A Statement Presented at the Oral Defence of a Dr. Phil. Dissertation on Saturday 26th October 2002, University of Helsinki.
An often-quoted statement coined by Mbiti (1969, 1), one of the pioneer East African philosophers and anthropologists, is that Africans are notoriously religious. Mbiti argues that religion pervades the entire landscape of African life, making it difficult, if not impossible to separate the two. Singing and dancing are elements of this religiosity though I am careful not to over-glorify it. Furthermore, I have no wish to dogmatically adopt a statement from Mbiti. I have made a thorough examination into African poetry and my analysis has led me to the conclusion that Africans are not only notoriously religious but also deeply musical and poetical.
Jane Nandwa and Austin Bukenya, leading oral literature scholars in East Africa, have succinctly captured the pervasiveness of singing and dancing in African rhythm of life. They posit: Song and dance pervade the whole spectrum of African traditional life. In most societies, there are songs for every stage and occasion of a person's life from cradle to the grave. (Nandwa and Bukenya 1983, 85.)
The above quotation illustrates how Africans embellish the wheel of life from birth to death with singing and dancing. About three decades ago, an enriching exchange on the pervasiveness of poetry in the African rhythm of life took place between two literary giants in East Africa. Taban lo Liyong lamented the literary desert, implying that there was limited creative output, scholarly analysis and documentation of literary works in the whole of East Africa. Five years later, the late Okot p'Bitek (1974, vii) responded vehemently and unequivocally to this statement by saying: When recently my friend Taban lo Liyong wept bitter tears over what he called the literary desert in East Africa, he was suffering from acute literary deafness, a disease which afflicts those who have been brainwashed into believing that literature exists only in books... In this book, I have presented the poetry of Taban's own people, the Acoli of Northern Uganda.
In p'Bitek's volume of Acoli verse, there is a large collection of poems ranging from children's songs through love songs to funeral songs. This scholarly exchange demonstrates how widespread poetry is among the Acoli and indeed, most African communities.
As a child growing up in a village in Bunyore in the 1960's and 1970's, I listened with joy to my mother's songs as she went about her daily chores. Now, as an adult, I have come to appreciate the depth and diversity of singing and dancing among the Abanyole (an ethnic group occupying Luanda and Emuhaya Divisions of Vihiga District in Western Province of Kenya) and can interact and take part in the revolving of life's wheel in my own community. The people sing and dance when they are happy and when they are sad. They sing and dance as they go through their daily routine, be it working in the fields, going to the market or even returning home after washing their faces. In brief, singing and dancing among the Abanyole accompanies all life's activities. The most apt description that has emerged from my research is that the Abanyole are a singing and dancing community.
Basic questions that arise are:
a) Why do the Abanyole sing and dance?
b) What is the significance of song and dance to this community?
These questions constitute the primary concern of my reflection on this occasion of the public debate of my doctoral dissertation.
The Abanyole have a wide range of poems with numerous functions, which include teaching, socializing, instilling courage and entertaining. It is through these songs that people are taught to be responsible members of the community. Socialization among the Abanyole is a lifelong process as members from infanthood onwards graduate at different cycles of the wheel of life. For example, the poems teach children what society accepts as good behaviour. They must not steal and they must maintain a high standard of hygiene so as not to attract jiggers or become infected with skin diseases. They must have pride in being members of the Abanyole ethnic group.
There are poems depicting children with wicked traits, which render them fit only for jail. For example, they may be shown subjecting a chicken they have stolen to such cruelty as pulling out its egg or gizzard before it is dead. All these traits are meant to show how society deplores thieving, cruelty and other undesirable behaviour and encourages the rising generation to resist anything that is cruel or dishonest.
Some poems teach children about agriculture, the region's main economic activity and about the environment upon which successful agriculture depends. In such poems, the children are given seeds to plant and are encouraged to enjoy the work rather than consider it a chore. This is evidenced by the phrase Nonyoye akhanyama, osetsanga nokonga (When you have meat, you grind with pride.) Nokonga is an expression of euphoria, which is prompted by the sight of meat (Alembi 2000, 109). The hidden message is, as meat is a rare commodity, it is the principal items of food-maize, beans and cow peas-that the children ask to plant because they are the means of survival. Thus the children are taught the importance of planning for future survival and included in this message is the value of preserving plants like esirietso, the life saving substitute for green vegetables.
The different crops mentioned in the poems mature at different times. For instance, cowpeas and beans ripen earlier than maize, which takes a longer time. Therefore, farmers need to grow a variety of crops as a safeguard against drought. In the event of a drought setting in, they have more chance of harvesting at least one or two of the crops to feed their families and ward off famine. The poems advise the children to grow up into wise farmers and practise proper management of the environment. They are thus psychologically prepared to face the challenges and hard work associated with adulthood.
It is the custom of the Abanyole to circumcise their male children as a right of passage into adult life. Physically, this is a painful operation. Mbiti (1969) and Makila (1982) have given examples of the pain young men have to endure in other African ethnic groups. Given this knowledge, the Abanyole recognize the importance of psychologically tuning the initiation candidates so that they are able to face the ordeal bravely. Poetry has proved to be an effective tool in this regard.
