Read Oral Literature in Africa Online

Authors: Ruth Finnegan

Oral Literature in Africa




The praise singer Mqhyai, distinguished Xhosa imbongi, in traditional garb, with staff (courtesy Jeff Opland).

World Oral Literature Series: Volume 1


Ruth Finnegan


Open Book Publishers CIC Ltd.,

40 Devonshire Road, Cambridge, CB1 2BL, United Kingdom

© 2012 Ruth Finnegan. Forward © 2012 Mark Turin.

This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (CC-BY 3.0), details available at

This license allows you to share, copy, distribute and transmit the work; to adapt the work and to make commercial use of the work. The work must be attributed to the respective authors (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

This is the first volume in the World Oral Literature Series, published in association with the World Oral Literature Project.

World Oral Literature Series: Volume 1.

ISSN: 2050-7933

Digital material and resources associated with this volume are hosted by the World Oral Literature Project (
) and Open Book Publishers (

ISBN Hardback: 978–1-906924–71-3

ISBN Paperback: 978–1-906924–70-6

ISBN Digital (PDF): 978–1-906924–72-0

ISBN Digital ebook (epub version): 978–1-906924–73-7

ISBN Digital ebook (mobi version): 978–1-906924–74-4

Cover image: West African epic singer with lyre, probably Mandingo or Fula (courtesy Anne-Marie Dauphin and Jean Derive).
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To all my teachers

and to all those students

who may find this work of some use in their

study of the oral literatures of Africa

and of the world

Ruth Finnegan
is a Visiting Research Professor and Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Open University. Her particular interests are in the anthropology/sociology of artistic activity, communication, and performance; debates relating to literacy, ‘orality’ and multimodality; and amateur and other ‘hidden’ activities. She has published widely on aspects of communication and expression, especially oral performance, literacy, and music-making. Her publications include
Limba Stories and Story-Telling
(1967, 1981);
Oral Poetry
(1977; 2nd edn 1992);
Information Technology: Social Issues
(joint ed., 1987);
Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication
Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts
Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection
(2002); and
The Oral and Beyond: Doing Things with Words in Africa
(2007). Her most recent book,
Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation
was published in 2011, and, to appear around 2013, an edited study of dreaming and telepathy.

Ruth Finnegan was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1996 and an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College Oxford in 1997; she was awarded an OBE for services to Social Sciences in 2000. Under the pen name of Catherine Farrar she has also published the first two parts of fantasy-fictional ‘The Self Quartet’, namely
The Little Angel and the Three Wisdoms
Three Ways of Loving;
also a collection of short stories,
The Wild Thorn Rose
. She can be reached at:
[email protected]

Mark Turin
is a linguist and anthropologist. Before joining the South Asian Studies Council at Yale, he was a Research Associate at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He has also held research appointments at Cornell and Leipzig universities, and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Sikkim, India. From 2007 to 2008, he served as Chief of Translation and Interpretation at the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). Mark Turin is now the director of both the World Oral Literature Project (Cambridge and Yale)—an urgent global initiative to document and make accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record—and the Digital Himalaya Project, a platform to make multi-media resources from the Himalayan region widely available online. He writes and teaches on ethnolinguistics, visual anthropology, digital archives and fieldwork methodology at the Universities of Cambridge and Yale. His publications include
Nepali–Thami–English Dictionary
Grounding Knowledge/Walking Land: Archaeological Research and Ethno-historical Identity in Central Nepal
(joint, 2009) and
A Grammar of Thangmi with an Ethnolinguistic Introduction to the Speakers and their Culture
(2012). He can be reached at:
[email protected]


List of illustrations

Foreword by Mark Turin

Preface to the First Edition

Preface to the Second Edition


Acknowledgments: Addendum 2012


Notes on Sources and References


1.   The ‘oral’ nature of African unwritten literature

The significance of performance in actualization, transmission, and composition. Audience and occasion. Implications for the study of oral literature. Oral art as literature

2.   The perception of African oral literature

Nineteenth-century approaches and collections. Speculations and neglect in the twentieth century. Recent trends in African studies and the revival of interest in oral literature

3.   The social, linguistic, and literary background

Social and literary background. The linguistic basis—the example of Bantu. Some literary tools. Presentation of the material. The literary complexity of African cultures


4.   Poetry and patronage

Variations in the poet’s position. Court poets. Religious patronage. Free-lance and wandering poets. Part-time poets
. A note on ‘epic’.

5.   Panegyric

Introductory: nature and distribution; composers and reciters; occasions. Southern Bantu praise poetry: form and style; occasions and delivery; traditional and contemporary significance

6.   Elegiac poetry

General and introductory. Akan funeral dirges: content and themes; structure, style, and delivery; occasions and functions; the dirge as literature

7.   Religious poetry

Introductory. Didactic and narrative religious poetry and the Islamic tradition; the Swahili
Hymns, prayers, and incantations: general survey; the Fante Methodist lyric. Mantic poetry: Sotho divining praises;
Ifa (Yoruba)

8.   Special purpose poetry—war, hunting, and work

Military poetry: Nguni; Akan. Hunting poetry: Yoruba ijala; Ambo hunters’ songs. Work songs

9.   Lyric

Occasions. Subject-matter. Form. Composition

10.   Topical and political songs

Topical and local poetry. Songs of political parties and movements: Mau Mau hymns; Guinea R.D.A. songs; Northern Rhodesian party songs

11.   Children’s songs and rhymes

Lullabies and nursery rhymes. Children’s games and verses; Southern Sudanese action songs


12.   Prose narratives I. Problems and theories

Introductory. Evolutionist interpretations. Historical-geographical school. Classification and typologies. Structural-functional approach. Conclusion

13.   Prose narratives II.Content and form.

What is known to date: content and plot; main characters. Types of tales: animal stories; stories about people; ‘myths’; ‘legends’ and historical narratives. What demands further study: occasions; role of narrators; purpose and function; literary conventions; performance; originality and authorship. Conclusion

14.   Proverbs

The significance and concept of the proverb. Form and style. Content. Occasions and functions. Specific examples: Jabo; Zulu; Azande. Conclusion

15.   Riddles

Riddles and related forms. Style and content. Occasions and uses. Conclusion

16.   Oratory, formal speaking, and other stylized forms

Oratory and rhetoric: Burundi; Limba. Prayers, curses, etc. Word play and verbal formulas. Names


17.   Drum language and literature

Introductory—the principle of drum language. Examples of drum literature: announcements and calls; names; proverbs; poetry. Conclusion

18.   Drama

Introductory. Some minor examples: Bushman ‘plays’; West African puppet shows. Mande comedies. West African masquerades: South-Eastern Nigeria; Kalabari. Conclusion






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