Oral literature is a work of art passed from generation to generation through word of mouth to mirror life and exhibit to an -appreciatable degree the artistic characteristics of observation, vivid imagination and ingenious expression.


  • It shows beauty and exemplifies creativity.
  • Its raw material is language whether spoken or written.
  • Has a message more often than not meant to correct.



Utilizes word of mouthCan be changed( elastic)Performed]Societal affairInvolves physical artifactsUtilizes written wordStaticReadIndividual affairRarely does it involve this


  1. Entertainment to all classes of people in the society e.g Isikuti dance among the Luhya

Isikuti dance

Vuyanzi x2

Vuyanzi vuyanzi eeh!

Jane mbee mkoye kwanje.

The song comments on happiness that is prevalent in the community hence calls for a celebration mood.

  • Explains mysteries beyond human understanding through myths which explain some phenomena e.g origin of life and


  • To nurture and cultivate linguistic competence and pronunciation e.g tongue twisters


   “Omoro naagete omonto omoro omotwe igoro igoro” (Gusii)

     English: Omoro hit somebody with a panga on top of the     

     head yesterday.

  • Helps to reach the audience’s inner motives through performance strategies e.g the Kiswahili song “kifo hakina huruma”

e) It enhances physical fitness especially among the youth

    through children accompanied by dance e.g

Row row row your boat x2

Gentle down the stream x2

Merrily merrily merrily merrily,

Life is but a dream.

f) It enhances rendering of specific beliefs and philosophies of a

   particular society. This is achieved through the use of  

   proverbs e.g

                               “Nyenki ya nja ndirikaga” (kikuyu)

                          English: The grass that grows outside ones homestead is not

                    palatable. It was told to ladies who have lacked marriage    

           partners in their locality to look for them far away.

g) A tool for persuasion especially political persuasion through  

    the use of propaganda songs e.g “Yote yawezekana…” or         

    through a proverb e.g

   “Tochia korimi mwabande otige mwao gekoyia” (Gusii)

      It literary means that you can’t extinguish fire in     

     somebody’s house while your own is on fire. It is used to  

     persuade people to vote for candidates from their own


h) Educating and preserving the values of a community for

    future use by successive generations for the sake of culture   

    continuity. This is most evident in proverbs e.g.

  • Totwara eng’iti otanyare goita(Gusii)

Literary meaning: never hunt an animal you can’t kill.

Application: Discourages people from initiating projects they can’t accomplish.

  • “Jaber kasambu” (Luo)

Literal meaning: Beautiful ones are prone to danger.

Application: Advices beautiful ladies to be careful when dealing with relationship with men so that they make right choices.

  • “Moyekune sasuriet sondili e moen keru” (kipsigs)

Literal meaning: Never cut a tree under which you have sheltered from rain.

Application: people should not despise those who helped them to achieve what they intended

  1. It enhances our creativity and oratorical prowess.


  • Oral narratives
  • Proverbs
  • Riddles
  • Tongue twisters
  • Children games
  • Songs
  • Oral poetry

          A narrative is a prose story created in ones mind purposing on lives of people, events and places which may be real or fictional and it is passed from generation to generation basically by word of mouth


  1. Moral values.
  2. Chants, sayings and songs.
  3. Simple plot and a major topic of discussion e.g. theft, injustice or immorality.
  4. A narrative is an account around a character i.e. people or animals e.g. in a story about the hare who refused to dig a well, we have animal characters.
  5. Normally has a conflict.
  6. Repetition and personification.
  7. Sequence i.e. they start with stating a tale and it can’t end until the crisis is resolved.
  8. Opening and closing formula e.g. once upon a time and that is the end of my story respectively.
  9. Gestures during performance/presentation.


  • As a source of entertainment for many.
    • Identification and continuity of culture of a people.
    • As a form of education.
    • For continental unity.
    • It is a means of socialization; both as a means of bringing people together and integrating younger members into the community’s way of life.


They are classified on the basis of:-

  1. Social function.

        Some entertain whereas others warn, educate or discourage certain vices in the society.

  • Content.

        This is what they are about or what they entail e.g. in dilemma narratives where a character is faced with two situations that are tough to decide which one to take.

  • Characters

        E.g. animal tales contain animal characters and monster narratives contain a monster character.

  • Plot

Sequence of events in a story.


  1. Legends.
  2. Aetiological/explanatory narratives.
  3. Animal tales/fables
  4. Dilemma narratives.
  5. Myths.
  6. Human hero.
  7. Trickster narratives.
  8. Ogre/monster narratives.
  9. Human-animal tales.

       Legends are stories about:

  • Historical events, experiences and developments which have had major effects on the lives of people e.g. famine, drought, diseases and warfare e.t.c.
  • Memorable people who had unusual supernatural abilities and were capable of performing beyond ordinary human understanding e.g. leaders, warriors, medicine men/women e.t.c.


Lwanda   Magere

He was a hero in a narrative of the same title and an invincible Luo warrior. He was very strong and he remained a mystery to his people even his wives. Almost single-handedly, he organized and led successive battles against the Lang’o. The Lang’o in an attempt to unravel the mystery and superhuman powers of Magere, offers him their beautiful daughter for a wife.

 As in the Solomon-Delilah style, it this foreign wife who discovers the source of his strength (his shadow) and betrays him to his clansmen who pierces it (the shadow) leading to Magere’s death. In this narrative, Magere performs feats beyond ordinary human ability by leading his clansmen (Luo) in successive victories in wars against the Lang’o.


  • Revolve around historical figures/heroes and events.
  • Actual time and date of events and developments narrated may not be specified but rather indicated by phrases e.g. long time ago, once upon a time e.t.c.
  • Language, tense and mode of presentation create a feeling that the events are divorced from the present age yet not too far removed.
  • Due to repeated transmission from generation to generation they acquire an element of fantasy


         They are stories which try to give the reason for the origin and existence of certain phenomena by answering the questions why, when and how something or an animal is the way it is e.g. why zebras have strips, why hens scratch the ground e.t.c.


