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Ruth Finnegan
Oral Literature in Africa

Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1970. 540 p.

Ruth Finnegan. Oral Literature in Africa. Map of Peoples mentioned
Oral Literature in Africa

Ruth Finnegan
Ruth Finnegan

Notes on sources and references
Notes on sources and references

To all my teachers

When I first became interested in research into one particular form of African oral literature in 1961, I found to my surprise that there was no easily accessible work to which I could turn to give me some idea of what was known in this field, the various publications available, or the controversies and problems that demanded further investigation. In fact, I gradually discovered, there was an immense amount in print-but most of it was not easy to find, it was not systematic, and there was relatively little treatment of contemporary forms. It was true that there was plenty of work on written African literature (which has received a lot of publicity in recent years) and, of a rather speculative kind, on ‘primitive mentality’ or ‘mythopoeic imagination’. But on the oral side or on the actual literary products of such minds much less was said.
There therefore seemed a place for a general work on oral literature in Africa, an introductory survey which could sum up the present knowledge of the field and serve as a guide to further research. It seemed likely that others too besides myself had felt the need to consult an introduction of some kind to this subject. It is hoped that the resulting book will be useful not only to those intending to do specific research on African oral literature but also to those with a general interest either in Africa or in literature generally.
The aim in presenting the material has been to strike a balance between general discussion and actual instances. It has been necessary to include rather more detailed descriptions and quotations than might be the case with a book on European literatures, as the majority of African examples are not readily accessible and too abstract a discussion would give little idea of the intricacy and artistic conventions of many of the oral forms. It is also an intrinsic part of the book to consider some of the social background as well as the more purely aesthetic and stylistic features. With African as with other literature it is essential to treat both literary and social facets (if indeed these two are ultimately distinguishable at all) for a full appreciation, a point too often neglected by writers on this subject.
This book is based only on the more obvious sources and is intended as an introduction, not as a comprehensive account. Only some examples are given from a huge field and experts in particular areas will be able to point to exceptions and omissions. Some of my conclusions too may turn out to be controversial; indeed one of my hopes is to stimulate further publications and study. On each chapter and each section more research could and I trust will-take the subject very much further. But in spite of these limitations, the general purpose of the book will, I hope, be fulfilled-to show that African oral literature is, after all, a subject worthy of study and interest, and to provoke further research in this fascinating but too often neglected field.

  1. The ‘oral’ nature of African unwritten literature
    1. The significance of performance in actualization, transmission, and composition
    2. Audience and occasion
    3. Implications for the study of oral literature
    4. Oral art as literature
  2. The perception of African oral literature
    1. Nineteenth-century approaches and collections
    2. Speculations and neglect in the twentieth century
    3. Recent trends in African studies and the revival of interest in oral literature.
  3. The social, linguistic, and literary background
    1. Social and literary background
    2. The linguistic basis—the example of Bantu
    3. Some literary tools
    4. Presentation of the material
    5. The literary complexity of African cultures
  1. Poetry and patronage
    1. Variations in the poet's position
    2. Court poets
    3. Religious patronage
    4. Free-lance and wandering poets
    5. Part-time poets
    6. A note on ‘epic’
  2. Panegyric
    1. Introductory: nature and distribution; composers and reciters; occasions
    2. Southern Bantu praise poetry: form and style; occasions and delivery; traditional and contemporary significance
  3. Elegiac poetry
    1. General and introductory
    2. Akan funeral dirges: content, and themes; structure, style, and delivery; occasions and functions
    3. The dirge as literature
  4. Religious poetry
    1. Introductory
    2. Didactic and narrative religious poetry and the Islamic tradition
    3. The Swahili tenzi
    4. Hymns, prayers, and incantations: general survey
    5. The Fante Methodist lyric
    6. Mantic poetry: Sotho divining praises
    7. Odu Ifa (Yoruba)
  5. Special purpose poetry-war, hunting, and work
    1. Military poetry: Nguni
    2. Akan
    3. Hunting poetry: Yoruba ijala
    4. Ambo hunters' songs
    5. Work songs
  6. Lyric
    1. Occasions
    2. Subject-matter
    3. Form
    4. Composition
  7. Topical and political songs
    1. Topical and local poetry
    2. Songs of political parties and movements
    3. Mau Mau hymns
    4. Guinea R.D.A. songs
    5. Northern Rhodesian party songs
  8. Children's songs and rhymes
    1. Lullabies and nursery rhymes
    2. Children's games and verses
    3. Southern Sudanese action songs
  1. Prose narratives I. Problems and theories
    1. Introductory
    2. Evolutionist interpretations
    3. Historical-geographical school
    4. Classification and typologies
    5. Structural-functional approach
    6. Conclusion
  2. Prose narratives II. Content and form
    1. What is known to date: content and plot; main characters
    2. Types of tales: animal stories; stories about people; ‘myths’; legends’ and historical narratives
    3. What demands further study: occasions; role of narrators; purpose and function; literary conventions; performance; originality and authorship
    4. Conclusion
  3. Proverbs
    1. The significance and concept of the proverb
    2. Form and style
    3. Content
    4. Occasions and functions
    5. Specific examples: Jabo; Zulu; Azande
    6. Conclusion
  4. Riddles
    1. Riddles and related forms
    2. Style and content
    3. Occasions and uses
    4. Conclusion
  5. Oratory, formal speaking, and other stylized forms
    1. Oratory and rhetoric
    2. Burundi
    3. Limba
    4. Prayers, curses, etc.
    5. Word play and verbal formulas
    6. Names
Some Special Forms
  1. Drum language and literature
    1. Introductory—the principle of drum language Examples of drum literature
    2. Announcements and calls
    3. Names
    4. Proverbs
    5. Poetry
    6. Conclusion
  2. Drama
    1. Introductory
    2. Some minor examples : Bushman ‘plays’
    3. West African puppet shows
    4. Mande comedies
    5. West African masquerades
    6. South-Eastern Nigeria
    7. Kalahari
    8. Conclusion