From the bars to the dump sites, oral literature is alive

Mukurwe-ini Boys High School perform a traditional dance during a past function in Nyeri Town. Encouraging students to look at oral literature differently will help debunk the myth that oral literature is dead. Photo/FILE

What you need to know:

  • I remain deeply curious about the interactions and stories told at the miraa-selling joints (known as veve base) found in all urban centres in Kenya.

“I don’t understand why you make us study this thing! It is pretty much dead to me,” my student thundered, exasperated by the fact that at Kenyatta University, all undergraduate literature students must take a number of courses in ‘this thing’ called oral literature. That was eight years ago.

Sometimes when students come up with this kind of remark, one is tempted to empathise with them; the teaching of the subject is often quite dry, and students might be forgiven for thinking about it in the same terms as they do ogres — ‘this thing’ — in traditional folk narratives.

Oral literature ought to be a lively subject to teach; the secret lies in where you look for material to engage students.

The teaching of oral literature should be imaginative, an area in which teachers often fall short. The subject certainly involves stories about ogres, kaka sungura and his dupe, the hyena, chameleon’s trickery.

It is about riddles, songs, jokes, rumours and lullabies, among other sub-genres. However, it is a fair question to ask how many students identify especially with the characters mentioned above.

Indeed, often one hears teachers introduce the subject as follows: “This riddle used to be…”, “The Maasai used to tell this story…” or “Old women used to pass this knowledge through proverbs.” Effectively teachers are telling their students: I am teaching you a dead subject!

This need not be the case, and both old and young people can take part in and enjoy oral literature, which is very much a living subject. A practical way out of this dilemma is to ask: where does oral literature thrive today? I wish it were possible to find the resources to go and observe children perform play songs at break time in schools all over Kenya.

When I went to school “wa tata watiriri nyumba itu ni njenga” was a popular Gikuyu play song that would be performed by children in circular formation. There was much running around until all children were won over to one side.

I wonder what songs children sing now as they play, but then, perhaps, they don’t sing at all, seeing that they have huge piles of homework to plough through.

When I was growing up, the village fields teemed with cattle; I remember some creative boys who used to laze under a tree and simply direct the animals by singing to them. True, there may be no livestock worth talking about these days, but even in our urban residential neighbourhoods, when boys and girls take out their mountain bikes and ride all over the place, or when they play hide and seek, there must be some forms of creative activity, jokes and mchongoano for instance, that take place. Why not study these as living forms?

In Kenya we have emergent communities whose oral literature has not been studied; groups of young people who habitually hang out at petrol stations, boda boda riders and their quasi-gang culture, the crowded pavement bars of Nairobi West, the nyama choma eateries at Burma, Kariakor and along the Eastern By-Pass from Ruiru to Ruaka.

One also needs to think about the songs and dances football fans perform; Juma, the mascot, who usually turns up with his body painted the colours of the Kenyan flag during Harambee Stars matches, must certainly have many tales to tell about football and its players.

I remain deeply curious about the interactions and stories told at the miraa-selling joints (known as veve base) found in all urban centres in Kenya.

Perhaps the cultures that have sprung up around these spaces have not been studied because we still link oral literature with ethnic groups and rooted communities. Modern life offers possibilities of making new associations outside ethnicity and kinship. In occupations, leisure time and technology, people have a the chance and means of telling stories that are different from the hare/hyena stories we grew up on.

The Internet has revolutionalised our lives and has certainly affected oral literature. It has not only led to creation of cyber folk groups i.e. virtual communities; it has also enabled electronic transmission of oral literature. For instance, a popular pastime of diaspora Kenyans is swapping over the Internet stories about Jamhuri — the name they give Kenya.

They joke about things people did as they grew up such as straightening one’s hair using a hot comb fashioned out of a cocoa beverage tin with holes punched out at the bottom.

In the 1970s, the fax machine was the main channel for transmitting this kind of material, but now the scanner and the computer are the chief means by which oral literature is being transmitted even by the not-too-techno-savvy.

There are implications for the teaching of oral literature. The use of audio-visual CDs can make learning interesting. Rather than merely reading a folk tale from a text, the teacher can bring to class pre-recorded material. The Ministry of Education has been encouraging schools to adopt e-learning; laptops and overhead projectors can be used to make oral literature teaching fun.

Availability of user-friendly technology such as cell phones with an audio-visual recording function also means that students can document oral literature on their own and bring the material to class for discussion.

This will bring some fun into learning with the teacher ceasing to be the centre of learning as students actively engage in producing knowledge.

This brings us to the importance of fieldwork in oral literature. When I was in high school, fieldwork meant only one thing: an outing in a rural village or shrine, where you met old folks who told you some fairly archaic tales that you struggled to record in your notebook.

Many years later, I know that the urban setting has myriads of spaces for undertaking fieldwork. I have done it at the Ukoo Flani Mau Mau camp way out in Dandora very near Nairobi’s legendary garbage dump.

I have also travelled by matatu to nearly all corners of Nairobi as I interviewed matatu crews and observed them at work. A lot of my time has been spent with artisans at jua kali garages and in bars with pop musicians and Sheng gurus.

Mugithi is another cultural phenomenon I have spent considerable periods of time observing and studying. I am convinced that the bull fights in Kakamega must be wrapped up in rich stories.

In sum, students must be made to see the potential for appreciation of oral literature that exists within their immediate environment rather than forcing them to think about the subject only in terms of rural villages.

Encouraging them to do fieldwork on their own will not only help to demystify the subject, but will also plant in them the curiosity necessary for their future as researchers.

Hopefully, by the time they get to the university oral literature class, they will not proclaim, falsely as did my student years ago, the death of oral literature.