The World and the Word
Tales and Observations from the Xhosa Oral Tradition
Publication Year: 1992
A master storyteller of the Xhosa people of South Africa, Nongenile Masithathu Zenani gives us an unprecedented view of an oral society from within. Twenty-four of her complex and beautiful tales about birth, puberty, marriage, and work, as told to the renowned collector of African oral tradition, Harold Scheub, are gathered here. Accompanying the stories are Zenani’s detailed commentaries and analyses and Scheub’s striking photographs of her in performance. The combination of these historical and cultural observations with a richly symbolic collection of tales from a single traditional storyteller make The World and the Word a remarkable document.
“The storyteller’s materials are simple,” Zenani told Scheub, “the world, and the word.” She presents to us the entire world of the Xhosa people, how they first came to be, the origins of their customs, how they order their world and deal with transgressors, how they manage all of life’s transitions from birth to death. She depicts both the world as it exists and as it is shaped in the words of the storyteller. Inheriting tales from the Xhosa tradition, Zenani has transformed them into imaginative new stories marked by her own artistry.
Scheub’s introduction to The World and the Word discusses Xhosa oral tradition and Zenani’s particular characteristics as an artist within that tradition; Zenani’s personal history and her work as both a storyteller and a healer; and Scheub’s friendship with her and his role in recording her legacy.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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This collection of stories and observations by Nongenile Masithathu Zenani provides an unprecedented view, by a gifted intellectual and artist, of an oral society from within. During a period of two years, from 1968 to 1969, and again from 1972 to 1973, I worked with Mrs. Zenani, taping and filming her repertory of...
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Storytellers have always been innovative, and they have always been imitative. This need not be seen as a contradiction. Oral performers have routinely relied on tradition, as they have typically worked within two realms, the world of the immediately perceptible and the world of the imagination. The latter is the link to...
THE ART OF THE STORYTELLER
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...Here are the first reports that we have regarding our emergence as a people. Our elders, our ancestors, describe the origin of humans in this way. In the beginning, it is said, the first human came into being naturally. He achieved form as a human being; he quite clearly was a person. He came to be regarded...
Part One: Birth
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Storytelling, said Masithathu Zenani, is a sensory union of image and idea, a process of recreating the past in terms of the present; the storyteller uses realistic images to limn the present, and fantasy images to evoke and embody the essence of the past. These latter, the ancient, fantastic images, are...
COMMENTARIESTHE START IS A MAN, AND A MAN TAKES A WIFE
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The start is a man, and a man takes a wife. When he has a wife, he fathers children. This is the wayan African raises children ... When a wife becomes pregnant, during the sixth month of her pregnancy she begins to take a purifying medicine. This medicine is usually placed in a gourd...
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Masithathu Zenani's Analysis: The image is the basic unit of storytelling. Typically, the images, real and fantastic, are visualized or sensed actions, concrete and vivid, that the performer seeks to evoke in the imaginations of the members of the audience. Images are ordered in linear ways, as the storyteller moves her characters from conflict to....
Part Two: Puberty
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A performer of oral narratives utilizes the materials of his or her culture much as a painter uses color. The analyst must therefore not mistake the cultural elements found in such narratives for direct reflections of the culture itself. There are few one-to-one relationships between the events in the performances...
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Time passes, the baby grows and grows, until it becomes an older child. When she is a child, a little child, she begins to go to gatherings of children. She visits other homes; occasionally she is scolded. When she is remiss, she is called a vagabond...
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Masithathu Zenani's Analysis: The storyteller here emphasizes the necessity of a child's absence from home during the puberty ritual, as well as the consequential role played by nature in the process. Among the Xhosa, the circumcision ceremony for boys occurs in a remote place, away from their homes. They remain in that isolated condition for the duration of the ritual while they assemble the knowledge...
Part Three: Marriage
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Time is a key to understanding the mechanics of this aesthetic system, Mrs. Zenani said. She discussed at some length the different temporal experiences that occur in her performances. Real time is independent of the performance, for example, and within the work of art is narrative time, chronological...
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Regarding the marriage of a young woman: when a young man wanted to take a wife, he went and asked for the young woman at So-and-so's place. The family was told that it was fitting that this young man get a wife. No young man would ever say to a person older than himself, "I want a wife." It was...
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Masithathu Zenani's Analysis: This is a story about Mityi (see also Tale 23, "The Tree That Could Not Be Grasped") who, in other tales in Mrs. Zenani's repertory, is an epic hero. In this story, Mityi plays a melancholy character who is treated badly by her stepmother. This is what moves this tale: two parallel positive patterns are paired against a negative pattern. The most obvious repetition, the first pattern, connects Mityi to her...
Part Four: Maturity
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Contemporary images and the physical bodies of the members of the audience are introduced into a closed world of art. Anything considered superfluous by the artist is omitted, as images from the real world dramatically touch ancient images and gestures fertile with compressed experiences. Gesture is now harnessed to thought, to feeling, not to physical action. Gesture now...
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...This is how the Xhosa set up their homesteads: A man takes a wife, and they leave the premises of their parents' homes, preparing now to establish their own homesteads just as their fathers and mothers did before them. The man's first duty is to dig the foundations of the house at the appropriate site. He digs the foundations. After he has finished the digging, he seeks poles and cross...
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...A certain man married two wives, a senior wife and a junior. Because she was excelled by the junior wife, the senior wife was jealous. She longed for something that would help her to surpass the junior wife. This younger wife became pregnant, and she gave birth. While the junior wife...
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...If a young person happens to become sick and die, no more would be done for him than is done in the case of the death of an adult. According to Xhosa custom, a grave is dug for a person, and his body is placed into the hole. If he is sufficiently grown to be carried, others transport his body to the grave. If...
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Publication Year: 1992