African Storytelling
An Introduction, with Works Cited & Sources for Further Study, by Cora Agatucci

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"…[I]t is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior.
It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters.
It is the story . . . that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars
into the spikes of the cactus fence.
The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.
Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story;
rather it is the story that owns us and directs us."

--Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

"I will tell you something about stories....They aren't just entertainment...
They are all we fight off illness and death.
You don't have anything if you don't have the stories."

--Leslie Marmon Silko, epigraph to Ceremony (1977)

Traditionally, Africans have revered good stories and storytellers, as have most past and present peoples around the world who are rooted in oral cultures and traditions. Ancient writing traditions do exist on the African continent, but most Africans today, as in the past, are primarily oral peoples, and their art forms are oral rather than literary. In contrast to written "literature," African "orature" (to use Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o's term) is orally composed and transmitted, and often created to be verbally and communally performed as an integral part of dance and music. The Oral Arts of Africa are rich and varied, developing with the beginnings of African cultures, and they remain living traditions that continue to evolve and flourish today.

Every human culture in the world seems to create stories (narratives) as a way of making sense of the world. Some familiar features of the folktale, a common kind of story around the world, for example, can be discerned in Tortoise and the Birds, an Igbo folktale recounted in ch. 11 (pp. 68-70) of Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed 1958 novel Things Fall Apart:

  • "’Once upon a time,’ she began, all the birds were invited to a feast in the sky,’" as Achebe renders the traditional Igbo folktale opening into English.
  • The story explains a cause, origin, or reason for something--gives an "etiological the end" (Obiechina, "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel")--in this case, for why the tortoise shell is "'not smooth.'"
  • The story dramatizes a moral: greedy Tortoise, '"full of cunning,'" manages to trick the birds out of all the food at the feast, but for his selfishness he is punished. Tortoise falls from the sky and "’His shell broke into pieces.’"
  • In folktale worlds, such "naughty," but not "irredeemably" wicked characters, as Achebe describes Tortoise (qtd. in Baker and Draper 22), are often restored and/or reintegrated back into society: in this case, "'a great medicine-man in the neighbourhood'" patches Tortoise’s shell together again.

Despite these universal features, however, the particular narrative meanings, themes, genres, and styles of story telling around the world differ from culture to culture. Thus, while many features of traditional African storytelling may seem familiar and make sense to U.S. students, many others may seem very foreign and strange. To more fully understand and appreciate African storytelling traditions, one needs to study them in the context of the cultures which produce the stories.

African proverbs and stories draw upon the collective wisdom of oral peoples, express their "structures of meaning, feeling, thought, and expression," and thus serve important social and ethical purposes: "The story itself is a primary form of the oral tradition, primary as a mode of conveying culture, experience, and values and as a means of transmitting knowledge, wisdom, feelings, and attitudes in oral societies"; a central position is thus "given to the story in the oral tradition…by African writers in the shaping of their literary world and works…" (Obiechina, "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel").

One cannot study African literatures without studying the particular cultures and oratures on which African writers draw...for their themes and values, for their narrative structures and plots, for their rhythms and styles, for their images and metaphors, for their artistic and ethical principles. As Solomon Iyasere puts it in "Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature":

"...the modern African writer is to his indigenous oral tradition
as a snail is to its shell. Even in a foreign habitat,
a snail never leaves its shell behind"

African novelists like Chinua Achebe often introduce oral stories— such as narrative proverbs, song-tales, myths, folktales, fairy tales, animal fables, anecdotes, and ballads—into literature. One of many examples from Things Fall Apart is Ikemefuna’s song, a condensed version of an Igbo folktale, according to Emmanuel Obiechina:

"Eze elina, elina!
Eze ilikwa ya
lkwaba akwa oligholi
Ebe Danda nechi eze
Ebe Uzuzu nete egwu

[Things Fall Apart Ch. 7, p. 42]

Here is a translation into English offered by Obiechina:

[the singer calls:]
King, do not eat [it], do not eat!

