Oral Literature in Africa
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Figure 2. The author on fieldwork in Limba country,
northern Sierra Leone, 1964.


Ruth Finnegan

When I first became interested in research into one particular form of African oral literature in 1961, I found to my surprise that there was no easily accessible work to which I could turn to give me some idea of what was known in this field, the various publications available, or the controversies and problems that demanded further investigation. In fact, I gradually discovered, there was an immense amount in print—but most of it was not easy to find, it was not systematic, and there was relatively little treatment of contemporary forms. It was true that there was plenty of work on written African literature (which has received a lot of publicity in recent years) and, of a rather speculative kind, on ‘primitive mentality’ or ‘mythopoeic imagination’. But on the oral side or on the actual literary products of such minds much less was said. There therefore seemed a place for a general work on oral literature in Africa, an introductory survey which could sum up the present knowledge of the field and serve as a guide to further research. It seemed likely that others too besides myself had felt the need to consult an introduction of some kind to this subject. It is hoped that the resulting book will be useful not only to those intending to do specific research on African oral literature but also to those with a general interest either in Africa or in literature generally.

The aim in presenting the material has been to strike a balance between general discussion and actual instances. It has been necessary to include rather more detailed descriptions and quotations than might be the case with a book on European literatures, as the majority of African examples are not readily accessible and too abstract a discussion would give little idea of the intricacy and artistic conventions of many of the oral forms. It is also an intrinsic part of the book to consider some of the social background as well as the more purely aesthetic and stylistic features. With African as with other literature it is essential to treat both literary and social facets (if indeed these two are ultimately distinguishable at all) for a full appreciation, a point too often neglected by writers on this subject. This book is based only on the more obvious sources and is intended as an introduction, not as a comprehensive account. Only some examples are given from a huge field and experts in particular areas will be able to point to exceptions and omissions. Some of my conclusions too may turn out to be controversial; indeed one of my hopes is to stimulate further publications and study. On each chapter and each section more research could—and I trust will—take the subject very much further. But in spite of these limitations, the general purpose of the book will, I hope, be fulfilled—to show that African oral literature is, after all, a subject worthy of study and interest, and to provoke further research in this fascinating but too often neglected field.

Ibadan 1968

Preface to the Second Edition

Ruth Finnegan

Much has changed since the 1970 publication of the first edition of this work. Despite the best efforts of the post-colonialists, Africa is no longer automatically thought of as the land of colonies. African scholars take their place alongside those from other countries, written, oral and broadcast forms interact—and are at last seen so naturally to do so, And African arts and culture receive their just and overdue worldwide acclaim. Now too oral literatures flourish in multi-coloured frames, Oriental, African and European, produced and performed in multiple new and old and wondrous forms and in their full diversity of settings, with the same vibrancy as in the past and their long trajectories into the foreseeable future.

This new edition is necessary. The first was written in the late 1960s—nearly forty years ago—when the subject dearly needed greater visibility as a focus for serious scholarly endeavour. Not that little was known of the topic. Far to the contrary, as I tried to illustrate in the first edition, there was a massive collected corpus of African narratives and prose forms. Poetry too, if on a smaller scale appeared in anthologies, learned articles and both more-or-less exact translations and romanticised approximations, and in scholarly circles there was broad interdisciplinary interest in the nature, details and potential of the subject. With newly emerging world alignments, newly invigorated universities, and the benefits offered to worldwide scholarship by digitisation and the internet, now seems to be the time to revisit the work with fresh insights and a modicum of update.

To put it in context, let me first emphasise how immensely fortunate I turned out to be in the time I—fortuitously—chose to embark on that first work, mainly carried out between late 1963, the date of my marriage, and 1968–9, when I handed over my final version to the Clarendon Press in Oxford. They had lost the first typescript—no ‘not lost’, I seem to recall Peter Sutcliffe, then the front man at the press, as saying in his high Oxford tones, ‘we don’t lose manuscripts here: it will just have been put on a shelf with the wrong label’. As far as I know it never did turn up; but in those laborious days of typewriting I had kept and could amend the carbon copy.

As for how it began: after my initial stint of fieldwork I was working on my Oxford doctoral dissertation in 1962–3 and longing for some kind of overview to set my detailed Limba notes in some perspective. I still remember the startling moment, sitting at a wide table in Rhodes House in Oxford, when I found that yet another promising sounding title was again just a detailed account with little or no wider perspectives. Could the long self-motivated course of reading that I had necessarily embarked on be turned instead to something of use to others? Could the short seminar papers I delivered on the subject build up into something more useful? Perhaps when I had completed my reading (as if one could . . .) and gathered it into a larger volume, it might act in some way as a tool perhaps even a kind of workbench for the better work of others? That at any rate began to forge itself into my ambitious aspiration, a gadfly when the going got tough and incentive to dispute the arrogant knowingness of those who would yet again circulate their certainties about all African culture. Dare I hope that something of that original aim might be achieved both in the first edition and this more recent and more meagre offering?

