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Centrepoint Humanities Edition

VOL.14, NO.1, PP.27-51

African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition


Akintunde Akinyemi
University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
Abstract
Oral tradition is the vast field of knowledge through which cultural information and
messages are transmitted verbally from one generation to another. It is the complex
corpus of verbal arts created as a means of recalling the past. Sometimes oral
tradition is used interchangeably with folklore or elements such as language and
belief systems that are shared by a group; what gives a community its cultural and
national identity. In contemporary usage, oral tradition or folklore means popular
and group-oriented expressions of culture.1 Oral tradition is governed by certain
characteristic features: the situation or the context of production, the audience, the
language, and the structure or form of the art. One major feature of oral tradition,
which relates to the nature of performance, is the involvement of the community in
the creative process as well as in the criticism. Every performance is for and about
the audience. The main objective of the performer is to entertain, amuse, and impress
the audience so as to earn praise, admiration, and material gifts. In creative
performance, members of the audience neither listen silently nor wait for the
invitation of the performer before joining in. Instead, the audience spontaneously
breaks into the performance with additions, queries, and comments. In her
assessment of the importance of performance in African verbal arts, Finnegan
stresses that a full appreciation must depend on an analysis not only of the verbal
interplay and overtones in the piece, its stylistic structure and content, but also of the
various detailed devices which the performer has at his disposal to convey his
product to the audience (Oral Literature in Africa 13).
The continent of Africa hosts the largest reservoir of varieties of verbal arts, which
could be classified into two categories, namely, literary and historical. While the
literary category includes poetic genres such as praise poetry, sacred chants, songs,
and the verbal formulae like incantations, parables, and proverbs, the historical type,
on the other hand, includes such forms as narratives based on myths, legends,
folktales, and historical genres like epics. Africa is also home to about 2,000 of the
6,000 languages spoken in the world today and many of these languages are used
mostly in the oral, unwritten form. Therefore, the plurality of languages in Africa and
the primacy of oral communication imply that the bulk of literary activity in the
continent is created in the oral media. The aim of this paper is to identify the aesthetic
and cultural values of the identified indigenous genres and examine the processes of
their reconstruction in the context of contemporary mode of literary production.

