Oral traditions

Categories: Poetry

Many ancient scholars believed Africa had no history prior to colonialism because there was no documented evidence. Professor A.P. Newton, who was a distinguished British historian in the early 20th century, believed that there was no African history because most of the African society was illiterate before the European intrusion. ‘History’, he said, ‘only begins when men take to writing.’ He, as well as others who had the same opinion, failed to realize that African communities existed long before colonialism and so had their own history, even though it had not been put into writing at the time.

Oral traditions have played and continue to play important roles in the history of Africa as well as its present. Songs, folklores, superstitions, etc. are just some of the things that have been passed from generation to generation orally. We see the evidence of some of these superstitions in J.P. Clark’s _Abiku_ as well as Wole Soyinka’s _Abiku_.

Both poems are based on traditional superstitions and it is evident from the title, _Abiku_, which is a word from the Yoruba language of Nigeria that is used to describe a child that dies and is reborn, usually multiple times.

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It is believed that such children are not of the human world, but rather belong to the spirit world and so they keep going back and forth from one world to the other unless the child’s family is able to make the child stay in the human world, using traditional methods most times.

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These beliefs and actions are results of oral traditions and, even with the rise of western education in Yoruba communities and Nigeria in general, continue to be upheld by some people. Clark and Soyinka are evidence of the continued dependence and belief in oral traditions by a lot of Africans, even after extensive western education.

These Africans could be doing this as an indirect rebellion against western ideas and principles that have sought to ridicule and destroy African culture. During the colonial era, the Europeans did their best to destroy African culture, especially those that had to do with superstitions and religious beliefs that did not correspond with western principles. Concepts like reincarnation were frowned upon heavily by the European missionaries seeking to change the religious beliefs of Africans and since most aspects of life were based on religion at the time, changing one’s religious beliefs meant changing one’s political, social and economic beliefs as well. However, with the rise of cultural nationalisms, Africans began to reject European standards as the ideal and focus on bringing African culture back to the forefront. Hence, we see Soyinka and Clark as well as many other African poets bringing their cultural superstitions to their literary works, even though most of them are written in European languages.

In Soyinka’s _Abiku_ poem, almost every line is made up of cultural beliefs and practices as they relate to the _Abiku_ child. He even dips into non-African oral traditions in the line that says, “remember/ this, and dig me deeper still into/ the god’s swollen foot.” (14-16). Here, Soyinka is referring to Oedipus, the Greek mythological figure, and his use of this in his poem suggests that he wants to show that oral tradition is not just an African phenomenon but rather, exists in different cultures all around the world. While, he doesn’t expand on this line, it is important because it stands out from the rest of the poem as it is not connected to Yoruba tradition at all and it makes known to its readers the fact that oral traditions are universal.

Also, Soyinka writes his poem from the subject’s point of view as a means of humanizing the character. The concept of _Abiku_ is usually explained as an other- worldly phenomenon, which made it easier for a lot of people to disassociate themselves with the idea. However, Soyinka writes his poem in first person in order to make known to people the fact that _Abiku_ children do exist and they are, in fact, human beings. He brings the _Abiku_ child to the forefront and though the rhetoric is tinged with superstitions and cultural traditions, the fact that it is being told from the child’s perspective is a humanizing effort.

There is no doubt that the poem emphasizes cultural and spiritual notions, especially through the child, however, the poem’s use of words like “Mothers” (line 26) paints a human picture in the minds of the readers. The juxtaposition of spiritual and human language used in the poem lets the readers know that both the spiritual and the human are present in this _Abiku_ child. Therefore, the poet brings to light the idea that the spiritual i.e. traditional and the human i.e. rational can exist and coincide with one another. He is saying that African culture can exist side by side with western culture and one doesn’t have to diminish the other, which is the direct opposite of what was preached by European missionaries.

Also, it is important to note that these two poets as well as most African writers are invested in the concept of Africanism. Keeping African cultures alive is important and we see the poets using their poems to remind Africans and the world in general that African culture still exists and has not been destroyed by urbanization. Oral traditions have never been completely accepted as adequate sources with which to make any kinds of analyses because of the fickle nature of the human memory and so, writing these poems allows the poets show the readers that the culture is still there and these stories and beliefs have not been forgotten. It was important for Africans in historical times to repeatedly acknowledge the oral traditions so they would not forget any parts of it and this is also one of the reasons why African writers usually add some elements of oral tradition into their works.

A lot of African communities did not have any means of recording their culture for future generations so they just made sure the younger generations became aware of these traditions from the early stages of their lives so these traditions became engrained in their minds by the time they were adults. However, with the colonization of Africa, a lot of Africans are now able read and write these oral traditions and because of this easy access, a lot of Africans have become unaware of a lot of cultural traditions that would have been passed orally. So, the writers include oral traditions in their written works to bring these stories, beliefs, practices, etc. back into the minds of Africans and the world.

