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We must save oral literature from extinction


The ways of our ancestors are good/Their customs are solid/And not hollow/They are not thin, not easily breakable

Perhaps Ugandan legendary poet Okot p’ Bitek while scribbling the above words in his timeless classic, Song of Lawino, knew not that one day a generation seemingly disinterested in the immense richness of oral literature would come, claiming change in cultural appreciation thanks  to movies, music and Internet.

The demise of oral literature in Kenya is slowly but surely right before us. The silence from scholars is a sure sign the genre is on its deathbed.

National examinations body and curriculum developers seem to find oral literature irrelevant to a new generation that has raised the bar of literature by going online.

Disinterest among authors and publishers towards oral literature works elaborate the missing links.

So is oral literature consumed by the rapid technological surge or is it facing extinction?

Scholars h ave advanced literary debates over the future of oral literature, with a claim that it finds no place in today’s generation because of the technological influence. Whenever such an argument is ignited, the meaning of oral literature becomes a subject of research. Therefore, what is oral literature?

S Kichamu Akivaga and Asenath Bole Odaga, in their Oral Literature: A school Certificate Course, define Oral Literature as a spoken, acted (performed) art whose media, like that of written literature, is words. The duo’s meaning of oral literature creates an explicit distinction between this genre and others, it outlines the spoken word and performance as important features of oral literature, which needs to be taken into account whenever its meaning and relevance is sought.

Taking oral literature to another media rather than spoken will make it lose its meaning instantly, in a way extremely difficult to fathom for the “digital” generation who see backwardness and a bid to maintain status quo for a genre whose time is up. The richness and value of oral literature comes in its spoken form and this is its reality, because if taken to a different media like in written form, it either embraces vagueness on loses meaning.

It’s hard to understand the objectives and achievements of organisations such as The Kenyan Oral Literature Association (Kola) started in 1968 by writers, researchers and scholars to promote oral literature in the country. Are our universities helpful if their curriculum cannot address this challenge or is lack of creativity, zeal and enthusiasm for oral literature to blame?

If a good literature journal such as Navigating Life through Narrative: Analysis of selected Urban Refugee Children’s Narrative by Dr Miriam Musonye from University of Nairobi’s Literature Department creates none or little impact to reviving oral literature? Then who is to blame?

One needs no explanation to understand the dire lack of appreciation of oral literature in our schools, he needs just to pick any KCSE English paper to notice how seldom oral literature questions get tested. Most secondary school teachers find the genre archaic and outdated because they only need to focus on other language segments like grammar and functional skills to claim a credit, but does ignoring oral literature help today’s society?

Curriculum developers need to check out Everlyne Ochome’s Analysis of Oral literature in Secondary Schools in Kenya: Teaching and Learning of Oral Literature to understand the desperate position of oral literature in schools. They need to decide if they are dismissing it as irrelevant or not because it is high time some of the lost values in this generation were tactfully inculcated using oral literature; patience, tolerance, chastity, love and even kindness. Looking upon today’s society, it is these values that are missing. Maybe this is why tribalism is rife, coastal youths are turning extremism, HIV and Aids is scaling new heights  and crime is a way of life.

Literary scholars must, therefore, not lose direction by waging nonconstructive battles about their shrewdness, intellect or books under their names. They should focus at using their intellect to bridge a literary gap being envisioned among generations of this nation, lest we succumb to Taban Lo Liyongo’s infamous literary desert.

We must bring back the days when it was irresistible picking books such as Jomo Kenyatta’s ‘Facing Mount Kenya’ or Onyango Ogutu and Adrian Roscoe’s ‘Keep My Words’.

—Mr Vivere teaches at Sakuri Girls’ in Kuria East; Mr Oduor is a language instructor in Rwanda.

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