1The title I so optimistically chose many months ago has, predictably, turned out hopelessly over-ambitious. There is no way I could adequately even begin to chart the many developments in the study of the oral literatures of Africa during the last generation, developments to which so many of the ISOLA conference participants have made such distinguished contributions or are now carrying forward for the future. So in the end I decided that I could best contribute by taking us back to the context in the 1960s, the period when I first became involved in African studies, to share some selective personal reflections on the differences between then and now.
2Looking back over the years of my engagement in the growing study of African oral literatures brings sharply to my mind an awareness of my earlier mistakes. I will gear my offering here to reflecting on some of these. For a number of those failings are ones, I believe, that scholars would be less likely to fall into today; or, at least, would nowadays be more sensitive than I was then to the issues involved. My mistakes can thus provide one illustration of how the field has moved on.
3For this, I must first sketch the context as I experienced it in the early 1960s when I was starting out in anthropology. A common outlook then was that the obvious aim of the fieldwork I had to undertake as a necessary requirement for my doctoral dissertation was to complete an ethnographic survey of some ’unknown’ tribe, investigating its ’traditional’ ways before the intrusions of European-induced ’social change’. I would bring back knowledge about this non-literate tribal unit to the world of scholarship, in Oxford. My report would delineate the social, political, economic and religious structure, describing the shared traditional institutions - marriage customs, kinship, chiefly positions, religious beliefs, myths - and how these worked together to maintain the society as a functioning whole. I and others perhaps knew such an image was too simple. But it was a powerful framework at the time, bolstered by a series of connected assumptions in both academic and conventional wisdom about primitive societies and the anthropological endeavour.
4This was the intellectual climate in which I embarked on fieldwork in northern Sierra Leone, among people designated on colonial maps as ’the Limba’. I won’t elaborate on the findings (documented in 1960s-style in Finnegan, 1965), but just say that besides the necessary ’basic ethnography’ I became interested in local narratives and resolved to focus particularly on these for my doctoral thesis. I enormously enjoyed hearing them - though that was then irrelevant. For I had to assume that my task was to collect and analyse them, drawing on the currently available theoretical frameworks and findings of comparative scholarship.
5So, with that background, let me expose one of my mistakes in my early attempts at analysis. This related to a narrative explaining the separation between Kanu (God) and the Limba. In the old days, it started, ’when the world had not yet begun ... we were together with Kanu ... we were all together here below’. But Kanu kept being badgered to resolve disputes down here on earth. First a deer pursued by a python runs to him for refuge. Kanu attempts to mediate but the python, obstinate, insists on swallowing the deer. The same thing keeps happening. The python is the next to be pursued, then consumed, by a swarm of ants; then ants by fire; the fire by water. In each case Kanu fails to dissuade the attacker. In the end he loses patience. He ’fled from us to go up above and now sends us a way to weep. ... ’. ’From that’, the blind teller continued sadly, ’it began that people were parted from Kanu, we who once lived together’. The narrator emphasised the seriousness of the narrative in his final conclusion - ’True, true’. He added further authority by affirming that, if he was speaking falsely, when he died ’may I not find anyone to carry me to the grave’, but if truth ’may I [though blind] see those who carry me’.
6I was delighted to have found this. Here, it appeared, was the foundational myth for Limba religious and social ideologies. It fitted with the way African mythologies were currently being presented and with the findings from other African societies where the ’High God’ was similarly separated from humankind. ’Myth’ was a well-accepted term among anthropologists for a narrative that justified and maintained the enduring social order. The Limba narrative also recalled an Akan myth I had read of, where God had first hovered close to humans but moved away after being constantly hit from below by a woman’s pestle as she pounded: a good parallel to the Limba myth in explaining the current human condition. This was just the kind of thing I was looking for, a central plank in my description of Limba institutions.
