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Oral Literature in Africa

Oral Literature in Africa

Ruth Finnegan
Volume: 1
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Open Book Publishers
Pages: 614
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  • Book Info
    Oral Literature in Africa
    Book Description:

    Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa was first published in 1970, and since then has been widely praised as one of the most important books in its field. Based on years of fieldwork, the study traces the history of storytelling across the continent of Africa. This revised edition makes Finnegan’s ground-breaking research available to the next generation of scholars. It includes a new introduction, additional images and an updated bibliography, as well as its original chapters on poetry, prose, "drum language" and drama, and an overview of the social, linguistic and historical background of oral literature in Africa. Oral Literature in Africa has been accessed by hundreds of readers in over 60 different countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and numerous other African countries. The digital editions of this book are free to download thanks to the generous support of interested readers and organisations, who made donations using the crowd-funding website Oral Literature in Africa is part of our World Oral Literature Series in conjunction with the World Oral Literature Project.

    eISBN: 978-1-906924-72-0
    Subjects: Anthropology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xv)
  4. [Illustration]
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
    Mark Turin

    The study and appreciation of oral literature is more important than ever for understanding the complexity of human cognition.

    For many people around the world—particularly in areas where history and traditions are still conveyed more through speech than in writing—the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of culture and memory. Very often, local languages act as vehicles for the transmission of unique forms of cultural knowledge. Oral traditions that are encoded in these speech forms can become threatened when elders die or when livelihoods are disrupted. Such creative works of...

  6. Preface to the First Edition
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
    Ruth Finnegan
  7. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. xxv-xxxiv)
    Ruth Finnegan
  8. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xxxv-xxxviii)
  9. Acknowledgements: Addendum 2011
    (pp. xxxix-xl)
  10. Abbreviations
    (pp. xli-xlii)
  11. Notes on Sources and References
    (pp. xliii-xliv)

    • 1. The ‘Oral’ Nature of African Unwritten Literature
      (pp. 3-28)

      Africa possesses both written and unwritten traditions. The former are relatively well known—at any rate the recent writings in European languages (much work remains to be publicized on earlier Arabic and local written literatures in Africa). The unwritten forms, however, are far less widely known and appreciated. Such forms do not fit neatly into the familiar categories of literate cultures, they are harder to record and present, and, for a superficial observer at least, they are easier to overlook than the corresponding written material.

      The concept of anoralliterature is an unfamiliar one to most people brought up...

    • 2. The Perception of African Oral Literature
      (pp. 29-50)

      A considerable amount of work has been published on the subject of African oral literature in the last century or so. But the facts are scattered and uneven, often buried in inaccessible journals, and their significance has not been widely appreciated. The popular image of Africa as a land without indigenous literary traditions retains its hold; even now, it is still sometimes expressed in a form as crude as that criticized by Burton a century ago:

      The savage custom of going naked’, we are told, ‘has denuded the mind, and destroyed all decorum in the language. Poetry there is none...

    • 3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background
      (pp. 51-80)

      In Africa, as elsewhere, literature is practised in a society. It is obvious that any analysis of African literature must take account of the social and historical context—and never more so than in the case of oral literature. Some aspects of this are discussed in the following chapter on poetry and patronage and in examples in later sections. Clearly a full examination of any one African literature would have to include a detailed discussion of the particularities of that single literature and historical period, and the same in turn for each other instance—a task which cannot be attempted...

  13. II. POETRY

    • 4. Poetry and Patronage
      (pp. 83-110)

      This chapter is intended to give some account of the conditions in which African oral poets produce their works, and the audiences to which they address themselves. However, even the most summary account of this topic is a matter of great difficulty. This is partly because of sheer lack of data. Even those who have spent time and care recording African texts have frequently taken next to no interest in the position of the authors or reciters. A related but more profound cause of confusion lies in the popular images which underlie the work of many commentators on African oral...