Sala [the audience responds]

King, if you eat it
You will weep for the abomination
Where Danda [white ant] installs king
Where Uzuzu [Dust] dances to the drums

Sala [the audience responds]

Even with the English translation--which Achebe does not give in Things Fall Apart--it is difficult for U.S. readers to make sense of this song-proverb without learning more about the cultural context of Igbo beliefs and the folktale on which Ikemefuna’s song is based. The full tale is the story of a perverse, headstrong king who breaks a sacred taboo by eating roast yam (perhaps the first fruits of the harvest) which is reserved for and offered in sacrifice to the gods. "The song is an attempt by the people to warn the king not to commit an action that would compromise himself...his high office," and the continued prosperity of his people (Obiechina, "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel"). So a line-by-line interpretation might go like this:

  1. The king is warned not to eat [not to break the taboo—"the abomination"]
  2. If he does, he will regret it ["You will weep for the abomination"]
  3. The price he will pay is death, a dishonorable death without proper burial rites...
  4. "Where Danda [White Ant] installs a king" and
  5. "Where Uzuzu [Dust] dances to the-drums." In death, only white ants and dust will claim this headstrong king, as Obiechina explains. For breaking such a serious sacred taboo, after his human death the king will be denied reunion with his ancestors and his clan, and will be forever alienated from the community—believed to encompass all the past, present, and future members of his people.

In the context of Achebe’s novel, this untranslated song-proverb might suggest to a reader who knows Igbo language (like translator Emmanuel Obiechina) that the protagonist Okonkwo is being indirectly warned against breaking another serious taboo. Like the king in Ikemefuna’s song, Okonkwo is on the verge of committing an "abomination"—the killing of a child who has lived with him for three years and called him father. This is the "’kind of action,’" his friend Obierika points out, "’for which the goddess wipes out whole families’" (Things Fall Apart, Ch. 8, p. 46).

"Nnabe and Chineke" ("The Tortoise and the Lord") is another traditional Igbo folktale like "Tortoise and the Birds," but it presents a different explanation of why the tortoise has a cracked shell. Why the variations? For starters, even traditional oral "texts" are not static or unchanging—there is no reverence for a single, "definitive" text committed to writing and shelved in a library, a Western concept foreign to traditional African oral performance arts. Oratures, like the cultures that produce them, constantly evolve and change across time, culture, place and regional style, performer, and audience for a variety of reasons. For example, if a story loses its relevance because of changing values and social conditions, it is discarded or modified, and new stories are born. As scholars and transcribers attest, even the same gifted African oral storyteller does not simply memorize and repeat the same story the same way each time. Griots will alternate between set text and improvisation. Within open-ended narrative and poetic formulas, the bard creates, embellishes, adapts to the occasion, and plays to the needs and interests of particular audiences.

Another reason for folktale variation might lie in differences of language/dialect and culture. Language is a primary means of learning and transmitting one’s culture, and it is used to help define and distinguish different ethnic groups and cultures. Consider the fact that more than 450 languages are spoken in modern Nigeria, one region in which the Igbo peoples are concentrated. As Chinua Achebe has explained, spoken "Igbo exists in numerous dialects, differing from village to village" (qtd. in Gallagher). There is no standardized formal written or oral Igbo language that all Igbo accept and use in Western Africa, though Christian missionaries tried to create and impose one [called "Union Igbo"] in order to translate the Bible and speed up religious conversion in the late 19th century (cited in Gallagher). This situation is not so different for many other oral cultures and peoples of Africa. It is perhaps even more understandable that oral traditions carried by African descendents to other parts of the world would change and vary. The translated performance of "Nnabe and Chineke" that we will recite in class was recorded on Wadmalaw Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas in the U.S. where many Igbo slaves were forceably and brutally transported during the Atlantic Slave Trade of the 18th and 19th centuries (Jackson-Jones).

