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  • When Orature Becomes Literature:Somali Oral Poetry and Folktales In Somali Novels
  • F. Fiona Moolla (bio)

The concern of this article is with the transformations that occur when what is variously termed "orality," the "oral tradition," "oral literature," or "orature" is incorporated into literature in the context of Somali culture. While most sources use these terms interchangeably, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan novelist, in a lecture titled "Oral Power and Europhone Glory," stresses a subtle distinction of meaning between "orature" and "oral literature." Ngũgĩ notes that "the term 'orature' was coined in the sixties by Pio Zirimu, the late Ugandan linguist."1 Ngũgĩ observes that although Zirimu initially used the two terms interchangeably, he later identified "orature" as the more accurate term, which indexed orality as a total system of performance linked to a very specific idea of space and time. The term "oral literature," by contrast, incorporates and subordinates orality to the literary and masks the nature of orality as a complete system in its own right. For this reason, "orature" is the preferred term in this article.

What this article proposes is that the particular relationship of the spoken word and script in Somali culture points clearly to the need to reconsider and revise our understanding of the oral-literate "dichotomy." Other oral traditions likewise testify to the need to reexamine assumptions about orality and literacy, including the idea of a teleological progression from an oral to a literate world, but in a slightly more occluded form than in the case of Somali orature.

The Somali experience suggests very strongly that the most profound transformation does not occur when orature encounters writing. The dominant assumption that writing represents a radical departure rests in part on the idea that an aligned worldview between artist and audience is required to understand an oral form but that this is not required to comprehend the [End Page 434] written text. What I claim here is that insofar as shared meaning may be constituted in either a written or an oral form, a shared interpretive horizon is implied. This interpretive horizon, furthermore, implies a more profound shared understanding than a limited conception of language as textuality. The interpretive horizon embraces practices and codes, which derive ultimately from tradition and its engagement with the transcendent. This dimension of my argument is deeply informed by the insight of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor across the range of his work but most especially in Sources of the Self.2 Although I do not cite Taylor repeatedly, my understanding of what constitutes the fundamental transformation in the transition from "oral" worlds to the world of print capitalism is influenced by Taylor's insight that the significant move defining modernity is the individual internalization of social codes that create meaning. Thus, the most significant social and cultural change is not associated with writing per se. The most profound transformation occurs instead when orature encounters the form of writing that claims that the apparent multivocality and plurality of writing and the written text itself constitute the highest virtues. The idea of the openness of writing inheres in the notion that script allows an irony and sophistication constitutively impossible in oral forms. In The Nature of Narrative, which considers the changes in narration over historical time, Robert Kellogg and Robert Scholes argue that it is only with the development of writing that the author, rather than the narrator who is the instrument of tradition, may emerge.3 What the case of Somali oral verse demonstrates is that authorship and the irony attendant on authorship is a constitutive possibility in orature also. What makes irony in the genres that develop with print capitalism different from irony in oral and script traditions is the fact that here irony itself and the polysemy to which it leads come to constitute the higher order. The novel is the cultural form in which this development takes its clearest form.

I use Somalia and its orature as a case study in which misconceived assumptions about the oral-literate "dyad" can be most clearly identified. But in this respect Somalia is representative not only of North and Eastern Africa, where "oral" societies have coexisted...


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