2011/2012 Yearbook Oral tradition and history

Oral literature

Oral literature

Oral literature forms a substantial bulk of the oral tradition. In Kenya, such oral literature remained in the background of academic study until 1968 when Taban Lo Liyong, Owuor Anyumba (deceased) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o of the University of Nairobi demanded radical changes to the structure of the then English syllabus. They suggested that African Orature be the centre of literary studies. The suggestions were adopted in 1974 at the international conference of Literature and Language teachers. This was the position in the late 1970s when Oral Literature was introduced in the school syllabus and examined for the first time in the ‘A’ Level curriculum in 1982. It also became part of the university syllabus with students routinely conducting field research to collect their community’s oral literature for grading and archival purposes.

The push for the study of oral literature is partly owed to Okot p’Bitek’s redefinition of literature as “all the creative works of man expressed in words” whether written or oral. The revolution made it possible to outline new curriculum objectives in line with the spirit that “education should expose our students to that spirit of liberation that has, through history, animated our people and given them a sense of belonging and identity” .

The formal introduction of Oral Literature into academic study opened up opportunities for the publication of several texts that can be largely categorized as anthological, school-oriented or critical. The first category carries books that primarily record the genres from specific communities e.g. Onyango-Ogutu and Adrian Roscoe’s Keep My Words and Rose Mwangi’s Kikuyu’ Folktales. The school-oriented include S.K. Akivaga and A.B. Odaga’s Oral Literature: A School Certificate Course and J. Nandwa and A. Bukenya’s African Oral Literature for Schools. The critical texts include O. Miruka’s Encounter with Oral Literature and A. Bukenya, W. Kabira and O. Okombo’s (editors) Understanding Oral Literature.

Oral literature genres

The study of oral literature generally recognises four major genres namely: riddles, proverbs, poetry and narratives. In some cases, riddles and proverbs are lumped together as short forms with puns, idioms, euphemes, dicta and tongue twisters.


Riddles are short oral puzzles that require the listener to unravel the hidden meaning from a description. Some indigenous terms for the genre are: ndai (Agikuyu, Akamba), ngero (Luo), omunaye (Samia), tangoch (Kip-sigis), oloyote (Maasai), egetendagwiri (Abagusii), kihodo (Pokomo) and ndawi (Dawida). Scholars classify riddles using objects of reference, length, simplicity or complexity, phonation, structure and style.

Riddling is a contest between a challenger and a respondent, the two often inter-changing roles during the contest. In most communities, a riddle is preceded by a fixed formula uttered by the challenger and a fixed response by the respondent before the actual riddle is posed. The Agikuyu say: “Gwata ndai (I challenge you with this riddle)” to which the response is: “Ndagwata (I accept the challenge)”. Among the Kipsigis, the challenger announces: “Tangoch? (May I pose a riddle?)” and the response is “Ichot” or “Choo” (Say it). Among the Maasai, the challenger says “Oyiote? (Are you ready?)” and the respondent says “Ee-wuo (It has come)” for simple riddles (Iloyieta), while complex ones (Ilangeni) are introduced with “Ira Ng’en? (Are you clever?)”.

Once a riddle is posed, the respondent(s) make attempts to state what is meant. Should the respondent(s) totally fail to get the right response, the challenger in some communities asks for a prize before giving the answer. This could be a bride or groom (Luo, Luhyia, Embu, Mbeere), cattle or land (Agikuyu, Embu, Mbeere) or town (Miji-kenda). The prizes tend to reflect the value systems of the various communities and their economic environment and lifestyles.


Proverbs are terse pithy statements full of folk wisdom. Some indigenous names for proverbs are: ngero (Luo), thimo (Agikuyu), ndung’eta-e-rashe (Maasai) and ndimo (Akamba). In most publications, proverbs are classified by social function. However, they can also be classified by theme, style and structure. Unlike the other genres that have a more or less independent existence, proverbs are inextricably linked to conversation and speech. They are mostly used by adults and elders well versed in the nuances of their language.

