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E.N. Obiechina
Transition from oral
to literary tradition *
Les commentateurs de la littérature de l'Afrique de
l'Ouest n'ont pas accordé toute l'importance voulue à la
tradition orale, qui est pourtant une de ses sources les
plus importantes.
La réalité essentielle de la culture contemporaine est
qu'en son sein même ·coexistent côte à côte la tradition
orale et la tradition littéraire.
Elle est suffisamment vigoureuse pour être légitime-
ment reproduite par les écrivains ouest-africains sous
diverses formes littéraires.
Nous savons que les écrivains élaborent leur matière
à partir du folklore de l'Afrique de l'Ouest, des symbo-
les, des images et des formes de langage traditionnels,
afin de donner à leur littérature une sensibilité et une
saveur réellement africaines.
Il ne s'agit pas d'une «lubie» littéraire, pas plus que
d'exorciser la littérature ouest-africaine. Le fait est que
la tradition orale a survécu, malgré l'introduction de
l'écriture occidentale qu'elle comporte.
La raison en est que la plupart des Ouest-Africains
sont encore analphabètes. .
Une partie importante des populations ouest-afri-
caines continue à subsister plutôt dans une culture
orale que littéraire et à ~xprimer un état de conscience
qui est plus propre à la tradition orale qu'à la tradition
littéraire. En deuxième lieu, sur 4 Ouest-Africains, trois
vivent dans les villages à communautés traditionnelles,
ou dans des centres urbains traditionnels, qui jouissent
d'une homogénéité culturelle relative, d'une histoire
commune et d'un développement linguistique commun,
tout cela contribuant à l'existence de la tradition orale.
* Part II « Tutuola and the Oral Tradition », to be published subse-
quently.


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITBRARY TRADITION 141
En troisième lieu, même ceux de plus en plus nom-
breux qui sont influencés par la Culture littéraire ne
perdent jamais le contact avec la tradition orale.
Un quatrième facteur qui a contribué à la continuité
et à la vitalité de la tradition orale est le fait que la tra-
dition orale a mieux résisté aux pressions et aux change-
ments, que d'autres aspects de la Culture ouest-afri-
caine. En contraste avec l'aspect matériel, la valeur
d'une culture tend à persister longtemps même face à
des facteurs de changement.
Une culture purement orale, comme celle de l'Afri-
que de l'Ouest avant l'introduction du roman et de l' écri-
ture arabe, véhicule les valeurs et attitudes, dans des
proverbes, des façons de dire fossilisées ; les croyances,
dans les mythes et la religion ; la conscience de sa
vie le long de l'histoire, l'éthique collective, dans ses
légendes, son folklore et d'autres formes de littérature
orale. Tout cela fait partie de la conscience des peuples
ouest-africains en tant que groupes culturels ; l'intro-
duction de certains éléments de la culture littéraire oc-
cidentale, ont affecté la Culture orale traditionnelle,
mais n'ont pas détruit la substance de la tradition orale.
Les écrivains tachent de transposer la tradition orale
de l'Afrique de l'Ouest dans la tradition littéraire euro-
péenne. Le résultat n'est pas seulement quelque chose
de nouveau, mais de très vivant dans sa nouveauté.
Les écrivains ouest-africains qui représentent la tra-
dition orale, qui donne plus de force à leurs écrits, re-
flètent, dans sa vérité, la réalité culturelle.
I
Village story-telling in Africa is a phenomenon which many
foreigners tend to associate with a departed cc primitive » era,
swept away, sorne of them would suggest morosely, hy the com-
ing of cc modemizing » Europe to cc primeval » Africa. These
sometimes fail to notice one of the major realities of modem
Africa which makes it so very different from modem Europe :
namely, that its modemity is a gloss over a hard core of rural
traditionalism ; that modem-oriented innovations touch only
the peripheries of the African consciousness and, that the es-
sential Africa remains the village within the soul.
This is hardly to be wondered at. For a great majority of
Africans life often begins in the village and wherever these Afri.
cans go afterwards, they carry the village within them. Their
àspirations are largely those of villagers, their sympathies, emo-


142
PlŒsENCE AFRICAINE
ti ons and moral values ·are (}ften· those · which gave the old vil-
lage community culture its peculiar character. Oral village story-
telling as weil as the other forms of oral tradition is a living
reality to them and helps to inform and direct their attitud~
and values.
W e .should recognize of course that the old traditional cul-
ture of Afripa is ):mdergoing a steady change as a. resl.Ùt of the
impact on it of .the literary culture of Europe. We cannot pos-
sibly discuss the scope and degree of. this change in this short
paper - the implications of the two types of .t;raditions (oral
.and literary) have been expertly discussed by G(}ody and Watt
in their book titled The Consequences of Literaturre. What we
intend to do here is to sh(}w that the superimposition of a liter·
ary over an essentially· oral culture could lead somètimes not
to the obliteration of the former by the latter but to the record-
ing, codicying and preservation of elements of the oral culture
anq thus to making it available to an ever-widening literate au-
dience.
The most significant difference which is noticeable between
the prose fictional works by native West Africans and those by
non-West Africans using the West African setting, is the impor-
tant position which the representation (}f oral tradition is ac-
corded in the former, and its amost complete absence in the lat-
ter. This is a statement ·of fact rather than a criticism of non-
West Arncan writers few;if any, of whom understand West Arn-
can vemaculars. If, for example, we compare Joyce Cary's Ni-
gerian villag1èrs and Chinua Achehe's villages (any of the nov-
els by both writers will bear this out), we cannot but notice
that Cary's peasants speak in straight-forward English prose -
with the exception of Mr. Johnson who speaks and writes what
Professor Mahood calls a « Babu » type English, Cary's Nige-
rian peasants speak like Cary himseH - whereas Achehe's Nige-
rian villagers weave into the fabric (}f their everyday conversa·
tions allusions from folk-tales, legends and myths and punctuate
·their relevant points of view and attitudes by using appropriate-
ly chosen proverbs, traditional maxims and cryptic aneedotes.
In other words, whereas the identity of Cary's peasants cannot
he guessed- at from the way they speak, Achebe's villagers'
speaking style show them very unmistakably as people who are
-closer to an oral rather than a literary tradition. The other West
African writers ais(} show unmistakable awareness in their wri-
ting of the significance of oral tradition as an integral part of
the West African culture. It is by incorpora ting the oral tradi-
tion of West Africa in their writing that they have largely sUC·
ceeded in giving an air of authenticity to their writing and esta·