Songs in praise of the brave young men who proved themselves at circumcision are aimed at instilling courage into succeeding candidates who aspire to have their names praised in turn. Those who from fear or pain may have soiled the surgeon's hands with urine or faeces are mocked as cowards, thus discouraging any display of emotion by those who follow. They must marshal every nerve and sinew to pluck up the courage to undergo such an excruciating ritual with emotional restraint.
The Abanyole use poetry to counsel young couples about to be married. These young people are usually excited by the sensations of love and look forward to a life of bliss together. However, older people know that such infatuation is short-lived and real love is much deeper. Before long the couple will be faced with challenges that can make or break the union and that is why the wide range of poems offering counsel and advice are worth heeding. These poems emphasise that marriage is a commitment and a duty and the bride and groom should be aware of this from the onset.
Gender roles are clearly articulated in the poems. The man has a duty to provide for his family and protect it from harm. A poem that mocks the groom for wearing an oversize suit is really an allegory warning him against borrowing and recommending self-reliance as the better policy. Sometimes, the dancers accuse him of being as thin as a needle when he may be actually overweight. This is a psychological fighting strategy not to be taken at surface value. It should be pointed out that this is the bride's female relatives, who sing such insults about the groom.
It has been proved that following the wedding, the groom will go out of his way to prove to his wife's relatives that he can provide for his family adequately without borrowing. In this sense, the bride's relatives who did not want to see their sister, cousin or niece and her family in need, have won the battle. As for the bride, she is similarly instructed regarding her various domestic duties and the care of her husband and children.
For both parties, songs and accompanying actions communicate to them the centrality of sex in marriage. This is the channel through which procreation is facilitated and as I have pointed out in my dissertation, the importance of children to the Abanyole is paramount. In fact, a marriage without children is not recognised as such (Alembi 2002). Dahlin (2001) has made similar observation regarding the people of the Mberengwa District in Zimbabwe. For this reason alone, sex is not a casual pastime to the Abanyole. It has a spiritual dimension which members of this community are made to understand is a duty that must be performed only in the context of marriage by every normal person. It is only through children that society can fight the threat of extinction.
In 1997, a friend told me how his pregnant wife had sung liberation songs when she was in labour with their first child. The songs she sung had ended in the refrain, Kenyatta alileta uhuru (Kenyatta liberated Kenya). Clearly, this woman likened her situation to that of the Mau Mau freedom fighters-ready to die for victory. Reflecting on this reminds me of the songs my mother told me about how midwives in pre-colonial Bunyore sang to a mother in labour. Forming a ring around the mother, they would sing poems encouraging her to be brave because she was making a positive contribution to the survival of the community. In time, the mother would sink into a hypnotic state, which would relax her to a point where she could actually enjoy the moment of birth. Psychologically the songs acted as a painkiller because all the women present symbolically absorbed the pain. The delivery of the newborn child in those days was therefore a communal affair. It is a pity that these songs have vanished with the coming of modern medicine because, in this day and age, mothers must either resort to expensive sedatives or face the ordeal of childbirth alone.
In my dissertation (Alembi 2002), the importance of oral poetry in the context of death and funerals has been explored and should be read by those desiring details.
The poems do not only serve the important roles mentioned, they also entertain. During the performances, the artists create jokes to the enjoyment of those involved. Dancing to the songs in itself creates amusement for the performers and audiences alike. Consequently, learning through song and dance is a pleasurable activity.
My primary aim in the study is to filter and scan death through the lenses of poetry. In other words, I am elucidating a basic conceptual and empirical question: What does this poetry teach us about the Abanyole concept of death? I am mapping out, structuring and confining death as presented through oral funeral poetry. In other words, I am interpreting the expressions and proclamations of funeral poetry in order to gain an insight into the community's attitude towards death.
The analysis is predicated on the premise that some understanding of the mythology surrounding death can be filtered out from the oral funeral poetry. This particularly applies to the society's experiential interpretation of the causes and effects of death, which it is my overall purpose to analyse.
I have placed my analysis in the ethnopoetics mode of theoretical reflection. In particular, I have derived infracultural conceptual model to guide the investigation. I have employed an interactive methodology, which has enabled me to interrogate members of the community on matters related to death as presented through the funeral poems.
Alembi, Ezekiel 1992, An Analysis of the Style and Social Significance of the Abanyole Children's Oral Poetry. M. A. Thesis, Kenyatta University.
Alembi, Ezekiel 2000, The Oral Poetry of the Abanyole Children: Context, Style and Social Significance. Tartu.
Alembi, Ezekiel 2002, The Construction of the Abanyole Perceptions on Death Through Oral Funeral Poetry: Doctoral Monograph, Helsinki University.
Dahlin, Olov 2001, Being a Patient in the Religious and Medical Plurality of the Mberengwa District, Zimbabwe. Ph. D. Monograph, Upsala University.
Makila, Ferdinand 1982,The Significance of Chetambe Fort in Bukusu History. Unpublished Research manuscript: Nairobi.
Mbiti, John 1969, African Religions and Philosophy. Nairobi: Heinemann.
Nandwa, Jane 1976, Oral Literature Among the Abaluhya. M. A. Thesis, University of Nairobi.
Nandwa, Jane and Bukenya, Austin 1983, African Oral Literature for Schools. Nairobi: Longman.
p'Bitek, Okot 1974, Horn of my Love. Nairobi: Heinemann.
Dr. Ezekiel Alembi
palembi (at) yahoo.com