African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition

Orality, Textuality, and Scripting


The impetus for African oral tradition scholarship developed from renewed interest in
European folklore studies in the late nineteenth century with the publication of works
on oral epics of Finland and other Scandinavian countries and the outset of European
colonialism in Africa. Okpewho has given details of the various disciplines that
influenced the early studies of African oral tradition as anthropology, ethnology, and
folklore (African Oral Literature 3-9). Unfortunately, many of the European
collectors of African oral tradition had no interest in the literary value of the
materials they gathered; they were concerned more with African belief systems and
ideological issues contained in them. The first significant African initiative in oral
tradition scholarship was taken in 1921 with the founding of the Journal of Bantu
Studies, which was jointly published by the University of Cape Town and University
of Witwatersrand in South Africa. The journal lasted from 1921-1941 and laid the
foundation for serious academic study of African verbal arts. At the time, though, the
term that was popularly applied was native literature or vernacular literature.
From the 1930s, the Negritude Movement encouraged enthusiastic collection of
African folklore and oral tradition by Africans themselves. The leading intellectuals
in this effort in the French-speaking countries included Leopold Sedar Senghor and
David Diop of Senegal. The Negritude effort dovetailed into the anti-colonial
resurgence of the 1940s and this current generated more recordings of materials on
oral poetry, epic narratives, and allied genres. The London School of Oriental and
African Studies and its counterparts in France, Germany, and Belgium supported
field research into African traditions. By the 1970s, the Oxford Library of African
Literature had published dozens of titles based on these collections. In the same vein,
interest in folklore and traditional knowledge was helped by the resurgent spirit of
nationalism that came with the attainment of independence by many African nations
in the 1960s. Ruth Finnegans Oral Literature in Africa was perhaps the most
ambitious attempt to provide a continental coverage of the varieties of genres at the
time.
As Okpewho observed, a major advance in the study came when native African
scholars began to undertake research into the oral traditions of their own people
(African Oral Literature 12). Among the pioneers in this new wave were Adeboye
Babalola of Nigeria, Djibril T. Niane of Senegal, and J.H.K. Nketia of Ghana.
Okpewho ranks Babalola as one of the first African scholars to revolutionize the
study of oral literature, especially for his book, The Content and Form of Yoruba
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Ijala. The trend set by Nketia and Babalola in the field of oral poetry was followed in
other parts of the continent. The situation in Nigeria deserves special attention where
the educated elite of the Yoruba were the most active in the study of oral tradition.
The progress made by the Yoruba over the century is acknowledged by Alain Ricard
that, it can be no coincidence that Yoruba oral literature is one of the best known on
the continent, that Yoruba researchers are responsible for much of the best work on
oral literature and that a Yoruba writer received the first Nobel Prize for literature
ever awarded to an African (34).
In spite of the commendable efforts of African scholars and researchers to diligently
collect, transcribe, translate, interpret, and publish many African stories, songs,
poems, proverbs, folktales, etc, numerous genres are still on the brink of extinction
and, sadly, there seems little anyone can do about what is, after all, a natural order of
things. The good news is that various African governments, academic institutions,
and non-governmental organizations are taking steps now to keep alive the traditions
of the past through encouragement and even sponsorship of folk troupes, as well as
the promotion of periodic festivals where the best folk artists may show their skills.
But despite of all these efforts, the passage of things, according to Okpewho, can
never be arrested; the best thing about tradition may be, indeed, that it moves on,
maintaining its essence even changing its outer form (Introduction vii).
It is worth noting, that the international community has come to an increasing
realization of the risks posed to the survival of these cherished traditions by several
forces. Therefore, several measures have been put in place to ensure aggressive
documentation of folkloric materials not just in Africa, but all over the world. For
instance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO), at its meeting in October 17, 2003, recalled an earlier Proclamation of
Master-pieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and subsequently
adopted a Convention with the specific purpose of safeguarding that heritage.2 The
Convention had in mind those practices, representations, expressions, knowledge,
skills as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated
therewith that communities, groups, and, in some cases, individuals recognize as
part of their cultural heritage, a heritage that is manifested in various domains,
especially the oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the
intangible cultural heritage and the performing arts (Okpewho, Introduction
viii). To ensure the success of the task of safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage
of mankind, UNESCO recommended the establishment of organs, large and small,
meeting at various levels to prepare instruments that would create in nations of the
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world an awareness of the need to safeguard their time-honored traditions and guard
them toward the accomplishment of the task. The Convention also established a fund
raised from a variety of sources to aid the achievement of the stated aims.
As if responding directly to the challenge from UNESCO, the Sabah Oral Literature
Project, established in 1986 by Dr G.N. Appell and Laura W.R. Appell of the
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, to collect, preserve, and translate the oral
literature of the various peoples of northern Sabah in Malaysia, broadened its scope
in 2009 and metamorphosed into a new name: World Oral Literature Project: Voices
of Vanishing Worlds. The project sees its new role as an urgent initiative to
document and make accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear
without record. The first phase of the project provides small grants to fund the
collection of oral literature, with particular focus on the peoples of Asia and the
Pacific, and on areas of cultural disturbance. The project aspires to become a
permanent center for the appreciation and preservation of oral literature, and
collaborate with local communities to document their own narratives. It also hopes to
publish a library of oral texts and occasional papers, and make the collections
accessible through new media platforms. By stimulating the documentation of oral
literature and building a network for cooperation, the World Oral Literature Project
supports community of committed scholars and indigenous researchers.
Long before UNESCOs proclamation on the protection of the oral tradition of the
world, among other treasures, the International Society for the Oral Literatures of
Africa (ISOLA) had been formed in London in 1991 by scholars interested in
exploring the rich oral tradition of Africa and the African Diaspora from as many
disciplinary perspectives as possible. The association draws its international
membership from experts and students engaged in the fullest spectrum of research
with respect to African oral tradition, be it performance, literary, linguistic,
comparative, theoretical, or metatheoretical studies. Currently, the association
identifies itself with the initiative of UNESCO towards the preservation of the
worlds intangible heritage and intends to establish a stable cooperative
relationship with the organization. This is evident in two major publications that
emanated from the associations biennial conferences: African Oral Literature:
Functions in Contemporary Contexts, edited by Russell H. Kaschula from papers
presented at the 1998 conference in South Africa and the special edition of the
journal Research in African Literatures on the theme of the 2004 conference in
Gambia, The Preservation and Survival of African Oral Literature, guest edited by
Isidore Okpewho. Despite all the encouraging steps already taken to preserve African
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oral tradition, several of the verbal genres are still increasingly endangered today as
globalization and rapid socio-economic change exert complex pressures on smaller
ethnic communities on the continent. These pressures often erode expressive
diversity and transform culture through assimilation to more dominant ways of life.
As vehicles for the transmission of unique cultural knowledge, indigenous local
languages encode oral tradition materials that become threatened when elders die and
livelihoods are disrupted.
Orality, Intertextuality, and Modern Literature
M. H. A. Abrams defines intertextuality as a creative means used to signify the