. :TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITBRARY TRADITION 143
blished a consciousness which is characteristically West African.
Conimentators on West African literature have so far accord·
ed seanty recognition to the significance of oral tradition as
one of its major impulses. John Ramsaran of the University of
Ibadan is quite right when he makes the following complaint :
cc No aspect of the developing literature of West African is so
much neglected as the folk-tale which is still a most vigorous
form ·of expression in the cultural life of the people. Perhaps
because of its very popularity and age-old association with a
largely non-literature society the folk~tale tends to be forgotten
or is deliberately by-passed by sophisticated writers and readers
who equate modernity with excellence. »
The African writers themselves are not at ali deceived into
the f~lsity of striking an exclusively modernist pose and igno·
ring the surviving elements of the old traditional culture which
blend into the post-colonial situation. The essential reality of ·
the contemporary West African culture is that within it, oral
tradition continues to exist side by side with the encroaching Ji.
'terary tradition. It is sufficiently vigorous to be legitimately por·
trayed by West African writers in the vaqous litcrary forms
which have been developed there. Whether in the tales of Amos
Tutuola, in the novels of Achebe, in the plays of Clark and
Soyinka or in the poems by Okigbo, we are aware that the
writers are drawing elaborately from West African folklore, tra·
ditional symbols and images, and traditional turns of speech,
to invest their writing with a truly West Africàn sensibility and
flavour.
That West African writers attempt to make much of the
West African oral tradition in thel.r writing is no mere lite·
rary fad of an attempt to « exoticize » the West African lite·
rature. The truth is that oral tradition has survived in W t'.St
Africa in spi te of the introduction of Western writing and the
tradition which it bears.
There are many real reasons wh y West African oral tradi-
tion should survive despite the changes induced by the intro·
duction of a literary tradition from Europe. First, by far the
' (1} See the article « African Twilight : Folktale and Myth in Nigeria
.Litel'l;lture » in Ibadan, N* 15, March 1963, pp. 17-19. John Ramsaran is
of course right but it ought to be stated that the prejudice againSt the
·folk-tale as oralliterature (or its not being recognized as such) until six or
seven years ago was entirely due to its close association with social an-
thropology and European interest in Africana exotica. Now that old resent-
·ments have given place to more positive reassessments, young African
writers are finding that anthropology filr from being an enemy could be
turned into a useful friend. In no aspect of African life is this more de-
monstrable than in the field on oral tradition.


144 P~SBNCB AFRICAINE
largest number of West Africans are still illiterate. If we take
Nigeria as an example, the literacy rates in the English lan·
guage according to the 1952-53 census (about the time of the
appearance of Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard) were 33.7 %
for Lagos, 0.9 % for Northern Region, 9.5 % for Western Re~
gion, 10.6 % for Eastern Region and 6 % for the country as
a whole. Each percentage is higher (especially in Northern Ni-
geria) when we add the number of those who at this time were
litera te in the vernaculars only. Y et, it must be clear that from a
purely statistical point of view, a preponderating part of the
West African populations continue to subsist largely within an
oral rather than a literary culture· and to express a consciousness
which is more typical of the oral than of a literary tradition *.
Second, at least three out of every four West Africans live in
traditional village communities or traditional urban settlements
which enjoy relative cultural homogeneity, a common histori·
cal outlook and a unified linguistic development ali of which
contribute to the existence of an oral tradition. Thirdly, even
those who are increasingly influenced by the literary culture
never Jose touch with their oral culture. Literate people in ur-
han areas which are centres of the literate cultural influence
very often visit their relations in the villages and are thus also
exposed to the influence of the oral culture which predominates
in the villages and traditional towns. Thus, W estern-educated
West Africans are very often familiar with their folklore, have
a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the popular proverbs and
other traditional speech forms and can speak their vernaculars
with reasonahle competence. They also share rouch of the va-
lues, attitudes and structures of feeling (to use Raymond Wil-
liams' convenient phrase) (1 ), which are implicit within their
oral culture. We shall see, of course, that the effect of the in~
troduœd literacy culture is quite considerable both on the in-
dividual and on the general culture. What is being suggested
here is that in spite of the effects of the introduced literary cul-
tural elements, oral tradition still remains a most significant
part of the contemporary West African culture.
Moreoever, we ought to recognize a fourth factor which has
contributed, not insignificantly, to the continued vitality of oral
tradition in West Africa, the fact of cultural inertia. Social an·
thropologists inform us that certain areas of a changing cultul'e
always tend to be more resistant to the pressures of change than
others. One such area has to do with the value aspect of a cul-
ture. In contrast to the material aspect, the value aspect of a
(1) See : The long Revolution, p. 64 ff.