7But - was I right? When I moved to a more remote village up in the hills I played back the recording. I was confident the listeners would find it familiar: in this notably ’traditional’ area they would be bound to warm to a recording of their key myth. They did listen enthusiastically. But their reactions were unexpected. ’What a brilliant teller’, said one, ’a great story’, and - on questioning - ’I’ve never heard that one before’. It was only after I had recorded many more stories that it started coming into context: not after all the foundational Limba myth but just one enjoyable story among many, told by a particularly skilled performer. Later I recorded other stories by the same teller, Dauda Konteh, one of the most creative of the narrators I encountered, outstanding for his dramatic and entertaining story-telling on a great variety of subjects. He had his own personal motifs. One of his other performances told the ridiculous tale of a man who adored snuff so much that he bombarded all the chiefs in the area for more and more snuff (housefuls of it ...), finally over-reached himself, took a huge sniff and fell down dead. There was nothing to it really except for the way the audience rolled around with merriment and joined boisterously in the recurring song as the snuff-taker hilariously made the rounds of the chiefs. And then, it too ended with the (mock-solemn) words: ’If I am telling a lie, when I die let me not see those who carry me to the grave; but ... if I speak truth ... may I see them clearly’.
8After that my supposed ’myth’ looked very different.
9My mistake was not because myths cannot be found in Africa or that stories, even the most light-hearted ones, may not have serious social implications or mythically redolent overtones. It was that I had rushed so quickly to classify and conclude, assuming a definition that fitted my outsider’s theoretical frame rather than awaiting some understanding of local definitions and practices. I started from an image of African stories as functional and timeless, a traditional and collective product shared by ’the Limba’. I had sidelined issues that, nowadays, would have at least entered a scholar’s mind: about individual creativity, for example, performance, co-constructing audiences and the literary and artistic contexts in which such stories were produced, appreciated or evaluated. With the help of Limba tellers and audiences at the time and, later, a handful of wonderfully insightful anthropologists and folklorists I did manage to struggle free of my initial preconceptions. But I still think back to how easy it was to jump to know-all outsiders’ conclusions about the meaning of what I had found.
10Having become interested in the processes of creativity and performance I included an account of ’the Limba story-teller’ in my doctoral dissertation. I felt I was quite go-ahead in the then English anthropological context to have reported on this topic rather than just presented and interpreted texts. But I was challenged by one of my examiners, Godfrey Lienhardt, for having given merely a ’curate’s egg’ generalised picture. He suggested instead taking a number of individual tellers and elaborating on them. He was right of course: it was much more illuminating - and convincing - when actual people were presented, with their personalities and characteristics. I had fallen into the trap of assuming you could convey individuality and diversity by blanket description, that in academic contexts abstract terms had more meaning than the specifics, and that individuals somehow had less significance than what could be gathered together as the collective.
11The trend nowadays is very different. It is well exemplified in innumerable research reports, not least among the impressive presentations at the 2008 ISOLA conference. Today scholars single out and amplify specific case studies of individuals and their repertoires in all their contextual complexity. Personal narratives, individual twists and human foibles are all now prominent subjects in scholarly research, material that surfaced so much less among Africanist scholars a generation ago.
12A further failing in my early work was that though I did attempt to set the stories in some context, I began from the assumption that the appropriate and acceptable way to capture them was ultimately as written text. Some I took down from dictation (already therefore in scripted form) but even for the many I tape recorded I took it for granted that the inevitable goal was to transcribe them into writing, and thenceforth into written English translation. Both from my background in classical literature and in the then commonly-held assumptions in anthropology, folklore, literature and elsewhere, the texted format seemed the mode in which these stories essentially existed and, unquestionably, the form in which I should present and analyse them in my doctoral thesis. The written word was not only the medium for scholarly analysis, but equally for endowing its objects with reality.
13I therefore presented transcripts and translations in my dissertation. It was indeed a useful exercise, one still worth continuing. But at the same time something seemed wrong. I had been entranced by the subtlety and insight of so many of the wonderful stories I had heard. They seemed to express a deep commentary on so many aspects of the human condition, whether through directly human characters, imaginary beings, or human personality in the guise of animals, depicted variously with pathos, humour, exaggeration, sympathy, tragedy and more. But when I showed the story texts to colleagues and invited them to share my enthusiasm I was immeasurably cast down. What they saw was, as one put it condescendingly, ’another of those charming African animal tales’, nothing of the artful complexity I had been moved by.
