The earliest work on Swahili poems are thought to be those by Fumo Lyongo of Pate, who lived
during the times of 12th century Mringwari Kingdom that shrined in the northern coast of East Africa. There are more than 13 types of language art or verses in
Swahili. They include utenzi, shairi, wimbo, hamziya, sivindo, tumbuizo, wawe, kimai, dura mandhuma, and many more. Although all these types have their special significance, the more popular forms of written versifications in
Swahili are utenzi and shairi. The other types appear more in social functions providing some form of entertainment as well as serving to consolidate the rich culture of the people of East African Coast, or the "Waswahili".
By its nature, utenzi (tenzi, pl.) is made up of short verses that rhyme and can send well-formulated and touching messages to the listening audience. Therefore, tenzis tend to be very long with more than hundred verses and a down to earth coverage depending on the the purpose, the audience and the nature of subject being narrated. Their messages are touchy and emotional and for this reason they are often used as a means of propagating religious teachings or in political rallies to mobilize masses in
support of a particular campaign.
On the other hand, shairi (mashairi, pl.) is a composition of higher class than utenzi in the sense that one needs to pay a special attention to the completeness of the message in each verse while at the same time observe structural consistency. Simply speaking, a shairi can be a double-, triple-, or even tetrad-versed utenzi. However, more recently there are those who ascribe to some kind of modern poems or mashairi mamboleo, which do not follow strict versification as practiced in the classical
Swahili poems. Mashairi are of many kinds, each with its own rules and structure but an essential condition is syllable consistency rather than their rhyming
These are the two types of poems normally found in Zanzinet and though other forms such as wimbo (nyimbo, pl.) or song and matumbuizo or choruses of various kinds do appear from time to time, they are not presented here. Interested readers or music lovers could visit Superstar's website or you could make your plans to attend the Festival of the Dhow Countries in Zanzibar. But if your interest stretch far beyond the official version of
Swahili art, you could take a look at Swahili proverbs as depicted in kanga, a famous women cloth in East Africa, by visiting Hassan Ali's kanga page.