Why hens scratch the ground

     The hen and the hawk are reputed to have been good friends, usually sharing their belongings mutually. However their friendship hit a snag when the hen lost a razor she had borrowed from the hawk for the purpose of shaving her chicks. The hawk promised to pick hen’s chicks until the time the hen will return the razor. In an attempt to find the razor, the hen therefore scratches the groundeverywhere.


  • Offers explanations without directly involving the gods, spirits or other supernatural powers.
  • Simple in structure/ easy to follow.
  • Meant for amusement especially for children.


     These are stories in which characters are animals; they talk, behave and lead their lives like human beings. Also there are some circumstances where non-living objects lead their lives identical to that of human beings. Through them, human vices and weaknesses are satirized or virtues extolled without directly pointing to specific individuals whose behaviors correspond to those of characters in the tale.


The hyena and other animals on a visit

          Hyena, the supposed bridegroom and other animals paid a visit to his in-laws who planned a pompous ceremony for the visiting party. After platefuls of delicious meals, rounds of drinks and merry making in form of dances, the hosts and visitors retired to sleep. In a twist of events, a sheep was found missing in the morning and after investigation the hyena is found to have blood smears in his mouth. The hosts were prompted to drive away the disgraced in-law and his accomplices.


  • Involve animal characters i.e. characters are primarily animals.
  • Has covert meaning which the reader/listener must unearth if he is to gain something from the tales.
  • Interesting to read and to listen to.
  • Teach knowledge, wisdom and social attitudes important ti the society.


   These are stories where characters are forced to make a difficult choice, thus faced with a dilemma but the decision the character makes usually doesn’t give him the desired/expected results.


A man, his son and the squirrel.

       This is a story of a town whose occupation was catching squirrels. A man and his son set to catch a naughty squirrel that has evaded everybody else.

 When the trap was laid, the father left it under the supervision of his son who unknowingly, loses the trapped squirrel through another unstopped hole. Upon return, the father was so infuriated that he stroke the son unconscious, only to be saved by an impotent headman who takes him as his son.

       After a long time, the father appeared and demanded for his son, much to the objection of the headman, who inadvertently had had told the king that he had acquired a son and had proved this by paying many horses.

      On the father’s insistence, the headman takes the father and the son and tells him to kill one of them (father or headman) and the story ends.


  • Situations presented are difficult and sometimes require ethical, moral or logical judgment to solve them.
  • They are meant to raise critical and sound judgment and debate among character/ listener.
  • Normally told to elderly people to make them make wise decisions.


        These are tales tinted with religion, superstition and traditional beliefs about the origins of mankind and other phenomena. They depict the origin of phenomena such as death, creation, human beings, tribulations, thunder and lightening, birth and procreation. Others give explanation for the existence of certain rivers, lakes, stones, rocks, e.t.c.


Why man dies and does not live again; aMaasai narrative]

         One day Nairetu-Rop told Le-eyo that if a child were to die he should say “man dies and comes back again, moon dies and remains away”. A child died soon but it was not one of Le-eyeo’s. He decided not to say what he was told to say and instead said, “Man dies and remains away, moon dies and returns.

       One day, his child died and he said, “Man dies and comes back again, moon dies and remains away, but it was too late. Since then, once man dies, he never comes back but moon comes back. This is how death came about.


  • They often have a supernatural power or a god as one of their charactershence they are also referred to as religious narratives.
  • They explain mysteries which lie beyond human understanding.
  • They have a variety of  moral lessons



        In these stories, characters are primarily humans. The hero/heroin makes concerted efforts to overcome his/her problems and obstacles through performance, hard work and strength until he/she achieves the desired objectives.


  • Characters are primarily humans.
  • They carry moral lessons.
  • There is no mention of the hero’s name.


            These are narratives which often center on the complex and an interesting character who can be a human being, an animal or semi-divine pranksters who usually set out to deceive, trick or ridicule others around him.

      Tricksters are usually small but use their cleverness guile to satisfy their own impulses. However sometimes they may fall victims of their own tricks and may bring about good to their victims without intending it. In some instances a trickster is a culture hero who may use his cleverness to destroy monsters, bring about new customs or bring new knowledge for members of his society.


The chameleon and the donkey

        One day the chameleon and donkey were arguing as to who could run faster than the other. The donkey said, “Chameleon you are very slow, you can’t compete with me in a race.

        Chameleon insisted that he would defeat the donkey in a race and if not the will be equal. The race began and the chameleon jumped on to the donkey’s tail. They ran until the donkey was so tired that he stopped to rest.

 As soon as the donkey stopped, the chameleon jumped from the donkey’s tail and said, “Now my friend donkey, who is faster than the other.


  • A trickster narrative is polyvalent i.e. it can be interpreted in many ways.
  • The trickster is usually smaller than the dupe.
  • It has a social significance e.g. it helps a society to realize that deceit exists in the society.


               These are narratives revolving around characters that are neither human nor animal but are rather a creation of human imagination. These ogres are thought to be evil and inhuman for they are always seen to cause harm to people.

Communities refer to them differently e.g. Kikuyu call them marimu, Luhyia-amanani and Luo-ondiek/opul pul. The ogres kill and eat people indiscriminately and often result to horrible trickery to achieve their goals.


 Ewoi and the ogre.

     Once upon a time there was a young man called Ewoi whose main work was to look after his father’s cows in the forest. Although he was warned not to go beyond a certain point, one day, he took the cows deep into the forest in search of wild berries.

 Suddenly, an ogre appeared and asked him why he was eating its berries but Ewoi was so scared to answer, the ogre then ate Ewoi and the cattle.

      When darkness fell and Ewoi was nowhere to be seen, villagers armed themselves and went to look for him in the forest. They found the ogre who had eaten Ewoi sleeping, having satisfied himself on Ewoi’s flesh. They killed the ogre, slit its stomach open and all the cows and Ewoi came out.


  • They contain a moral lesson i.e. not to cheat.
  • Characters are human beings and ogres.
  • Involve revenge by human beings for the evil done to them by the ogres.


         These are narratives which have both human and animal characters but which do not fit into several tale types as seen. The animal and human characters in the tale have close interaction with each other and in some types an animal character may even marry a human being.

