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Oral Tradition of African Literature. African Literature.

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Oral Tradition of African Literature

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Oral Tradition of African Literature


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African Literature

  • Sub-Saharan Africa has two distinct kinds of literatures: Traditional oral poetry and the Written Literature. Traditional oral poetry and folklore date back to the early days of various tribal cultures and the written literature emerges in the 18th century but mostly it is the phenomena of 20th century.


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  • According to Achebe, “Both novel and short story in Africa have undoubtedly drawn from a common oral heritage. But each has also achieved distinctiveness in the hands of its best practitioners.”

  • Chinua Achebe & C.L. Innes, eds., African Short Stories, Heinemann, London 1985.


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 Myths, Folktales and Riddles

  • African literature heavily borrows from African myths. Africans have their own myths about the creation of the world. According to most of them, one all powerful god creates the world, and then passes the job of overseeing it to a group of lesser gods.

  • The most elaborate deities are probably those of Yoruba of Nigeria and the Ton of Benin. They are very powerful beings and can do amazing deeds. We have a very frequent reference to such supernatural spirits in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.


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  • Folktales, proverbs and riddles also constitute African Literature. Achebe’s work is full of all these details.

  • Proverb is an inalienable part of conversation all over Africa. They are entertaining as mostly they express ideas in a surprising way. For example, instead of saying, “Be careful,” a mother might tell her child, “The housefly does not play a sticky drum.” When a father says, “The staring frogs do not prevent cattle from drinking,” he means “Don’t worry about other people’s opinions.”


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Islamic Arabs and Christian European

  • Two great colonizing movements have affected the African literature. First, there came Islamic Arabs in 7th Century and then came Christian European in the 19th. Most of the 20th century literature written in English, Portuguese and French languages charts the effects of European colonization.


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Effect of Colonization on Social Order

  • Colonization has had a profound effect on the social order of most African societies. Colonizing forces integrated African societies into a capitalist world economy, and exposed them to many aspects of a now globe-encircling civilization.

  • “Conquered and colonized by Western European imperialists, African societies, whether originally acephalous with little or no ranking, or organized in feudal-like politics with complex stratification system, lost their political, economic, social and cultural autonomy, and became appendages to the west”

  • Dr. Ramadan S. Belhag & Dr. Yassin A. El-Kabir eds., Christian Missionarism and the Alienation of the African Mind, Dar Iqra, Tripoli 1986 p/203


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Escape From Whiteman’s Culture

  • Discussing the dilemma of such Westernized African individual Frantz Fanon says, “In order to ensure his salvation and to escape from the Supremacy of the Whitman’s culture the native feels the need to turn backward toward his unknown roots and to lose himself at whatever cost in his own barbarous people … He not only turns himself into the defender of his people’s past; he is willing to be counted as one of them, and henceforward he is even capable of laughing at his cowardice.”---What is he saying?

  • Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, New York, Grove Press, Inc., 1963 pp/217-218


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  • Achebe represents a modern Africa whose ethnic and cultural diversity is complicated by the impact of European colonialism. Things Fall Apart challenges European stereotype of Africa as primitive savage identity and brings forth the complexities of African societies with heir alternative sets of traditions, ideals, values, and behaviours.

  • Achebe is even more disturbed to see African themselves internalize these stereotypes, lose confidence and turn away from their culture to emulate the so-called superior white European civilization.


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  • Therefore, Achebe has a dual mission to educate both African and European readers to reinstall a sense of pride in African cultures and “to help my society to regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of years of denigration and self-abasement.” “Achebe … has articulated the responsibility of the writer as an essentially pedagogical one in which the writer in addition to writing about the issues of his day also has to assume the role of “teacher” and guardian of his society.”

  • ChidiAmuta, The Theory of African Literature, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1989 P/114


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  • Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University says, the “most striking feature (of Things Fall Apart) is to create a complex and sympathetic portrait of a traditional village culture in Africa. Achebe is trying not only to inform the outside world about Ibo cultural traditions, but to remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had contained much of value. All too many Africans in his time were ready to accept the European judgment that Africa had no history or culture worth considering.”

  • ChidiAmuta, The Theory of African Literature, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1989 P/114


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The oral component of traditional life . . .

  • Town criers

  • Bards

  • Storytellers

  • Griots—living libraries / historians


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Specifically, the oral literary tradition . . .

  • Proverbs distill the essence of a people’s values and knowledge

  • They were used to settle legal disputes, solve ethical dilemmas, and tech children the philosophy of a people

  • Incorporate metaphor, rhyme, parallelism, alliteration


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Oral storytelling

  • Repetition

  • Parallel structure

  • Refrains, with audience participation

  • Repeat-and-vary technique

  • Assonance

  • Call and response


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Types of tales

  • trickster tales

  • dilemma tales

  • cumulative tales / chain tales


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Choose either

  • “Why We Tell Stories About Spiders” p. 508

  • “The Five Helpers” p. 510

  • “Talk” p. 511

  • Proverbs p. 515


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Your task:

  • Each group will present their story or set of proverbs in a ten to fifteen minute time period. Please time your presentation well before the due date as you will be penalized if your presentation runs short or long. Each group’s presentation will clearly present the three common components of the African storytelling tradition: rhythm, repetition, and use of proverbs to teach a lesson. Additionally, the presentation must be dominantly oral to mimic the use of spoken word as the primary literary format in early African “writing.” Within these parameters and assuming your group thoroughly conveys the story, anything goes! Please speak to me by Wednesday, if you’ll need any technology for your presentation to ensure a successful production.


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