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Indigenous Approach To Literary Studies

May 9, 2012

By James, b Chigozie
Department of English and Literary Studies
University of Nigeria, Nsukka

Indigenous Approach To Literary Studies

Literature in an indigenous African context is very difficult to define as we cannot say it is this or that. In other world, especially in my own village (Onicha). It does not have a one–word equivalent of the English literature. Though there is no single word that can be used to capture literature, each individual constituent that make up literature have its own unique name. For example proverb is regarded as Inu, Riddle gwam gwam gwam while the more common folk song in my dialect is called ufe.
For there to be the insight and knowledge of the existence of anything called literature in African indigenous society it posits to say that there already exist conglomerates of these constituents which traditionally are the anatomical make up of literature. They include proverbs, riddles, folktales, tongue twisters etc. They all come together to form what is called oral literature. It is oral because of the lack of documentation shrouding it. It is verbally transmitted from parents to children, children to children and generations to generations. The fundamental question we must strive to find an answer to is: what makes them literature, does it have anything in common with the modern perceptions and notions of literature today?
Literature involves such points of interest as the meaning or theme, structure, or form of a particular piece of writing. The notion is that literature, especially in Western circles is conceived solely as something written. In answering the questions before us we would confront the entire question of literariness. In other words, what differentiate literature from non-literature. For the literary critic, literature conjures up such things as structure content and form, style, and literary devices. It is on this note that Nkem Okoh in his Preface declared that:
The literary critic is likely to emphasize one point, every piece that can genuinely be called literature reveals some clear structure. Such structure is of course an integral aspect of different forms of oral literature. (23)

Okoh’s position on this is clear; Igbo oral literature shares a lot of similarities with the written form. For example, proverbs “not only encapsulate, reflect, or transmit essential cosmological-cum-philosophical realities, but more importantly, achieve this by means of an essentially graphic and beautifully etched mode of expression”. The same way literature demands creativity from the literary artist, proverb also does. Proverb use demands the effective use of language as the very idea of communicative competence especially for a village orator who need to have flawless and in depth knowledge of it to be able to sway his audience. Similarly, the riddle requires this approach from the orator. As Okoh posits further:

The riddle…is characterized by a highly imaginative and symbolic mode of expression, rather than the plain, ordinary language of everyday discourse. The singer or teller of tales, too, is as much concerned as the writer, with producing an object that is artistically and aesthetically pleasing….(24)
Indigenous Igbo abu (Ebu or Ufe in my dialect) like such written forms as epics, literary ballads, odes etc. also achieve great emotional power through the use of language. They are embellished with metaphors, symbols, imagery etc. When Achebe in Things fall Apart sees proverbs as “the oil with which words are eaten “it is more than just a world. The metaphor in the words come to bear. Just the same way palm oil ensures the sweetness of yam is the same way proverbs not only ensure the value, understanding of the context the words are being used but also increase its richness.
Furthermore, the tongue twisters are also embellished with rich artistic ornaments such as repetitions, rhymes, alliteration, assonance etc. With these vivid examples and illustration, irrespective of their existence in an unwritten form, indigenous oral pieces unequivocally merit the name literature. In dealing with whether these unwritten forms qualified to be called “literature “ Harold Scheub stressing of the structure as an integral part of different forms of oral literature stressed that:

Patterning if imagery is the most visible artistic activity, involving the blending of the extemporary world and the fanciful fabrication of the tradition, the combining of the images and their transformation into dramatic ritual is the result of metaphor (3)