multiple ways in which any one literary text echoes, or is inescapably linked to, other
texts, whether by open or covert citations and allusions, or by the assimilation of the
future of an earlier text by a later text, or simply by participation in a common stock
of literary codes and conventions (200). The theory of intertextuality, despite its
Euro-western origin, is not entirely alien to African oral literary practice. More often
than not, oral literary genres in Africa are taken as having no individual authors as is
the case of written literature. In the words of Ruth Finnegan, such literature was, for
instance, supposed to be the work of communal consciousness and group authorship
rather than... of an individual inspired artist (African Oral Literature 36). Since
modern African writers write from their ethnic base, they exploit the communal oral
resources of their base for ideas, themes, and other linguistic influences. By so doing,
contemporary African writers are participating in the global literary trend of
intertextuality. Literature does not evolve within a vacuum. It depends on the sociopolitical realities of its enabling milieu and the precursor texts, oral or written, for its
impetus. Thus, in consonance with the submission of the proponents of intertextuality
that literature evolves from literature, several modern African writers depend heavily
on materials from oral tradition for themes and styles of their literary creation.
Chinua Achebes novels rely on African folk tradition of the Igbo people of
southeastern Nigeria; a point convincingly made by Kalu Ogbaa in his book Gods,
Oracles, and Divination: Folkways in Chinua Achebes Novels. In Things Fall Apart
for instance, Achebes most read novel, the reader comes across Igbo customs,
myths, legends, folktales, and beliefs in magic, superstition, omen, and spells. In the
same novel, Achebe foregrounds some Igbo folktales such as how the birds and the
tortoise were hosted in heaven and the earth and the sky. These folktales give the
Igbo concepts of creation, communality, and diligence. Similarly, in Chinua
Achebes Arrow of God, there is an intertextual link between the novel and Igbo
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ritual drama of Egwugwu (masquerade), proverbs, and festival institutions like Nkwu
Nro. With these fragments from Achebes cultural environment and tradition, he, like
many other contemporary African writers, is able to enrich his creativity. Achebe
exhibits the cultural wealth of Africa in his novels with a view to informing
foreigners that Africa is not a cultural desert. This is a common feature of many
contemporary African writers.
Likewise, the second African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naguib
Mahfouz, is a great practitioner of the literary convention of intertextuality. In his
novels, the reader comes across a fusion of myths and contemporary realities. In his
Children of Gebelawi for example, Mahfouz does not hide the fact that his story is
based on oral folktales which he used to listen to when he was young, that is, from
professional story tellers who learnt them in cafs or from their fathers (Prologue to
Children of Gebelawi). The sentences in the novel are unmistakably lyrical, and the
images are typical of those employed in oral poetry. The text also has an intertextual
link with the archetypal language of oral narratives, legend, and myths, showing
long ago and no precision in time. The novel also relies on traditional epic
structure, it centers on the fall of Adham, the immutable punishment, the birth and
growth of each alley, the legendary story of its founders, wars and brutalities, the
miraculous conquests, and reversal of order of things. Overall, the structure of
Children of Gebelawi is typical of similar epic narratives such as J.P. Clarks Ozidi
Saga and John Miltons Paradise Lost.
Contemporary African literature is written in many different languages, including
indigenous literary languages and languages derived from the European colonization
of Africa. The three main languages of colonial derivation in Africa are English,
French, and Portuguese. Literature written in these languages is respectively called
Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone. The major indigenous languages of
Africa with important written literatures are Amharic, Gikuyu, Hausa, Somali, Sotho,
Swahili, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu; and there are many more African languages that
sustain actual and potential readerships larger than those available to writers in the
smaller single-language European countries like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
Amharic, which is spoken in Ethiopia for instance, has the longest tradition of written
literature; it stretches back more than fifteen hundred years.
One common feature of African modern literature, irrespective of its language of
expression, is the significant presence of materials from oral tradition. For example,
African writers in the Anglophone tradition, such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua
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Achebe of Nigeria, Ayi Kweimah and Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, and Ngugi wa
Thiongo of Kenya have forged a distinctive flavor of English usage that sets
Anglophone African literature apart from the other great bodies of English-language
literature in the world: Britain itself, the United States, and India. They contribute to
this distinctively African literary English through the bold, creative infusion of
rhetorical, lexical, and metaphoric features from their respective native languages.
For instance, Wole Soyinka, according to Biodun Jeyifo, draws substantially on
myths and ritual beliefs and is deeply interested in the symbolic richness of the
nonrational, mystical aspects of reality and experience; he constantly seeks out
marginal characters and figures from what he calls numinous realm: gods, spirits,
inspired or possessed protagonists, mystics, prophets, sages, lunatics, fools (Wole
Soyinka 15).
Several of these modern African writers started as literary scholars conducting
painstaking research into oral tradition of their people. The remote effect of the
research is the motivation on the part of the critics to compose personal creative
works. For example, the Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor researched into the poetic
forms of the Ewe ethnic group, which resulted in the publication of his Guardians of
the Sacred Word: Ewe Poetry, a collection containing Awoonors English
translations of these oral recitations. Awoonors own poetic composition in which he
quite often laments the loss of African values is written in the style of these dirges
even though they carry contemporary themes. A similar thread which links the
traditional and the modern is seen in the poetry of Okot pBitek; he completed his
doctoral thesis Oral Literature and its Background among the Acoli and the Lango
at the Institute of Social Anthropology in Oxford in 1964. He then took the whole of
African continent by surprise when he published, in direct imitation of these
traditional songs, his Song of Lawino, which he had in fact first written and
published in the Acoli language. Thus perhaps the most popular volume of poetry
ever published in Africa it remains a best seller is directly imitative of the poetic
form of an African tribe. PBitek followed Song of Lawino with Song of Ocol, and
Two Songs in which he published Song of Malaya and Song of Prisoner all in the
same style, but all concerned with contemporary modern themes.
Orality, the Media, and Popular Culture
Karin Barber argues in one of her recent scholarly essays that, virtually all new
popular cultural forms in Africa have been shaped by techniques and conceptions
drawn from the media in the last 100 years; while older oral genres have been subtly
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but definitively recast as they have been drawn into new performance spaces on the
airwaves or in print (Orality 3). According to her, most of what is now regarded as
popular as distinct from traditional in African culture was forged in colonial
and postcolonial contexts deeply entwined with print, film, radio, and later television
and video. At the same time, most of what is regarded as traditional has also been
touched by these media in one way or the other. She sums up the history of the
influence succinctly thus,
This history began with print newspapers in African languages, written
and in some cases owned by Africans, have existed since the midnineteenth century. Then followed film: Charlie Chaplin movies, beamed
out from portable projectors soon after the beginning of the twentieth
century, fed into new, live, improvised forms such as Ghanaian concert
party. Records of dance-band music, and of local transformations of it,
circulated from the 1920s onwards and their effect was magnified by the
advent of radio. Waltzez, foxtrots, ragtimes, Charlestons and cha-cha-cha
galvanized local musicians and were catalysts in the generation of new
popular musical genres highlife, juju, Congolese jazz, marabi. From the
late 1950s, television began to provide a space in which new, local genres
of drama took shape. Cassette recordings in the 1970s, video in the 1980s,
and most recently the Internet have successfully stimulated new local
genres and been absorbed into local popular culture (Orality 4).