    • 5. Panegyric
      (pp. 111-144)

      In its specialized form panegyric isthetype of court poetry and one of the most developed and elaborate poetic genres of Africa. It seems to go with a particular ethos, a stress on royal or aristocratic power, and an admiration for military achievement. It is true that praises (including self-praises) also occur among non-centralized peoples, particularly those who lay stress on the significance of personal achievement in war or hunting (such as the Galla or Tuareg), and also that the use of ‘praise names’ is nearly universal. But the most specialized forms, and those which will primarily be considered...

    • 6. Elegiac Poetry
      (pp. 145-164)

      Elegiac poetry is an exceedingly common form of expression in Africa. We hear of it from all areas and in many different forms. However it is usually less specialized and elaborate than panegyric poetry, and, perhaps for this reason, it has attracted less interest.¹ More private and normally lacking the political relevance of panegyric poetry—to which, nevertheless, it is closely related—it tends to be performed by non-professionals (often women) rather than state officials. It shades into ‘lyric’ poetry and in many cases cannot be treated as a distinctive genre. However, lamentation so frequently appears in a more or...

    • 7. Religious Poetry
      (pp. 165-200)

      There is a great variety of religious poetry in Africa. There are hymns, prayers, praises, possession songs, and oracular poetry, all with their varying conventions, content, and function in different cultures. They range from the simple one- or two-line songs of Senegalese women in spirit possession rituals¹ or the mystical songs of Southern Rhodesia with their many nonsense words (Tracey 1929: 99). to the specialized hymns to West African deities or the elaborate corpus of Ifa oracular literature which is so striking a phenomenon among the Yoruba of Southern Nigeria. We should also take account of the prevalence in certain...

    • 8. Special Purpose Poetry—War, Hunting, and Work
      (pp. 201-234)

      Some subjects are of particular significance in African poetry. Besides the subjects already elaborated there are others that could be discussed. There is poetry associated, for example, with secret societies,¹ various types of associations,² initiation,³ begging (e.g. Fletcher 1912: 62–3 (Hausa)), masquerades (e.g. Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 38–49 (Yoruba); Egudu 1967: 9 (Ibo)), and there are also the very common songs to do with cattle and cattle herding (e.g. Ba 1950: 175–9 (Fulani); Kagame 1947 (Rwanda); Beidelman 1965 (Baraguyu); also Ch. 9). But war and hunting are topics of particular interest for many African societies, and have...

    • 9. Lyric
      (pp. 235-264)

      In the sense of ‘a short poem that is sung’, lyric is probably the most common form of poetry in subsaharan Africa. It is not always recognized that these songs, in which the musical element is of such obvious importance, are in fact poems. It is true that the verbal aspect sometimes appears less developed than in the lengthy poems that are delivered in spoken or recitative style, like some of the praise poems, hymns, or hunting chants that have already been described. But this should not prevent us from calling them poems. We should remember that classical Greek or...

    • 10. Topical and Political Songs
      (pp. 265-290)

      It has been well said that oral poetry takes the place of newspapers among non-literate peoples. Songs can be used to report and comment on current affairs, for political pressure, for propaganda, and to reflect and mould public opinion. This political and topical function can be an aspect of many of the types of poetry already discussed—work songs, lyric, praise poetry, even at times something as simple as a lullaby—but it is singled out for special discussion in this chapter. It is of particular importance to draw attention to this and to give a number of examples because...

    • 11. Children’s Songs and Rhymes
      (pp. 291-304)

      Little systematic interest has been taken in children’s verse in Africa, and though isolated instances have been recorded this has been done without any discussion of context or local significance.¹ On the published evidence it is not clear, for instance, how far the previous lack of a distinct body of schoolchildren in most African societies affected the specificity of children’s verse as distinct from that of other groups, or how far the oral compositions now current in the increasing number of schools parallel similar phenomena recorded elsewhere. Nevertheless, some remarks on what is known to occur in Africa may be...

  14. III. PROSE

    • 12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories
      (pp. 307-326)

      The existence of stories in Africa is well known. One of the first things students of African oral literature or of comparative literature generally discover about Africa is the great number of so-called ‘folktales.’ They will hear above all of the many animal tales that so vividly and humorously portray the tricks of the spider, the little hare, or the antelope, or exhibit the discomfiture of the heavy and powerful members of the animal world through the wiles of their tiny adversaries. Less well known, but still familiar, are the many African tales set in the human world, about, say,...