This is why Soyinka and Clark include some traditional processes in their poetry. Soyinka writes about the charms that people believed would keep the _Abiku_ child from going back to the spirit world… “Must I weep for goats and cowries/for palm oil and sprinkled ash?” He takes the reader into the world of the _Abiku,_ using cultural rituals, which then reminds the Africans who had forgotten and informs those who were not privy to this information initially. Clark takes his readers into the immediate environment of the _Abiku_ child, both the physical environment and the spiritual environment… “Do stay out on the baobab tree/follow where you please your kindred spirits/if indoors is not enough for you.”

In conclusion, oral traditions are very important in African culture as well as other cultures around the world and the use of written language in passing oral traditions has been helpful in bringing forgotten histories back into the minds of its people.


Fage, J. D., and British Broadcasting Corporation. Africa Discovers Her Past. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Henige, David P. The Chronology of Oral Tradition: Quest for a Chimera. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Adesanmi, Pius. You’re Not a Country, Africa: A Personal History of the African Present. Johannesburg: Penguin Books (South Africa), 2011.

Things Fall Apart Essay on Traditions and Beliefs

There are a lot of reasons why traditions and beliefs play a part in everyone’s life. There is a large roll for them in the book “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. The rolls of the traditions and beliefs can decide the fate of everyone and are important to the way of life in the villages and their culture. When the whites came into town it caused many to question their traditions and beliefs and although some of their beliefs would be discouraged in our society, they are acceptable and just the way of life to the villagers.

The traditions and beliefs decide the fate of everyone in the village based on the citizens’ actions towards others, the earth and their ancestors. They throw twins into the evil forest for fear they are a bad omen “…when they heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest. A sudden hush had fallen over the women, who had been talking, and they quickened their steps. Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away into the forest, but he had never come across them.”(pg 61-62).

They have a week of peace to celebrate the god of the earth to help their crops grow during which the peace is not to be broken or the earth shall not give the village a good harvest and most of the crops will die “No work was done during the week of peace. People called on their neighbours and drank palm-wine.”(p.31). The citizens of the villages also build shrines for their ancestors to allow them to worship their forefathers and gods. All of these actions regarding their traditions and beliefs play a large part in their general way of life.

Some of the beliefs practiced in this culture would certainly be frowned upon in our society yet are perfectly acceptable in their culture. For instance, the idea that a child should be murdered “As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry ‘my father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down.” (p.61). There is also their thought that twins should be dumped in the evil forest “…when they heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest.

A sudden hush had fallen over the women, who had been talking, and they quickened their steps. Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away into the forest, but he had never come across them.”(pg 61-62). They also believe that the spirits of the dead must be appeased with gifts of palm wine and food or they will bring bad fortune to the family “Near the barn was a small house, the ‘medicine house’ or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children.” (p.14). Although these may seem to be things that a lot of people find horrid or unacceptable it is a part of their beliefs and therefore acceptable in their society.

Furthermore, these beliefs changed after the whites and colonialism came. The whites came and since they were unwelcomed when they asked for land the village gave them a portion of the evil forest “’they want a piece of land to build their shrine,’ said Uchendu to his peers when they consulted among themselves. ‘We shall give them land.’ He paused, and there was a small murmur of surprise and disagreement. ‘Let us give them a portion of the Evil Forest. They boast about victory over death. Let us give them a real battlefield in which to show their victory.’ They laughed and agreed” (p.149) “They offered them as much of the Evil forest as they cared to take.” (p.149). Everyone in the village thought they would be dead soon yet they live “The inhabitants of Mbanta expected them all to be dead within four days.

The first day passed and the second and the third and fourth, and none of them had died. Everyone was puzzled.”(p.149). This makes a lot of people in the village question the traditions and beliefs, wonder if maybe they should join the whites in their church, because of the thought that the whites god seems to be stronger than theirs and more accepting. Soon anyone who had been outcast join the whites, with nowhere else to go they had nothing to lose (quote chapter 18). The whites also took in a woman who had given birth to 4 pairs of twins “Nneka had had four previous pregnancies and childbirths. But each time she had borne twins, and they had been immediately thrown away.

Her husband and his family were already becoming highly critical of such a woman and were not unduly perturbed when they found she had fled to join the Christians.” (p.151) the villagers had thought for sure after doing all this, the white men would be killed but instead they continued with their lives as though nothing had happened. These beliefs were a large part of their society and normal life and now the whites are causing them to question whether those gods are really there or able to protect them as well as the white man’s god possibly could, but they still try to hang onto their beliefs as much as they can and discourage their children and friends from joining the white men.

It can thus be proven that a majority of the book revolves around the beliefs and traditions in their culture. When the whites came into town they started questioning their beliefs and traditions but before that they were fine with worshiping their ancestors and doing what their forefathers had taught them to do; respect the gods and the earth, grow their crops and have a family.

Cite this page

Oral traditions. (2016, Aug 10). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/oral-traditions-essay

Oral traditions

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