In general, proverbs function to spice verbal communication, express social norms and summarise experiences into enduring lessons. For example, the Agikuyu believe that favour looks for the deserving. This is expressed in the proverb “Ciakorire Wacu mugunda” (It – the meat – found Wacu in the garden). The proverb derives from the anecdote that Wacu’s husband decided to slaughter a goat for his favoured wife but kept his other wife Wacu out of the picture. The man roasted the meat, but as he waited for a container in which to carry it into the house, a hawk descended and took off with the big ngirima (the women’s special sausage). Because the ngirima was too hot for the hawk to carry far, it dropped it soon after leaving the homestead. The ngirima fell in front of Wacu who was busy tilling. Wacu sat down and peacefully enjoyed the juicy ngirima all by herself.


Oral poetry refers to the expression of powerful human feelings, thoughts and ideas in the best possible language and arrangement. This genre encompasses a wide array of materials delivered through recital, declamation or song. Most scholars classify oral poetry using theme, function and context of delivery. This gives rise to such categories as cradle songs, circumcision songs, nuptial songs, dirges, beer party songs, work songs, lullabies, hunting poetry, panegyrics, court poetry, epics, hortatory poetry, satirical poetry, elocutionary poetry, war songs, political poetry, lyrics, chorales, children’s poetry, mantic poetry and ceremonial poetry.

However, oral poetry may also be classified according to structure of performance (solo, choral, antiphonal), style of delivery (recital, declamation, song), performers (e.g. children, women, elders, men, warriors) and folk-loristic tradition (how the community itself categorises its corpus). The Gabra, for instance, classify their oral poetry as: dikira (hymns or songs for rituals); faru (love songs by young people); geerarsa (songs about dangerous wild animals); goba (heroic songs by men); kaarile (love songs by women); koolle (dance songs by boys); weeddu (men’s songs in honour of cattle); and yaamu (work songs while lifting water from the well).


Narratives are the longer prose accounts and renditions about people, events and phenom-ena. They are locally referred to as mbano – ancient tales – or ngewa – historical tales (Akamba), sigana (Luo), ng’ano (Agikuyu), sheeko (Somali), mugano (Ekagusii), tsing’ano (Luhyia) and ngono (Ameru). Narratives are commonly classified based on theme and characters. But they can also be classified according to their structures, social function and traditional (folkloristic or generic) system. The sample classes are described below.

Myths attempt to explain the origins of life, people or other phenomena such as death. Most myths feature super-natural phenomena and deities. Legends are about significant heroic and many times tragic historical events and personalities. Although they have distinct historical roots, legends are laced with fantasy, which then differentiates them from history.

Among the Asian community is the legend of Pir Baghali, a Kenya-Uganda Railway labourer. It is said that when he worked, the karai for carrying concrete and sand always remained a few inches above his turbaned head. He also spoke and under-stood the language of animals. One day, when the labourers were clearing a bush, a huge python appeared ready to attack. Some wanted to kill it, but Pir Baghali made them to step aside and knelt down in prayer. He then faced the snake and pleaded with it to leave in peace. The python gradually slithered away. It is said that Pir Baghali’s prayers also kept away the man-eating lions from devouring the labourers in his camp. When he died, Pir Baghali was buried next to the railway line in Mackinnon where a monument was built in his honour. Some say that whenever the train approaches Mackinnon today, it automatically slows down and whistles to acknowledge Pir Baghali.

Aetiological tales seek to explain the origin of some cultural or physical trait. They overlap quite frequently with myths. In this category are stories such as why the hyena limps, how the frog started to croak, why chameleons stride hesitantly and why keys that had not been painted went away empty-handed. Human beings soon rounded them up while their painted kin became safe and decided to change their name to zebras.

