Bury My Bones but Keep My Words: The Interface between Oral Tradition and Contemporary African Writing

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Bury my bones but keep my words: The interface between oral tradition and contemporary African writing

The contention in this article is that African oral tradition should be reexamined in view of its perceived new importance in the work of African novelists. This article investigates the nature and definition of oral tradition, as well as the use of oral tradition as a cultural tool.

The increasing inclusion of oral literature as part of the African literature component within university and school curricula is discussed. Finally, the pronounced role of oral tradition in fiction is examined, using as exemplars some seminal works of Bessie Head (1978, 1990 and 1995) and Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1965, 1977, 1981, and 1982).

1. Introduction

The title of this article comes from a burial song by Onyango-Ogutu, a Luo writer and poet from Kenya, and represents its central argument, which is that a re-examination of oral tradition and its relation to modern written African literature is of crucial importance for any meaningful study of African literature.

The emphasis in the last few decades on the study of oral tradition has undoubtedly enlarged and enriched the field of literary study in general and African literature in particular. In her pioneering work, Oral Literature in Africa, Finnegan (1970:1), argues that the very action of "oral literature" was unfamiliar to most Western scholars. She remarks:

   The concept of an oral literature is an unfamiliar one to most
   people brought up in cultures which, like those of contemporary
   Europe, lay stress on the idea of literacy and written tradition. In
   the popular view it seems to convey on the one hand the idea of
   mystery, on the other that of crude and artistically undeveloped

Finnegan's attempt to extend her horizon is illustrated by the inclusion in her 1978 anthology of oral poetry, The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry, of extracts ranging from Beowulf and The Odyssey to a number of modern English and Irish poems. This inclusion of Western literature as part of oral tradition unequivocally indicates that Finnegan as an oral-tradition critic later wanted to proclaim the universal nature of oral tradition. Her implicit argument is that oral literature does not belong to African literature only, but forms the basis--indeed is an integral part--of all literatures. Mphahlele (1970:1) has, of course, long regarded oral tradition as having been "a universal phenomenon through the ages, and not something confined to Africa". In the same vein, Agatucci (1998:7) asserts that oral tradition still reverberates in new African writings and continues "to enrich the global human experience and its creative expressions". This view reflects a sound evaluation of the importance of oral tradition because "every human culture in the world seems to create stories (narratives) as a way of making sense of the world" (Agatucci, 1998:1).

It cannot be denied that oral tradition is fundamental in any endeavour to determine the nature of African literature. As Dseagu (1987:20) argues, "the African novel has an identity of its own derivable from the oral narratives". Johnson (s.a.:1) is another example of a literary critic who stresses the importance of orality in African literary discourse, as is evident when he remarks that "contemporary written literature in Africa continues to derive a great deal of its vitality from older traditions of verbal art". Such critics remind non-African critics in particular that they should bear this in mind when studying African literature, because modern Western written literature is not so obviously steeped in oral tradition (although it may be argued that Homer was an oral poet).

This article thus sets out to show that the lack of real acknowledgement of and appreciation for oral tradition as the cornerstone of literature, especially of African literature, is the result of two major factors: its minor role in the Western critical tradition as well as the negative influence of colonialism in Africa. …


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