Tortoise and the Birds and "Nnabe and Chineke" are examples of Igbo folktales that explain how animals got their physical characteristics—a genre common in many cultures around the world. (Can you think of any similar folktales told in your culture?) Animal stories have many variations and abound in the oral traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora. In animal stories of West African origins, smaller, physically weak, and seemingly vulnerable creatures—like Tortoise in these stories, or Spider in the Anancy stories--are often endowed with special intelligence and human characteristics, and are answerable only to God (called Chineke in Igbo cosmology). Ironically, large, powerful animals like the lion, elephant, and leopard are often duped in such animal stories, often through what are considered their centers of thought: the stomach and the heart (See Badejo and Jackson-Jones).

Both stories feature Tortoise, a trickster figure in African folklore (called Nnabe in Igbo cultures, Ijapa in Yoruban cultures, Fudugazi in Zulu cultures, for example). Tortoise is physically slow but quick witted, lives a long time and has a long memory, and gains wisdom by studying fellow creatures in society. But like trickster figures in the folklore of many world cultures, Tortoise sometimes misuses his knowledge. Tortoise can be cunning and malicious, and may dupe or trick others (like Tortoise tricks the birds in Things Fall Apart, Ch. 11) for his own greed or selfish gain. (Of course even Tortoise cannot get the better of God, as seen in "Nnabe and Chineke.")

Chinua Achebe explains that the trickster Tortoise is a favorite in Igbo children's stories, for he "is a character that children can relate to. He is a rogue, but he is a nice kind of rogue. I think that children don't trust him, but they like to hear that he is around, because they know that he is going to do something unexpected and generally he will be punished too. This is the moral side of it. He's not allowed to get away with murder. He does something and he is punished, but he still lives to appear again....Tortoise is wicked, but he is not irredeemably so. Tortoise is not evil. He's just naughty" (qtd. in Baker and Draper 22. For a complete picture of evil, says Achebe, the Igbo might instead point to "Something That Doesn't Even Wear a Necklace"; a thing so completely alone that it "doesn't even have a necklace to keep it company" [qtd. in Baker and Draper 23]).

According to Deidre Badejo's interpretation, the African tricksters like the Yoruba Ijapa perceive, remember, and study others’ weaknesses in order to use this knowledge for the trickster’s own self-interest or amusement, or to escape social responsibilities. Tricksters exist on the peripheries of the social order ("liminal" figures at the boundaries of society). Their individualistic non-conformist behavior creates havoc and disharmony in society, and can threaten the survival of the community. (Contrast this attitude to the positive ways we, in the U.S., value individualism.) Secular tricksters like Tortoise often project the kinds of evil forces and bad behaviors against which the human community must contend to survive and which must be kept in check. This goal is rehearsed and achieved in communal performances of African proverbs and folktales, wherein the trickster’s bad anti-social behaviors are usually punished, and the evil forces unleashed are controlled or defeated. Thus, for example, recounting Tortoise stories in African communities can function to reaffirm the priority and wisdom of the community, reassure its members that balance and harmony can and should be restored, and that the community will survive and prevail. (See also Ugorji).

Chinua Achebe himself explains that a story "'does many things. It entertains, it informs, it instructs." "If you look at these stories carefully, you will find they support and reinforce the basic tenets of the culture. The storytellers worked out what is right and what is wrong, what is courageous and what is cowardly, and they translate this into stories" (qtd. in Baker and Draper 22). We can learn much about a culture by learning its stories.

Oral African storytelling is essentially a communal participatory experience. Everyone in most traditional African societies participate in formal and informal storytelling as interactive oral performance—such participation is an essential part of traditional African communal life, and basic training in a particular culture’s oral arts and skills is an essential part of children’s traditional indigenous education on their way to initiation into full humanness.

To get some sense of African storytelling as a participatory communal experience in Hum 211, we try an interactive "call-and-response" performance of "Nnabe and Chineke," as transcribed from an actual oral story telling performance in Igbo language given by Samuel Onunwa, Bartholomew Amaugo, Kevin Chiedusie, and Francis Mbah; and then translated into English by Victor C. Ihejetoh (rpt. in Jackson-Jones. Again, even with an English translation, this story will probably seem stranger and harder to interpret to non-Igbo audiences than Tortoise and the Birds without a mediator like Chinua Achebe or Emmanuel Obiechina to explain it; but we can use what we have learned about Igbo culture from the background readings to make the attempt).

