The Hakkamat: Folk Poetesses Of War And Peace

The Hakkamat: Folk Poetesses Of War And Peace

Omjabir, hakkama from al-Daien, East Darfur State


KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - One type of the Darfuri cultural heritage is the hakkama (plural hakkamat), the folk poetess who depicts the social, political and economic state of affairs in that society of extreme Western Sudan.


The hakkama incarnates those conditions in zealous verse. By that definition, the hakkama is an information outlet that mobilizes the community for defense in times of fighting and guides it toward noble values at times of peace. There is a common belief that the influence of the hakkama is far bigger than that of the official media in the area where she composes and sings her verse. At times of war the Hakkamat mobilize and encourage men for fighting and during times of peace they urge people to observe noble values like generosity, courage and magnanimity.


Ibrahim Abbakar, a researcher in Darfur’s heritage, says that language-wise the word hakkama has the dual meaning of referring to wisdom and rule. For the latter definition the hakkama strongly controls and commands her community by the force of words. That is because the effect of words supersedes all other effects, as it addresses both the mind and the emotions.


In the local idiom, the hakkama is the traditional folk poetess who plays a big role in human life whether this life is sedentary or on the move. “The hakkama’s poetic talent can be a gift from the Almighty and can also be inherited in the family, from the ancestors,” says researcher Abbakar.


The hakkama verse can be satirical (defamatory), praise, expressing pride and honor and can also be an expression of love. The hakkama assumes all these roles according to situation.


In Western Sudan, the Southern Darfuri Baqqara community and in Kordofan in particular, the hakkamas are very popular. However, this popularity is less in nomadic communities who move with their livestock in search of pasture and water. The hakkama role is less in cases of sedentary farming communities. Generally the hakkama is usually critical of bad conduct like armed robbery and tribal wars. But she also has the negative role of instigating sedition and incitement of tribal conflicts. Because of this dual role of the hakkama, it is not always easy to direct her towards positive roles where she can employ the magic of her words for positive construction, maintains Abbakar.


Abbakar says however that in some cases civil society groups have managed to turn some hakkamas into wise poetesses after a lot of careful education. Religious guides usually supply these poetesses with religious, social and cultural doses. “In these cases the hakkama has become wise and wisdom is the most important tool in building societal peace,” maintains Abbakar.


The hakkama poetry is scanned verse in which she repeats two lines and then repeats the entire stanza. The hakkamas can compose war verses in which they encourage fighters to defend the community’s honor and praise their community’s notables by way of sending an encouraging message to the entire community.


Generally, the hakkama assumes a high information position in the Sudanese society. In Darfur and Kordofan the hakkamas are a representation of mass media where the hakkamat set the rules of morality, hospitality, bravery and generosity through their poems, ballads and offhand orations.


All the community members fear the hakkama because once a hakkama says a bad word about a community member, he will be defamed forever. That is why community leaders avoid to commit mistakes in the presence of the hakkama and try to please her the best they can. If a community leader does please a hakkama, she will heap praise on him and propagate nice talk about him within his own community and within neighboring communities.


The hakkama is a treasury of the community’s heritage, history and the biography of its chieftains and heroes. She immortalizes the community’s dead in very expressive and eloquent verse. And despite the fact most hakkamas are illiterate, they naturally produce poetry which is candid and speaks of credibility and high morality.

Part of the hakkama verse is also to glorify her relatives and clan, foremost her fathers, brothers and grandfathers as used to happen during pre-Islam. Taking pride in the fathers is a very important issue. One hakkama had bragged about her father’s courage, saying:

My father is worthy of most praise, the dear one who is not cheap

My dad who saddles horses, who hosts guests on carpets brought from Egypt,

who once he sees the enemy he knows no stop!


Another hakkama praises her father this way:

Dad! Dad! You are the river,

More bitter than a glass of poison you are, and the shinaiga (a spear) that into the bellies goes through!

Some of the hakkamas

Love-wise the hakkamas are very daring when they describe men. They do so without any reservation or shyness. Hakkamas praise the morality of men, their generosity, courage and their respect for women. Says one hakkama in praise of a man:

Son of Hamdallah! The difficult, who knows no cowardice.

You are the venom, the corundum of gold!

Your heart is a Kassala stone (very solid) that never fears nor knows any horror.

A tried knight and your manhood is genuine.


Socially, and because  of the quick manner in which their poetry disseminates in the surrounding districts, there is now a tendency to use poetry of the hakkamat to propagate thoughts about the need to fight children diseases and the principles of healthy maternity. NGOs working in these domains can benefit a good deal from the hakkama poetry in educating the communities about this culture, using their acceptability in their respective communities. This may also include women causes, the gender issue and the resolution of problems of illiteracy and diseases. Says one hakkama:

We have erased illiteracy and its torments,

We assembled the letters and knew how they work.

We learned how to read, and also how to write!

Says another hakkama addressing her community’s young men:

Try to be chaste and chastity is all beauty.

In order to get children like apples

You have the chance people of the Sudan, clean your environment in order to live in happiness!


In as much as the hakkamas have a role in fanning the fires of war, they have a role in fighting tribal conflicts through their verse and words. While the hakkamas had a role in instigating warring, they now have a positive role in portraying warring as a sign of cowardice. This had caused men to shun armed conflicts, as something harmful to the wellbeing of respective tribe.


Generally the hakkamas have little taste for satirical verse because the one who is belittled in a certain poem becomes a social castaway. For that the hakkamas never write satire about anyone, save the one who lags behind in times of danger or refuses to help his neighbors in times of farming that require many hands. Such a person is described by the hakkamas as “the one who stays at home.” The one who is described so can never trod out of his home once again, out of shyness. That is why all men fear to be described so and do the best they can to join the tribe members in any duty and help women as much as they can. One day a hakkama composed such satirical verse about a certain man, causing him to be isolated from the society. That is why hakkamas in general avoid satirical verse.


Sudan’s history tells about names of such women poetesses. The list includes Mehaira Bit Abbood, who sang strong verse to encourage her tribe’s fighters stand in the face of the invading Turkish Army in 1820. The list also includes poetess Banoona Bit Almak and the sister of warrior Musa who eulogized him with a poem that says:

Dear me Musa, the knife of men (meaning he could kill lots of men using his knife), And he does not eat green vegetables (a sign that he eats just meat),

And he never drinks liquor (that harms the body and soul).




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