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The foolish hyena.

    Once upon a time there was a foolish hyena who used to steal cattle from a certain village. One day people decided to kill it. The armed themselves and waited for it. When it appeared the men gave it a chase and the hyena ran into the fields where it met a woman and requested her to hide it under her dress. She complied and when the men arrived and asked her if she had seen the hyena, she denied and the men continued with their chase.

 Sure that safety is guaranteed, the hyena emerged, thanked the woman and lamented that it was hungry. Since there was no immediate meat for it to eat, it insisted on eating the woman despite her objections. It eventually ate her.


  • Familiar and capable to refer to his culture and environment to enliven the narration and make it appealing to the audience.
  • Good memory for accurate retention and narration of a large corpus of material.
  • Knowledge of audience and its needs so as to determine the type and technique of delivery.
  • Ability to establish rapport with the audience to create free and informal atmosphere.
  • Fluent in language and has mastery of right vocabularies for all levels of audiences and narratives.
  • In a position to create and employ multilevel approach.


  • Active audience­­­— one that participates fully in the narration


  • Passive audience— one that only listens to the narration and

                                      does not participate fully.


          A proverb is a statement full of hidden meaning accepted and used by a community as an explanation of truth or wisdom.


  • Jatelo ogongo gwaro (Luo)

English: the leader gets scratched by ogongo thorns.

This proverb may be used to talk about a leader who is facing difficulties in his task of leadership on behalf of his subjects. It depicts leadership as a sacrifice and not just a bed of roses.

  • Meippur oloing’oni too muruen are.(maasai)

English: A bull cannot bellow in two settlements.

This proverb means that a person can only be a master of one territory and should never trespass into others which also have their own masters.

  • Biakuura bitiherago cnhuku (meru)

English; bought food cannot fill the granary.

Wise sayings

      A wise saying is said to be figurative reference to an event, a situation or an entity. They can also be said to be short expressions or phrases which are informally included and incorporated into ordinary speech.

     Most wise sayings are used when a group of people intend to exclude one or another group from their reference point when they are referring to one of them and do not want to hurt the person.


  • Ngielo orengo (Luo)

Throwing the fly whisk.

A wise saying to death

  • Nionua mburi kuguru (kikuyu)

He has broken the goat’s leg

Wise saying to mean impregnating a woman.


  • The main difference between a proverb and a wise saying is thus seen from the examples above that the latter gives reference to what is with us.

        For example in the Kikuyu wise saying, the impregnation of the     

       lady is within the immediacy of the speaker while the former gives a

      judgement on an experience e.g. in the luo proverb atonga mayot

emiyombogo koth (it’s with a light basket that one flees the rain), there must have been an experience by the speaker and he/she is passing judgement on the same.

  • The other difference lies with the structure in that proverbs are full statements with clearly defined parts of proposition and conclusion while sayings are short expressions or phrases.

             So far we have seen the difference between a proverb and a wise saying and we also admitted that the two genres share all other aspects hence we will now deal with these other aspects uniformly.


  • Compact.

        Proverbs and wise sayings use the fewest words possible or we can say they conserve words.


Ja kuoth ki it (Luo)

     The gossip never ages.

They use few words as compared to normal speech where one could say that the person who is fond of gossiping takes a longer time before he gets old.

  • Pithy.

        Pithy here means that the proverbs and wise sayings are full of vigor and meaning. In other words they have the ability to excite our imagination and give us an insight in a situation.


Ng’a mioro ema pielo chieth maduong (Luo)

Whoever goes for errand passes bigger feces.

Kwa mwendwa gutiri arima (kikuyu).

On the way to ones beloved there are no hills.

Due to this its interpretation depends on:-

  • The observation of phenomena.
  • Application of phenomena to a situation.
  • Allusive.

                  They refer indirectly to history, stories and institutions, which are well known in the tradition. In other words they use language symbolically. Some are historical having base in the events that actually happened.


 Ukabi ni muhunu mutu (kikuyu)

The Maasai have had their…full of flour

Esifuna omukasi osilia namayino (luhyia)

What a woman has harvested, you will not eat it in peace.

  • Have folk wisdom

         They have hidden meaning. In most cases the intended meaning of proverbs and wise sayings is often different from the literal meaning of the words used.


 Mautye moset katwalet (kalenjin)

A monkey never forgets how to jump

          Mominchorimi tang’ana mosera ibu (ekegusii)

         He who walks in the dew is not the same as the one who warms

        himself in the morning.

  • Informal.

         Proverbs and wise sayings are incorporated in most of our day-to-day conversations.

  • Communal.

         Proverbs and wise sayings mostly apply within a given community, which in most cases is a tribe. This is due to the language used and reference to phenomena only to the community using them.


              Fulu bondo oro ngege (luo)

              Small fish can also send Nile perch.

                These (small fish and Nile perch) will only make impact to the Luos and fishing communities but not others.

                Muici na kihhi angaga kieha kiarua (kikuyu)

                He who lives with a boy will live in fear until the boy is circumcised. This also only appeals to the circumcising communities.


  • They add color and liveliness to narratives and other forms of utterances when incorporated in them.
  • They are vital in appreciation of oral literature and also African beliefs, attitudes and points of view.
  • They are regarded as the backbone of the whole body of performance since narrators, recites and singers usually use them to enrich their performance.
  • They are considered to be a mark of adult wisdom and experience.
  • They are essential in commenting on real life situation in a polite way by use of euphemism (expressions which use gentle, soft terms instead of simple words which are shocking, embarrassing and brutal)


           Proverbs and wise sayings may have no rigid classification but scholars try to organize the corpus based on the following criteria:-

  1. Alphabetical classification.

        The corpus is arranged using the first letter of the first word in the proverb and the subsequent letters in their alphabetical order.

Example (proverbs beginning with m)

  • Mari mbere matirutaga nyota (kikuyu)

                Run-by water does not quench thirst.

  • Monguchige kimagei somisyo (kalenjin)

               A hyena cannot smell its own stench.

