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  • Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent
Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent. Edited by John William Johnson, Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Belcher. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. xxii+331 pp. $35.00 cloth; $14.95 paper.

Epics were rare in Africa, or so it was thought. Back in the thirties H. Monro and Nora K. Chadwick announced in their monumental comparative study The Growth of Literature (1932–1940) that “they have not found any trace of developed narrative poetry in Africa.” They attributed this paucity of material not only to the state of the record but, more significantly, to the lack of “sustained efforts on the part of the [African] composer or reciter.” 1 Twenty years and a war later, C. M. Bowra, an equally distinguished scholar, stated unequivocally that “African tribes have in general no heroic poetry,” attributing this lack to the failure of the oral poet outlook which is “limited to the actual present, and [his failure to] conceive great events in objective setting.” 2 By that time empirical evidence began to mount and refute any preconceived notions about the creative inability of poets and performers in Africa. In 1967 Jan Knappert surveyed the publication of epics of the Ankole, Bushong, Fulani, Hoausa, Luba, Malinke-Soninke, Nkundó, Rwanda, Songai (Songhay) and Swahili, 3 but three years later Ruth Finnegan chose to ignore these texts, and adhering to a strict criteria of length and verse, argued again that “epic hardly seems to occur in sub-Saharan Africa.” 4

Though controversial and questionable when made, this statement inspired students of oral traditions to restate the occurrence of the epic form among the African peoples through surveys and analyses of already available texts and intensify their effort to record additional oral singers. 5 The present anthology builds upon this surge in African epic studies. While it includes a substantive amount of texts that scholars recorded in the fifties and the sixties, the majority of the excerpts draw upon epics that have come to light since the seventies. The editors, all experienced scholars in African epic research, selected twenty five texts, excerpted them and divided them into three geographical regions: West Africa (19 texts) North Africa (2 texts) and Central Africa (4 texts). Epics from either East or Southern Africa, certainly problematic areas as far as epic [End Page 259] poetry is concerned, are not in this volume. Similarly absent is any reference to Ibonia, an epic from Madagascar that has been available in print in Malagasy since 1877 and has been recently translated into English. 6 As it is, the anthology is heavily weighted toward Francophone West and Central Africa. Evidently, in making their selection of sub-Saharan texts, the editors adhere to John Johnson’s designation of the “African Epic Belt” in his, by now classic, essay, “Yes, Virginia, There is an Epic in Africa.” 7 Consequently, they exclude any epic text from regions outside this proposed “epic belt,” with the notable exception of two Egyptian fragments of the Bani Hillal poem—the only Arabic epic that is extant in current oral tradition.

Omissions and additions notwithstanding, the present volume is a testimony that not only the oral epics is alive and well in Africa, but also that its study has come of age. It is no longer subject to hair splitting arguments among scholars about generic definitions, distinctive features, external influences, and medium of composition. The texts in this volume confirm the position of Africa in the global epic tradition. Recorded from present day narrators and singers, the vibrant orality of the epics in this anthology could not be challenged, nor does it require the testimony of any taletelling signs that would evidence its oral origins. As a pedagogical tool, Oral Epics from Africa offers textual support for a growing popular recognition of African epic poetry and its heroes. 8 As a textbook it is designed to appeal to American students in courses on African and comparative or world literature. A general introduction addresses some of the principal issues in epic research in Africa, and each section and each excerpt is preceded by an informative note that documents the text and underscores its position in the history and literature of its people. A bibliography that both selects from and supplements an existing bibliography 9 and a detailed index make this anthology a starting point for further research well suited for class-room use and beyond.

Yet, the reading of the excerpted texts is accompanied by a nagging suspicion that in the processing of these dynamic texts for the American student palate, the editors muted some of the poignancy of oral performance. If the anthology serves the readers as a short-cut by which they would avoid the original texts, this literary packaging would be somewhat premature; if, on the other hand, the exposition to these abbreviated texts would entice their readers to explore the original editions of these epics, the anthology would fulfill its purpose.

Inevitably, the anthological packaging compromises the quality of the texts. This becomes apparent in the omission or modification of some literary features of performance as well as in the abbreviation of the plots. [End Page 260] Fortunately, the editors have retained the verbal texture of the performed epics and represent in print the narrative oral discourse.

