Oral Tradition

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The oral tradition, also termed oral literature or orature, refers to a wide body of oral discourse encompassing every subject and in every type of expression created by a people. The oral tradition is an art form that can be analyzed in accordance with an approved and recognized set of traditional standards. The nature of the African oral tradition is drawn from African belief systems and traditions.
The oral tradition is the complex corpus of verbal or spoken art created for the purpose of remembering the past based on the people's ideas, beliefs, symbols, assumptions, attitude, and sentiments. There are three main categories of orature—literary, historical, and erudite knowledge. The literary includes poetic genres, divination poems, and songs. It also includes proverbs, parables, and incantations. The historical includes narratives based on myths, legends, and historical plays or epics. The erudite knowledge includes specialized, and often secret knowledge, such as initiation formulas, herbal recipes, and so on.
The poet serves many functions in traditional African society. The griot or court poet for the Mandika of West Africa was charged not only with singing the ruler's praises but also with documenting through songs the historical events surrounding the royal or ruling family. He is also the linguist or spokesman for the king. The umusizi of the Rwanda in Central Africa, the imbongi of the Zulu in Southern Africa, and poets in other ethnic groups all serve the same purpose.
Ever present in traditional African orature is the productive power of Nommo—the Word. The African poet commands things by using words according to traditional African philosophy. Not only are these “magical” poets used at the discretion of royalty, but others consult them as well. For example, goldsmiths often call upon poets to work their “word-magic” for the creation of their art.
While at the same time appreciating the oral skill of the poet, Africans recognize their orature and its performance (again, you cannot have one without the other) as a functional part of society. The purpose of orature is not merely to entertain, or to appeal to some romantic sensation, but to enlighten and stir the audience into some productive action or initiate or facilitate spiritual action.
African orature does not departmentalize literature into poetry, prose, and drama; orature is just language used by the speaker or poet. Examples of the use of language rooted in the indigenous African culture are copious. This is important because it demonstrates that there is no line drawn between a speech act and a performance in African communities. They are one and the same. To speak is to perform. Traditional African literature, or African orature, exists alongside or within African languages. It is not compartmentalized into separate and distinct categories. Therefore, when discussing the African oral tradition, one is speaking of artistic verbal expressions—and its performance in the form of poems, songs, proverbs, myths, legends, incantations, sermonizing, lecturing, testifying, signifying, and other modes—based on a complex worldview designed to elevate and transform society. In Africa and the diaspora, past and present, the spoken word dominates communication culture. This is part of the continuity with the ancient African past.

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Further Reading

  • Bodunde, Charles A. (1992). Oral Traditions & Modern Poetry: Okot p 'Bitek's Song of Lawino and Okigbo's Labyrinths. In EldredDurosimi Jones (Ed.), Orature in African Literature Today(pp. 24–34). Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. In this article, Bodunde discusses the African oral tradition from a cultural and historical standpoint.
  • Mazama, Ama. (2001). An Analysis of Discourse on the Spoken and Written Words: A Historical Comparison of European and African Views. In VirginiaMilhouse, MolefiKete Asante, and Peter O. Nwosu (Eds.), Transcultural Realities: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. This essay highlights the cultural and historical significance of the African oral tradition.
  • Okpewho, Isidore. (1985). The Heritage of African Poetry. Burnt Mill, Essex, UK: Longman Group. This text reveals the functional aspect of the African oral tradition. It focuses on how verbal art is used to teach history and how the poet is used as the spokesperson for a nation's leaders.
  • Welsh-Asante, Kariamu. (1994). The Aesthetic Conceptualization of Nzuri. In KariamuWelsh-Asante (Ed.), The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions(pp. 1–20). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Welsh-Asante explains that aesthetics in an African context operate in tandem with functional aspects of artistic expression.