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 145
culture tends to persist longest even in the face of factors mak-
ing for change in a given society. A purely oral culture such
as the West African culture obviously was before the introduc-
tion of the Roman and Arabie scripts, embodies its values and
attitudes in its proverbs and fossilized sayings, its beliefs in its
myths and religon and its consciousness of its historical life, col-
lective outlook and ethics, in its legends·, folk-tales, and other
forms of oral literature. Ail these have been embedded in the
consciousness of the West. African peoples as cultural groups ;
the introduction of certain elements of the Western literary cul-
ture has merely affected the traditional oral culture but bas
not destroyed the consciousness deriving from its oral tradition.
· So long as the relation between the town and the village in
West Aftïca remains complementary and so long as a large
number of people live in the villages and those who live in the
towns also live in the villages part of the time, so long will oral
tradition continue to inform the consciousness arid determine
the sensibility of the generality of West Africans.
West African writers who attempt to recreate in fiction the
West African cultural life (either in its contemporary or histo-
rical setting) have judiciously chosen to do so through the oral
tradition of West Africa hecause it best expresses the West Afri-
can consciousness and sensibility. Even while they are writing
in what may he regarded by the superficial observer as an au-
thentic Queen's English for the benefit of the reader, the sensi-
bility they express is pürely West African. In other words, the
writers are involved in transposing the oral tradition of West
Africa into the literary tradition of Europe. The result is some-
thing not only new but also exhilarating in its novelty (1).
No people, of course, are known to have lost completely,
the oral quality of their culture. This is even so among those
with a highly developed literary culture. Goody and Watt have
noted in respect of Europe that in spite of the alphabet script,
printing and a universal free education ail of which make for a
highly developed literary culture, the transmission of values and
(1) A conference of teachers of English held in the Institute of Educa-
tion and the Department of English, University of Ibadan, between 26 April
and 1 May, 1965 came to the conclusion that « traditional material of folk
tale, myth and legend is so intimately connected with the life of Africa, that
sorne knowledge of it is necessary to an intelligent underst&nding of cer-
tains areas of African creative writing » and that « quite a few of the
writers of today must be influenced consciously or otherwise by the work
of traditional artists like story tellers and praise-singers ». See Cultural
Events in Africa, No 6 of May, 1965, for Professer D.E.S. Maxwell's account
of the Conference.
10


146
P~SBNCB AFRICAINE
attitudes in face to face contact remains « the primary mode of
cultural orientations» (1 ).
ln West Africa, the fact that literary education is even much
Iess developed than in Europe implies that the importance o{
oral tradition for cultural transmission and orientation is much
more so than in Europe. West African writers who represent the
oral tradition as a major impulse in their writing are therefore·
merely being true to the cultural reality. W e intend to show by
using the works of tire Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, that
European-oriented writing has become a major instrument for
the recording and transmission of the oral stories and other forms
of oral tradition in· Africa. He represents for us a suecessful in,te-
gration of elements of the West African village oral story-
telling tradition and those peculiar to the European-introduced
literary tradition.
II. - CONTROVERSY
Amos Tutuola is the first West African writer of fiction to
attain international recognition. When his first book, The Palm-
Wine Drinkard appeared in 1952 it was received with enthu·
siasm in Europe and America. The book has now been published
in French, ltalian, German and Yugoslavian. Since The Palm-
Wine Drinkard Tutuola has written four more books : namely,
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark
Jungle, The Brave African Huntress, and Feather Woman.
lt seems quite ironical but it is true that the more popular
the books get abroad, the more unpopular they become (at
least until recently) at home. There are many reasons for this
but the main one seems to be that he deals with a world which
European writers, especially « the crocodile writers », had exploi-
ted in the past from a motive of sensationalism at a time when
little or nothîng authentic was kn&wn about the African cultural
life, a world of witches and wizards, of magic and magician&,
of jungle life, ritual murder and mumho-jumbo.
The fact however is that Tutuola is no lineal descendant of
the European creative writers &n West Africa. In fact, it is
obvions that a hiatus exists between the European and indige-
nous writers on West Africa with the first group writing essen-
tially for a European audience and about situatiorls which it
on.ly sees from the outside while the second group writes for
a West African and non-West African audien.ee about situations
(1) Op. cit. p. 335.


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITBRARY TRADITION 147
which it sees largely from the inside. Anybody familiar with
West African writing will readily agree that Tutuola's writing
ha!! a greater affinity with the writing of the ]atter group than
with that of the former because it is based largely upon the
oral tradition of West Africa which is rep:resented in the nQvels
of the indigenous West African writers but never in those of
non-West African writers.
The more open objection to Tutuola by sorne Nigerian cri-
tics (1) is that he has merely collected and rehashed folk-tales .
known to everyone and put them into semi-literate English. In
this sense, he is, in their opinion, no more original than a. stamp
collector. His work, they say, has the fascination of nove]ty
for Europeans which it could not possibly have for indigenous
Nigerians. By this kind of criticism they try · to den y him any
creative merits as well as originality. The ensuing discussiQn
will prove this criticism to be both misguided and misleading.
The concept of originality within the oral tradition is · not the
same as. within the literary tradition and as the present writèr
conceives of Tutuola's writing in the context of a transition bet·
ween the oral and the literary tradition, it will be atte:inpted to
show that Tutuola is both an original and an interesting writer.
III. - ORAL TRADITION
Cultural continuity within the non-literate traditional soc·
ieties of West Africa (and still to a very large extent after the
introduction of literacy) is carried on largely by oral transmis·
sion. Goody and Watt emphasize this statement in respect of ali
non-literate societies when they write, « *** aU beliefs and ail va·
lues, all forms of knowledge, are communicated hetween indi-
viduals in face-to-face . contact ; and, as distinct from the mate·
rial content of the cultural traditi<m, whether it is cave-paint-
ing or hand-axe, they are stored only in human memory » (2).
Story·telling is one of the ways in which this oral .transmission
of culture is carried on. In traditional African communities
story-telling provides entertainment, moral instruction and an
opportunity for the expression of collective solidarity. It is one
of the methods of educating young people by introducing them
to the, material culture, customs and ùsages and the beliefs and
philosophies of their people. Traditional African narrative can
(1) Wole Olumide: «Amos Tutuola's Reviewers and the Educated Afri.
cans », New Nigerian Forum, p. 7.
(2) Goody and Watt : The Consequences of Literacy, p. 306.


