Importance of Oral Traditions in African Literature

African literature
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“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

African Proverb

Literature reaches people in two ways: either through oral or spoken word or written texts. It is because of this that histories of the world have reached us. So many stories, myths, and legends etc. have been narrated and written across centuries. The most recognized oral traditions date back to and are prevalent till date in Africa. Broadly speaking Africa can be divided into North and South. The Northern part had been a part of the ancient literate Muslim civilization however the South was far different. Here the writing made little or no presence until very recent. Hence the oral traditions prevail in the nation and are highly relied upon to recover African history. The recording of oral testimony in Africa has been going on for a very long time. The main effort being made by the coming of Christian missionaries and Colonial rule. However the collection and use of these oral archives in Africa did not begin late until the 1950s. The problem with recording these oral narratives is that the meaning can at times be completely or partially changed depending on who the translator/recorder is.

The thing with oral narratives is that the moment we sit to talk about them or write, they no longer remain oral. Oral narratives are mostly personal and dependent on occasion for example a grandmother could narrate a tale, fiction or non-fiction, to amuse her grandkids. Similarly performers would enact the life of a warrior on special occasions. Thus the significance of actual occasion could directly affect the detailed content and form of the piece being performed. A particular atmosphere like a light-hearted enjoyment for an evening story-teller, grief of a woman and so much more can be conveyed not only by a verbal evocation of mood but also by the dress, accessories, or observed bearing of the performer. Most stories and proverbs tend to be delivered as spoken prose.

Different story-tellers adopt different styles of oration, somewhere an emotional-intensity requiring a lot of dramatization and at other instances humor and wit requiring simple and direct wording. Even different literary genres require different set styles of performance within a culture. The poet or the reciter was called Omwevugi. The three famous styles of poetry are: Ijala (chanted by hunters in a high-pitched voice), Rara (a slow wailing type of chant), and Ewi (using a falsetto voice). Specific styles were mastered by specific people who would find difficulty in performing something else. There were also instances when the performer introduced variations in older pieces or even totally changed the forms in terms of detailed wording, structure, or the content.

One specialty of the native-tales was that they were not told in abstract pattern but rather like tales of the present times. So everything that was brought about because of civilization was included in the stories. One important thing to be noted here is that since contents of the story might change during oral transmission from one person to another, several versions of a single story took birth. The audience definitely plays an important role as the spectators sometimes get seriously involved in the chorus, participating in the narration, in performance of poetry, or dancing and instrument playing. The audience thus greatly affects the presentation of an oral performance. The contents of the piece may also alter depending on the audiences like a foreign person, children etc. The audience may also, in some circumstances, break into the performance with add-ons, queries, or even criticisms. This is common not only in the case of story-telling but also during Ijala chants. A performance by one Ijala artist is critically listened to by other experts present, and if one thinks the performer has made a mistake he cuts in with courteous and polite words. The performer may or may not agree with the interruption and revert with same politeness. One example of this is: “Let each animal follow the smooth path of its own road.”

It is to be noted here that the situation mentioned above is one of the biggest differences between an oral and a written literary piece as there is no interruption whatsoever, apart from the author’s own train of thoughts, in a written text. The performer of oral pieces is therefore said to be more involved in actual social situations than the writer in more familiar literate traditions.

Oral literature has been considered by many as primitive, crude and undeveloped. In ‘civilized’ countries people are inclined to associate literature with writing. However N.K. Chadwick once said, “Millions of people throughout Asia, Polynesia, Africa and even Europe who practice the art of literature have no knowledge of letters. Writing is unessential to either the composition or the preservation of literature. The two arts are wholly distinct.” However we can say that African verbal arts still continue to exist in works of discerning writers and in the study of its tropes, outlooks, philosophy and consciousness, and its complementary realism.

If we talk about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or Gabriel Okara’s The Voice, we see there is an evident mention of all sorts of stories, myths and legends. It can be said that traditional Africa was basically an oral society. The history, science, medicine, technology, philosophy, and literary forms were passed through the words of mouth in myths, folktales, legends, proverbs, poetry etc. Proverbs, specially, seem to occur almost everywhere in Africa and have been exceedingly popular. It is estimated that approximately 4000 proverbs have been recorded in Rundi, 3000 in Nkundo, and 2000 in Luba and Hausa. Proverbs are a rich source of imagery. Some famous examples are:

  • The dying of the heart is a thing unshared
  • If the chief speaks, the people make silent their ears
  • He devoured the Kaffir-beer and it devoured him
  • The white man no kin, his kin is money


Thus we can say that colonization had indeed disturbed the entire culture and traditions of Africa however the nation was very rich in literature, if not written, oral for sure. They had their own theories, philosophies, artists, writers but the presentation of the land by the West did not do justice and left it in a feeling of strange inferiority.



  • Roberts, Andrew. “The Use of Oral Sources for African History.” Oral History, vol. 4, no. 1, Oral History Society, 1976, pp. 41–56,
  • Ahebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Everyman’s Library, 1995.
  • Okara, Gabriel. The Voice.
  • Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Literature in Africa. World literature series: Vol. I. OpenBook Publishers, UK. 2012
  • Smith, Charles and Chin Ce. Oral Tradition in African Literature. Handel Books. Project MUSE, 2015


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