While Barber shares the sentiment that the impact of the media has been baleful,
swamping indigenous cultural production, wiping out cherished traditions, and forcefeeding entire populations with cheap, meretricious foreign culture (Orality 3),
yet, she reminds her readers that it is also important to recognize the extent to which
African cultural innovators have seized upon the opportunities offered by the media
to revitalize their traditions and generate new forms.
When the first indigenous weekly (bi-lingual) newspaper in Nigeria, w ryn Fn
won Ar gb ti Yorb was established in 1859, its editor, Henry Townsend,
ensured that excerpts from Yoruba verbal arts like folktales, myths, and legends are
included, starting with the publication of folktales in the first issue. The 1920s are
significant for the production of many more Yoruba newspapers to satisfy sociopolitical needs of southwestern Nigeria. First was k kte, edited by Adeoye
Deniga, which started in 1922, followed by E. A. Akintans Elt Ofe, established in
1923, the Ibadan-based Yoruba News, edited by D. A. Obasa, which first came out in
1924, k gbhn in 1926, and then Akde k, which was established in 1928 with
I. B. Thomas as editor (Bisi Ogunsina 6-12). With the publication of the various
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newspapers, the range as well as the scope of writing was expanded. Indeed the
establishment of the newspapers was a notable milestone in the development of
Yoruba creative writing. One newspaper that contributed significantly to the
publication of oral material is Yoruba News. Long before the establishment of the
newspaper, D.A. Obasa, the editor and publisher, was involved in the collection and
documentation of Yoruba verbal arts. This much he stated in the preface to one of his
anthologies: di odn mknllgbn nsisy (AD 1896-1927) t mo ti br s
sayan kkjo won r ogbn taiybiy ti won baba nl wa, t ma hun jade nn
orn, g, rr, jl, ps, rf, ork, l, fr, ti gbk r won. (Obasa, w
Kn i) [For the past thirty-one years (1896-1927) I have been assembling Yoruba
traditional sayings that embody the wisdom of our forefathers. These sayings are
found in songs and in various forms of Yoruba poetry: g, jl, ps, rf, ork,
and in the language of the drum and the flute]. From this collection, Obasa is able to
select and string together traditional sayings that are relevant to his personal
composition. Like a competent traditional-bearer, he was able not only to reproduce
previously learned material, but also to transform, according to mastered rules
familiar elements into new wholes (Olabimtan, A Critical Survey 41-2).
So, when Obasa established his newspaper, Yoruba News in 1924, he decides to
publish his personal poetic compositions in every issue of the newspaper. These
poems fall into three broad categories: those which are strings of traditional sayings
with little or no addition by Obasa himself; those which have Obasas original
composition joined to strings of traditional sayings; and those which are Obasas
original composition on select, traditional sayings (Akinyemi, Denrele
Adeetimikan 172 & Olabimtan, Language and Style 1034). In each of these
categories the three principal characteristic features of Yoruba oral poetic language,
namely antiphonal rhythm, tonal counterpoint, and figurative expressions are in
evidence. But it is in Obasas efforts to use oral poetic language and style in his
poetry that he shows his creative ability: substitution of his own words for parts of
traditional sayings; addition of his own words to traditional sayings; the use of
proverbs on those lexical items that are synonymous with the title of the poem or
those items that belong to the same semantic range as the item used as title for the
poem; and imitation of the spoken form. Through his poetic creation, Obasa,
according to Adeboye Babalola, provided the link between traditional beliefs and
writing in the modern vein (A Brief Survey 121). In 1927, Obasa published his
first anthology of twenty-nine poems, w Kin Ti won Akw (Yoruba
Philosophy); twenty-seven of which he already published in the newspaper Yoruba
News between 1924 and 1926 (Akinyemi, Denrele Adeetimikan 66). He followed
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up with two more volumes w Kej Ti won Akw (Yoruba Philosophy), and w
Keta Ti won Akw (Yoruba Philosophy) respectively in 1934 and 1945.
Things have not changed much in contemporary Africa where different forms of
media still affect production of oral tradition. The electronic media for instance,
especially radio and television, continue to broaden the domain of the continents
verbal arts. The performance of different forms of African oral tradition is a common
occurrence on radio and television stations across the continent. Kofi Agyekum
attests to this fact in an essay on the aspects of Akan oral literature in the media in
Ghana towards the end of the twentieth century. According to the outcome of his
research, the 1990s liberalization of press freedom in Ghana has resulted in the
proliferation of private FM radio stations with new programs in the Ghanaian
indigenous languages. This has stimulated many private FM radio stations to allocate
airtime to proverb competitions, riddles and puzzles, and other forms of verbal
productions like songs and chants. Agyekums research reveals that most Akan
traditional songs, narratives, proverbs, riddles, drama, and concert on radio and
television stations reflect the experiences of the people and it is a way by which oral
literature educates the public via the media. It is through the production of these
verbal arts on radio and television that the youth learn more about their language,
culture, and history, and hence cherish their cultural heritage.
Aspects of oral tradition presented by the media in Africa portray several of the
continents customs and institutions. They further show how valuable these traditions
are and the need to promote and preserve them. The performers of verbal arts on
radio and television build their plots around local customs and cultural institutions. It
is therefore possible for listeners to easily acquire knowledge about their indigenous
culture and work towards its preservation for the sake of cultural continuity. For
example, whenever riddles and puzzles are performed on radio or television, they still
conform to their traditional function of testing listeners, especially children, on
environmental studies, history, culture, language, religion, politics, health, etc. This is
the situation with the Agor riddles and puzzles weekend program anchored by
David Dontoh on Ghanaian Television (GTV), cited by Agyekum in his work.
According to his account, contestants pick some envelopes with riddles or puzzles
that they are to answer. Marks are awarded for correct answers and the marks are
then converted into monetary prizes to be drawn from the Agricultural Development
Bank in Ghana. The program tests different aspects of Akan culture and tradition and,
both the audience at the recording studio and the viewers at home learn a great deal
of Akan culture through the program.
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One other effect of the electronic media on African verbal arts is the domestication of
folksongs where traditional songs are manipulated by contemporary performers to
deal with current issues whether political, cultural, or social. Thus, folksongs on radio
and television, apart from giving audience the much needed entertainment and
relaxation, also dwell on certain aspects of morality and education. There are certain
traditional satirical songs and lampoons that are meant to bring shame on the culprits
and to discourage future misconduct. Others also cast insinuation and innuendo and
even verbal assault not only on individuals, but also on political leaders and draw
their attention to certain faults in their governance. Once again, Agyekum recalls an
excerpt from a 1998 song by an Akan highlife composer based in Kumasi, Asebu
Amamfi, entitled Yn nyinaa bhunu kakra (We shall all suffer a little), and
promoted on the radio and television airwaves in Ghana:
There was a man called Agya Agyen who travelled and bought a car
The car was so beautiful that they all started hailing it thus:
Akwasi Atta, small boy, what shall we do to you?
You are fantastic!
Everybody told him that when it had kittens they would come for some.
Agya Agyen hinted that the cat was too troublesome,
But they insisted that they wanted it anyway
The cat grew up very quickly and started tormenting the masses.
All those who had collected some started to complain
Meanwhile, Agya Agyen had died.
Any time they saw his wife, they complained
But she remarked that my husband told you but you refused to accept!
We are here to see what is going on
The sore would suffer and the pad would suffer too (Agyekum 11).

