Tuesday update #3: ‘Oral literature in Africa’ available for free download

Ruth Finnegan, anthropologist and emeritus professor of sociology at England’s Open University, agreed to digitalise her seminal book ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ under a CC-BY license. This allows students of African studies, academics and interested readers, to download the e-book for free, thus broadening access to this remarkable piece of scholarship.

Oral Literature in Africa

First published in 1970, ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ had since gone out of print and was only available at some selected libraries. Even when ordering a physical copy was still an option, the price was so prohibitive that Ruth Finnegan’s book hardly made it into the hands of scholars on the African continent.

Crowdfunding campaign

Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign led by the start-up unglue.it, the book was not only saved from oblivion but propelled to near universal accessibility. It is now downloadable for free in mobi, epub and pdf format, thus enabling anyone with an Internet connexion to enjoy its content.

Under the CC-BY Creative Commons license, Finnegan’s work can be shared, reproduced, translated, quoted – the only condition being to give the author due attribution. She is convinced that this choice is completely in line with her mission as an academic…of the modern age:

Yet it seems to me that open access represents the future for academic publication. It is a form of free knowledge-dissemination, using the new opportunities afforded by the web, and is very much in keeping with the open and democratising spirit of The Open University.

And the e-book version is not without its perks – besides being free and accessible to all online. This new edition of ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, which is also the first title of the World Oral Literature Series, has been livened up by a new introduction as well as extra media, including photographs and original recordings collected in Sierra Leone in the 1960s. These precious appendices could not have been part of the book in 1970 due to obvious technical limitations at the time, and had thus far remained unpublished.

An ode to literary creativity

In ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, Ruth Finnegan explores themes common to anthropology, linguistics and sociology, debunking commonly held conceptions of the time and reestablishing the relevance of studying the oral arts of Africa with as much rigour as any other form of artistic expression. The author certainly was and remains committed to doing so.

Even though it is not per se part of the central argument, literary creation is placed against the particular linguistic background of Africa. In the introductory section of the book, Finnegan outlines the range of literary devices afforded by African languages, taking the Bantu group as an example.

For anyone who has ever juggled with multiple noun classes and verbal derivatives, it is illuminating to see these language parts coming together to aid literary creation. We enter a world where personification is only a prefix away, where verb gymnastics transform the mood of a scene, and where a whole story hides in a name.

But the scope for creative expression does not end there. One of the most striking features of Bantu languages is their generous use of ideophones in story-telling. Ideophones are words – most often interjections – whose sound brings to life an idea. Used to add texture and intensity to the tale, they can portray sounds but also, more surprinsingly, the rhythm of an action, colour, smell, character etc.

Here are my favourite examples of ideophones from the Shona language, as presented p. 66-67:

k’we—sound of striking a match.

nyiri nyiri nyiri nyiri—flickering of light on a cinema screen.

go, go, go, ngondo ngondo ngondo, pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka—the chopping down of a tree, its fall, and the splintering of the branches. (Fortune, 1962)

…and some Zulu ideophones:

khwi—turning around suddenly.

dwi—dawning, coming consciousness, returning sobriety, easing of pain, relief.

ntrr—birds flying high with upward sweep; aeroplane or missile flying.

bekebe—flickering faintly and disappearing.

khwibishi—sudden recoil, forceful springing back.

fafalazi—doing a thing, carelessly or superficially.

ya—perfection, completion            (Fivaz 1963)

The poetic potential of Bantu languages is exposed with such delicate eloquence that the thought kept me awake at night, murmuring bits of poems I had memorised from the book.

Beyond orality

Forty years after the book that essentially pioneered the field of ethnography of language, Ruth Finnegan published ‘The oral and beyond: doing things with words in Africa’. She looks back at almost half a century of research on orality, reviewing the intellectual debates taking place since the 1960s and opening up new perspectives for the study of orality, notably by questioning the long-held perception of Africa as the ‘oral continent’.

If you want to help unglue more books, have a look at the active campaigns and consider supporting the digitalization of a book under Creative Commons.

Photo credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Raymond Yee

Legendary Somali poet Hadraawi at #Kwanilitfest in Nairobi

Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, or Hadraawi, is a prominent Somali poet and songwriter hailing from Toghdeer in former British Somaliland. Hadraawi, whose stage name means ‘the master of speech’, is not  only revered for his fabulous word-smithery but also for his courage and dedication in advocating for peace in Somalia.

In the poet’s own words:

I use poetry to fight society’s evil. I do that because it is just my destiny.

Hadraawi performed last Sunday at Kwani Lit Fest in Nairobi alongside Warsan Shire and El Poet. He also participated in a discussion with Said Jama Hussein on his art and struggle for peace in the Horn of Africa.

Hadraawi reminded the audience that ‘[his] poetry does not come from the sky. It is directly linked to the realities that prevail’. On Twitter, @missmbithe commented on ‘the beauty of the words inspired by witnessing war’, thus saluting the profound resilience of  artists who manage to translate harsh realities into pieces of art.

For poetry fans, the good vibes are nowhere near waning, as @PoetryTranslate announced on Twitter their upcoming publication of a volume of Hadraawi’s poems:

Even though Somali poetry is traditionally chanted and committed to memory to be passed down orally, more and more poems are being put down on paper. The Poetry Translation Centre is spearheading exciting translation work that enable English speakers to access selected works by Somali poets. You will, for example, be treated to a brilliant translation of the poem ‘Daalacan’, presented alongside the original Somali version as well as background notes.