148
PRÉSENCE AFRICAINE
therefore be said to embody more than the l'art pou.r l'art ar·
tistic philosophy.
Story-telling is part of the seasonal rhythm of life in Africa
and is closely related to the ecology of a particular area (1 ).
Among ali agricultural village-dwellers in Africa, the ideal story-
telling period is after the harvest when people are free at night
to assemble round a fire or in an open court-yard when there is
moon-light. Sometimes children gather together while adults sit
apart conversing and smoking pipes or taking snuff, sometimes
adults join children. Sometimes the group is composed of the
members of the same compound - the father, his wives, their
children, the father's and often the mother's relatives living
within the compound. Very often the gathering is a larger one
and includes people from other compounds and adjoining vil-
lages.
There is a definite solidarity by way of stared response and
stimulus between the narrator and his audience. The story
itself is often well-known to everyone present and has been
told often. The audience therefore anticipates every move of
the narrator as he weaves his way through the plot. They ac·
company the narrator in the singing of the ditties where these
form a part of the story. People are not bored because they
already know the story. Apart from feeling a pleasure of recog-
nising the details of the story, they can be thrilled hy the
competent narrator who reinforces the effect of his story by
his manner or narration, his gestures, verbal dexterities and
voice modulation.
There ar.e different types of traditional stories which have vary.
ing contents, patterns of narration and signifiance. There are
also what for a lack of a better nomeclature are called verbal
arts. Verbal arts are not stories but are an essential part of tra-
ditional lore. They depend on verbal dexterity, association of
ideas and the ability to establish naturalistic links between ob-
jects. They include proverbs and riddles.
Proverbs are the kernels which contain the wisdom of the
people. They are usually philosophical or moral expositions
( 1) Obviously oral story-telling is an essentiel aspect of life in ali agri-
cultural and rw;al communities. R. K. Narayan baS in his Gods, Demons
and Others (pp. 1-10) given an important insight into the story-telling tra-
dition of rw;al India. The world of his stories is strikingly similar to that
of traditional African story-telling. Though his stories are based on manu-
scripted texts the mode of their delivery is essentially oral. H. M. and
N. K. Chadwick have documented to a very eloborate extent the oral tra.
ditions of the different peoples ·of the world which have, at sorne stages
after the introduction of literacy, been written down. See their great work :
The Growth of Literature, Vols. 1-3.


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 149
shrunk to a few words and form a mnemonic deviee in societies
in· which everything worth knowing and relevant to the day to
day life of the people has t(} he committed to memory. The speech-
es of old men are usually spiced with them and it is Clertainly
an index of traditional wisdom to apply them appropriately in
one's speech. The pronounc:emeuts of divination are often couch-
ed in proverbs since that hears out the fact that the diviner
is hoth an intellectual and a philosopher in the traditional Afri-
can society. ln the contemporary west African novels the pro-
verb features prominently as one of the ways in which young
West African au thors are recapturing traditional speech atmo-
sphere and wisdom.
Riddles are hriefly stated questions whose answers are to be
guessed by the listeners. They are essentially intellectual exer-
cises which pro vide an outlet for training the· powers of obser-
vation and imagination. They are very popular with young
people and provide a welcome diversion when storytelling be-
cornes monotonous. They are usually telegraphie, that is, they
are. fotmed with the minimum expenditure of words with the
conunctions and the prepositions almost always left out (1 ).
They are often in the form of statements even though they re-
quire answers- for example : Elephant dies, Jamu-Jamu eats
him ; cow dies, Jamu-Jamu eats him ; Jamu-Jamu dies, there
is no one who eats him. >> Most of the riddles are enigmas or
paradoxes presented by balanced statements which appear mu-
tually contradictory, incongruous or impossible as for example,
<< A black ram goes to the river, it turns white.>> Riddles apart
from affording a training in observation and sharpening the ima-
gination, introduce young people t(} the material culture of their
society. They are also an essential element in cultural orientation
and moral training. A Y oruha riddle such as « who is it that
goes down the street without greeting the king ? >> makes chil-
dren aware of the fact that when they walk by the king's pa-
lace they must go in and greet him. As has been stated ahove,
prover.hs and riddles are not !!tories properly speaking but they
are so important as. part of the oral tradition that they cannot
be left out even in the most curs(}ry discussion of that tradition.
Linguistic development within the literary culture of Eu-
rope seems to be towards the discouragement of the use of fos-
silized expressions such as proverbs, saws, apophthegms, and
even epigrams. They are either regarded as cliches and there-
(1)For a sttidy of scyle in West Africa riddles see William Bascom's
« Llterary Scyle in Yoruba Riddles » in J.A.F., Vol. 6Z, No 243, Jan.-March,
1949.


150 P~SENCB AFRICAINE
fore vulgar or as signs of affectation and pedantry. At the bot·
toin of this 11ttitude is the modern concept of originality and in·
dividuality which is expected to be reflected in individual speech
and writing style. In traditional non-literate societies however
the appropriate application of these set expressions is regarded
as a mark of rhetorical virtuosity and traditional wisdom. Rid-
dles do not s·eem to have had a very important place within the
English literary tradition except in balladry which at any rate,
belongs essentially to the oral tradition. Shakespeare's use of the
casket riddle in The Merchant of V enioe obviously indicates the
close touch which his age still had with oral traditional lore. The
verbal arts (an uneasy term because it tends to imply a conscious
juggling with words) are therefore an essential feature of non·
literate societies. They are very highly developed in traditional
W es.t African societies.
Traditional stories proper can be differentiated into folk·
tales, legends and pseudo-history, and myths (1 ). These are dis-
tinctive in their contents, narrative forms and importance. They
are easily confused one with another and rouch misunderstan·
ding of Tutuola 's writing as will appear la ter in this discussion
arises from the failure to realize the underlying differences . bel·
ween these narrative types and within which context Tutuola
was writing.
Legenda and pseudo-history are usually stories about tribal
heroes abd the significant events and places with which they are
aS80ciated. These stories deal with among other things, mili·
tary exploits, magical prowess, singular economie fortunes, feats
of strength, skill and wit *
. In traditional African societies, legenda embody the main
historie records of the people's past and are passed down from
generation to generation by oral transmission. Old men are
often the renowned chroniclers of the community and are
highly revered as a rèsult of their being the repositories of the
traditional historical records. Legenda form an essential part of
communal religions celebrations, not in the sense of being an
integral part of the ritual activity, but in the sense of filling the
place during communal feeding and drinking which background
music and conversation would at a similar eating and drinking
at a modern European dinner pa:cty. The respected eider (sorne-
times someone who stands to gain in reputation from the . story
being told either because he took part in the incident being des·
(1) Jan Vansina bas a more elaborate typological identification of Afri.
can oral tradition in his Oral Tradition. The tbree categories above are
adequate for our purpose.