The song itself, according to Agyekum, lampoons the suffering, Ghanaian masses for
ignoring the advice that they should refrain from voting the political party led by
Jerry Rawlings, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), to power. To save face,
the singer narrated the coming of Rawlings, and his entire period in the form of a
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story that has the cat as the main character. The embedded message is that everyone
those who voted for the NDC and the opposition is experiencing the hardship
created by Rawlings government.3
In a similar work, Samukele Hadebe discusses how the music of a well-known
Zimbabwe contemporary performer, Lovemore Majayivana, draws extensively on
Ndebele oral culture in the form of history, philosophy, poetry, traditional songs,
idioms, etc. According to Hadebe, this artist has managed to transform and modify
the function of Ndebele oral tradition to serve the interests of the economically and
politically marginalized Zimbabweans. Hadebe shows how Majayivanas music
cannot be divorced from its socio-political background. The music of Majayivana is
the public proclamation of protest over what the Ndebele see as their marginalization.
His music speaks about low wages, lack of jobs, economic decline, and the political
upheavals that took place immediately after Zimbabwean independence, leading to
the dislocation of many Ndebele families. Majayivana songs are delivered in the
Ndebele language while their messages are carried through traditional philosophy.
Hadebes analysis of Majayivanas songs shows how they were adapted from old
Ndebele folksongs and modified by the artist to express current social, economic, and
political issues.
The contemporary use of this type of rhetoric is not a new phenomenon. According to
Finnegan, it dates back to the anti-colonial movement era in Africa. It would seem
then, that by the 1950s and 1960s, the use of traditional songs and oral poetry as
popular political oratory was entrenched. The power of the anti-colonial political
songs and poems, according to Russell H. Kaschula, lay in the fact that they were
not accessible to the colonial authorities who could not understand indigenous
languages It is also true that it is much more difficult to censor the oral word
(xiv). Over the years however, the singers and poets have become involved in a
situation where they have often shifted alliances in accordance with shifting political
alliances. For example, Okumu discusses how Ugandan poets shift alliances during
the tussle for power between erstwhile president Milton Obote, and military dictator
Idi Amin. In this lies the danger of both direct and indirect political manipulation and
poetic control.
Thus, the thematic content of verbal arts in contemporary Africa has been broadened
to reflect the important issues of the day, be they religious, political, or social, unlike
the performance of the past, which were essentially concerned with events in and
around the ruling class. Graham Furniss in an exposition of Hausa poetry over a
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period of time, traces the development of the poetry in relation to the nature of Hausa
society in West Africa. He looks at the more traditional poetry in honor of kings, the
absorption of traditional poetry into the written form, and the poetry of religion.
Furniss also shows how this poetry has been absorbed into contemporary popular
culture in Nigeria, thereby ensuring the function of the poets as contemporary sociopolitical commentators. Samba Diop, in a similar work on the Senegalese Wolof
griots, examines how the griots operated in the past and how they have adapted to the
present; warning that the griots are doomed to disappear altogether because of new
forms of entertainment such as cinema, radio, television, and videotape (12). We
share the view expressed by Russell H. Kaschula, that those who hold power in
present day Africa and the artists ability to be innovative as a contemporary sociopolitical commentator, as well as the people in general who legitimize power in a
democracy, will continue to influence the tradition which remains a micro-context
within the wider macro strategy of power and ideology in Africa (xvi). We are
nevertheless convinced that, the modern performer remains rooted within his or her
context, commenting on present-day happenings and current history, while at the
same time weaving and preserving a literary tapestry for future generations. One may
safely claim then, that for as long as politics draws on the art of rhetoric, the role of
verbal arts within this paradigm will remain entrenched.
One other media outlet that has impacted the production and nature of African
tradition is video film; most especially the Nigerian video film industry (known as
Nollywood), rated recently the second largest in the world by UNESCO, coming
after Indian Bollywood and before American Hollywood. Since its debut in the
1980s, the Nigerian video film has overshadowed stage drama, television operas,
radio drama series, photo-plays, and even celluloid films. The video film
entertainment in Nigeria is sustained by its root in the oral tradition of the people,
while also borrowing from foreign literary and cinema cultures. It is a meeting point
of various arts forms; from the visual to the verbal and performative. The tradition
has benefitted from modern advancement in technology as a tool of representing the
peoples condition in its beauty and ugliness. Titles are produced in English and
major indigenous languages such as Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba; however, my interest
is on Yoruba video film, which pioneered the tradition in Nigeria. These are films in
Yoruba language that depict ancient and modern realities of Yoruba world.
Yoruba video films try to preserve the richness and complexity of the language in
representing reality. The language communicates through verbal, gestural, and
symbolic elements, like the use of rok in the film Saworoide. While the art and
39

