In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Oral and Written Traditions

  • Introduction
  • Early Works of Literature

African Studies African Oral and Written Traditions
Harold Scheub
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0037


It is the task of the storyteller, in both the oral and written traditions of Africa, to forge the fantasy images of the past into masks of the realistic images of the present, enabling the performer to pitch the present to the past, to visualize the present within a context of and therefore in terms of the past. Flowing through this potent emotional grid is a variety of ideas that have the look of antiquity and ancestral sanction. Story occurs under the mesmerizing influence of performance, the body of the performer, the music of her voice, the complex relationship between her and her audience; it is a world unto itself, whole, with its own set of laws. That oral concept of performance finds its parallels in written traditions. Unlike images are juxtaposed, and then the storyteller reveals, to the delight and instruction of the members of the audience, the linkages between them that render them homologous. In this way, the past and the present are blended: ideas are thereby generated, forming our conception of the present. Performance gives the images their context and assures the audience a ritual experience that bridges past and present, and shapes contemporary life. It was the situation one thousand years ago; so it shall be one thousand years hence. Storytellers are the repositories of the memories of the people. The oral traditions of African societies were thriving for centuries before the introduction of literary traditions. These latter, though often influenced by Europe and Asia, nevertheless occur within the context of the oral traditions.

The Oral Performance in Africa

Storytellers in the African oral tradition do what storytellers in all cultures and in all times have done: they entertain the members of the audiences. In the process of doing so, they distill the essences of human experiences, shaping them into memorable, easily retrievable images of broad applicability with an extraordinary potential for eliciting emotional responses. Entertainment thus becomes a multidimensioned experience. Images of contemporary life are removed from their historical contexts so that performers may, with all of the artistic and mnemonic devices at their disposal, reorganize them in artistic forms. The oral arts, containing this sensory residue of past cultural life and the wisdom so engendered, constitute a medium for organizing, examining, and interpreting an audience’s experiences of those images of the present. The tradition is a venerable one: a Xhosa storyteller said, “When those of us in my generation awakened to earliest consciousness, we were born into a tradition that was already flourishing” (Nongenile Masithathu Zenani, comment to author, 1975). Much of the oral tradition of African cultures has been lost, and as African languages are in the process of dying each year, the traditions are gone forever. But some collections of these traditions exist, of which the finest are included in this section.

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