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 151
crihed or hecause he is lineally descended from the hero) refur·
hishing the imagination of the young people hy these legendary
tales. These he delivers as a series of reminiscences or reported
accounts of what he learned from his father or another respec·
ted eider when he was young. While he narrates his story a few
words are thrown in oecasionally hy sorne of the adult males
to jog his memory or a few friendly noises made to indicate that
the people «are still with » him. Sometimes arguments develop
on a point of detail but these are hardly pressed hard enough
to spoil the conviviality of the occasion. ln these gatherings tra·
ditional African diplomacy, sense of decorum and good hreeding
permeate everything that is said or done. W omen and children
sit still and say nothing. Traditional African society has this in
common with Victorian England that within it, women and chil-
dren !>hould be seen but not heard on such important occasions.
Legends and pseudo-history perform a dual function for the
community which possesses them. First, they give the memhers
of the community a collective solidarity by linking their present
with their past, hy enahling the living memhers of the commu-
nity to identify themselves and their aspirations with those of
the dead memhers. This is so hecause most traditional societies
are smalhscale societies within which oral dissemination of in-
formation presents no difficulty. Secondly, legends and pseudo-
history provide the legalistic hasis for settling the prohlems of
rights and obligations within the social system ; for, the doings
of traditional heroes hecome precedents and norms hy which
present action can he judged.
ln terms of creativity, the freedom of the traditional _chro-
nicler is restricted hy the material he is using. He must he loyal
to the fact as he saw it or as it was handed down to hlm hy his
father or another reliahle eider. ln spite of that, the manner ot
his narration will reflect his capahility as a competent narrator.
His use of words which are likely to evoke distinctive emotional
response in his listeners, his gestures, bodil y· movements, expres·
sion of the face and even his judicious pauses and inflexions can·
not but add to the effects which his narratives produce. ln sorne
traditional African societies, especially those with greater specia-
lization and division of labour, the chronicler hecomes a pro·
fessional court poet and historian. His method is often decla·
matory and his language is highly formalized and rhetorical.
His material however remains of commuai interest and derives
from the legends and pseudo-history of the community. He can·
not 'alter the facts though he can use his imagination to enrich
and vivi:fy their colour. There professional chroniclers have heen


152
PRÉSENCE AFRICAINE
differently designated griots, orators, linguists or rememheran-
cers. The most famous of them is the Asantehene's linguist.
Myths are stories of a sacred nature which treat of the ulti·
mate mysteries like death, after life, creation and gods. They
are not only regarded as true but have a pseudo-religions signifi·
canee. They are not just· important for their story content but
much of their values derive from their giving purpose to the
mysteries of existence ,- they give meaning, as the anthropo·
logist, Malinowski, bas ohserved to the cosmic order. Without
them, tradit:i,onal society would lose the rationale and the confi·
denee that holds it together. Let us -take helief in God as an
example. Nietzsche's gloomy phophesy that there will he univer·
sai madness on the day the world wakes to discover that there is
no God may appear like a cynical hypothetical speculation but
it cannot he douhted that helief in a God is one of the great in·
fluences in the lives of individuals. The importance of this he·
lief is reflected in the horror with which helievers regard confes·
sed atheists. It is as if in his unhelief the atheist is threatening
the very foundation and security of the heliever's world. There
is no douht whatever that myths give security to the people in
traditional societies. They are not just symholic expressions of
some detached realities, they are the realities and the charters
for their own existence. They permeate the lives, heliefs, atti-
tudes and values of the people who profess them. They live in
their mores and rituals, control their conducts and govem their
faith (1).
It must he said of course that the preponderance of myths in
traditional African societies must he explained hy the relative
absence of scepticism among their peoples. Modem scepticism
is an essential aspect of the modem scientific outlock which in
tum bas heen most developed within a literate tradition. But
that is not to say that there is ahsolute conformism to and ac·
ceptance of the generally defined heliefs in traditionaJ societies.
Within them there are hound to he those whose minds are dis·
turhed hy little ripples of douht. The fact that some of the sanc·
tions against non-conformism and disbelief appear too severe
by: · modem standards goes a long way to indicate that the tra·
ditional African societies have their heretics and free-thinkers
against whom . priests and kings have evolved inquisitorial ma-
chines and repressive laws. An encounter ·with sorne of the
priests and diviners. often reveals sorne cleverly concealed scep·
(1) F. Boas bas rightly asserted that the mythology (and tales) of a
people constitute «the autobiography of the tribe ». (31st Annual Report,
Bureau of American Ethn., pp. 27-37.)


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 153
ticism which sometimes makes them too vociferons in the as·
sertion of heliefs which they inwardly disavow. ln spite of the
growth of modem scepticism however, myths continue to ex-
press, enhance and modify helief, safe-guard and enforce mora·
lity, vouch for the efficacy of ritual, contain practical rules for
guiding behaviour and impart a general direction to the ideolo-
gies which seem to dominate the modern age.
Myths hy their very nature and collective significance are
always the product and property of the whole community or a
self-identified section of the community. They cannot helong
to individuals in the sense of being formulated by them out of
their own persona! needs ; for, myths very often refer to things
that are supposed to have happened in the past and which
therefore provide a precedent or warrant for present actions and
usages. They have a dynamic quality only in so far as fresh and
decisive events in the present lead to a graduai reinterpretation
or reformulation of an old myth to reflect the new situation. For
instance, where an autochthonous people have heen conquered
and effectively suhjugated hy an invading group, old myths are
reinterpreted to emhody the new situation. Even in this cir-
cumstance the myth-makers or interpreters art not doing any-
thing original or individual but are merely giving expression
to the collective experience. The social functions of myth are
too closely tied up with the collective experience to he within
the ken of individual creativity.
Folk-tales are distinctive imaginative stories told for amuse-
ment, entertainment and education. They may deal with the
experiences of individual human beings or of animais. They
often contain sorne morais or clinching exempla - even though
they are told essentially to provide entertainment, a strong didac-
tic purpose is implicit in them. They form the largest group of
traditional narratives and have well-known and recurrent mo-
tifs and stereo-typed characters.
The stock-characters include the Trickstler who is often some-
thing of a rogue. He manages to extricate himself from intri-
guing and sometimes dangerous situations hy a display of men-
tal agility. He is often associated with the forces of disorder
within society - he breaks laws, tramples on customary usages
and suhverts estahlished social conventions, relying on the nim-
hleness of his wits to get him off from difficulties. Sometimes
he hecomes the victim of his own clevemess for in his attempt
to trick others he very often gets tricked himself (1 ). Among
(1) For the qualities of the Trickster character, see Paul Radin : The
Trickster, A Study in American Indian Mythology.