When I came to read through the original edition again this year I was surprised how much was based on my own earlier fieldwork. It underlays my approach and interests throughout, as well as my confidence in interpreting its miscellaneous and disparate sources. How much I owe to those Limba story-tellers amidst the fought-over unhappy northern palms of Sierra Leone! But in addition the direct use I made of Limba findings in chapters 12 to 16, and in scattered references earlier, certainly adds to the volume’s authenticity. All the inputs there might well have grown to full books in themselves (as the narrative section had, in Finnegan 1967)—especially, perhaps, the discussion of oratory. Better, I persuaded myself, to use them for a volume that would help and incite others (would that the same, I told myself, had been done with the many specialist ethnographies destined to languish on the shelves of well-endowed university libraries rather than adding to the wealth of collaborative human knowledge). Perhaps more important, that deep experience of personal fieldwork, never forgotten, was what informed and provoked the emphasis on performance throughout—in many eyes among one of the volume’s more original contributions—and now developed in so many eye-opening and startling contributions across the world.1

The background to the book antedates its overt beginning. But I now see it goes back further still, drawing its inspiration from that bliss-laden initiation into the audio and visual—the oral—qualities of ancient classical literatures, referred to with some justice in the opening chapter of this book—a key one as far as concerns my own approach and one that still frames my thinking. And before that too was my Ulster upbringing with its sensitivity to the artistries of language, my mother’s stories and my father’s shy Ulster wit.

But to return to the context of my more immediate work on the volume: I was, as I have said, greatly fortunate in my timing. In 1964 the invaluable Doke collection of works on southern African languages and cultures, especially, with C. M. Doke’s specialism, on Bantu, had just been acquired by the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury, where
I was then attached. It was due, I believe, to the good offices of George Fortune, Shona expert and close friend of Doke’s. The library generously allowed me unlimited access, even before cataloguing, and some of my most valuable data and insights came from there (I think especially of
S. M. Mofokeng’s sadly unpublished dissertations and much material by Doke himself, some also unpublished, the inspiration and basis of the linguistic account in my Chapter 3). When my husband and I moved to the great University of Ibadan in January 1965, complete with unborn child, we discovered not only a bountiful university library but its then unparalleled Africana collection on its airy top floor—now alas no more (such is progress)—with its own unassuming and ever-helpful librarian. This was a wonderful hunting ground. Looking back, I now feel that with these resources of southern and western Africa, the book almost wrote itself. In no other way can I account for its expeditious completion.

I was fortunate too—we all were—in the timing of its publication. This was the period when many African countries were emerging out of what was thought of as the colonial yoke and grip of Eurocentric education to found their own universities, create departments of African studies, and forge national cultural identities. ‘Folklore’ and the naïve primitive offerings of communal tribal tradition, however glamorised, were, at least in anglophone circles, no longer to be enough. A volume purporting to offer an account of literature—that dear term so heralded in European culture—could afford a more trusty route to national esteem. What is more, it could be deployed as a textbook too, with many estimable courses and projects following on from it. Perhaps it is no surprise after all that the book remained in print for over thirty years. Happy was I—and I still feel blessed—to have played some small part in such a cultural explosion.

It must have been hugely time-consuming completing the book in little more than five years, with all its multiplicity of footnotes and references (too many, I came to feel, as I ploughed through the OCR version to make it computer-readable). But I was then under the influence of the Oxford Classics and ‘Greats’ tradition, with the obligation that even the tiniest point should have its citation and reference. I was determined then, and still I suppose am now, that the documentation of African cultural products should be as thorough and scrupulous as that for the great classical traditions. Nor, even if no one now reads the footnotes, can I think I was wrong. The Clarendon Press editors worried over the book’s length. Surely by the end the reader would know only too well what I wanted to say (typical of that time, we were later reconciled over an extended lunch in north Oxford: I was in no way unwilling, I fancy, over the offered whitebait).

