So much work has been done on African oral literature in the two decades since the publication of Ruth Finnegan's epoch-making and immensely useful Oral Literature in Africa that there is need for a more up-to-date critical introduction such as I have tried to provide in this book. In addition to the insights I have gained from the extensive fieldwork and analyses undertaken by my students (graduate and undergraduate) and myself over the years, I have benefited from the light shed on various aspects of the subject by colleagues both inside and outside Africa, at conferences and seminars and in publications. Unlike my two earlier studies (1979, 1983), which were intended to correct certain misapprehensions about two key concepts (epic and myth) in African oral literature, the present book is an attempt to crystalize the benefits gained from years of intellectual dialogue and to put the central issues of the subject in much clearer focus.
The contributions of this book are, I hope, clear enough from the contents. Although chapters 1 and 4-8 revisit issues explored by earlier discussions of African oral literature, I have tried to provide a more systematic schematization of the salient topics and to incorporate critical insights derived from publications that have appeared in the past two decades. But I consider the greater contributions to be contained in chapters 2, 3, and 9-12. Chapters 2 and 3 attempt a detailed examination of the creative genius and personality of the oral artist and the circumstances within which that genius works. The discussions in those chapters are useful because they try to provide a proper understanding of the ways and nature of oral creativity and so give us clearer guidelines for an assessment of the continuities and discontinuities between oral and literate culture. These relationships are explored at considerable length in chapter 9, which deals mainly with oral-dramatic productions in both rural and urban settings, and chapter 10. These chapters examine the vibrancy of modern African literature (acknowledged by the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to two African writers) against the backgrounds of the oral literature.
Chapters 11 and 12 try to suggest what we should do if we are to avoid the mistakes made by earlier students of this subject and to advance the frontiers of its study. Since most of those recording African oral literature are native Africans or non‐ Africans who have lived long enough in African communities to acquire an adequate competence in the host language and culture, the fieldwork guides in chapter 11 especially are intended as a clear departure from the approach of those who treated the cultures and traditions they studied as alien if not inferior.
Perhaps I should expatiate on the terms critical and literature. This study has concentrated its focus on evidence provided mainly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn. But even within this manageable zone, any effort to cover every culture or society seems to me an unfortunate ambition given the ever-present risk of being repetitive and diffuse. Besides, most of the texts of African oral literature published so far are heavily flawed by disciplinary and other biases and so offer very limited analytical insights. I have therefore opted for a selective use of the more dependable . . .