14The problem would, nowadays, be obvious. What I had experienced in the field was a performed art form whose full reality a transcript simply could not capture. My written reproductions did not convey the vivid characterisations enacted by the narrator, the drama, excitement, humour. They missed the arts of gesture, of facial expression, posture, and the play of that wonderful instrument the voice, with its modulations of volume, pitch, tempo, repetition, timbre, emphasis, dynamics. The sound effects of onomatopoeia, ideophones or silence were missing too, and the subtle double-voiced perspective by which the teller could convey an outsider’s as well as participant’s eye on the tale and its characters. And then there was the audience too, co-authoring the narration with its laughter, horror, amazement or support, and its participation in the songs that sometimes interspersed and structured the story’s action. No wonder the narrow one-voiced medium of writing gave such a crude impression. It failed to catch the substance - the multidimensional and multi-participant performance.
15I did get onto this aspect eventually; indeed it became a keynote of my own contribution. But it took me time to grasp a dimension that scholars nowadays would be aware of from the outset. One of the most important single changes over the last generation, it seems to me, has been the huge development of performance studies, evident in so much work on the oral literatures of Africa (and not just Africa, and not just ’oral’ either). Of course studies of textuality and the textual dimensions of our subject matter still continue -why not? They too raise important issues on which much new thinking has been emerging, encouraging us to be sensitive to dynamic processes not just fixed textual products. But the striking difference is that scholars no longer start from an apparently self-evident assumption that the script is the centre - the limited vision that underlay my early fieldwork.
16With a lot of help from others I managed to partially correct some of my initial failings before further publication - those of imposing my own Eurocentric definitions; downplaying individual creativity; or trying to compress multisensory performance into single-line script. By now these early misconceptions must appear very dated: significant signs of the changes since the 1960s.
17But a further mistake, one of omission, I have never been able to correct. During my fieldwork someone told me of a learned Arabic scholar living some miles away. I noted it down, but did nothing further. After all, the Limba were not Muslim and those in ’my’ village were little concerned with literacy in either Arabic or English (or anyway it was not part of their ’traditional ways’). I had plenty to do following up my Limba investigations, and no time or resources to go traipsing off through the bush for some extraneous individual, almost certainly not ’a Limba’. But I think back with shame at my lack of curiosity. My inaction was perhaps understandable in view of the practical constraints. What now shocks me is my assumption that it was irrelevant to my investigations: that, to put it at its cruder extreme, ’The Limba’ were self-contained, a tribal unit isolatable from other interactions, and that questions of literacy (above all ’foreign’ literacy) lay outside the anthropologist’s brief.
18My misconception is a good illustration of the change in outlook since then. A fieldworker nowadays might be in a similar position of not having resources for further investigation, but would certainly be alive to the dangers of envisaging ’tribal units’ as autonomous or of narrowing the gaze to the supposedly ’traditional’ and ’indigenous’. The canvass nowadays is broader. Issues to do with reading and writing are now fully accepted as relevant, and there is happily now a plethora of work on the written literatures of Africa and their relevance for oral literary forms - and not just in European languages but also, increasingly, in the monumental records in Arabic script in both African and Arabic languages which have played such an extensive role within Africa. In earlier years such works were in many contexts regarded as marginal, extraneous to the search for the ’truly African’. Now their relevance is increasingly recognised, set appropriately in the context of intercultural relations and crossing borders in the modern international world.
19By the same token the products of popular and contemporary culture are now accepted as part of the scene. I did not totally ignore such aspects in the 1960s, but certainly did not then think of radio or of globally-circulating popular song as particularly relevant for my fieldwork. Now such intercultural media are no longer automatically interpreted as somehow intrusive or strange, making inroads into authentic ’age-old tradition’, for scholars can take an interest in the full range of modern media and culture, from rap, calypso, or trade union songs to radio, film, or what used to be called ’mixed’ and ’hybrid’ genres, enacted in multicultural and transnational arenas. What a transformation from the narrower horizons of the 1960s!
20In the later 1960s I followed my ethnographic work on Limba storytelling with the more far-reaching Oral literature in Africa (Finnegan, 1970). Its intention was to give an account of the field as it was known at the time of writing (i.e. up to 1967) and I am happy indeed that it has been found of some use by readers over the years. But in the light of knowledge today I cannot fail to be aware of its shortcomings.
21It would take too long to follow all these up here or to even begin to recount the astounding work which has taken place over the years; we now know immeasurably more about the subject. Let me however mention one example, at one time a matter of heated debate - the incidence of ’epic’ in Africa. By now the passions surrounding this are largely a matter of the past. But it is worth returning to briefly to point up certain changes since the 1960s.