r.
154
PRÉSENCE AFRICAINE
many West African tribes the trickster is often an animal. The
Ibos have the tortoise, the Yoruba, the rat, and the Ashanti,
Anansi the spider. Anansi stories are also popular in the Carri·
beans (notably in British Guiana and Jamaica) and among the
negroes of the Southem States of the United States. There are
also human tricksters and divine tricksters o:f the lower pan·
theon. The Yoruba Orunmila and the Dahomean Y o a,re sorne
of the outstanding divine tricksters in West Africa. Other folk-
tale heroes have a varying degree of clevemess and stupidity
according to circumstance and the exigencies of plot-deve1op·
ment, but the trickster alone evokes definite anticipation of a
tale of villany, daring cunning and intellectual gymnastics. One
could observe in passing that the trickster type of folk-tale hero
has a universal distribution. Within the European folk-tale tra·
dition, Reynard the Fox and Brer Rabbit are among the cale-
brated rogue heroes.
Another popular folk-tale character in West Africa is the
quest hero. He goes in quest of something or sorne ideal and
usually undergoes harrowing ordeals before attaining his objec-
tive and then he emerges full of confidence and triumph. He
owes his escape from disaster and defeat to persona! courage.
chance, divine intervention or magic. The dark horse is also a
common folk-tale hero. Often a victim of persecution in the
bands of an unkind uncle, a wicked aunt, a scheming step-mo-
ther (or if a girl, of invidious and jealous eider sisters ), the
hero manages to steal the show in spite of his obvions handicaps,
much to the discomfitQ.re of his hostile relatives. The Cinderella
heroïne of the European folk-tale is its nearest equivalent. The
villain or persecutor is a very common character. He is usually
an anti-hero. He is ruthless, cunning and physically menacing
and constitutes one of the task-masters of the quesi: hero.
West African folk-tales have stereo-typed motifs. The same
motifs occur in different parts of West Africa and in fa ct, in
different parts of Africa as shown by comparative folklo·rists
who have made a study of folk-tales in different pàrts of Afri-
ca (1). Sorne of the common folk-tale motifs are the stubbom
child motif, the crime-does-not-pay-motif, the unfaithful friend
motif, the fairy godmother motif, the good-vetsus-evil motif and
the pride-goeth-hefore-a-fall motif. These motifs derive essen-
tially from the traditional cultural values, the norms of beha-
viour and the strains and stresses that originate from the day
(1) Paul Radin,.African Folk-tales and Sculpture. Also, for world dis-
tribution of folk motifs, see Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Litera-
ture.


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 155
to day individual relationships. Within traditional West Afri-
can societies with their sedentary agricultural occupation exists
a great socialization of heliefs, moral values and modes of he-
haviour, and consequently an acceptance of common standard
of what comprises an ethically justifiable action of its travesty.
That seems to · explain the wide distribution of folk-tale motifs
within the identical agronomical cultures of Africa.
The world of the traditional West African Folk-tale is an
undifferentiated world within which the dichotomy hetween the
natural and the supernatural, the ahstract and the concrete, the
physical and the metaphysical does not exist. Here animais,
plants, ohjects, natural forces and ahstract entities like song,
laughter and dance are humanized. AU creation is spectacularly
imhued with vital force and this force is constantly strengthened
hy magic. This world has much in common with that of the
European hallad. « The hallad >> writes Hodgart, l< is peopled
with animais and hirds that speak, with fairies and witches, and
with ghosts who ireturn from the grave. There is no clear line
of demarcation between such creatures and ordinary mortals.
The supernatural is treated in a matter-of-fact and unsensation-
al way, and to the hallad singer there seems to he no question
of a suspension of dishelief >> (1 ). One can say of the traditional
story-teller and his audience that for them· also there is no sus-
pension of dishelief. ln spite of the assumption which many
people niake (as a result of ignorance of the folk-tale tradition.
no douht), this world is neither irrational;· iUogica:l nor prelo-
gical. On the contrary, jt is a world within which the laws of
cause and effect scrupulously operate. Given certain basic pos-
tulates, as for instance the logicality of magica] helief, it wi11 he
seen that the world of the traditional story-teller is a more
ruthlessly logical one than the world of the modern realistic no-
vel. It is one of the essential requirements of traditional story-
telling that the competent narrator must make a series of etiolo-
gical explanations as he unfolds the plot of his story. Plausihi·
lity is not only implicit in the plot as is the case in the· realistic
nov·el, it is explicit in folk-tale nauative. Because the tradi-
tional story-teller has a greater freedom in his use of words for
elaboration and explanation and hecause he uses tonal inflexion,
gestures, facial expression and even a hrief rhythmic movement
of the hody to con vey sorne dramatic elements in his story, he
is in a far hetter position to tell a more convincing story than his
counterpart who is using writing. ·
(1) M.J.C. Hodgart, The Ballad, p. 116.