More on Somali poetry: Introduction to Somali poetry by Martin Orwin

KÍTHOMO KÍA MÚMÍÍRÚ: A Meru Poem via Story Zetu

A post about Meru traditional education, by Victor Brian


News flash: Tolkien translation in Swahili by Oliver Stegen


If you are into poetry, you are going to love this.

If you are a Tolkien fan, you are going to love this.

If you are a Tolkien fan AND you speak a decent amount of Swahili, you’ll have the jitters when you read this:

M. Oliver Stegen is in the process of translating Tolkien’s works in Swahili! This lifetime pursuit which borders on megalomania (he says so himself) has started in the form of a poem that you can find on his website:

Bilbo’s Aragorn Poem in Swahili

To be enjoyed with absolutely no moderation.

Comments and feedback : @babatabita


The poem is generally a story by a poor rural young person, criticizing the ‘They’. These are the learned elite who take pride in their origins and culture but blame the youth for abandoning their cultures without seeing their ‘motorcades’, ‘ironed suits’, ‘polished shoes’, ‘glittering watches’ and ‘foreign languages’. The poem silently bites at this habit which is quite common in Africa.

Brian Ngatia

[English translation below]



Mokire na mîtokaa mîkururanio
na thuti hûre bathi
na iratû njiru ta nduma
na thaa irametameta.

Magîtûkora tumîte ibarûa
na mathîna maitû ng’ong’o
ona mîatuka itû magûrûinî
Na ndangari iria tûîkîraga.

Makîîarîrîa na thiomi cia rûraya
magîtûorotaga ithuî andû ethî
makiuga ati mîthiîre itu
Ti ûmwe na ûndûire witû.



English translation (by the author).


They came in their motorcades
in ironed suits
Polished shoes,black like darkness
Their watches glittering.

They found us coming from our casual labours
with our problems on our backs
And cracks on our feet
in the tatters that we wear.

They talked in foreign languages
pointing at us the youth
Saying that our behaviours,
Were not reflective of our culture.


Maneno Matamu Poetry (Uhuru Park edition): the photos are out!

The technology fairy tells me that luck is on our side this time. In spite of a stubbornly defective memory card, I managed to upload the pictures of our last show which was held at Uhuru Park (Nairobi) on 3rd March 2012.

Thanks to a diverse panel of performers, we listened to poetry pieces in …

Swahili (Jemedari and Sentimental Floetry), Kimeru (Ngartia), Kikuyu (Ngartia, Njeri Wangari, Carol of Sentimental Floetry), Dholuo (Jacob Oketch and Patroba), Luhya (Namatsi of Sentimental Floetry) and Sheng’ (Gaz & Kuni, Teardrops) !

You can view the full set on Maneno Matamu’s Flickr photostream. For a sneak peak, see below:

We gathered on a sunny Saturday afternoon...

Jacob Oketch captivating the audience with his dramatic dholuo piece

The pretty lily pond at Uhuru Park (Nairobi)

Thai! (Peace) , a Gĩkũyũ poem by Ngartia

No marĩtwa tũtũirie no undũire tũtirĩ
Anake marakĩruĩra thibitarĩ
Mĩĩgithi nĩ nyĩmbo ciarĩ?
Nĩ aigana moĩ ciao mbarĩ?
Nĩkũrĩ? Nĩkũrĩ? Gũtirĩ?

Ona ngoma ciarĩ njega njũru gũtiari
Cia thũkirio nĩ ahujia kanitha-inĩ
Cia thũkirio igĩkĩrwo bibiria-inĩ
Na ti tene, o rĩu, kariri?

Na no ndĩraigua mareĩta Agĩkũyũ karĩnga
Agĩkũyũ ama a tene nĩ mathirire
No anake a fote matigaire
Na onao ti haraihu matigairie
Tha! Tha hari mũgambo witũ.

Rĩu ciana cia Gĩkũyũ na Mumbi
No Kĩrĩnyaga mũkũrora mũhoe Ngai
Okorwo nĩ murenda gũcokia rũthiomi
Rĩu ndamũtiga na Thayo!
Thai! Thai! Thathaiya Ngai.



This poem was performed on 3rd March 2012 at Maneno Matamu Poetry.

To get to know Ngartia the poet, head to his blog or take a look at this interview.

Untitled Kimeru poem by Victor Brian

Maami mpa gasuru

Rĩu mbĩte ngatwĩre

Kĩrĩ kĩthaka gĩa kabere

Ugampa rũũtha nkarĩe mpera

kĩrĩ kamuunda ga  stera

Ngakũretera marigũ jamagundu

Kuuma muuro jwa maundu

Nkundia gacuru maami mbĩte


Baaba mpa siringi, kana inya kĩngotore

Ndienda gwĩta kũriũnga naarĩa kwa ba naitore

Ngaũkira rũkĩĩrĩ ngwakĩrie nyama

Na mbĩĩre maa akũrugĩre nkima

Mpa kĩng’otore kĩu baaba.


Victor Brian


This poem was performed on 3rd March 2012 at Maneno Matamu poetry.