  • Moni tsia mweya tsilangula nitsilutsi (luhyia)

              A bride’s eye pretends not to have seen

This system is used by G. Barra in 1000 Kikuyu proverbs and S.S Farasi in Swahili sayings.

  • Content or thematic classification.

Proverbs and wise sayings are grouped according to subject matter. The themes can include politics, religion, kinship relations, love and friendship e.t.c.



Jatelo ema otenga gwaro (luo)

The kite just scratches the leader.


Kilemba cheupe si kumcha mungu (Swahili)

A white hairdress is not fear of God


Wat en wat(luo)

Kinship is kinship

  • Functional classification.

        Proverbs and wise sayings can also be classified according to their functions which include.

  • Warning.

Jatelo ogongo gwaro (luo)

The leader is scratched by the vulture.

Misifukaji imirat emtim (Maasai)

Do not follow the vanquished into the bush.

  • Summative

            Kanyama gake gakora bokima kee (ekegusii)

a small piece of meat finishes a plateful of ugali

Mutenge rania na mutengerio gutiri utanogaga (kikuyu)

Both that chases and the chased become tired

  • Normative.

         Okwa esilubi olakwa esikaye (luhyia)

         Better fall like a basket than like an earthen plate.

  • Aesthetic.

          Opek (luo wise saying)

        She is heavy for she is pregnant.

  • Stylistic/structural classification.

This is based on the form of expression and stylistic features. under this category we have:-

  • Directives

          These comment on situations, describe, sum up or are intended to convey some idea to targeted people. They point out the nature of events and hence express the perception of the speaker about the events e.g.

Huni nene igiraga huhita (kikuyu)

Eating too much leaves you with a swollen belly.

Emut oljurtuenkup (Maasai)

The worm can destroy a whole plant.

Bul pek ji duogo (luo)

The drum is heaviest on the return journey

  • Epigrams

These are longer usually amusing proverbs and wise sayings which express some clever thought.Characteristically, epigrams draw analogies between phenomena. These exist in at least two parts.


Ero ti ileny mitki chieng itwo (luo)

Now you are oily-shine may you one day be dry.

  • Allusions.

These refer to an event that took place in the society for inference.


Igeno lep kanyakeno (luo).

You are hoping for the tongue at nyakeno’s place.

This is based on an occurrence where an elder refused to eat at his place and going for a party at Nyakeno’s place as he expected to eat the tongue of the cow(a favourite meal of the elders in the luo parties) only to come back having eaten nothing.


        Basically there are four main functions of proverbs and wise sayings as elaborated below:-

  • Aesthetic function.

          Proverbs and wise sayings are used to embellish verbal communication. This is supported by Achebe’s constant use of the saying “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.

In this context, proverbs and wise sayings make verbal communication more interesting and colorful. This is achieved through the following ways:-

1) Getting the message across more strongly

2) Involving the audience by challenging their conceptual and inference abilities.

3) Entertaining the audience by breaking monotony of sentences used.

         Proverbs and wise sayings in this aspect also make speech lively. This function mainly involves humorous proverbs such as:-

Jakuodho oyie dhaw (luo)

The air polluter is ever ready for a fight.

  • Reflective function

         Proverbs and wise sayings also act as a mirror through which the society looks at itself and conveys its past wisdom from past experiences its attitudes and through processes


Mburi yene mwuita ni gutu (kikuyu)

The best part of the goat is the ear.

 Kukopa harusi kulipa matanga (Swahili)

Borrowing is a wedding and returning a funeral

  • Normative function.

          Proverbs and wise sayings are also used to remind people of what the society considers noble or ignoble. In other words, proverbs and wise sayings are used to correct, caution, advice, admonish, console, counsel and advice.


Muicii na kihii atigaga kitha kiurua (kikuyu)

He who steals with a boy will live in fear until the boy is circumcised

Mucingu munonoi unaga hiti kuguni (kikuyu)

The scent of roasting meat broke the hyena’s leg

Opuk pek ne otenga (luo)

The tortoise is too heavy for the kite to carry.

  • Summative function.

          Proverbs and wise sayings are also used to summarize experiences. Such proverbs are mainly used by artists and other communicators to underscore the point they are putting across.    Examples.

Rumo kitam (luo)

Depletion is never prevented.

Dhungo iro ok e tedo (luo)

Emitting a lot of smoke doesn’t imply cooking.


        Rendition is a term used for the delivery or performance. It refers to the use of proverbs and sayings specifically the setting, participants and procedure.

  • Procedure.

           Proverbs and wise sayings have no specific formula for their delivery as they are incorporated into normal speech. As such they are very flexible in application since one can throw in a proverb or a wise saying at will as long as it is relevant to the context of the speech.

          They are also informal thus cannot have a formalistic structure. This is mainly to avoid detailed explanation and instead one gives the audience a proverb or a wise saying and leaves them to work out the meaning thus in the end, the audience will have a total picture of what was intended.

Proverbs and wise sayings are also uttered in an instance since they are terse unlike songs and narratives that take a lot of time.

  • Performer

         When talking of the performer in wise sayings and proverbs, the focus is not on who monopolizes it because none does so (the rendition is mostly in dialogue where all parties take part)

 but who predominates on their use such as:-

          In traditional African setting, use of proverbs and wise sayings was preserved to the elderly as it was believed that only this class had the wisdom and experience enabling them the use of such.             

      This was and is still done when the elderly were educating the youths for example when a mother could be educating her daughter on the dangers of sexual liaisons, she would incorporate a proverb or a wise saying that discourages the vice e.g.

   Inyende oyiliira mulwoba (luhyia)

   If you eat mushrooms, you are sure to eat mangoes.

          Proverbs and wise sayings were and are still used by public figures in their speeches. Public figures such as leaders, teachers, preachers, politicians and other professionals will always want to create an impression in their audience that they are wise and have good oracy skills. For this reason they will use a lot of proverbs and wise sayings when delivering their speeches.

          The kind of proverbs and wise sayings used by these people will depend on their intention such as to show wisdom, pull crowds, influence/move crowds, instruct, defend themselves and even belittle others


Kuri gakua murio ta kigwa (kikuyu).