African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition

aesthetics of If divination is most often used to generate and resolve conflicts in the
plot of many films, oral poetic forms like ork (praise poetry/attributive epithets),
rr (ballad), k pp, (dirge/elegy), jl (hunters chant), s pp (masque
performers chant), Sng pp (Sngs attributive epithets/praise poetry), and of
(incantation) are communicative resources explored by Yoruba video film makers. In
a similar vein, costume and make-up in the video films set the trend for fashion in the
society, just as they are also informed by social trend. Video film directors sometimes
reach back to the cultures past to connect with the present through costume and
make-up. Thus, the video is a means of propagating, preserving, and regenerating the
culture. While depicting conflicts between tradition and modernity, Yoruba video
films provide models for suitable mediation and healthy adjustment suggesting how
best to confront modernity without losing grip of tradition. More than any other mode
of cultural representation, the video film opens a wide perceptive vista to the Yoruba
society, the people, and their culture.
Orality and Globalization
We live in a global village today where cultures across the globe influence and
reshape one another. Consequently, African oral tradition continues to be impacted
by migration, diasporic experience, and interconnectedness with new cultures such as
information technology. For instance, when African slaves were shipped to the
Americas during the transatlantic slave period of the nineteenth century, many of the
slaves carried with them a whole body of indigenous stories, legends, poetry, songs,
traditions, cultural practices, and religious beliefs. Although the arrival of the slaves
in the New World stripped them of their cultural identity, paradoxically, the slaves
refused to succumb even in their cultural nakedness. Therefore, the first generation of
African slaves that arrived in the Americas managed to retain several aspects of their
culture, which they passed on to the younger generations despite stiff opposition from
their white masters. This way, the slaves were able to preserve their linguistic,
religious, and aesthetic principles from extinction.
The religious survivals are the most spectacular and widely studied phenomena in the
New World.4 Incidentally; scholars agreed that no other African ethnic group
influenced the preservation of African religious practices in the New World as much
as the Yoruba. The syncretism between the Yoruba rs and the Catholic saints
permitted the Yoruba slaves who were shipped to the New World to continue the cult
of their divinities in secret, under the cover of Christianity.5 For instance, the Yoruba
rs Elgbr or s makes it into Cuban Santeria as Eleggua and into Brazilian
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VOL.14, NO.1, PP.27-51

Candomble as Exu. He is a messenger god and is therefore a god of crossroads and


the trickster archetype. Eleggua is also associated with destiny and is often called the
opener of paths. Being a trickster god does imply mischief, but the evil to which he
is associated in the West African and Brazilian traditions is absent in Cuba. Instead of
the Brazilian Satanic equation of Eleggua, the Cuban Santera equates Exu to Santo
Nio de Atocha, San Antonio de Padua and San Martin de Porres.
In a similar vein, Sng, the Yoruba warrior divinity, lord of lightning, fire, drum,
dance, and justice, is highly popular in Brazil where he is equated with Saint Barbara.
It has been suggested that the Yoruba Ketu slaves from Dahomey were responsible
for the creation of Xang in the northeastern region of Brazil where they worked on
tobacco plantations (Wande Abimbola, The Yoruba Traditionl Religion). In Brazil,
Xang is both an orixa (rs) and a deified heroic ancestor. Oral tradition among the
West African Yoruba claims that Sng has several wives, including Oya and sun,
both present in the New World pantheons (Gleason and Murphy & Mei-mei). Oya is
the goddess of whirlwind and of the realm of the dead in the New World, witnessed
in her connection with cemetery gates. She is of strong temperament and
authoritative, qualities expected of a warrior goddess. The diaspora links her to Saint
Teresa and the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Candlemas. However, the goddess Ochun
(sun) is the Mother of Secrets in Cuba where she is equated to the Virgin Mary in
her form of Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. This goddess is the spirit of the fresh
water; rivers, lakes, and rain.
Amongst the other popular Yoruba rs in the diaspora are iron and war god gn
(Saint Peter), the god of destiny / divination rnml/If (Saint Francis of Assisi),
the wise shaper/creator of human bodies, Obtl (Our Lady of Mercy), the goddess
of the ocean Yemaya (Virgin Mary), the god of herbal medicine san/sanyn
(Saint Sylvester), the river goddess Inle/Erinl (Saint Raphael), and the divine twins
Ibeyi/bej (Saint Cosma and Damian) that bring luck and protection against baneful
magic. These deities were preserved in both Brazilian and Cuban traditions, yet
Brazil seems to have preserved a greater number of rs than Cuba.
The Yoruba religious chants that survived in the diaspora today are devoted entirely
to the praise of the numerous deities brought to the New World by African slaves,
mentioning the characteristics of each of them as well as the relationship between
them. The poems and the signatures that usually terminate them also show the area of
operation or the ancestral home of each divinity. It is for that reason that one chanter

41

African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition

claims, for instance, that Oya, the goddess of the sea in the diaspora, hails from the
great river in our ancestral home (Yorubaland in Nigeria):
Oya nbo,
Oya nbod ile
Oya nbo ya uj,
Oya nb fra w
Oya nbo fr Oba
Oya nbod ile

(Oya hails from where?