Ogre tales are distinguished by the presence in them of a diabolical monster that takes advantage of gullible persons, usually youth. Some indigenous terms for the ogre are: linani (Luhyia), irimu (Agikuyu) and apul apul (Luo). These monsters are grotesque in physique (usually having two mouths), greedy, stupid, dishonest, opportunistic and mutable. In a nutshell, they are embodiments of evil. One ogre story from the Mbeere has it that an ogre once disguised itself as a handsome young man to attend a village dance. All the girls followed him after the dance. But on the way, he started singing telling the girls to return home since he was not a human being. Eventually, all the girls returned except one. When they reached the home deep in the forest, the girl was fed and given a place to sleep. The next morning, she found herself face to face with a double-mouthed ogre! The ogre married her and sired a son whose body had so many eyes he was named Metho (eyes). Father and son would go hunting and return with human flesh for the woman to cook.

One day the son brought two twin boys. But the mother substituted them with rats while she hid the twins in a pot from where she fed them. When the boys matured, she gave them some iron with which to make swords. When they had mastered how to use the weapons, the woman told them to be ready to attack. One day when the ogres were asleep, the woman uttered a war cry and the twins slaughtered the ogres. The trio then returned to the community where there was joy and celebration to receive them back.

Dilemma stories contain situations in which characters have difficult choices to make and either has a major cost. In one story from Kilifi, two friends decided to marry the same woman. One would control the upper and the other the lower body. The upper husband satisfied his desires by just fondling the woman while his friend enjoyed the carnal pleasures downstairs. The woman became pregnant and gave birth. But when she tried to breastfeed the child, the upper husband objected because the lower husband sired the child. As the stalemate continued, the baby became vulnerable. How would such a dilemma be sorted out?

Trickster stories are tales in which one or more characters dupe others. The most prevalent trickster in Kenyan oral narratives is the hare although the tortoise and monkey also feature. A Giriama trickster narrative states that a pea farmer discovered that someone was pilfering his harvest. So he set up a human effigy covered with wax. When Hare came to get his fill, it started talking to the effigy, which did not respond. Hare hit the effigy only to find its hand stuck on it. He hit the effigy again and again but each time got stuck more firmly. It was in this state of ensnarement that the farmer found Hare, caught and shoved it into a basket, which he was going to lock with a sisal string. But Hare “advised” him to use banana fibre instead. As the day grew hotter, the banana fibre dried up, fell off and Hare was able to escape. Narratives are in most communities preceded by an introductory formula. Examples include the following:


“Narrator: Here comes a story

Audience: Come.”


“Narrator: Paukwa.

Audience: Pakawa.

Narrator: Sahani (A dish).

Audience: Ya wali (Of rice).”

Most communities also have closing formulae to give way to the next narrator. The Waswahili say “If this is good, its goodness belongs to us all, and if it is bad, its badness belongs to that one alone who made this story”.

Most communities restrict narration to the evening after the day’s work for the reason that people should not while away time before productive work. To enforce these conventions are superstitions. Among the Agikuyu, it is believed that telling stories during the day will result in the mysterious disappearance of domestic animals and the genesis of irredeemable poverty for the clan. The Luo, on their part, believe that telling stories during the day results in stunted growth. Thus when ending a story, the Luo narrator wishes to grow tall by saying: Tinda adong arom gi bao ma kanera (The end. May I grow as tall as the tree at my uncle’s home).

In summary, narratives perform functions such as normative socialisation, training in memory, instruction about life, and recording of the community’s history, way of life, beliefs and philosophies. Kenyan narratives reveal common values with regard to: the importance of marriage, love of children, respect for industry and honest labour, kinship, recognition of heroes, a keen struggle to under-stand super-nature and a continuous struggle between virtue and vice. As Mbiti says in Akamba Stories: narratives “reflect what the people do, what they think, how they live and have lived, their values, their joys and their sorrows”.