There are people who like sugarcane and are killed for being sweet.

Can be used by these figures to defend themselves.

Yien motamo onger idho bim diidhi (luo)

A tree that a monkey can’t climb, can a baboon climb?

         This was used by Raila Odinga during the 2002 general election campaign to belittle the then Ugenya M.P. James Orengo who was vying for presidency.


         A proverb or a wise saying has no specific time or place in which they should be used as they are open for use whenever two or more people are engaged in communication. For this reason, rendition of proverbs and wise sayings is not possible in the absence of an audience.

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       As much as these forms are informal, certain factors must be looked into especially by the performer for them to be effective. These factors include: –

  • Setting.

     Most proverbs and wise sayings touch on sensitive aspects of human life and thus their use will majorly depend on the place and occasion


Owakania akebirira owakasena sakebirira (luhyia)

The person who excreted it may forget it, but he who sreps on it cannot.

This proverb cannot be used when people are eating.

Rumo kitamo (luo)

Depletion is unpreventable.

Cannot be used where a tragedy involving loss of property has occurred as it will be assumed to be mockery.

  • Audience.

      Before one uses a proverb or a wise saying, he/she should consider the composition of the audience in terms of age, gender, tribal background, religious background and even physical ability or disability.                                                                                  For example old people feel uncomfortable when feeble bones are mentioned in a proverb and any other audience will feel offended when a word in the proverb or wise saying seems to touch them in the negative side thus those who use proverbs and wise sayings should not talk of leprosy when a leper is around.


Kilemba cheupe si kumcha mungu (Swahili)

A white hair dress is not fear of God.]

This proverb should not be used in the presence of Christians who use the white hair dress.


          A riddle is a short saying intended to make one use his wits in unraveling a hidden meaning.


  • Brevity.
  • Invariable. i.e. don’t change in meaning and structure.
  • Compact i.e. convey a great deal of information using few words.
  • The aspect of informality.
  • They are puzzles posed to be unraveled.
  • Requires at least two people who test each other’s wits.
  • They involve allusions, symbols and images.
  • Normally have a specific formula.
  • Most riddles are metaphors e.g.

         Mwarabu kava kilobit (Swahili)

         An Arab wearing a turban.

         Answer: kigunzi

                       A maize cob

          Here, the maize cob is presented as if it were an Arab. It also ascribes the cob to the aspect of being dressed hence making the reference a personification.

          Another image in riddles is apostrophe whereby an object that is absent is addressed as if it were present e.g.

          Muthungu kumerera (kikuyu)

          Whiteman crawl

Answer: ndogo


  • Most riddles exist in balancing parts e.g.

Challenge: endi hano khandi endi yilia (Batsoso)

                   I am here and I am there

Response:  eshiinini

                  The shadow

 As can be seen, the first part “I am here” balances with “I am there”. This structural aspect of existing in balancing parts is called parallelism.


        Riddles are classified according to:-

  • Form.
  • Content,
  • Length.
  • Style/structure.
  • FORM.

                        Form classification deals with the question “how”. They are transmitted by word of mouth and therefore have an oral form.


           Content classification deals with the question “what”. It refers to the subjects, ideas, people, objects and situations i.e.:-

  • Those about nature.
    • Those about body parts.
    • Those about heavenly bodies.
    • Those about technology.
    • Those about domestic animals.
    • E.t.c.

         Under length, we have two classes.

  1. Those uttered in one breath or single expression.


Challenger: ushey japans lidku dhaaf (Somali)

                    I left my smooth and nice stick on the


Respondent: mas.


  • Those delivered as a series of statements.


Challenger: there was a mother with three children. She              brought two oranges for them but she wanted the youngest two get the largest share without annoying the     other two. What did she do?

Respondent: she gave the oranges to the elder two and told each to give a piece to the youngest. They each gave her half an orange and she ended up with a full orange.


               Under this category we have:-

  • Declaratives.
    • Interrogatives.
    • Epigrams.
    • Phonologies.
  • Declaratives.

                       These are riddles posed as statements which are declarations  

                       of the concept at hand e.g.

            Challenger: muthigari ahituka na tai (kikuyu)

                               a policeman has passed through in a tie

            Respondent: ngigi


  • Interrogatives.

These are riddles posed as questions e.g.

Challenger: eshiitsanga munzu nishi? (Luhyia-Batsoso)

                    What is bouncing in the house?

Respondent:  eshimuka shia amabeere.

                     The churning gourd.

  • Epigrams.

       These are riddles which present a series of puzzles within one. They display a distinct poetic and discernable correspondence between the challenge and the response. They are normally numericals.


 Challenger: nyatiende ang’wen mobet e wi nyatiende ang’wen ka rito nyatiende ang’wen. (Luo)

            The four legged sitting on the four legged waiting for the four legged.

Respondent; paka mobet e wi mesa karito oyieyo.

                      A cat sitting on the table waiting for the rat.

  Sub-categories of epigrams.

  • Analogues- riddles which have a linear comparison which makes the correspondence direct like the one above.
  • Sleuths- riddles which are longer and has a question at the end.
  • Phonologies.

                                   These are riddles which use sounds to imitate and portray the behaviour, characteristic quality of the object and situation of idea referred to.


  Challenger: aaa to! (Gusii)

  Respondent: oboterere. ( Slipperiness.)

          Riddles which imitate sounds are called ideophones i.e. we get the answer from the “sound” (phone)


        Riddles have no specific performer and audience but they were and are normally performed by children during the evening or daytime whilst daytime chores.

        The performance of riddles requires at least two people. One to offer the challenge (challenger/proposer) and the one who responds (the respondent)

        Riddles normally have an opening formula which:-

  • Sets the riddling mood.
  • Terminates the on-going activity and directs the mind to the riddle.
  • Causes the audience to take the activity serious.
  • Identifies the parties involved.
  • Announces the coming of a riddle.

Examples of opening formula

Challenger: kikoiko (riddle) –basoga of Uganda

Respondent: kidhe (let it come)

Challenger: tangoch (may I say a riddle) –kipsigs

Respondent: ichot (say it)

Challenger: getandagwiri (riddle) –abagusii

Respondent: tega (say it)


        There are three stages involved in the performance of riddles:-

Stage one

 It is basically the opening formula whereby;-

  • The challenger invites the respondent.
  • The respondent agrees to take the riddle.