22The controversy revolved round my 1970 statement that, briefly, ’epic poetry does not seem to be a typically African form’ ((Finnegan, 1970: 110). I had actually been surprised to reach this conclusion for I had been confident of finding plenty of evidence about epics. But by the then definition - a long narrative poem - the sources proved elusive. I did certainly come on some possible cases and several attributions of ’epic’. But they often seemed ambiguous (perhaps because not fully enough described or recorded?). Many turned out to be very short, and/or to be totally or predominantly in prose, or to be praise rather than narrative. There were indeed issues to discuss further and some interesting exceptions, many of them as yet only sparsely described and demanding further research (something I hoped my comment might encourage), but overall the evidence seemed weak.
23I knew others too would be surprised that epics were apparently of ’remarkably’ little significance in African oral literature (Finnegan, 1970: 110). In the climate of the time many European scholars expected Africa to be brimming with epics, a genre then widely thought characteristic of ’non-literate’ or recently literate cultures, and as coming early in a society’s evolutionary development. The European privileging of ’epic’ - an evocative term associated with both the revered high culture of the classical Greeks and romanticist nationalist movements - had also resulted in playing down other genres. One result was to underestimate the great riches of panegyric poetry, itself arguably a distinctive and notably developed African genre for which there was already solid evidence in detailed descriptions and texts.
24In that context I cannot exactly regard my note as mistaken - not if taken as a summary of the evidence as it was then, judged by the then conventional definition. I had to call the evidence as I found it in the sources then available, the more so that it ran counter to common expectations.
25But could I - or anyone - assert that conclusion now? The resounding negative to that question is one measure of how the study of African oral literatures has developed since the 1960s.
26The most visible change is the massive amount of material that has been recorded and disseminated. Epic texts now figure large in the established corpus of African literature, represented in a huge range of publications, archives and private collections. One could even say that nowadays epic is the genre to collect and publish, a welcome contrast to the earlier preoccupation with stories and proverbs. Equally important have been the analytic advances, contributing not just to African studies but to comparative literature more generally. These include the closer analysis and more careful collection of the African texts, often clarifying the musical or poetic dimensions in their performed settings, together with critical rethinking of the long-assumed verse/prose distinction in ways that have wider relevance than just to Africa (for example Okpewho, 1979). The concept of ’epic’ itself has been challenged and extended in the light of African material, so that earlier texts can be reassessed in new ways. Not that the controversies are altogether closed. Debates fruitfully continue about issues of classification where the by-now well documented African cases are brought into play for both their own interest and their relevance for comparative literary theory (for example in Derive, 2002).
27I greatly welcome these new developments while still considering that my 1970 ’Note on “epic”’ was by the lights of the time a fair summary of the then evidence. But where I think I was if not directly mistaken then certainly limited in my vision was in sidelining apparently imported or ’fabricated’ cases. I implied that the ’Arabic-influenced narratives’ of the north and east were somewhat marginal, so too the Swahili translations from Arabic originals - they seemed not truly African. Perhaps the same kind of position underlay my subsequent critique (1981) of the recording methods shaping some of the claimed Congolese epics: syntheses of shorter episodes knit together by European collectors avid to find an ’epic’, even in some cases written by local assistants who knew what their employers wanted.
28I and others might take a different line now. Certainly it remains important to unpick the often uncritical or non-transparent approaches to ’collecting’ in the past and to the veiled power relations involved. But it does not follow that the resultant texts are of no interest or to be dismissed as ’un African’. By now we have moved away from the image of Africa as essentially static and oral, oriented to the past and in its true essence impervious to extraneous influence. I suspect that in my original reactions I was overmuch influenced by the idea of ’oral’ and ’original’ and overlooked a point that would now be obvious: that in Africa as in Europe there have been many literary forms, produced by a range of different kinds of authors, changing and interacting diversely over the years, and, whether written or oral or mixed, formulated through by a range of differing participants and motivations. Scholars of the literary products and processes of Africa now take a more historically-informed view. They point to the rise of new genres, to a mix of media, to the international connections in which Africa, like other parts of the world, has been actively involved - all part of the dynamic literary history of the continent.
