2011/2012 Yearbook Oral tradition and history

Politics and oral tradition

There is hardly any political rally in which music and oratory do not feature. In election years, particularly, the country is practically transformed into a musical carnival with supporters churning out tune a cartoon-based rendition of popular after tune in praise of their candidates dig deep into their vernacular idiom to pick out the most effective expressions to entice voters

Prime Minister Raila Odinga hardly delivers any speech without recourse to riddling to capture his audience’s attention and convey veiled messages. He is also adept at making political commentary by parodying a running commentary on soccer. This style was immortalised in 2007 by a pop musi-cian, Onyi Papa Jey, who produced an animated video of the Orange Democratic Party in an epic soccer duel with the Party of National Unity (PNU).

In 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition effectively adopted Gidigidi Majimaji’s musical track Unbwogabl(Invincible) to popularise its campaign. The use of song in public forums is also evident in the popular Bado mapambano (The Struggle Continues) chorus in public demonstrations and the Solidarity Forever song belted out by workers demanding betters terms of service.

Investment opportunities

Top on the list of investment opportunities in Kenya’s oral traditions and history is publishing, especially for the school audiences. This has been exploited by commercial publishers and media houses on their various platforms. There are editions of newspapers with pages dedicated to children’s stories and cartoons in which oral traditions feature prominently.The visualised narrative, Pichadithi, initiated in 1982 by Terry Hirst, was a cartoon-based rendition of popular Kenyan narratives. It became so pop- ular that it soon reached a monthly circulation of over 20,000 copies.

Others who have ventured into visualised narratives include the Sasa Sema Publishers and Jacaranda Designs, who produced lavishly illustrated traditional stories. These efforts appear to have been frustrated by poor readership, although this does not mean they cannot be revived in similar format or probably in animated format for screening in the same way as political satires and social comics, such as XYZ and Kula Happy, respectively, are being promoted.

There are also radio programmes for story-telling and riddling targeting children. On television, there are specific programmes dedicated to oral tradition, for instance, KBC’s Dunda Kikwetu and Citizen’s Tafrija show-casing musical performances by traditional and popular musicians. Such programmes can be expanded and improved by creative “artpreneurs”.These media-based ventures point to the potential to develop a comprehensive entertainment industry based on oral tradition.

Oral traditions can also be used as a basis for production of material culture, such as sculptures and engravings. The example of the coastal khanga comes to mind. This female garb carries powerful Kiswahili sayings. There is no reason why the tradition cannot be extended to the oral traditions of other communities.

Another opportunity is the use of the digital platform to showcase and sell Kenya’s oral tradition. But venturesome investors should consider developing search engines based on Kenyan vernacular languages. As well, some enterprising Kenyans have been able to develop telephone ring tones from various melodies. For example, Nation Media group at http://ngoma.nation.co.ke sells ring tones from Kalenjin, Luhyia, Luo, Kamba and Kikuyu popular musicians at Kshs 50 ($0.60) per song.

Vernacular radio is an obvious starting point. As more and more vernacular radio stations get established, the market will determine which ones survive based on their programmes and ability to attract advertisers. Not yet exploited is vernacular television.

Then there is the case of cultural tourism. Already, a big chunk of the tourist entertainment menu exploits oral tradition. Collaborations with ventures such as the Sigana International Festival, the Ministry of Tourism can launch tourist-oriented cultural festivals to showcase a comprehensive menu of Kenya’s oral traditions. A case can be made for cultural- and home-based tourism in line with the Vision 2030. The concept includes having tourists who come to specifically learn the cultures of the community by staying with families, eating their foods and living their
lifestyles. This does not have to target foreign tourists alone but can also be used to encourage domestic tourism and indeed promote social cohesion among Kenyan ethnic groups.

In conclusion, Kenya’s oral tradition needs to be seen not merely as a source of old wisdom and an archaeological reservoir, but a living art that must serve the social, economic and political development of the country now and in the future.