Stage two.

 This stage is the main body of the riddle whereby:-

  • The challenger poses the riddle.
  • The respondent offers an answer

Stage three

N/B: This stage only occurs if the answer given in stage two is wrong.

  • The challenger asks for a prize.
  • The respondent makes a prize offer.
  • The challenger accepts the prize.
  • The challenger gives the correct response.


  • Instilling cultural norms to the people in the society.
  • For social commentary and entertainment as most have humour and satire.
  • They aid in communication as a way of introducing, developing or concluding a lesson in a given subject area.
  • They acquint the young mind of the participants with compact knowledge of the environment and socio-cultural activities of people.
  • As an appetizer as they are performed before a narration begins.
  • They act as a record of change as it comes.

N/B:  Riddling accords one a chance to abuse and be abused without taking                  

         offence. Thus, we can get egocentric riddles such as:-

         Challenge:  nikanini lakini mwenyu ndakasinda kiwi. (Kamba)

                          A small married woman who cooks better than your mother.

         Response:  Nzuki.



         Tongue twisters, like riddles, proverbs and wise sayings, fall under the category of short forms of oral literature.

        According to The Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary, a tongue twister is a word or phrase that is difficult to say quickly and correctly. It hinges mainly on both alliteration and assonance.

       Nandwa and Bukenya look at tongue twisters as word games that are mainly associated with the young.

       Tongue twisters require the speaker to utter without hesitation or faltering a sequence of words with peculiar problems of articulation. The words themselves are jocular in nature and part of the ‘fun’ of performing tongue twisters lies in the likelihood of distortion of utterance due to the articulation problems that will result in distortion or confusion of meaning.


  • They are characterized by alliteration (the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of two or more words occurring close together in a sentence.


Kala kaka kaku kaka kokie kwakwa kala kaka kakwa kaka ke kwaku (kamba)

That female kaka of yours came to my place when that female kaka of mine was at your place.

  • They pose a problem to the speaker especially when saying it quickly.


Wale wale watu wa liwali wala wali wa liwali (Swahili)

Those very people of the headman are eating the rice of the headman.

  • Sometimes they carry specific messages or meanings and in this case they may be said consciously or unconsciously depending on the information being passed across.


Thogota thogotera muthogoto (kikuyu)

Please make me a cigar.

Other times they are quite meaningless. That is they are composed solely for entertainment.


Atud tond atonga tond atonga chodi (dholuo)

I tie the rope of the basket the rope of the basket breaks.

  • They may be composed of a single sentence.


Mosongo akabogoria obosongo akagenda bosongo agaita omosongo (ekegusii)

Mosongo carried poison, went to Bosongo town and killed a white man.

Or made up of several sentences


Chieu chieu chieo chiege

Chiege chieu chwako chae

Chae chiek chieng chiro

Chieg chieu chieo chieu

Madho chae                    (dholuo)

    Chieu wakes up, wakes up his wife. His wife wakes up, prepares tea. Tea gets ready on a market day. His wife wakes him up to drink tea.

  • It is difficult to translate them without losing the alliterating quality they posses.


     Olakhalaka khaje khesilaka! (Lunyore)

      How he is tearing to pieces my piece of cloth meant for mending!

  • In some communities, a tongue twister can have more than one meaning.


    Nandwa and Bukenya associated tongue twisters with the young members of the society who provided both the performance and the audience. However, tongue twisters were and are still said by both the young and the old members of the society who have mastered the language well.


         Tongue twisters have no opening or closing formula. The performer merely lets his audience know that he wishes to say a tongue twister after arranging the words with the same or almost the same starting sounds and then says it quickly. He may decide to say it again slowly depending on whether he wishes his audience to learn it. Sometimes tongue twisters can be in the form of songs, which are sung.


        This can be made up of young and old members of the society, as well as strangers to the society. Tongue twisters do not pose a problem to the audience which may call for answering. Rather it calls for the audience to be listeners and imitators of what the performer says. The audience, mostly active, tries to repeat what the performer says but at a low speed and then faster after some practice.


        Tongue twisters can be performed at any place and time. In the past however, the old members of the society interacted with the young around the fireplace in the evenings where tongue twisters formed part of the entertainment exercise. Today, tongue twisters are said everywhere where human beings are gathered. The youth say them at school or when performing less concentrating chores like looking after cattle.


  • For entertainment. When one party is unable to pronounce some words well or correctly and hence ends up saying obscene or meaningless words, it causes laughter to the listener.

             The repetition of sound creates a kind of delightful and music     

        party because the listener anticipates the performer to stumble over a  

        sound and then end up with a distorted or embracing utterance.

  • They test the performer’s fluency and ability to articulate sound. This forms part of language mastery training.
  • They make serious comments about the society and environment from which they have been structured.


Lungu rawo luor liel liel luo rawo (dholuo)

     Hippopotamus goes around the anthill goes around the hippopotamus.

         This shows that there are hippopotamuses and anthills where this    

      tongue twister is set.

  • They are used to sharpen wit especially in meaningful context.
  • They are important for socialization. Children come together from different backgrounds and perform them as games. Older members of the society can also join in the performance and socialization exercise of tongue twisters.
  • They are, in many ways, the root of the more complex forms of oral literature. Pre-occupation with sound is the major foundation of proverbs, poetry and oral narration.
  • They pass on cultural values, beliefs and traditions of the society.
  • Some tongue twisters communicate coded (hidden) messages


          Vandu vagumba valira vutswa vasike ki? (Maragoli)

           Those who have not produced are only crying; whom will they   


      This means that the barren have no children to boast of.

  • They assist in improving ones vocabulary (word selection and diction) with continued usage and practice.
  • They help to promote creativity in organizing and coming up wit similar sound patterns.


          Akawala akaawa kaawa kaawa akaawa ka wa?

          The girl who gave Kawa bitter coffee where is she from?