Call and response forms, found seemingly everywhere in Africa, entail a caller or soloist who "raises the song," as the Kpelle say, and the community chorus who respond, or "agree underneath the song" (Mutere, "African Oral Aesthetic"). In the case of the Igbo stories, the storyteller "calls" out the story in lines; the audience or chorus "responds" at regular intervals to the storyteller’s "calls" with a "sala" (the chorus’ response). The Igbo "sala" used in "Nnabe and Chineke" is "amanye," roughly equivalent to American English expressions of agreement like "amen" or "right on!" (Ihejetoh, qtd. in Jackson-Jones).

Traditional African societies have developed high aesthetic and ethical standards for participating in and judging accomplished oral storytelling performances—and audience members often feel free to interrupt less talented or respected secular performers to suggest improvements or voice criticisms. . (Bear in mind that aesthetic standards of what constitutes "good art" in a particular society are learned and culturally-determined. Thus, Western learned concepts of what constitutes a good story or great music can differ significantly from the aesthetic ideals of the African cultures.)

In many of these cultures, storytelling arts are professionalized: the most accomplished storytellers are initiates (griots, or bards), who have mastered many complex verbal, musical, and memory skills after years of specialized training. This training often includes a strong spiritual and ethical dimension required to control the special forces believed to be released by the spoken/sung word in oral performances. These occult powers and primal energies of creation and destruction are called nyama by Mande peoples of Western Africa, for example, and their jeli, or griots, are a subgroup of the artisan professions that the Mande designate nyamakalaw, or "nyama-handlers"(see, for example, discussions in Johnson et al; and Hale). This sense of special powers of the spoken word--as expressed in the following Bambara praise poem--has largely been lost in literate-based societies of the West:

Praise of the Word

The word is total:
it cuts, excoriates
forms, modulates
perturbs, maddens
cures or directly kills
amplifies or reduces
According to intention
It excites or calms souls.

--Praise song of a bard of the Bambara Komo society
(qtd. in Louis-Vincent Thomas and Rene Luneau,
 Les Religions d’Afrique noire, textes et traditions sacres
; as cited in Gleason xxxvii)

Following a traditional griot performance of a spiritually-charged oral epic like Sundjiata, a Malian audience might ritualistically chant, "Ka nyama bo!" (which could be translated something like, "May the powers of nyama safely disperse!").

I hope some of the recorded professional performances that we listen to in class will demonstrate that African storytelling and orature are highly skilled performance arts. These living traditions continue to survive and adapt to the challenges of modernization facing Africa today, and have fused, in uniquely African ways, with newer creative forms and influences to enrich the global human experience and its creative expressions.

Works Cited and Sources for Further Reading

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Expanded edition with notes. London: Heinemann, 1996.

Afigbo, Adiele E. Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture. Ibadan: Oxford UP, 1981.

Asante, Molefi Kete, and Abu S. Abarry, ed. African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Awoonor, Kofi. The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, Literature of Africa South of the Sahara. 1975. Doubleday, 1976. NOK, 1983.

Badejo, Deidre. "The Yoruba and Afro-American Trickster: A Contextual Comparison." Presence Africaine 147 (1988): 3-17.

Baker, Rob, and Ellen Draper. "If One Thing Stands, Another Will Stand Beside It: An Interview with Chinua Achebe." Parabola 17.3(Fall 1992): 19-27. Abstract: "Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe discusses the importance of storytelling and the oral tradition in the education of children. Achebe tells a story of Tortoise, the trickster in Igbo tradition, and describes aspects of the traditional Igbo world view. Gender roles among the Igbo and the role of the griots, professional storytellers, are also discussed" (Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A12603141).

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Towards the Decolonization of African Literature. Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1980.

Diallo, Yaya, and Mitchell Hall. The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1989.