156
PRJ3sENCE AFRICAINE
IV. - MAGIC AND FOLK-IMAGINATION
The logicality of magic is central to any discussion of the
world of the traditional folk-tale and in fact of the traditional
world itself because the rejection of this world by modem scien·
tific realism seems sometimes to embody a funamental assump·
tion not only that it does not stand the test of true scientific
and empirical verification but that it lacks an intrinsically lo·
gical application worthy of a rational human system. ln this
discussion the meaning one assigns to « logic )} seems most per·
tinent and forms the focal point around which much else re·
volves. Should one regard « logic >> here as that « hranch of
philosophy that treats of the forms of thinking in general, and
·especially of inference and scientific method », or as « the scien·
ce or art of reasoning as applied to a department of knowledge »
(S.O.E.D.) or should one apply « logic >> in an attributive and
descriptive sense to include any kind of systematic and compre·
hensive development of action and thought. It is obvions from
severa] discussions which have taken place ·on the subject that
different people have had one or other of these definitions up·
permost in mind while discussing the subject of traditional ma-
gic. Frazer and Tylor who pioneered the study of magic espe·
cially within pre-technological, non-literate societies had the
scientific basis of « logic » in mind in their discussions (1). On
the implicit assumption that these societies evolved their magi-
cal practices after a process of rational consideration and scien·
tific observation, they imposed an intellectual construction on
magic by a severe application of the scientific methods of indue·
tion and deduction. In their opinion, even though the pre-tech-
nological and non-literate man has an essentially functional and
utilitarian interest in magic, his magical beliefs and practices
are capable of analysis on the abstract prineiple of scientific and
empirical investigation. Taylor and Fraser postulated the view
that in his conceptualisation of magic the non-literate mind
draws from two fundamental laws of association of ideas ---.., as-
sociation of ideas based on the law of contiguity and that based
on the law of similarity. From these two laws they derived two
principles of thought on which magic is hased - namrely, that
like produces like or that an effect resembles its cause and se·
condly, that things which have once been in contact with each
other continue to act on each other at a distance. after the phy-
(1) Sir J.C. Frazer, The Magic Art from The Golden Bough, pp. 52-214.
Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. 1, pp. 115-121.. .


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 157
sical contact has been severed. To differentiate one mode of ma-
gical operation from the other Frazer invented the terms homo-
eopathic and contagious magic.
Their imposition of a purely scientific construction on ma-
gic was bound to lead to unsatisfactory results because the ana-
logies between science and magic are bound to break down.
Even though hoth the magician and the scientist appear to make
certain fundamental assumptions hased on end-means formula-
tions, the scientist attains his end through a process of experi-
mentation and verification wheress the magician believing in the
unfailing efficacy of his magical formulae has no means what-
ever of verifying and modifying them because magic is suppo-
sed to operate with the aid of a mystical agent. In his frustra-
tion Frazer dubs magic « bastard science » and the magician a
C()Unterfeit scientist hecause he attempts to reach empirical ends
through irrational means.
Later investigators of traditional magical practice have de-
parted from the intellectual approach of Tylor and Frazer and
C()ncentrated on the study of magic as a social phenomenon
·which can only make sense when seen in the context of the so-
ciety within which it obtains. As Professor Gluckman says, it is
ahsurd to compare the modes of non-literat:e, pre-industriai
thought with the modes of modern scientific and philosophical
thought (1 ). Discarding the idea of traditional magic as a science
or even a pseudo-science, modern inV'estigators make on-the-spot
study of its application by treating it as essentially a part of the
cultural content of pre-indÜstrial societies, a part of what Levy-
Bruhl caUs the (( representations collectives » of those who prac-
tise it. Using the Azande society as a test case,Professor Evans-
Pritchard shows that magic, witchcraft and oracle form a tricho-
tomic structure upon which a considerable part of social beha-
viour depends (2). The principle of magicaf causality he finds,
does not invalidate a purely rational explanation but often tends
to extend it. For instance, the farmer who after consulting an
oracle employs magical preparations to ·ensure a good harvest
does not so much assume that the preparations will stimulate
. plant growth as that they will exclude the pernicious influence
of an enemy's witchcraft which is capable of destroying the
crops ; for, it is reasonably argued, the crops a·re going to do
well any way unless witchcraft interferes with them. The logic
(1) Max Gluckman, Inaugural Address as Professor of Social Anthropo-
logy in Manchester University.
(2) E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft Among the Azande. See also : Max
Gluckman, Custom and Conflict in Africa, especially the section dealing
with «The logic in Witchcraft »,pp. 81-108.


158
PRÉSENCE AFRICAINE
immanent in this case îs the consistent helief in a notion of
causality emhodying the idea of mystically-directed action. This
notion of causality does not preclude an empirical explanation.
Again, if a granary under which a man is resting falls down
and kills him, no one douhts· that he has heen killed hy the
falling granary. The question goes heyond that. Why should
this particular granary fall when this particular man is sitting
under it and not hefore or after ? This is a question which a
scientifically-orientated mind would shrug away. The Azande
would take the matter to an oracle who would prohahly find
the answer in the malevolent intervention of an evilly disposed
neighhour exercising a psychically. malevolent influence on the
victim. To defend himseU therefore from suçh an influence the
individual arms himseU with protective. magic. ln non-literate,
pre-industrial societies of Africa therefore magical helief provi*
des the means of reconcilirig man to the unfortunate events that
overtake him and providing a ready-to-hand method for react·
ing to those events, it also affords him the necessary confi-
dence for meeting the exigencies of nature by making availahle
to him mystical power which he could invoke in a particular
circumstance hy perlorming the proper rites and using the ap-
propriate spells.
A more fruitful discussion o.f. traditional magic should pa y
attention to the intent rather than. the content of magic. Magic
has a utilitarian purpose in the traditional societies within which
organised efficient police service or proper techniques of crime
detection do not exist. Magic hy cooi'dinating helief and regula·
ting personal relationship helps to prevent the disintegration
and collapse of these societies. By prov.iding the pre-technologi·
cal man with some semhlance of power, magic rescues him from
thought processes which determine the operation of magic. A
non-literate society not heing self-analytical and handicapped
hy a lack of written records cannot anatomise its imtitutions in
terms of the logical and the non-logical, the empirical and the
ritual, or the scientific and the mystical, - these are distinc·
tions vis-a-vis the outside observer who is very often steeped
in modern scientific thought and notions. Non-literates actualize
rather than intellectualize their heliefs.
In viewing the « magical » world of the traditional folk-tale,
we must hear in mind that it is altogether futile and unrealistic
to employ the standards of modern scientific realism which is a
hyproduct of technological development and Jiteracy. We must
regard traditional magic as a mode of social hehaviour in a
different kind of society from the modem technological society
and not as an intellectual curiosity which is what it heco:m.es


