Nigerian Literature: Oral and Written Traditions

Laura C. Gardner '94, EL 32 [Semester I, 1990]

Wole Soyinka's A Shuttle in the Crypt, contains poems such as "O Roots!" and "When Seasons Change" which obviously hark back to Nigerian ancestry and folklore. The poems' geographical and generational African references prompt an investigation of the literary traditions of Soyinka's nation. Nigerian literature has a long history in the oral tradition. Bade Ajuwon's article, "Oral and Written Literature in Nigeria," found in Nigerian History and Culture, explains:

Pre-literate Nigeria once enjoyed a verbal art civilization which, at its high point, was warmly patronized by traditional rulers and the general public. At a period when writing was unknown, the oral medium served the people as a bank for the preservation of their ancient experiences and beliefs. Much of the evidence that related to the past of Nigeria, therefore, could be found in oral traditions.

Although most Nigerians knew and could recount parts of their genealogy and local history, only a few oral artists had the skill and stamina required to chant the lengthy oral literature. The oral artists, freelancers or guild-associates, enjoyed reverence as "keepers of the people's ancient wisdoms and beliefs." These oral artists frequently entertained their audiences dramatically, providing relaxation and teaching moral lessons. In Yorubaland, "as a means of relaxation, farmers gather their children and sit under the moon for tale-telling. . . .The telling of stories is used by narrators to instruct the young and teach them to respect the dictates of their custom: as a result, a large body of moral instruction, of societal values and norms are preserved for posterity by the Yoruba."

Western influences began affecting Nigerian literature as early as the eighth century AD when Arabic ideas and culture were introduced to Africa. During the fourteenth century, written and spoken Arabic flourished in northern Nigeria and by the seventeenth century, some Hausa literature had been translated into Arabic. Christian missionaries accelerated the importation of western education into Nigeria during the nineteenth century. Some native black Moslems met the threat of white Christians with protests in poetry. Aliyu dan Sidi, for example, utilized the oral literature tradition to write poetic protests against the missionaries. However, other Yoruba authors, such as D.O. Faguna and Isaac Delano, wrote novels promoting the missionaries and teaching the Christian religion. Although Faguna and Delano offered Christian religious instruction and preached acceptance of western ideas, both relied heavily upon their ancestral folktales in creative writing. Faguna's pieces in particular "show and extensive use of proverbs, riddles, traditional jokes and other lore central to Yoruba belief."

In various parts of the country, novels developed around 1930. Centered upon fantastic, magical characters of humans and fairies, Hausa novels, called "non-realistic novels," were based on folktales. The "mysterious" characters transmuted into other beings; fairies, animals, and humans all conversed among one another. Of Muhammadu Bello's fantasy novel Gandoki, Ajuwon comments, "One is led to say that the book is a reduction of Hausa oral tradition to written literature." In the 1930's, Igboland also saw a growth in the number of novelists who expressed the distaste of their people for the Christian missionaries. While poetry of that persuasion emphasized religious devotion to Allah (shunning the Christian god), Pita Mwana's 1935 prize-winning book, Omenuko, shows the style of a anti-missionary "didactic intention" underlying a fantasy novel.

A major shift in literary style from fantasy to realism resulted from the founding of the University College of Ibadan in 1948. The calls for a new literary style came from scholars educated in the western tradition at the University. Conferences, journals, and newspapers urged the shift to realism; when the Ministry of Education sponsored a novel-writing competition in 1963, "the kind of story they wanted to see was the story that dealt with the kind of things we could see with our eyes in Nigeria today." Yoruba writers of the time reacted appropriately, eliminating the fairies in favor of human characters, omitting the animal-to-human conversation found in the non-realistic literature. Leaving behind group-specific references and literature styles, the authors worked with broader themes. "Thus a new literary tradition was being adopted by many Yoruba novelists; they dealt with such universal themes as religion, labor, corruption, and justice; they employed human characters and concrete symbols."

More Nigerian authors meant more authors writing in English, including Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, details the tragic disintegration of Igbo clans upon the arrival of the Europeans. Igbo folklore saturates the novel, preserving the African elements despite the English prose. Kofi Awonoor comments, "These [Igbo] proverbs are intricately woven into the fabric of his style, completely absorbed to the extent that they constitute one of the most significant features of his totally African-derived English style." With the publication of The Interpreters in 1965, Soyinka earned his international reputation as a novelist, although later, he became better known for his drama and poetry. The poetry in the collection A Shuttle in the Crypt, echoes with elements of older Nigerian literature. The repetition found in "O Roots!" recalls the ritualistic chanting of the oral literature. Both "O Roots!" and "When Seasons Change" dwell upon the images of ancestral generations and the souls of ancient Nigerians, reflective of the purpose of the oral literature of keeping family and local histories alive. Although Soyinka's poetry in A Shuttle in the Crypt encompasses many themes and techniques of modernists, it, nevertheless, reverberates with the Nigerian oral and written literary traditions.

From Bade Ajuwon, "Oral and Written literature in Nigeria," Nigerian History and Culture , Richard Olaniyan, editor. (Hong Kong: Longman Group Ltd, 1985), pp.306-318, 326.

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