Excerpt from a translation of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela praises:
It’s a dream of the dead
It’s a dream that people thought would never come true
People have cried till they gave up
How many souls are under the ground?
How many corpses because of Mandela
In my recently published book, Back From The Dead: The Rising of an African Spirit, I have included three praise poems dedicated to Nelson Mandela (Caught Forever), Martin Luther King Jr (Schooling Us) and Steve Biko (Urban Legend).
I have also written tribute pieces to celebrate the legacies of Thomas Sankara and Robert Sobukwe, and I am currently researching Nat Turner with the intention of writing a tribute piece based on his contribution to the struggle for freedom for all.
Praise poetry is often used to invoke the presence of the ancestors in healing ceremonies, funerals and weddings.