Oya, the mother of twins, hails from where?
Oya hails from the great river in our ancestral home
Oya, our kinswoman, hails from where?
Oya, the kings lady hails from where?
Oya hails from the great river in our ancestral home) (Akinyemi, Transnational
Displacement 42)
Many of these chants are manipulated to tell the myths of Yoruba divinities that
survived in the diaspora and to link the deities with their places of origin in Africa.
This evokes an emotional feeling in the congregation regarding their own ancestral
home while at the same time giving consolation to the worshippers that the divinities
are with them in their new home in the foreign land and would help solve their
problems. Since the devotees developed from a background of slavery in an
atmosphere of bondage and suffering, the divinities are called upon in their praises as
instruments of deliverance. Thus we have in the following excerpt, a call on the deity
Sng for deliverance:
ny oba sar w
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VOL.14, NO.1, PP.27-51

Olwa mi arosse
Tk tk lomod Rs
Oba sr w
Sr w b m o
rjj, oba sr w

(O! king, hasten here


My lord of the ceaseless rain
Come with thunder stones to the aid of the children of rs
O! king, hasten here
Come and deliver me
The fearful king, hasten here) (Akinyemi, Transnational Displacement 42-3)
The Yoruba divinities that survived in the diaspora today are revealed in the chants
associated with them as the agents of deliverance of a people who have been
deprived of their freedom, but whose faith in the power of the deities to shelter and
care for their own followers remain unshaken. The worship of the divinities is a
strategy for survival and for freedom. Therefore, the divinities are seen by their
devotees in the diaspora as national and heroic symbols as well as divine messengers.
One other major effect of globalization on African oral tradition is seen in the
opportunity to store and/or retrieve information on computer networks since the
evolution of the Internet and the World Wide Web about twenty years ago. For
example, a Google search of African oral tradition gives over half a million results,
African oral literature another half a million, African oral history over 2 million,
and African oral tradition stories well above 4 million results! The implication of
this is that, the context and production of oral communication, whether in the form of
daily utterances or of artistic expression, are increasingly affected by the growing
presence of literacy and technical media. One of the most salient phenomena of the
technological revolution of the Internet and the World Wide Web is the explosive
43

African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition

growth of websites and online discussion groups set up mostly by African diaspora
groups (which include exile, transnational, emigrant, expatriate, asylum, and refugee
communities) and individuals who see themselves as purveyors of African cultures
and traditions. A careful examination of the original content and form of these
websites and online discussion groups shows that they were initially established to
provide, and facilitate the exchange of, socio-political and economic information
among targeted individuals and diasporic communities in the languages of the former
colonial masters, English, French, and Portuguese (Merolla 101). Today, however,
most of these online sites host more cultural information in indigenous languages
about different African ethnic groups. In fact, some of these sites are entirely in
African languages. This implies that, the sites are increasingly expressing and
constructing the awareness of specific collective ethno-cultural identities (Miller &
Slater). The alternatives presented by this technological revolution address specific
diasporic and exile communities, transnational diasporic communities, and African
and global audiences. These online sites include what is excluded by other media
sources and demonstrate creative use of technology, they challenge the views
presented in other sources, and they provide services for and work to organize and
mobilize diaspora communities (Biersteker 151).
As J. D. Bolter and R. Grusin observed, the Internet is characterized by the
integration of various media and it offers a variety of remediations in the sense that
its elements and forms are borrowed from, and depend on, other media. In other
words, when we search for information online, we can read it as an illustrated book,
listen to it as a radio, and watch it as a television, film, or video. Furthermore, we can
also interact with all these different media and freely shift from one to the other. As I
discussed in the early part of this chapter, these other media are not only able to host
different forms of orality, but they also reveal new traces of it. In this respect, it is
important to recall the so-called shift from orality to literacy, the studies on oral
elements in written texts, as well as the transition of oral genres to the print and
electronic media. All these different forms and traces of orality can also be found on
the Internet, where different media are recycled and integrated. In which case, we
can speak of dimensions of orality in websites, that is, of forms and traces of orality
that are characterized by the remediation of the World Wide Web (Merolla 102-3).
In examining the locations of African oral tradition on the Internet, that is, the
position that African orality occupies on the World Wide Web both spatially and
discursively, one needs to pay particular attention to choice of language on the sites.
Most websites and online discussions targeting Sub-Saharan Africans are typically
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monolingual, mostly in English, French, or Portuguese, depending on the colonial


experience of the organizations or individuals behind the sites. However, similar sites
targeting North Africans are typically multilingual, where languages such as English,
French, and Arabic are widely used (Merolla 103). Nevertheless, there is also space
for indigenous African languages, which assume the role of indicators and identity.
Some sites even articulate language policies that encourage use of African languages.
For instance, the Yoruba online discussion group, Tiwa-N-Tiwa, insists on the use of
Yoruba language solely, Fn soj, gbga ti tnkl d Yorb... d aldn y
nkan ni wa t a w nn egb y y ma ko s ara wa. A k f Gs, Farans tb
dkd, bkse Yorb.(For the revival, progress, and development of Yoruba...
This is the only acceptable language for communication by members of this
discussion group. We do not want English, French, or any other language, except
Yoruba). Likewise, two of the stated objectives of CyberEthiopia are to foster
dialogue, collaboration, and knowledge sharing among Ethiopians (both inside and
outside the country), in particular by offering appropriate e-forums in local Ethiopian
languages as it fits a democratic and free Ethiopia... (and to) initiate an Ethiopian
cyber culture by encouraging information exchange and content creation in local
languages (Biersteker 157). Some of such websites present a wide range of content
in African indigenous languages and also access to instructional materials and
sources of information about specific languages. For instance, Ann Biersteker reports
that Somalinet.com provides an online magazine in Somali language, as well as
access to Somali/English and English/Somali dictionaries; Asmarino.com provides
Tigringya language lessons; while Eristart.com provides links to websites that
provide information on Blin and Kunama, two minority languages that are spoken in
Eritrea (157).
What distinguishes such online sites from other alternative Internet news sources
focused on Africa is the emphasis that they place on the arts and culture. In particular
when we explore the actual space allocated to oral genres on the sites, it is evident
that such spatial location is also integrated in the discursive construction of the online
sites, and this is significant in terms of cultural identity and in terms of analysis.
Verbal arts, whether transcribed, audio-recorded, or filmed, are often to be found in
an almost standard format. Similarly, once oral genres are uploaded online, they
appear as fixed expressions in the mother-tongue, with or without translations. We
also noticed that reference to oral genres can be more or less visible depending on the
position in which the hyperlinks to literary subpages are placed. These hyperlinks
lead to pages where one finds different aspects of oral tradition such as arts and
culture, chants and poetry, songs and music, proverbs, riddles and puzzles, art and
45

