Begin at the Beginning: Oral Traditions

19 Jan
World Literature and Thought: Volume 3: The Modern World to 1900 (p 513-560)
Do not follow the vanquished into the bush.” –Kenyan Proverb*
Let’s start this cultural learning project the way that any good Arts student would: with the stories of the people. One of my textbooks has a chapter titled “African Oral Literature” which consists of tales, riddles, proverbs, songs and poetry from various countries in Africa. Many of these works date to the 18th or 19th century, but the storytelling tradition continues into the present, “repeated from generation to generation, contain[ing] materials and forms that are inherited from earlier times.”
Oral literature is neat, because each storyteller can change the material with each performance, and it is an expression of the community/audience it is performed to. This also makes it a complete pain in the butt to study in books! Stories can be transcribed, but the musicality of the words is lost because often the audience interacts with the reciter, creating a harmony of competing voices.
Here’s how my textbook sums it up: “Rather than expressing [traditional values and the community’s understanding of the world] by direct, unvarnished statements, oral narratives are indirect, subtle, and complex, arguing… “not only with regard to how people should or should not act to be useful members of society, community and family, but also in regard to how such actions give meaning and power to the very being of all within the community.”
Reading this assortment of stories and proverbs was very interesting and entertaining, but I could never escape the feeling that I was missing some crucial knowledge. From What an Old Man Can See Sitting Down – A Young Man Can’t See Standing Up (Yoruba, Nigeria) to How the World was Created from a Drop of Milk (Fulani, Mali), “I don’t get it!” was always my first thought. Clearly I’ve got a lot learning to do in the department of cultural understanding.
I’ll give you a short example, in case anyone can provide some insight or wants to discuss the topic:
Eshu, God of Fate (Eshu is a Yoruba trickster god, as well as a god of fate.)
Eshu turns right into wrong, wrong into right.
When he is angry, he hits a stone until it bleeds.
When he is angry, he sits on the skin of an ant.
When he is angry, he weeps tears of blood. Eshu slept in the house –
But the house was too small for him:
Eshu slept on the verandah –
But the verandah was too small for him:
Eshu slept in a nut –
At last he could stretch himself!
Eshu walked through the groundnut farm.
The tuft of his hair was just visible:
If it had not been for his huge size,
He would not be visible at all.
Lying down, his head hits the roof:
Standing up, he cannot look into the cooking pot.
He throws a stone today
And kills a bird yesterday!
* Do not press one’s victory too far.

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