This would remove the cloak in our eyes to see that African oral performances are not just a verbose rendition of dramatic rituals but that it shares a lot in common with the written forms of literature.
For a better comprehension we shall proceed to look at the things that characterize oral literature.
Myth: Myth deals with problems of origin. The protagonists or principal agents in myths are, depending on the message the myth aims to inculcate, gods and goddesses, human beings, animals are given quasi-divine powers in order to produce the effect required by the myth. It is a simple human attempt to explain in symbolic language the origin of the world, human discoveries and inventions, suffering and death which the community accepts as belonging to it. There are various types of myths depending on the community, ranging from creation myths, myths about suffering and death etc.
Folktales: These are imaginary stories aimed at instructing individuals in the community. Folktales use mostly animals considered geniuses in their own might who can hardly be defeated or deceived. They range form tortoise, hare, spider etc. The main function of the Folktale is to, through the characters, instruct the members of the community on how to live one’s life wisely by learning such virtues such as patience, prudence, courage etc. Just like other forms of oral literature, they are handed down orally form generation to generation.
Legends: These are stories that are usually based on the history of the community. These stories originate at a point in the civilization of the community in which history or facts are mixed with fiction and are transmitted orally from generation to generation. Legends may be fictional but what differentiate them form myths or folktales is that they are always narrated historically. Legends related about historical characters are not usually completely fictional as they often contain an atom of historical truth but the details are often magnified or distorted. These are just a few of the embodiments of oral literature. At different point in time in history, literature’s studied from a different point of view and perspective. In other words, the way literature was studied in the past is entirely different from the way it is being studied today. The dichotomies shrouding its study might range from people’s attitude towards it, wilder coverage or change in tides and time but the most important thing that should be at the back of our mind is that the way it was studied in the past is entirely different from that of the present. The most important thing we must note is that literature in the past is not written down. As a result of this, the approach to its study must be such that is more receptive and participatory through which it could be learnt. One of the most conspicuous manner through which literature have been learnt and appraised in the past especially folktale is through the narrator-listeners response mechanism. As we all know, oral narratives borders on such aspects as “entertainment and didacticism”. The narrator-listener’s’ approach is mostly paramount in moonlight tales otherwise called Evu Owa in my dialect. To ensure the understanding of the values the folktales are out to inculcate, children sit often time in circle in nbara ezi or compound. The story is fashioned in such a way that it is chorus-like thus given the children the opportunity to respond – repetitively – to the story being told by the narrator. The importance of this is that it sharpens the children’s critical perspective as they are able to reflect and follow the story more critically. Since there is no one-fixed way of studying it, (literature) in the past, its study widely is through oral performance through the different embodiments it encapsulates, earlier mentioned-myths, legends, folktales, riddles, proverbs etc.
Furthermore, unlike in the present dispensation of the study of literature, literature in the past does not follow a formal approach to its study. It is not a classroom phenomenon but a highly decentralized setting that is mostly undertaking in the night after meal or in the village square for the celebration of an important festival or event. In terms of festivals, men of valour and wit are gathered especially elders who in most cases speak in a highly condensed language—proverbs. A new yam festival is mostly the common place proverbs are used. For the non-proverb inclined, this becomes the best atmosphere to learn as he aptly listens to every word spoken with his ears to the ground. Interruption would definitely be seen as an insult and to avoid this, he would ask mind-probing questions from the elders at the end of the day.
The major contrivance between the study of literature in the past and the present is that literature today has been eschewed into writing. It is now written and more readily available. Thus, different ways of studying it becomes easily assessible. Students and lovers of oral literature and literature in general today through lectures and presentations, research etc. cement their knowledge and understanding of it. In this channel of thought, an anthology of folklores and folktales such as Romamus Eguda’s. The Calabash of Wisdom and other Igbo Stories in no small measure acts as an eye-opener to the Igbo folktales for those who have been severed from the umbilical cord of their tradition by many years of sojourn outside their cultural terrain. In essence, the teaching and studying of literature in the present has being made easier by the emergence of many teaching aids. Unlike the indigenous approach of informality where “story telling (in traditional Igbo home)’’ in Eguda’s assertion “is an art Commonly performed and enjoyed by both parents and children. Usually after dinner, men and women regale one another until they are carried off by sleep” (15), literature today has a formal approach to its teaching both in time and dressing. By time we mean that it has a fixed time to commence and to end. Apart from the above illustrations, the study of literature today has taken a more cognitive approach.
The emergence of literary criticism and theories has redefined the mirror from which literature is viewed not just indigenously but traditionally (from Aristotle and Plato) today. Literature has become wilder in scope as we can now talk about literature apart from criticism and theories, through what is called “periods”. By “periods”, we mean the defining moments of literature in history. We can talk of the Renaissance period, the Victorian age, modern period, etc. within the confinement of their own attributes. Literary criticism being one of the modes of studying literature involves the reading, analysis, explication and interpretation of literary texts. What criticism does is to place value judgment on a literary text. As Roger Webster says,
Literary criticism, rather than being secondary to literature, can be seen as a means of constructing the body of writing and knowledge which it appears to take as its object of study, in other words, literature can be seen as a product of and dependent on criticism rather than the other way round (7).

