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Okpewho reveals truth of African oral traditions

By : Ingrid Husisian

Isidore Okpewho, a distinguished professor of Africana Studies, has for nearly 30 years conducted research into African oral traditions through which he has unearthed stories of oppression.
It all started because of a disagreement.

Isidore Okpewho, then a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of Denver, disagreed with author Ruth Finnegan’s hypothesis in her 1970 book Oral Literature in Africa when she suggested that the epic story is not a characteristic form of African oral tradition.

Okpewho disagreed, and his passion for research into African oral traditions was launched. More than 20 years later, Okpewho has authored 14 books, more than four dozen articles and served as president of the International Society for Oral Literature in Africa.

When he first read Finnegan’s book, Okpewho questioned it. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I recall listening to storytellers telling such tales about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things that are described in extraordinary ways. From my study of the European classical traditions, they would be called epics,’” he said.

Okpewho was driven to change his dissertation topic from a comparative study of Horace and Walt Whitman to what would become his first book – The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance. A second book, Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance published in 1983, challenged another of Finnegan’s claims – that myth was also not a characteristic African form.

Okpewho began his research into African oral traditions in earnest in 1976, when he returned to his native Nigeria to record oral tales from his home region in the south. Thirty years later, he is still transcribing and translating the volumes of material he gathered. In that time, he has unearthed stories of oppression that can now be told in a global context.

His collection of tales reveals age-old resentments of domination by the imperial armies of Benin, a kingdom that flourished from the 10th through the 19th centuries. “Benin had a tremendous political and cultural influence that engendered very stressful relations between the communities and the kingdom,” he said.

The same themes still exist in present day African oral narratives, he said, because many still live largely under the same politically oppressive conditions. Inevitably, he said, civil wars and genocide will continue until the oppression ends.

Okpewho’s research uncovered another theme as well – the tales of oppression aren’t confined to Africa; those who were taken from their homelands as slaves brought their ancient tales with them to America. Adding this twist to his work, Okpewho has looked at the relationship between African oral traditions and the traditions of black societies in the Americas. “Living and working in the Americas has brought home the need for me to explore the relationships between these traditions,” he said.

There are strong similarities between tales from Africa told in the United States and those told in the Caribbean, yet there are differences as well. “You want to know how these transformations came to be, besides saying ‘Well, these are told in the Caribbean, these are told in the United States so they would be different,’” he said. “Who are the people who continue to tell these stories and what had the stories meant to them in their social, cultural and political situations? If possible, what can we say about the influence of the narrators on the content and style of the tales?”

In effect, such a study aims at establishing the value of a people’s oral traditions in conveying the marks of their peculiar social, cultural and other forms of identity.

A natural progression would be to compare African tales with tales of oppression from around the world. “I’ve tried to bring the African traditions into some kind of a conversation with various other cultures around the world,” he said. “For instance, in Once Upon a Kingdom, I extrapolate from these tales to suggest ways that the kinds of hegemonic situations in Nigeria that my tales reflect are similar to hegemonic situations not only in Africa, but also in other parts of the world.”

Pointing out that governments don’t often listen to the voices of minorities, Okpewho said the resulting political upheaval, protests and violence can be avoided. “The tales that I have collected give me a tremendous amount of insight into what governments need to do to ensure peace and harmony in their communities by making sure that they guarantee something like an equal playing field for the various political communities within them,” he said.

His hope is to share stories from his homeland and give voice to the oppressed. “I suggest ways in which people can have greater political stability, not only in Nigeria, but across Africa and the rest of the world where minorities don’t get their fair share of attention,” he said. “That’s one way of ensuring peace; establishing a just system in which people who have been marginalized are given their fair share of attention as well as proper representation, and their voices are listened to.”

African oral literature has grown into an increasingly stable area of research during Okpewho’s career. In the past, scholars simply collected spoken narratives without including the names of those who told them and lack of solid technology was also a barrier. “These days we pay more attention to the art of storytelling, the singing of songs and the performance of various other kinds of oral literature, than to just the text. We study the people who perform them and the situations in which they are performed, as well as the text itself,” he said.

Okpewho, a distinguished professor of Africana Studies, is also a novelist who writes to inform and entertain. His most recent novel, Call Me By My Rightful Name (2004), is the story of an African American who is moved by several urgent voices from the African oral tradition to retrace his roots back in Africa.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08