29This of course links to the concept of the ’oral’, an area again where there have been shifting perceptions. In the 60s and 70s the eye-opening influence of Albert Lord and his followers together with the explosion of interest in ’orality’ and its implications seemed an amazing revelation. The intellectual rewards were all the more appealing for their moral and political overtones. Unwritten forms could acquire a validity before denied them; down-graded cultures and genres could now at last be treated seriously. The excitement sometimes led to exaggeration, even a somewhat essentialist and backwards-looking concept of ’orality’ which implicitly denied the importance of writing or change (something I was perhaps affected by in my attitude to the ’extraneous’ shaping of epic?). But treated more cautiously the concept of ’oral’ remains an important focus for scholarship. Nowadays it stimulates research not just in traditional ’rural’ settings but in the modern urban contexts of Lagos or Johannesburg or Paris, not just within the geographical bounds of African but throughout the wider diasporic cultures, interacting with writing and new media, and in intermingling languages and genres.
30The subject of oral literature has similarly acquired wider connections. It ties directly into the burgeoning and insightful perspectives of performance studies, of new approaches to text - of textualisation, intertextuality, and the dynamic processes of capturing and negotiating script - and of the problems of conservation and ownership. All these go beyond the confines of Africa. Gone are the days when ’Africa’ was seen as self-contained and the setting for ’simple’ traditional oral products, timeless and fixed. Now we see oral literary expression, both in Africa and worldwide, as diverse and varied indeed, multifaceted and dynamic and, like any literary text, with a complexity that lays it open to many differing approaches from a wide range of disciplines. Its study both draws from and contributes to wider comparative scholarship. Against these more multidimensional and open-ended sensitivities earlier more isolationist approaches now look dated.
31My own flaws can thus serve to illuminate some of the developments since that earlier period - a mini-case study illustrating how the subject has moved on. For this reason I have sketched the contrasts in fairly stark terms, to bring out the changes as I see them.
32But I must not exaggerate. These are trends rather than uniformities, and both then and now there have been many exceptions. There are always individuals and groups who creatively dispute conventional wisdoms and this was so in the 1960s as well as now. I think with gratitude of the many anthropologists, folklorists and literary scholars (among others) whose work or influence helped correct some of my early mistakes and prevent others. There have long been distinguished African scholars too like J. H. K. Nketia who, even if too often ignored, have raised challenging debates and conducted perceptive studies from which others could learn. Nor were the changes abrupt for there has been a whole series of developing and variegated work over the decades on which we still draw.
33There are some similarities, too, between now and the earlier period. One is the enthusiasm with which studies of oral literary forms have so often been carried out. This can be overdone, of course, feeding on the kind of patronising romanticism that ultimately demeans what it praises. But it is worth recalling that earlier scholars too could show an appreciation for oral literary forms and a serious attempt to collect them and encourage a wider knowledge of their existence. There has been a long-continuing tradition of scholarship, not confined just to academics, which takes the subject of study seriously: working at it, trying to use the appropriate technology and methods - changing without doubt over the years - and endeavouring to ’get it right’ and to advance and share insight. And since we all make mistakes and have blind areas in our interpretations - even, conceivably, the most up-to-date scholars of today? - it is good to note the preparedness over the years to change approaches or modify theories in the face of evidence and argument. This is not something new in the scholarly tradition of African literary forms, and is still something to be cherished.
34We must not, then, forget the continuities and similarities. Nevertheless the changes since the 1960s are still striking. The study of African oral literatures has in many ways been transformed. It is too large and diverse a subject to sum up succinctly but, meditating on my own experience, and not least the mistakes, I venture to summarise briefly what I would consider five major changes, plus one further addition.
35First and most obvious is the huge amount now known to scholars, collected and analysed by - among others - ISOLA members and their co-workers over the years. There are narratives, songs, epics, multi-media productions, broadcasts, political propaganda, oral-written intersections -and so much else, the field expanding to encompass changing and emerging genres as well as those once dubbed ’traditional’. And this on-going project is further aided (occasionally hindered?) by the developing technologies for collecting, analysing and preserving these literary products and processes.