    • 13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form.
      (pp. 327-378)

      Against this background of earlier theoretical speculations and misunderstandings, we can now survey the present position in the study of oral prose narration in Africa. What points have been established so far? And what aspects now need further investigation?

      First, the basic material. Of actual texts, synopses, and translations of African narratives we have a vast amount. Bascom, in his indispensable survey (Bascom 1964), lists forty-one peoples for whom collections of fifty or more tales with vernacular texts had been published by 1964. He adds a further list of forty-nine groups for which collections of at least fifty tales have...

    • 14. Proverbs
      (pp. 379-412)

      Proverbs seem to occur almost everywhere in Africa, in apparent contrast with other areas of the world such as aboriginal America and Polynesia. Relatively easy to record, they have been exceedingly popular with collectors. Particularly well represented are proverbs from the Bantu area (especially the Southern Bantu); the Congo and West Africa have also provided many extensive collections. It is notable, however, that there are apparently few or no proverbs among the Bushmen of southern Africa and the Nilotic peoples (Doke 1933: 6; Evans-Pritchard 1963b: 109), and few seem to have been recorded in Nilo-Hamitic languages. In other areas proverbs...

    • 15. Riddles
      (pp. 413-430)

      It may be surprising to find riddles included in a survey of oral literature. However, riddles in Africa have regularly been considered to be a type of art form, albeit often of minor and childish interest, and have long been included in studies of oral literature. There is some reason for this. As will be seen, riddles often involve metaphorical or poetic comment. This indeed was pointed out long ago by Aristotle when he remarked on the close relation of riddles to metaphorical expression (Rhetoriciii.2 (1405b)).¹

      In Africa riddles are common and have been extensively collected. They are often...

    • 16. Oratory, Formal Speaking, and other Stylized Forms
      (pp. 431-464)

      The art of oratory is in West Africa carried to a remarkable pitch of perfection. At the public palavers each linguist [official spokesman] stands up in turn and pours forth a flood of speech, the readiness and exuberance of which strikes the stranger with amazement, and accompanies his words with gestures so various, graceful, and appropriate that it is a pleasure to look on, though the matter of the oration cannot be understood. These oratorical displays appear to afford great enjoyment to the audience, for every African native is a born orator and a connoisseur of oratory, a fact that...


    • 17. Drum Language and Literature
      (pp. 467-484)

      A remarkable phenomenon in parts of West and Central Africa is the literature played on drums and certain other musical instruments. That this is indeed a form of literature rather than music is clear when the principles of drum language are understood. Although its literary significance has been overlooked in general discussions of African oral literature, (e.g. Bascom 1964, 1965a; Berry 1961; Herskovits 1960), expression through drums often forms a not inconsiderable branch of the literature of a number of African societies.

      Communication through drums can be divided into two types. The first is through a conventional code where pre-arranged...

    • 18. Drama
      (pp. 485-502)

      How far one can speak of indigenous drama in Africa is not an easy question. In this it differs from previous topics like, say, panegyric, political poetry, or prose narratives, for there it was easy to discover African analogies to the familiar European forms. Though some writers have very positively affirmed the existence of native African drama (Traoré 1958, Delafosse 1916), it would perhaps be truer to say that in Africa, in contrast to Western Europe and Asia, drama is not typically a wide-spread or a developed form.

      There are, however, certain dramatic and quasi-dramatic phenomena to be found, particularly...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 503-507)

    Several points emerge from this examination of oral literature in Africa.

    The first is an obvious one. This is the relevance of African oral literature for comparative literature in the wide sense. The study of the kinds of instances and genres touched on in this account can enlarge both our literary experience and our concept of ‘literature’ altogether. It can also throw light on some recent literary experiments (jazz poetry, for instance) as well as on the oral background to literature even in literate cultures. Its significance, in other words, is by no means confined to those with a special...

    (pp. 508-510)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 511-546)
  19. Index
    (pp. 547-568)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 569-571)