Fumo Liyongo was a historical ruler who lived on the Swahili Coast sometime between the 9th and 16th century. Regardless of the exact time when he lived, Liyongo’s legend continues on to this day through the Swahili epic poem Utenzi wa Liyongo (‘Legend of Liyongo’).
The main conflict of the poem revolves around Liyongo and his cousin Daudi Mringwari, the Sultan of Pate (an island of the Lamu Archipelago in present-day southeastern Kenya). Daudi views Liyongo as a potential usurper to the throne while Liyongo views himself as the rightful heir to the seat of power, and Daudi thus hatches several plots to dispose of Liyongo. In one attempt, Daudi arranges a marriage between Liyongo and a foreign woman so that Liyongo will be far away from Lamu and no longer a threat to Daudi’s power. The sultan then sends assassins to murder Liyongo, but the latter outwits his enemies and lives to see another day.
His first plan having failed, Daudi then summons Liyongo to Pate, where Liyongo is imprisoned and sentenced to death. Nevertheless, Liyongo is granted one final wish before his execution and desires for a dance ceremony. In the commotion he manages to escape from Daudi’s clutches once again. Unfortunately for Liyongo, Daudi has the last laugh. Enticing Liyongo’s son Mani Liyongo with the temptation of royalty and his own daughter’s hand in marriage, Daudi persuades Mani to kill Liyongo with a copper dagger (Liyongo’s sole weakness), thus ending the harrowing exploits of Liyongo once and for all.
As opposed to some other African-Islamic epics which promote Islamic traditions overtaking indigenous African ones (such as the Epic of Sundiata), the Epic of Liyongo is a great reflection of the nature of the Swahili coast, with the story emphasizing a synthesis between local East African practices and Islamic beliefs.
By Tre Hunt
(Image: Lamu Tourism)