Egudu, R. N. "Achebe and the Igbo Narrative Tradition." Research in African Literatures 12.1 (1981): 43-54.

Foley, John M. Oral Tradition in Literature. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. "Race," Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Gleason, Judith, ed. Leaf and Bone: African Praise-Poems. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Hale, Thomas C. Scribe, Griot, and Novelist: Narrative Interpreters of the Songhay Empire followed by the Epic of Askia Mohammed recounted by Nouhou Malio. Gainesville: U of Florida P-Center for African Studies, 1990.

Gititi, Gitahi. "African Theory and Criticism." The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. 5-9.

Iyasere, Solomon O. "Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature." The Journal of Modern African Studies 13.1 (1975): 107.

Jackson-Jones, Patricia. When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1987.

JanMohamed, Abdul. "Sophisticated Primitivism: Syncretism of Oral and Literate Modes in Achebe's Things Fall Apart." ARIEL 15.4 (1984): 19-39.

Johnson, John William, Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Belcher, eds. Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1997.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi, Eustace Palmer, and Marjorie Jones, ed. Orature in African Literature Today: A Review. Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 1992.

Julien, Eileen. "African Literature." In Africa. 3rd ed. Eds. Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 295-312.

Lindfors, Bernth. Folklore in Nigerian Literature. New York: Africana Publishing, 1973.

Mbiti, John S. Introduction to African Religion. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991.
[COCC Library has the first edition, 1975: BL2400 .M383 1975]

Mutere, Malaika. [African Studies, Howard University.] "Introduction to African History and Cultural Life: An African Historical Framework," including the section "African Oral Aesthetic."

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.

Nketia, J.H. Kwabena. The Music of Africa. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1979.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel. (Special Issue in Memory of Josaphat Bekunuru Kubayanda) Research in African Literatures 24.4(Winter 1993):123(18pgs). Full Text Available at COCC Library: Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A14706083.
"'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe exemplifies the use of narrative proverbs in the African novel, reflecting the synthesis of oral and written traditions. Narrative proverbs are stories or other forms derived from the oral tradition which are embedded within the novels and perform the function of proverbs. Achebe's novel incorporates nine embedded narratives, seven of which are folktales or myths. Narratives discussed in relation to the novel include the quarrel between Earth and Sky, the locust myth, Ikemefuna's song, the mosquito myth, the tale of the tortoise and the birds, the Abame story and the kite myth."

Ogede, Ode S. "Oral Performance as Instruction: Aesthetic Strategies in Children's Play Songs from a Nigerian Community." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14.3(1994): 113-117.

Ong, Walter J. Orality & Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982.

Rowell, Charles H. "An Interview with Chinua Achebe." Callaloo 13.1 (1990).
Achebe discusses the African storyteller as griot in this interview: "the role of the writer, the modern writer, is closer to that of the griot, the historian and poet, than any other practitioner of the arts" (18).

Scheub, Harold. The Tongue Is Fire: South African Storytellers and Apartheid. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Schmidt, Nancy. "Nigerian Fiction and the African Oral Tradition." Journal of the New African Literature and the Arts 5/6 (1968): 10-19.

Shelton, Austin J. "The 'Palm-oil' of Language: Proverbs in Chinua Achebe's Novels." Modern Language Quarterly 30.1 (1969): 89-111.

Soyinka, Wole. 1978. Myth, Literature and the African World. 1978. Canto ed. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. [COCC Library: PL8010 .S64 1990]

Ugorji, Okechukwu K. The Adventures of Torti: Tales from West Africa. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1991.

Valade, Roger M., III. The Essential Black Literature Guide. (Published in assn. With the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.) Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Wilkinson, Jane, ed. Talking with African Writers : Interviews With African Poets, Playwrights & Novelists. London : J. Currey ; Portsmouth, N.H. : Heinemann, 1992. [COCC Library: PR9340 .T35 1992]


More HUM 211 Resources:
| African Films |
African Timelines: History, Orature, Literature, & Film |
| African Storytelling | Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart |
|Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions | African Literary Map |

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