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Research in African Literatures 31.4 (2000) 97-103

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Oral Traditions and Material Culture: An East Africa Experience 1

Sultan H. Somjee

In this paper I explore the relationship between oral traditions and material culture. Specifically, the paper draws attention to methodological points in researching and writing an ethnography that combines the two disciplines of material culture and oral traditions. The examples that are referred to are from Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushitic cultures of Eastern Africa. The people mentioned are the Akamba, Maasai, Rendille, and Kalenjin groups. The first point is about being conscious of the language as the medium of research, analysis, and presentation of the research. In the field I encounter ethnic languages and Swahili, and I must write my ethnography in English. There is the triple language play that becomes a methodological issue as well. The subjects are native speakers of ethnic languages who often also speak Swahili as their second language. The information is gathered by my informants in ethnic languages that they share with the subjects. It is then re-told to me, the ethnographer, in Swahili, and we have discussions in Swahili on the data. I write in English, as it is the language of academic discourse in East Africa and at international venues.

The second point is about analysis of data. Data from the field are analyzed using methodologies from academic traditions of art/design, anthropology, and oral literature to construct an ethnography that in turn combines specific topics, namely, material culture and oral literature. Using art and design tools I analyze an artefact systematically into its elements such as shape, color, texture, materials, craft techniques, and its functional properties. For example, how the shape of a pot relates to storage of grain or carrying of water in a homestead is a design issue. I analyze the sizes and forms that make the stomach and seat of a clay pot and work on anthropomorphic human-product information, which is again a matter of design. My next step would be to elicit proverbs, songs, and narratives that refer to the art and design elements of the object of material culture such as a pot. Here I enter the field of oral literature.

The third methodological point relates to seeking information on the cultural contexts of material culture and oral traditions. This is done by exploring and noting the associated cultural meanings of artefacts and how the shape, materials, and functions of the objects as well as the proverbs, songs, and narratives relating to the objects are perceived within the culture that produced them. This process leads to the making of an ethnography that combines the disciplines of oral traditions, material culture, and anthropology. Ethnography has that space to contain areas in art/design and oral traditions, for they both touch on culture. For example, some ethnic groups in Kenya such as the Akamba compare the pot to the womb in its roundness and fullness that relate to mother's domain of care and as the provider of food and life. Hence the pot's presence is associated with sacredness, as life is considered sacred in African traditional belief systems. [End Page 97] A parent may show her feelings and severity of the situation, as it happens among the Akamba, by touching the cooking pot when chastising her child.

For purposes of gathering data, the object for me, the ethnographer, is the primary source of information because my training and research experiences have been in material culture. Oral traditions are my secondary sources. In proverbs, songs, narratives, and prayers I search for direct references to material culture and indirect references to the object at the metaphorical plane through references to its elements and components. There is a semiotic link between the visual and oral modes of perceiving and expressing knowledge.

This visual-oral knowledge link, for example, manifests in spectacles of the arts. The ritual chant of the diviner that evokes the power of the gourd often draws on visual symbols and the embedded voices within the gourd that are heard in the rattle...


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