Modern oral literature

Orature adapts to new ways of life. Some creation myths have, for instance, infused biblical allusions, which attest to the influence of Christianity. The Gabra myth of origin has clear parallels with the story of Noah and his three sons. It states that a father of three sons fell badly and his loincloth fell off exposing his nakedness. The first son laughed, the second turned his face away while the third took his own cloth and covered the father. The father blessed the son who covered him to own cattle and deep wells, the one who turned away to own camels and the one who laughed to live with dogs and be a hunter. In that order, the sons were the found-ers of the Borana, Gabra and Waata nationalities.

In the Saturday edition of Daily Nation, Mworia Muchina reproduces short cartoon strips of African fables. And in the children’s pages of the newspaper are modern renditions of fables. Sunday Nation’s “Young Nation” carries modern narrative, for instance, the following one by Muth-ini Stephen (Sunday Nation, October 16, 2011): In the land of Kalasha, male birds and animals used to engage in the Kanasha Music Festival. The winner got to choose a beautiful bride to take home. At some point, Donkey was the defending champion for five consecutive years. When King Lion announced the next competition, Cock said to Donkey: “I am going to beat you this time.” “Hah! Hah! Hah! Look who is talking! You are deaf. Your voice cannot match any key on the nyatiti,” Donkey mocked Cock before a kick that sent him flying onto a nearby thorny fence.

Cock was so annoyed he decided to practise for a whole week. ”Kokorio-kooo!” Cock began each day and would rehearse until daybreak. On the other hand, Donkey was so confident he never rehearsed. On the day of the festival, the auditorium was packed. Word went round that cockerel was likely to pull a major upset. But some declared that Cock could not beat Donkey, the king of ohangla music. Who is cockerel? He sings like one who is barely out of poverty. Donkey has bass, no one can beat him, someone argued.

Crow sat on the judge’s seat, clad in a black suit and white tie. Owl, his assistant, had his big eyes glued on the competitors taking note of their facial expressions and bodily movements. The competition was uneventful until Cock took to the stage. Cock flapped his wings and hit the high and low notes without falter- ing. The audience cheered while some jeered. Donkey followed. He strode confidently onto the stage and embarked on his song. He began well and sang melodiously. The animals cheered him wildly. But the wild cheering got into his head and he finished on the wrong note. “Brrru…. blo, bray, bray,” he finished.

Crow announced that Cock was the winner. For a prize, he chose all the hens as his wives. Today, cockerel still sings early in the morning as a celebration of his victory. Donkey, on the other hand, still practises trying to hit the right notes, in vain.

Riddles and modern technology

Perhaps the most responsive genre is riddles.  In virtually all communities are riddles based on modern technology. For example, Ciarunji Chesaina, in Oral Literature of the Embu and Mbeere, records a number of modern riddles. One states that there was an electric train trav-elling from one end to the other. As it was on its way, there was a very strong wind. To which side was the smoke blowing? The answer is that electric trains do not blow smoke. It is interesting to note that such a riddle has made its way into Kenyan oral literature when the country does not even have an electric train yet!

Beyond the above, one of the most recent  oral innovations is the Mchongoano (cutting one another down to size) delivered in the  slang Sheng and most popular in urban centres. Mchongoano is an imaginative word game in which children tease one another with humorous invective in turns. Basically an oral art, Mchongoano has made its way into Kenyan newspapers as cartoon strips. Some examples of Mchongoano are:

Speaker 1: Ati TV yenu ni ndogo mpaka mnaitazama na microscope (Your television set is so small you watch it using a microscope).

 Speaker 2: Ati kwenu mko wengi mpaka mnakula kwa shift (You are so many at your place you dine in shifts).

Speaker 1: Ati una mdomo kubwa mpaka unaongea kwa capital letters (Your lips are so big you only speak in capital letters).

Speaker 2: Ati mmedosika mpaka kuku zenu zinafungwa diapers (You people are so rich that you dress your chicken in diapers).