African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition

crafts, oral narratives like folktales and myths, etc. It is not unusual to also have
hyperlinks to subpages on samples of contemporary literature, most especially,
modern poetry, and short stories. In most cases, the short oral literary genres like
proverbs, riddles, and songs are presented both transcribed in an indigenous African
language and translated to English. But the more elaborate oral narratives like
folktales, samples of contemporary poetry and short stories, and cultural information
on history, naming ceremony, arts and crafts, are presented mostly in English.
A new trend in the location of orality on these sites is the inclusion of film shots or
video clips of songs, chants, riddles, story- or folktale-telling sessions that are offered
in audio-visual forms, thus reproducing oral communication. More importantly,
thousands of samples of African oral genres, documentaries on different aspects of
African culture, and segments of video films are now available on YouTube to the
general public. Furthermore, with the recent invention of the Webcam, diviners,
especially in Africa, are now able to interact with their clients in the diaspora face-toface on the Internet instead of the usual telephone consultation: clients are now able
to consult with their diviners, and diviners are also in a position to perform necessary
divination and offer prescribed sacrifices for the clients on the Internet.
The Internet is thus a new means of learning and retaining African oral genres. This
technique may be valued as a new way of preserving oral texts, but equally, it may
simply function as a temporary domain for orality. Once an online site is rested or
when a particular data/text is replaced or removed from a webpage, the material may
be lost forever. Conversely however, one may also argue that the Internet has helped
in the preservation of African oral tradition, first, by absorbing orality into global
popular culture flows, and second, by extending to it unimaginable international
fame. As Karin Barber rightly argued, Everywhere in Africa, new genres grew up in
the twentieth century, dislogically intertwined with new media technologies, partly
stimulated, partly shaped by these technologies but also significantly affecting the
way the media functioned (Orality 9).
Conclusion
The oral word is a powerful political tool in contemporary Africa; hence the
continents oral tradition has increasingly been used as a tool for validating sociocultural and aesthetic practices. It is also manipulated as part of political rhetoric. It is
perhaps for this reason that Ruth Finnegans observation becomes relevant: songs
are now accepted by African political parties as a vehicle for communication,
propaganda, political pressure, and political education As such they are a powerful
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and flexible weapon in many types of political activity (African Oral Literature
284). The question that begs further research is how orality continues to adapt and
function within the modern-global world. Oral tradition exists only in so far as
society allows it to exist. It is the interrelationship between context and text, which
permits it to grow. Orality is not a static culture, but remains ever changing and
dynamic. It is in this context that the following chapters examine new roles assigned
to orality in the works of contemporary Yoruba playwrights.
Notes
1
This is the sense in which oral tradition is understood today in conventions of
the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
2
As a specialized agency of the United Nations established on November 16,
1945, UNESCO encourages international peace and universal respect by promoting
collaboration among nations. The World Heritage List of the organization includes
904 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage, which the World
Heritage Committee of UNESCO considers as having outstanding universal value.
These include 701 cultural, 176 natural, and 27 mixed properties in 150 States
Parties. As of June 2010, 187 States Parties have ratified the World Heritage
Convention.
3
Kwesi Yankah in Nana Ampadu, the Sung-Tale Metaphor, and Protest
Discourse in Contemporary Ghana, Adjaye J.K. and A.R. Andrew (eds.) Language,
Rhythm and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-First Century.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997, pp. 54-73, recalls a similar song
composed by Nana Ampadu, a renowned highlife composer and social commentator,
when Ghana gained independence from Great Britain. The song, Ebi te yie, ebi nso
nte yie (Some are well seated, others are not), depicts the situation where most
people are suffering and few others are enjoying.
4
The Yorb systems of divination have also been preserved in the New
World, such as the table of If, okuele, dlgn, and ob or darle coco al santo (giving
coconut to the saint). Ob is a form of divination that lacks any initiation requirement
in order to perform. The divinatory tool used is a coconut that has been broken up
into four parts. These four coconut pieces are cast on the ground to answer simple
questions asked by the diviner. Answers to questions are revealed by the pattern of
white-side-up and brown-side-up pieces. The dlgn is a more complicated system
of divination. Sixteen cowry shells are cast on an estera (straw mat), producing a
47

African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition

higher number of pattern / oddun (od) variability. Each pattern is associated with an
rs and a legend or proverb. The other two forms of divination require a trained
babalwo (If priest) to be the diviner. Okuele is similar to the other forms of
divination in that answers are revealed in the patterns created after the casting of the
tool. In this case a chain of eight coconut shell medallions
or coins are used. If divination differs from the other systems in its requirement for
the appropriate time. If is reserved for determining patron rs, initiations, and
deaths of babalwos. This system employs a wooden tray marked with symbols and
covered with a powder. The diviner then must trace lines in the powder to interpret
the messages.
5
These Yoruba divinities are hero deities or lesser gods and goddesses. Oral
traditions often give a confusing impression of the exact number of these divinities:
sometimes they speak of rnljo irnmol (seventeen hundred divinities). We are
told also that there are igba irnmol ojktn, igba irnmol ojks (two hundred
divinities of the right hand, and two hundred divinities of the left hand making four
hundred) or knln irnmol (four hundred and one divinities). There are still
jllgbje irnmol t wn n lu edan fn (one thousand four hundred and forty
divinities for whom metal rods are sounded). See E. B. dw Oldmar: God in
Yoruba Belief, New York: Frederick A. Preager Publisher Inc. 1963, pp. 678.
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