Opening and closing formulas establish the epic performance modality and the singer’s relations to the text. Therefore it would have been preferable had the editors retained them in the excerpted poetic narratives. One of the more recorded and published epics in Africa is the foundation narrative of the Mali empire known variably as “Son-Jara,” “Sunjata,” or “Sundiata.” The orally recorded texts begin with a proem in which the narrator announces his topic with a series of praise names for the hero, emblematic actions, and genealogy that establishes his own reputation. 10 In another performance the singer identifies himself and confirms his own authority to tell the story. 11 When John Johnson originally published The Epic of Son-Jara in 1986, he was careful to include and interpret the introductory segment of the epic, even though a Western reader might have deemed it irrelevant. However for the present edition he excerpted the epic and began the poem with line one hundred fifty-five, omitting its proem, thereby eliminating a feature that is quintessentially oral and performative.

Unfortunately, the editors truncated many opening and closing formulas of these epic poems. The few that survived the editorial cutting urge reveal at least three modalities of performance. In the first, the singer opens with a presentation of self, as in the “Epic of Hambodedio and Saïgalare” when the singers announce: “Now, we—Hamma Diam Bouraïma and Ousmane Amadou Ousso are from Time, / But I, Hamma Diam Bouraïma, I am from Koysa—/We are going to record a little” (149). In the second, he turns immediately to the narrative, as in “The Epic of Silâmaka and Hambodedio” which the singer opens by introducing the major characters of the story: “Here is another story about Silâmaka, ardo [ruler] of Macina, and Poullôri, ardo of Macina. / Silâmaka’s father had become old . . . “ (172). A third modality is a function of the occasion of public gathering and involves a blessing or an informal invocation of God and His Prophet. Similarly, the closing formula establishes not only the singer’s end of the story, but the limits of the narrator’s knowledge, as the singer of “The Epic of Silâmaka and Hambodedio” signs off: “That is what I know. This is the end of their story” (184). Other formulas might have demonstrated the diversity of possible relations between the narrators and their narratives.

There are other deletions throughout the texts, abbreviating the epic and simplifying them for the reader. Clearly marked, the editors “pass forward” and skip sections of the performed epics that are as small as five and as long as a thousand lines. In the original version, The Epic of Son-Jara [End Page 261] has three thousand eighty lines, ending with a formulaic closure “let us leave the words right here.” In the excerpted version the editors truncated the text at line two thousand eighty-five. To be sure, all the eliminated texts are duly summarized, enabling the reader to follow the logical sequence of episodes. But there is more to oral performance than narrative logic. The repetitions, the digressions, the allusions to situational occurrences and cultural ideas and symbols are all parts of the performed epic in Africa. They are not meaningless; rather, they are the substance of “deep language,” to use an idiom prevalent in many African cultures. The linearization of the performance into straight plot sequences lulls the reader into a deceptive ease in comprehending complex texts. The anthology format necessitates these abbreviations, but a good reader should reach out for the fuller available representation of epics in print.

In contrast to the abbreviated plots, the editors rigorously represent the singers’ performance style and verbal texture. They preserve the poetic features of oral delivery such as poetic lines, high frequency of dramatic dialogues, and, at times, even the musical interludes and the audience responses. From that perspectives the African epics offer a demonstration for performed literature, which in other oral cultures required poetic restoration. For example, in the study of the oral literature of the Native Americans in the North West Cost, Dell Hymes sought out the poetic structure of performance that previous anthropologists ignored. Through painstaking grammatical analysis he constructed the poetic lines and the segmentation of delivery. 12 In the African epics, modern recording technology eliminated the need for reconstructive ethnopoetics.