  • They engage children and others in spending time in a meaningful and constructive way other than engaging in destructive activities.
  • They enhance the skill of oratory because one gets experienced to give a coherent speech.
  • They are used to express feelings of love, distaste or disgust.


           Kirigu kihungu kina kiroda kia ndira kirahaisa kihingo ta kihii  


           A huge uncircumcised girl, manner less girl with an everlasting

           wound, scales the gate like an uncircumcised boy.

  • Due to their short nature, they are useful in situations where lengthy may not be necessary.


      Tongue twisters contribute a lot towards the development and growth of oral literature. This is because oral literature is based on the spoken language and the main function of tongue twisters, as we have seen, is to train on language fluency and mastery.

      They are also part of a large collection of oral literature genres that are used in transmission and development of the African values, culture, traditional beliefs and practices fro one generation to another through the word of mouth.



See also  English Set books Questions and Answers

   Oral means transmitted by word of mouth. Poetry is the expression of imaginative feeling by a work of art using versified language.

   Oral poetry thus is the concrete and artistic expression of human mind in emotional and rhythmic language by word of mouth.


Delivered by word of mouthFlexibleSpontaneous in composition and delivery   Involve many people in composition and deliveryInvolve dramatization and use of accoutrements  ReadFixedTake a process in composition and delivery is normally afterwardsMore often than not an individual affairDoes not involve this    


           Neither all poems are songs nor the vice versa is true. Songs are usually in verse but not all verses can be poetry as others are devoid of poetic features. On the other hand, singing is only one way of delivering poems. Poems can also be recited or chanted.


  • Court poets­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­—found in traditional kingdoms of Africa.
  • Freelans and wandering poet—a poet who moves from place to place

                                                               preparing to meet an audience. He 

                                                               can perform to anybody and can            

                                                               praise anybody for material gain.

  • Religious poet—limited to religion.

                                      Performs religious poetry

  • Part-time poets—a less professional poet who do not posses full time  .                             literary skills 


  • Religious poetry.
    • War and hunting poetry.
    • Work poetry.
    • Lyrics.(romantic)
    • Topical and political poetry-report on current news.
    • Children poetry.


  • Irony.
  • Alliterations.
  • Idiophones.
  • Onomatopoeia.
  • Rhyme.
  • Repetition.

NOTE: The style or poetic features used in oral poetry are the same ones as

             those used in written poetry.



         Basically performed to mark child birth. In many African societies, childbirth called for celebration because it was a sign of continuity of generation.


        Songs sung by immediate caretakers for the baby, using smooth or pleasant sounding words, to send it to sleep.


        Traditional songs that were and are still sung and performed during initiation ceremonies to transform one from childhood to adulthood.


       Songs sung to give praises to people who have been victorious in the society. They might have done something which was hard to come by and was good to the society as a whole.


            They are the opposite of praise songs. They are songs sung to make fun of somebody because of his wrong doing to make him appear silly or foolish.


         Songs sung for enjoyment during leisure time, rural gatherings or beer parties.


         They were sung mostly in traditional African societies to accompany various chores in the society. They were sung to make work easier and ridicule lazy people


        These were sung to create political awareness or for political mobilization, for social protest against social inequality based on racial discrimination and also for political uniformity/indoctrination.


         Songs sung by medicine men in the course of performing magic related chores to his/her client to seek magic solutions to the problems of the client.


        They were sung to derive demons away from a home or a community at large which were believed to bring curses to the community.


        They can be divided into courting and wedding songs. Courting songs were sung during the process of trying to win affection of a loved one whereas wedding songs were sung during the actual day of the wedding.


      Songs sung in words of extreme beauty and romance to express happy feelings to the loved one. They may also be sung during the loss of a loved one.


         These are songs performed during funeral ceremonies and memorial rites.


         Songs sung to praise God or gods for the fortunes brought to the society or to ask for blessings.


  • Communication of messages often directly.
  • For cultural roots—in terms of mode of that dress (costumes), mode of dance and purpose of the song.
  • For catharsis that is the releasing of emotional tension.
  • For socialization i.e. as an agent of bringing people together.
  • As a form of education. From them, we learn the culture, norms, history as well as religion of people.
  • They are used to mock social deviants with the view of correcting them.
  • For subtle criticism on leaders, without directly pointing an accusing finger.
  • In most communities, certain songs are forms of prayers.

     These are games performed by children during leisure time.

Characteristics of children games

  • They are creations of children themselves.
  • They mostly contain songs.
  • All children are normally involved.
  • They have unwritten rules but which are followed by all participants.

      Importance of children games.

  • They teach the young people on the division of labour in households.
  • They instill discipline.
  • They prepare the young people for leadership.
  • They create unity among the young, a quality they need even in their adult life.
  • Through them, children are kept physically, mentally and socially fit.


     In order to acquire concrete experience in oral literature, the starting point is going out to the field, watching, listening and where possible participating in the live performances.

     It is the collecting of data from the field for analysis and study. Data is the specific information that we gather from the resource people in their natural settings, and in line with the objectives of our study.


  • So as to experience oral literature in its first hand state. What we read is only 2nd hand (secondary)

          Thus, when we go to the field, we actually see and feel what we    

     otherwise read in books. Take the example of songs, in the field we  

     see the dance patterns, the mood, the occasion and we also feel

     through participation. Actually oral literature without performance is

     incomplete. Such performances are found in the field.

  • To verify facts and to investigate the justification of differences in performance of same work by different artists.
  • For historical reasons— given that oral literature is not static, research at a particular time will offer the researcher an opportunity to study what might have changed over the years. The researcher can also know why certain changes appear in an attempt to establish a likely trend in future. Equally what we record now serve as an archive of reference to tomorrow’s researcher i.e. to record material for posterity.
  •  The learner gets an opportunity to learn  and appreciate the culture of the community he will be researching.
  • To gain greater insight into the dynamics of the art through participation, hearing, experiencing e.t.c.
  • To discover and explore new areas and emerging trends.
  • To increase information base and give opportunity for comparative study of our communities.
  • It equips the researcher with research skills that may be useful in the study of other disciplines.
  • To ascertain existing theories—in the past and even now there are certain theories about our oral literature. Some are assumptions while others are said to have been researched on. We can only know if they are true through research.