Nonetheless, or quite likely because of this deep engagement in my subject, I recall those years as among the happiest of my life. Hugely busy preparing first lectures for multiple weekly hours of teaching; combing the libraries for works pertinent to African oral literature, often at first apparently irrelevant; climbing high ladders, pregnant, to top shelves in the beautiful breezy library to re-check references, usually to the alarm of library staff (when I remarked in my 1970 Preface that I had seen most of the works I referred to I was lucky enough to be speaking the truth); learning a little about teaching (though scarcely fully recognised till I reached the Open University some time later); learning from my mature students (one of whose undergraduate essays on Yoruba names is drawn on in this book, Omijeh 1966); and spending much of the summers exploring the further reaches of the lovely Bodleian library in Oxford, the university’s Institute of Social Anthropology in its memory-filled Keble Road building, and the University of London’s great School of Oriental and African Studies Library then dispersed throughout London. I think as well of my mother’s constantly ungrudging welcome to our growing family; and perhaps best of all the birth of our three lovely daughters, two of them in the thriving thronged Ibadan University Hospital. I remember too leaping with excitement, morning sickness-stricken as I was, to pace the air-conditioned coolness of our airy upstairs study as I worked on the chapter on proverbs—only too obvious now and grounded in others’ insights not my own, but to me a revelation that has shaped much of my later work.

This edition has been fully revised—in the sense, that is, that I have checked all through and reflected on each page, corrected a number of minor errors and infelicities, and re-ordered the references into a more modern (though not fully contemporary) format. There is no way, however, that the volume, as a whole, could be ‘updated’. The terminology and outlook are inescapably those of the late 1960s and, though a few expressions now offend me enough to demand changing, the vocabulary may well strike a modern reader as perhaps over-dominated by that agentless passive voice of the period, generalisation unfounded in evidence and, most of all, contaminated by gender, age, and even, surprisingly, racial discriminatory expression (though to tell the truth there was in fact less of that than I had expected: is there perhaps something in the careful study of African oral literature that somehow guards us from such blindnesses?). More important, a world—nearly two generations—of research and thought have intervened between 1969 and 2011. I have tried to sum up some of the main tendencies of this work, and my reflections on it, in earlier publications (Finnegan 2007, 2010a, b) and a brief glimpse of the iceberg’s tip is provided here in the footnotes, further expanded in the Integrated References at the end of the volume. But the contributions are legion, and true researchers can have the pleasure of scrutinising through a lifetime’s study.2

Let me, however, indulge myself by some remarks on one characteristic about the book which has struck me—the way that oral literature and its study leads rather than follows fresh insights into the nature and study of the wonderful literatures of humankind. It demands both the humanistic and the social scientific habit for its full appreciation. I was fortunate enough to come from a tradition—the Oxford literary discipline—of a humanistic respect for the beauties, properties and wonderful classical qualities of great literatures, and then, superimposed on this, of the social scientific propensity for asking the who, how, why questions, not least those searching queries about ‘in whose name and to whose interests?’. Both perspectives, particularly perhaps the latter, are now commonplace in literary studies. But, at least in the context in which I was first writing, they presented something of a fresh perspective, one which could better inform our understanding of the rich products of the human imagination. It was not then the convention to ask hard questions about audiences, reception, settings, genres, historically changing assessments or differentiated appreciations.

The situation has not so greatly changed as one might have expected. One of the hopes I expressed in the first edition is that enough evidence might in due course be gathered to enable detailed histories of particular literary traditions on the same lines as those of better known cultures. To my disappointment this has happened only to a limited extent. There is B. W. Andrzejewski’s long study and appreciation of Somali literature—oral, written and broadcast—a fraction of it gathered in the recent special issue by myself and Martin Orwin (Finnegan and Orwin 2011); Graham Furniss’s fine account of Hausa oral, written and popular culture (Furniss 1996); a number of works on the South African traditions by such scholars as Jeff Opland, Isobel Hofmeyr, Russell Kaschula and Liz Gunner; and the collective work of that remarkable group of collaborating French scholars such as Geneviève Calame-Griaule, Jean Derive and Ursula Baumgardt on what was once French West Africa. But beyond that very little. We have not after all progressed so very far beyond the notable compendium on African literatures by Andrzejweski, Pilaszewicz and Tyloch (1985).

The silver lining is that this surely provides infinite opportunities not only for further first-hand field research but also for further syntheses—the topic perhaps for innumerable student projects and doctoral dissertations, each one of them of value—in Africa and elsewhere. In 1969, I hazarded a guess for the future. May I claim, with your help, to have been largely right? And that, we must hope, will be made the more possible through the widening sphere of open-access publication, the sharing and opening up of world-wide intellectual and artistic resources online.

Partly for this reason we are now vastly more aware than a generation ago of both the rich potential and the problematic of genre diversification. One of the problems with which I had to tussle in the first edition was of presentation. In the circumstances as they then were I think my final decision to group the material, very roughly, in terms of subject matter (of genre some might say) was probably unavoidable. But by now the subject deserves, and must receive, greater critical attention, not least in the light of changing cultural practices, perceptions and assessments.