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 159
when viewed through the « representations collectives >> of the
modern industrial culture. Its pertinacity in non-technological
socieii.es must be taken for granted much in the same way as
the pertinacity of science is in modern industrial societies. We
must be prepared to concede that a thing may be logical without
necessarily being scientific - without being amenahle to easy
analysis by. the scientific processes of deduction and induction.
It may even fail the test of elementary' empiricism, that is to
say, it may appear irrational, judged from a conventional scien-
tific point of view, or non-rational, where it defies such a
judgment. Nevertheless it can still be said to be logical if it .
has an internai unity, consistency and a structural coherence of
its own. The logicality of the « magical >> world of the traditio-
nal societies and their representative literature depends upon
these quiùities of internai unity, consistency, and structural co·
herence. Traditional folk-tale world implicitly assumes the lo-
gicality and efficacy of magic hence a ·large proportion of ac-
tion within it is magically determined.
The world of the traditional story-telling is not supposed
to he a contemporary world. Even though the story has a con-
temporary application and incorporates contêmporary material
and allusions, the narrator makes it clear from the beginning
that his story relates to an age in the remote past when man
and the rest of the universe could intercommunicate verhally
and experience a more direct intimate relationship, a time whien
animais lived and talked like human heings. The shattering of
this folk-tale world which must have heen as extensive as the
confusion of tongues in Babel is often a narrative theme. lt
must be ohvious from the folk-tales themselves that the tradi-
tional attitude to · that « golden age >> has nothing of the Rous-
seauist sentimentalism about it. The fact that a greater intimacy
is purported to have existed between ali its various components ·
does not mean that there was also a grea ter harmony. lt was
a world within which the everlasting conflicts hetween good
and evil raged with as much intensity as they do toda y. This is
of course as it ought to he because the distancing of the action
is aetually an aesthetic deviee whieh gives the narrator an ab-
solute freedom to incorporate material which may appear inere-
dihle to the audience. Since contemporary allusions are often in-
eorporated within the stories the aesthetic remove of the time-
setting of a story makes it diffieult for the narrator to he ac-
cused of slander even where the audience recognizes a contem-
porary allusion made at some-one's expense. The distaneing de-
vice and the consequent humanization of ali the elements of na-
ture imbue the folk-tale world with immense vitality and excite-


160
P~SENCE AFRICAINE
ment beside which the modern « scientific » world must appear
tame and anaemic since within the modern c< scientific >> world
the trees are rooted helplessly to the ground, the stones are
dead, and the animais are banished permanently to the jungles
and only a few dociJe (mes are allowed by suffcrence to approach
·human (and therefore refined) society. The dead are securely
imprisoned in their tomhs and spirits communicate only with
an eccentric few and that in secret cells and darkened hide-
outs.
Folk-beliefs as reflected in traditional folk-tales and ballads
tended to disappear from the European written tradition as a
result of the growth of modern intellectual outlook which dicho-
tomises experience on the basis of the physical and the spiritual,
the natural and the super-natural, treating them as polarities ra-
ther thau as a continum as they have been regarded in folk so-
cieties. A cursory investigation of English literature up to and
including the Renaissance period will show that there is in them
a blending of literary impulse and folk-beliefs. In much Eliza-
bethan writing, for instance, the natural and the supernatural,
the human and the spiritual, are often found woven into a fa-
bric of great literature. The world of witches and wizards, of
fairies and magicians, was a very real one to the Elizabethans
and sorne Elizahethan works were greatly reinforced hy the in-
jection of folk-helief and practice. Puck in .'Jilid:summe;r Night's
Dream, the ghost in Hamlet, Macbeth's witches, ali these readily
come to mind as Shakespeare's effective use of folk material in
literature, and Prospero is certainly one of the most fascinating
studies in the exercise of mystical power in the English litera-
ture. Spenser's Fairy Qween is a great repository of Elisabethan
demonology and nymphology. More recently still, folk material
still survives in a residual form in European and American li-
terature (1 ). These usually take the form of folk motifs which
are merely used for the purpose of exploring contemporary
reality as in Eliot's use of the Gard-en-of-Eden motif in his
W aste Land and Herman Melville's employment of the quest
motif in M oby Dick. William Yeats, especially the earl y Yeats
of « The Geltic Twilight », could say of the impact of folk-loœ
on his poetry : « Ail my art's theories depend upon just this -
rooting of mythology in the earth (2). >> By and large, however,
the modern European intellectual outlook stimulated by the
industrial revolution has encouraged the growth of rationalism
and the rejection of folk-beliefs which could not be empirically
(1) Vide: Folklore-in Literature- A symposium, J.A.F., 7_0..1957.
(2) Richard Ellman, Yeats : The Man and the Masks, p. 267.


TRANSITION FROM ORAL TO LITERARY TRADITION 161
verified. Blecause many African societies are relativcly insulated
from urbanization, industrialism and mass communication me·
dia, they stiÙ enjoy a considerable measure of stahlity, leisure
and traditional communalistic life, and folk-tales still remain an
essential part of the social life of the people. The expressions
« relatively insulated » and « considerable stahility » are used
advisedly because no part of Africa, not even the remote rural
areas, has altogether escaped the <e#ects of the superimposition
of the modern technological culture on the traditional agrarian
cultures of Africa. Having made this point then it must he em·
phasized that about three-quarters of the traditional part of mod·
em Africa is still rural and agricultural and that within it folk.
beliefs still persist and that folk-tales still remain an essential
element in the recreational and educational life of the people.
Most Africans in the traditional part of Africa have at sorne time
or other taken part at story-telling sessions. They have listened
to these stories as part of an active and responsive audience and
have more likely than not taken their turns as narrators. Amos
Tutuola whose books will he discussed in a subsequent essay
confessed to Parrinder, one of the first Europeans to draw at·
tention to the unique imaginative merits of his writing, that
as a child he had been an active participant at story-telling ses·
sions in his village.
E. N. Obiechina
Head at the English Department, Institute of Administration, Ehugu,
Eastern Nigeria.
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