  • Preparation.
    • The actual research.
    • Processing and analysis.

  When preparing for an oral literature research, one needs to note the following:-

  1. Identify the genre of interest.
  • Identify the problem viable for study in the given genre and hence establish the purpose of the study and its justification.
  • State the objectives i.e. define the scope within which the research will operate in terms of time and season.
  • Read what other people have written about the target study to avoid duplicating of ideas.
    • Identify the area of study i.e. the community in terms of location or sub-location.
  • Identify the methods of collection and the materials needed in that particular method e.g. tapes, books, pens e.t.c.
  • Know the data analysis methods in advance i.e. qualitative and quantitative data analysis.
  • Identify the theoretical grounding of the study e.g. sociological approach i.e. how people view literature and feminist approach i.e. how the society view women.
  1. Draw a budget of all the expenses he/she is likely to incur and may be carrying an incentive for the resource people.
  • Get permission from the members of the place he/she is going to do research.
  • Make a pre-visit to the area of study. This is an advance visit to the target area. At this juncture the researcher should:-
    • Seek permission from relevant authorities.
    • Identify a research assistant especially if the place is outside their own community.
    • Study the lace’s topography, transport network, the people’s nature and physical facilities available.

                               A pre-visit will help the researcher to adjust

                         himself/herself accordingly during the actual research. For

                         example if there are no shops, he/she can carry packed lunch

                         or if the locality is cold and muddy, he will carry over  

                         clothes and gum boots e.t.c.


        At this stage, the researcher is already in the field ready and in the process of collecting the desired data. It involves moving from one resource person to another, collecting information through the different methods and recording the same.


  • Being time conscious— the researcher should keep time especially as per his appointments with the resource people. Though sometimes he/she may not control, the researcher should try as much as possible to follow his/her schedule.
  • Being polite, humble and patient— the researcher should always keep in mind that he is the slave and his resource people his masters. Therefore, he must not appear arrogant or rude. Instead he should be very humble, requestive and be able to tolerate straying resources. However being tolerant does not mean failing to guide your resource people as per his schedule and objectives.
  • Adhere to the culture of the people— many communities hold to their cultures dearly. Contravening such may lead to him not being given the right information for example; among the Kalenjin, it is an elder who greets a junior. In such a situation, the researcher should try to hold to that. Or among the Maasai their milk is mixed with blood. Should the researcher be offered such he should try to accept.
  • Dressing and behaving decently. The youngsters should be advised to dress as per the expectations of the resource people. If one is researching in a town, the girls may be allowed to put on long trousers, but this cannot be the case in rural areas. The young people are also known to walk ‘strangely’ and such should be avoided.
  • Participating where necessary. In some situations when researchers take a passive role, they make the resource people to be uneasy and therefore to make them feel free for the sake of creating rapport, the researcher should be active.
  • Avoiding conspicuous recording e.g. exposing machinery as this will distract the attention of the respondents and also make them uneasy or artificial when we require the natural action.
  • In the event of writing, note down whatever you are being told as soon as possible to avoid forgetting.
  • Keep time.


    There are four major methods of data collection:-

  1. Observation.

        Here the researcher sees or watches what is happening and records. This method can apply on data related to actions and appearances e.g. dancing style, costuming, moods, e.t.c

  • Face to face interviews.

        This method is majorly used to collect data involving facts. In this case the researcher/interviewer asks the resource people/respondents questions as he records the responses. Note that the questions are normally prepared in advance and should be relevant to the study.

  • Questionnaires.

This is a set of questions that are sent to the respondents who

    answer them, and sent back to the researcher. T is economical and time   

     saving. However, there are some details we may not get through this


  • Participation.

     This involves the researcher being actively involved in

    performances. This method is among the best as the researcher gets more    

    through it especially things to do with emotions. It can enable the

    researcher get more information as the resource people feel easy and

    friendly to the researcher. It also reduces suspicion.


     Data got from the resource people can be recorded using one or more of the following:-

  • Writing down
  • Taking still pictures.
  • Video recording.
  • Tape/audio recording.
  • Memorizing.

NOTE: – Memorizing is not effective as one can easily forget important

              information and end up with distorted information.


       This is the last stage of a field research. It involves comparing and contrasting the information from different sources so as to make certain conclusions in line with your objectives.

      Processing and analysis entails:-

  • Transcription
  • Translation
  • Annotation
  • Editing
  • Storage.
  • Transcription.

              It means writing down the original language of the resource   

       people i.e. through recorded tapes both audio and visual, books e.t.c.

  • Translation.

             This involves changing the original language of the resource people into a universal language.

  • Annotation.

        This involves adding relevant notes to a given text i.e. relevant comments.

  • Editing.

        This involves preparing the researched work for publication. It also entails correction of grammatical mistakes.

  • Storage.

   This means keeping something until required or for future use or

       future reference. After publication, the information is stored to be used        

       by future researchers.


     This will depend on the area of research and by extension the researcher himself. However, the following are the common problems:-

  1. Language barrier.

        When a research is conducted in a place with a different language, the researcher is bound not to understand. Equally, some resource people may use original mother tongues/dialects of which the young generation may not follow.

        To deal with this, an interpreter is therefore required.

  • Transport network.

   Some places mat be inaccessible or muddy

   This can be dealt with by organizing for special transport means. Where one must walk, then relevant foot wear is required. Enough food, if need be, should also be carried.

  • Limited time.

        Due to unforeseen circumstances, the researcher may not have enough time to complete his job. In such a situation, he should stick to hi schedule to avoid this coming up.

  • Financial constraints.

        There might be financial limitations especially in unseen areas of spending. To curb this problem in time, proper and advance budgeting should be done.

  • Hostility and suspicion.

Some people may be suspicious and/or hostile. This should be avoided by dressing decently or to the standards of the resource people. Relevant authorities should be informed before going out to the field for the study. If it occurs while in the field, one may have to abandon the study altogether or seek assistance from relevant authorities.

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