One of the most famous passages in my original work was its short two-page note, extending from pages 108 to 110, on what turned out to be the uncontrollably emotive subject of epic. This, incredibly, has attracted more debate, criticism and, dare I say it, misunderstanding than the rest of the book put together—the more hyped up perhaps to market the book as a stimulating student text. Many must have been the essays and examination answers written to test students’ mastery of the debate, with, no doubt, expected and well-rehearsed answers! I hope the assertions in this new Preface can form the occasion for others in the future. In the light of what was then known I do not think I was wrong to express my frank opinion in the 1960s. In fact I am proud to have had the honesty and clarity to pen it and to have lived to see the outcomes in the intervening years.3

Much has happened since then. Multiple epics have been collected—or at least lengthy poetic texts that can be so described—from many places in Africa, most notably ex-French West Africa. Collections, anthologies, translations and annotated texts abound. Epic now has its place in the corpus of recognised African literature, routing the once-predominance of prose forms, the more firmly established as an unquestioned African form through film and broadcast representation. The controversy—one I have always been glad to start off (as I learned in my Oxford days, debate is what gives a subject life)—has been productive indeed, not least in encouraging greater critical scrutiny of the term (notably in Derive 2002) and the challenge, led by Isidore Okpewho (1979), to the once taken-for-granted, but in practice typographically and culturally constructed, of the apparent distinction between prose and poetry, a re-assessment which has had such valuable implications for the study of more obviously ‘written’ literatures.

Other topics where to an extent I risked my neck, deliberately so, have disappointingly attracted less interest. Few scholars have taken up my provocative remarks about myth (though I welcome Isidore Okpewho’s typically well-documented Myth in Africa, 1983) and drama (see Breitinger 1994, Conteh-Morgan and Olanyan 1999). Let me offer them up as hostages to fortune and suggest that these topics too might relay further critical investigation. There will almost certainly be other possible misconceptions, as yet unnoticed by myself, which I can only leave the diligent reader to winkle out.

It will doubtless be clear to any careful reader of the first edition that
I am sceptical about the idea of inevitable progress. I am therefore immensely glad to see that one of the great changes since I first wrote is our increasing awareness and, no doubt causally related to this, technological capture, of the multisensory nature of human artistry. This must surely be noted as one of the great advances of the last generation of scholars, aided but not dictated by new technological devices. We can now document sound, music, dance, movement and colour, and draw on brilliant many-sided resources to experience them, not least in the webpages the publishers are so illuminatingly adding to their print texts. By now we can gather to oral literature forms that would once have been ruled out as imported or ‘hybrid’—the bandiri Sokoto group, for instance, in which solo male-voice performances accompanied by drums and a singing chorus blend standard Islamic vocabulary with a delivery style reminiscent of both praise singers and Indian film song, at once local and transnational (Bubu and Furniss 1999: 30); film representations of Sunjata and similar narratives (Hale 2003, Jorholt 2001); Zulu radio drama (Gunner 2000); or the 1998 CD by the Xhosa praise poet Zolani Mkiva set to contemporary hip-hop in a mixture of Xhosa and English (Kaschula 1999: 62, 2003). All these by now seem as relevant as those gathered in the first edition of this volume from the poetry and stories documented by nineteenth and early twentieth-century scholars.

And alongside this too we must welcome with relief the move towards the appreciation of performance which has given us so much more rounded an understanding of the multidimensional arts of African, and not just African, expression—and not just oral either. I think I can claim to have anticipated a little of this a generation ago, one reason perhaps for my book having received such a happy reception and circulated so long in African circles and student courses (would that these might be resumed, now with new resources). The rediscovery of performance alongside a reverence for text is one of the great developments since the 1960s. Long may it continue, tempered as it must be by the respect for the textual formulations of humankind which give them presence and resonance.

One of the defects of the original volume, to modern eyes at any rate, was its lack of illustrations. So on that note can I add that not the least among the advantages of the forward-looking Cambridge publishers who are producing this book is their multi-media resources, too small alas in my case but, I hope, growing as the years develop and scholars around the world add their materials. Let me at the same time note the lovely cover image which I hope may have attracted you—including I hope some new readers—to the book in the first place. I hope that that beautiful image, found by Jean Derive in a doctoral thesis and ultimately of provenance we know not what, will go some way to drawing attention to the genre of epic, making some small amends for its neglect in my first attempt.