Last but not least, the present anthology expands the boundaries of comparative thematic analysis. Tale types and narrative patterns that have been known mainly in Asian and European literatures turn out to have an African presence. In comparative folklore research the quest for European analogues in the African folk-literature is a long-standing trend. 13 Focusing on the African epic texts, the editors have avoided any discussions of literary analogues, but the implications for comparative literature and folklore are apparent in many texts. For example the Soninké “Epic of Wagadu” is in part a version of Tale Type 300, “The Dragon Slayer,” in which the hero saves a sacrificial maiden from the clutches of a monster. The standard comparative index does not include any reference to any African versions of this tale, 14 but in Africa this theme is known in other societies as well, and in some cultures, such as that of the Edo (Benin) people of Nigeria, it is an integral part of their history. 15 The primary motivation for the protagonist’s action in the Mande “Epic of Fa-Jigi” is a maternal incest. In his survey of Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later [End Page 262] Analogues, Lowell Edmunds includes only one African tale to represent Africa, and even that text is from Madagascar, 16 and in a collection of essays about this theme he and Alan Dundes could not find any that deals with this theme in Africa. 17 In “The Epic of Fa-Jigi,” the maternal incest occurs not as a result of ignorance of identity, but a because a seductive mother who is sexually attracted to her son initiates it. The son, rather than the mother, is tormented by guilt and, seeking atonement, he goes on pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon his return he becomes a hero who establishes the social and religious institutions for his people. The comparative analysis of the African epics that is most challenging concerns the biographical pattern of the hero. In the thirties, Lord Raglan formulated a model for the universal cultural hero that consists of twenty-two narrative elements. 18 For him, Oedipus was the figure that fit most this ideal model; all other cultural heroes scored less on this scale. The African heroes approximate and deviate at the same time from the model of the universal hero. For example, Son-Jara’s mother is not a princesses, as is the mother of the universal hero that Raglan constructed, but rather a daughter of a sorcerer. Son-Jara thus derives his magical power and protection not from the ruler, the normative authority of social order, but rather from its inverted figure and from the subversive source.

In conclusion, the present anthology is a textual introduction to a challenging epic tradition. It re-affirms the occurrence of the epic form in Africa, presenting it as dynamic literature that is performed by present day singers and narrators. Some of them appear in festive social occasions, others made a transition to mass media and appear on their local radio and television stations. Wherever they perform they are an integral part of African societies, and their literary creativity is part of world literature.

Dan Ben-Amos
University of Pennsylvania


1. H. Monroe and Nora K. Chadwick, The Growth of Literature (Cambridge UP: Cambridge UP, 1940) 3: 501.

2. C. M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1952), 12.

3. Jan Knappert, “The Epic in Africa,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 4 (1967): 171–90.

4. Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970) 108.

5. See Isidore Okpewho, The Epic in Africa (New York: Columbia UP, 1979); Daniel P. Biebuyck, “The African Heroic Epic,” in Felix J. Oinas, ed. Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World’s Great Folk Epic (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978) 336–67.

6. Lee Haring, trans. and ed., Ibonia: Epic of Madagascar (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1994).

7. Research in African Literatures 11(1980): 308–26.

8. Guida M. Jackson, Traditional Epics: A Literary Companion (New York: Oxford UP, 1994).

9. David Westley, “A Bibliography of African Epic,” Research in African Literatures 22 (1991): 99–115.

10. John William Johnson, The Epic of Son Jara: A West African Tradition. (Bloomington: Indiana UP), 100–04.

11. Gordon Innes, Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, U of London, 1974) 41.

12. Dell Hymes, “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1981).

13. Erastus Ojo Arewa, “A Classification of the Folktales of the Northern East African Cattle Area by Types.” Unpublished Dissertation (Berkeley: U of California, 1967); Kenneth W. Clarke, “A Motif-Index of the Folktales of Cultural Area V. West Africa.” Unpublished Dissertation (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1958); Lee Haring, Malagasy Tale Index, FFC 231 (Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1982); May Augusta Klipple, “African Folk Tales with Foreign Analogues.” Unpublished Dissertation (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1938); Winifred Lambrecht, “A Tale Type Index for Central Africa.” Unpublished Dissertation (Davis: U of California, 1967).

14. Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folktale: Classification and Bibliography, 2nd edition, FFC 184 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1961), 88–90.

15. Jacob Egharevba, A Short History of Benin, 3rd edition (Ibadan: Ibadan UP, 1960), 5.

16. Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985) 216–20.

17. Lowell Edmunds and Alan Dundes, eds., Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook (New York: Garland, 1984).

18. Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama. (London: Methuen, 1936. Reprint edition: New York: Vintage Books, 1956).