36Second is an openness to the significance of performance. It no longer seems self-evident that textual transcripts fully capture the reality of oral literary forms or that their art lies solely in verbalised text. Performance in all its potentially multimodal dimensions has become recognised as a proper object of scholarship. It is an elusive and debated subject no doubt but one that is now visible to scholars in a way that had to be fought for a generation ago, giving a validity and aesthetic depth to what were once so readily dismissible as ’simple’; ’naïve’ African traditions.
37Alongside both those points there has been, third, an increasing appreciation of the complexities of oral texts. No longer seen as reducible to simple or single analyses, they are accepted, no less than written texts and in some respects even more multiply so, as richly susceptible to a range of insights: diverse, sophisticated, historically situated, multiply deployed, aesthetically charged, and so much else.
38This leads into what I would consider another notable change - a more widespread caution about the big generalisations. This is doubtless a trend across several academic arenas. But it is especially significant for the study of African oral literatures. Scholars do of course still generalise and consider theoretical issues - rightly so. But gone are the days when all can be attributed to grand blanket abstractions like tradition, tribe, evolution. Even generalised images like ’orality’, or ’Africa’ itself, are now pointed up by attention to cultural-historical specificities and diversities. In the 1960s it took me some time to realise I needed to elucidate ’The Limba story teller’ with an account of individual personalities and creative processes. Now, as in so many of the presentations at the 2008 conference, this would be nothing out of the way. Nor is the once homogeneous image of ’the African’ as typically rural, traditional, unchanging any longer uncritically accepted. Today research in Africa’s oral literatures extends to urban contexts, the diaspora, and contemporary developments: accepted themes in much current work.
39For the study of the oral literatures of Africa the fifth point is equally significant: its international setting. A common view when I started was of Africa as the domain of isolated, unchanging and separate ’tribes’, each with their long-established traditions and languages. Now we are fully aware of the continent as marked by historical interactions and intercultural relations. There is a widening recognition of the importance of written forms in Africa with their connections both within and beyond the continent: the study of oral literature now rightly interacts with that of writing - and of writing as an African not just an ’imported’ practice. Unlike in earlier decades students of African oral literatures include in their field the study of popular culture and media, no less internationally linked for being practised in local and regional settings - and vice versa. The conference theme of ’crossing borders’ has never been more relevant. In the study of the oral literatures of Africa we have come to be aware of cross-world movements, transnational diasporic cultures, and international links not just along colonial or ex-colonial lines or just with Europe or America but with India too and the Middle East. Africa is part of the global arena, a significant dimension in the contemporary study of her oral literatures and literary arts.
40There remains one further factor, a more general one. The world of scholarship itself has changed. In the 1960s one could not have conceived of a well-peopled conference on the oral literatures of Africa, nor was such a subject an accepted field of scholarship. Now it is. It is a focus for interdisciplinary study, attracts an impressive number and diversity of scholars, and is linked illuminatingly to other scholarly fields where its contribution is a rich and relevant one: in comparative literature, film studies, popular culture, music, performance studies. But more than that, and perhaps even more strikingly different from the 1960s, is the change in perspective. Knowledge about Africa used to be ’owned’ by western scholars. Africa yielded up the data but it was for Europeans to provide the definitions and the analysis - principally for their own interests but perhaps eventually, after processing, to be given to Africa rather like ’overseas assistance’ (as neatly expressed in White et al, 2001: 17). What a change there has been. Now we recognise that the field is equally owned by African /Africanist scholars wherever and whoever they may be - and by the creators and upholders of African oral literatures too, not just the academics.
41There is much to celebrate in the changes over the last decades. But it would be misleading just to end on a note of congratulation. There is still so much to do - to study, to collect, to store, to win appreciation for, to remain responsive to the changing and diverse wonders of African literary forms. There is still the need to engage in the international world of scholarship, still battles to fight for recognition, communication, and preservation. No scholarly field is free from controversies and difficulties and there are particular constraints around the study of African oral literatures, not least for those scholars within the continent with limited access to scholarly resources. It is not always easy - but, unquestionably, worth the struggle.
42In short, the conference aspiration of crossing boundaries is indubitably a realistic one - the oral literatures of Africa are indeed on the world map nowadays in a way they were not in the 1960s. But they can be more so still. The boundaries still have to be challenged and the need continues for the wonderful on-going energy of ISOLA and its scholars.