What this simply mean is that “there would be no literature …without literary criticism”.
Literary criticism should however not be confused with literary theory. Literary theory is an encapsulation of the methods and procedures employed in the practice of literary criticism. With literary theory we can approach literature from the perspective of class, gender, subjectivity etc. based on its embodiments such as Marxist theory, feminist theory, psychoanalytical theory etc. Literary theories show that the assumptions made about writers, readers and their relationship to what we see as “reality” need to be questioned and reformulated. This process should then be able to alter the ways we read and interpret literature. One thing we should take note of is that literary theory is not out to propose or offer any watertight solutions as to what literature is but as a means of helping us to interpret the text better. The approaches to the study of literature in the present dispensation are endless as more and more approaches such as magical realism, ecoriticism, human right are being propounded day by day.
For indigenous literature to rise to the forefront of literary terrains a lot needed to be done. The fact remains that those who believe that Africa in general have no literature have seen not only the literariness of African oral traditions but also the aesthetic values embedded in them. In particular, we the Igbos have a lot to do in projecting our indigenous literature. First and foremost, there must be an extensive orientation regarding the gradual declining of the core values which bind us together as an entity. It is an eye sour today that most Igbo youths points to their cultural heritage and artifacts with left hands to show the air of insouciance accrued to it as a result of colonial-cum-Christian cultural brigandage and brainwashing.
In addition to this, there must be an archive that would house recorded oral performances undertaken across the cultural terrains of the Igbo nation. This would not only help to preserve the culture but would also showcase it to the outside world as some of these recordings are useful in today’s teachings both in class and in seminars. One thing is certain, most Igbos today have problem speaking the Igbo language let alone reading the texts, basic oral literary forms should be introduced into the school curriculum from the pre-nursery to the university to make students conversant with them. Parents on their parts should not hesitate to send their wards back to their country homes to study if this is what they need in not only speaking the Igbo language but also knowing the rudiment of Igbo culture.
Conclusively, Igbo scholars should work towards an emergence of a glossary of Igbo proverbs and other traditional oral forms. Embedded with translations, this would not only attract indigenous scholars but also those of other extractions as well. As Andrzejewski rightly say; “the artistic worth of African (Igbo) oral art has not yet met with the appreciation it deserves lies in the dearth of good translation….”(95) and to talk of literature as a whole, there hasn’t been any established indigenous way through which it is been studied today.


Abanuka, B.Myth and the African Universe. Onitsha: Spiritan Publications, 1999.
Andrzejewski, B.W. “Emotional Bias in the Translation and Presentation of African Art”. Sierra Leone Language Review 1 (2008): 95-102.
Eguda, Romanus. The Calabash of Wisdom and other Igbo stories, New York: Nok Publishers, 1973.
Lindfors, Bernth. “The Palm Oil with which Achebe’s words are eaten”. African literature Today1-4 (1972): 2-18
Okoh, Nkem. Preface to Oral Literature. Onitsha: Africana Publishers, 2008.
Scheub, Harold. “Translation of African Oral Narrative Performances to the Written Word” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature. (1971): 28-36.
Webster, Rodger. Studying Literary Theory: An Introduction. London: Arnold Publishers,1990.

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