May I end on a shamelessly immodest note. I was quite surprised going through the text of this book to find that even now it is still in some ways pushing at the boundaries. That is perhaps what the study of African oral literature, inspiring and challenging as it still is, can do for a scholar. With its need for the humanistic approach of textual reverence working alongside a social scientist’s touch of cynicism we are inevitably brought face-to-face with its changing and elusive nature, the dissolution of those long-established boundaries of prose and poetry, or of oral against written, collegial versus individual to rediscover the boundless searching paths of the human imagination.

As it has turned out, this has been another supremely happy period in my life. Still feeling well myself while dubbed ill by doctors, friends and family, I have spent two blissful months engaged in this work following my two weeks in hospital earlier in the summer. Guarded lovingly by a glowingly-content husband and constant care from dear family and friends, I have felt better than for years, and luxuriated in the small but time-consuming tasks of finishing this edition—now to be consigned to the tender inspired care of the team at Open Book Publishers. As the ancients used to say, ‘Go on your way little book, and may the gods go with you’.

Old Bletchley, UK, August 2011

1 Such as Barber and Farias 1989, Bauman 1977, 1992, 2012, Bauman and Sherzer 1974–1989, Baumgardt and Bornand 2009a, 2009b, Ben-Amos and Goldstein 1975, Dégh 1995, Drewal 1991, Foley 2002, Hanks 1996, Harding 2002, Honko 2000, Hughes-Freeland 1998, Hymes 1996, Mannheim and Tedlock 1995, Okpewho 1992, Paredes and Bauman 1972, Schechner 2002, Scheub 1977, Tedlock 1983.

2 To mention just some of the more general publications and surveys (the specialised monographs are legion): Abrahams 1983, Andrzejweski et al. 1985, Appiah and Gates 2005, Barber 1995, 1997a, b, 2006, 2007, Barber and Farias 1989, Barber et al. 1997, 1999, Baumgardt 2002, Baumgardt and Bounfour 2000, Baumgardt and Derive 2008, Belcher 1999, Belmont and Calame-Griaule 1998, Ben-Amos 1983, Breitinger 1994, Brown 1999, Conteh-Morgan and Olanyan 1999, Coulon and Garnier, 2011, Dauphin-Tinturier A-M. and Derive 2005, Derive 2002, Diagne 2005, Ezeigbo and Gunner 1991, Fardon and Furniss 2000, Fedry, J., 2010, Finnegan 2010c, Furniss and Gunner 1995, Gérard 1981, 1990, 1996, Görög-Karady 1981, 1982, 1984, 1992, Gunner 1994, Hale 1998, Harding 2002, Haring 1994, Irele and Gikandi 2004, Johnson et al. 1997, Jones et al. 1992, Kaschula 2001, Kawada 1998, Kesteloot 1993, 2004, Kesteloot and Dieng 1997, Kubik 1977, Leguy 2001, Lindfors 1977, Mapanje and White 1983, Mboyo 1986, Mölhlig et al 1988, Mulokozi 2002, Newell 2002, Ngandu Nkashama 1992, Okpewho 1979, 1983, 1990, 1992, 2003, 2004a, b, Orwin and Topan 2001, Peek and Yankah 2004, Prahlad 2005, Ricard 2004, Ricard and Swanapoel 1997, Ricard and Veit-Wild 2005, Riesz and Ricard 1990, Scheub 1977, 1985, 2002, 2005, Schipper 2000, Seydou et al. 1997, Tarsitani 2010, Vail and White 1991, White et al. 2001. See also general references and websites at the end of this volume

3 On epic and épopée see further the collections, overviews and/or bibliographies in Barry 2011, Baumgardt and Roulon-Doko 2010, Belcher 1999, Ben-Amos 1983, Biebuyck and Mateene 2002, Bornand 2005, Derive 2002, Derive and Dumestre 1999, Innes 1974, 1976, Kesteloot and Dieng 1997, Johnson, Hale and Belcher 1997, Martin et al. 2008, Mbondé Moangué 2005, Okpewho 1979, 1983, 1990, 1992, Seydou 1972, 2004, Towo Atangana and Abomo-Maurin 2009; also—to cite only a small fraction of the burgeoning and varied work—Austen 1999, Baumgardt 2002, Belcher 2004, Belinga 1977, Bird 1972, Clark 1977, Conrad 2004, Diabate 1995, Diop 2004, Gayibor 1983, Hale 1998, Haring 2012, Jansen 2001a, b, Johnson 2003, 2004, Keesteloot 1989, 1993b, Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, Ly 1991, Meyer 1991, Mulokozi 2002, Ndong Ndoutoume 1970, Okpewho 2003, Pepper and Wolf 1972, Seydou, C., 2008, 2010a, b, Stone 1988, Thoyer 1995, Traoré 2000.