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Mwana Kupona Binti Msham The Story of the Bajuni Sovereign Poetess

Created by David Karanja In History 27 May 2022

Mwana Kupona Binti Msham was born in the 19th century, on the picturesque island of Pate. From the 13th to the 19th Centuries, Pate was the center of the Pate Sultanate Surrounded by the Island’s Arabic and Swahili blend of exquisite architecture, fine arts, music, and poetry.

It was no surprise that Mwana Kupona grew up to become one of the most eminent Swahili poets of the 19th century. She authored the poem, Utendi wa Mwana Kupona or "The Book of Mwana Kupona", which is one of the most highly regarded works in Swahili literature.

Little is known about Mwana Kupona’s early life but she probably grew up like any Bajuni child, following the beliefs, practices, and values that go to shape a person of substance.

What we do know is that Mwana Kupona was special and even as she developed into an elegant young woman, her interest in poetry also grew.

No sooner was she ready for marriage than she became a royal bride, the last wife of sheikh Bwana Mataka, ruler of Siyu, with whom she had two children.

Her husband died in 1856 and two years later, she wrote her famous poem Utendi wa Mwana Kupona, dedicated to her 14-year-old daughter Mwana Heshima.

The poem is centered on the teachings and advice of Mwana Kupona to her daughter concerning marriage and wifely duties.

Despite the seemingly secular subject, the poem is spiritual and mystical, and moral, and has been compared to the Biblical Book of Proverbs.

Many speakers of Kiswahili are familiar with its opening lines.

Negema wangu binti

mchachefu wa sanati

upulike wasiati

Asa ukazingatia

Maradhi yamenshika

hatta yametimu mwaka

sikupata kutamka

Neno lema kukwambia

The poem is rich in detail about day-to-day life.

Mwana Kupona binti Msham died in 1865 but her words continue to live in the hearts and minds of those who still read and recite them, young and old. Words that are sure to live forever.

Mwana Kupona Binti Msham's legacy lives on

The Pate Sultanate from the Pate town was a sultanate from at least the beginning of the 13th century until 1895. From 1858 on, it was the domain known as Wituland.

Archeological evidence suggests Pate was a prominent location in local trade networks by the 10th century. The 18th century was known as the "Golden Age of Pate". During this period, the town was at its height of power, and also prospered in fine arts.

Builders constructed some of the finest houses on the Swahili Coast, with extensive elaborate plaster works. Goldsmiths made intricate jewelry, fine cloths (including silks) were made by Pate's weavers and carpenters produced fine wooden furniture.

The use and production of the musical instrument known as Siwa were most famous. Two examples of Siwas remain in the museum in Lamu.

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