• It is bringing back orature to reinvigorate our youth with a sense of cultural heritage
Each year, hundreds of university students studying literature as an area of knowledge take courses related to folklore and oral literature. I teach many and emphasise how these courses are integral to their training in the literary arts.
Orature, as it is commonly referred to in East Africa, is one of the subject areas aimed at rehabilitating indigenous knowledge systems eroded and corroded by contacts between our cultures and those of foreigners.
Before the 1970s, it was uncommon for orature to be taught in our educational systems. The curriculum was quite alien, arising from the British one introduced in the colonial era. To be taught literature back then meant learning how to read and write in the manner of European literature. Literature meant books and written texts, yet orature describes arts based on oral language and its creative manipulation.
In the late 1960s, the debate to formalise the teaching of orature in our learning institutions reached its peak. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Henry Owuor Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong of the University of Nairobi introduced arguments in favour of teaching oral literature. They did so while seeking curriculum reinvigoration for the Department of Literature, which was the only one in a university in Kenya back then.
By the 1980s, the teaching of oral literature had become well-established in Kenya. The Kenya Oral Literature Association was established, with scholars from the University of Nairobi spearheading the matter. This body brought together many stakeholders and researchers and, at the height of its activities, produced many books on oral literature and seminal reference texts based on erudite research across the country.
Publishers also played a crucial role. Many were graduates of the revolutionary thoughts on culture and decolonisation instigated by Ngugi and his compatriots in the 1970s. Local publishing houses produced titles on the oral literatures of communities including the Akamba, Maasai, Kalenjin, Luo, Agikuyu and their Embu and Mbeere cousins.
Oral literature thrived. In our secondary schools in the 1990s, it formed a crucial component of the English lessons. English is a compulsory subject in Kenya, and the literature aspect of this subject is important. Parts of the literature taught to our learners are of the written kind (set books), and others are of the oral nature.
The new CBC curriculum divides the secondary school experience into two formats: the junior secondary school (JSS from Grades 7 to 9) and the senior secondary school (SSS Grades 10 to 12). Teachers I have trained are reporting back that oral literature is introduced at the JSS levels. Our children in Grades 7 and 8 are the pioneers of the system, aged between 12 and 14 years.
As we reinvigorate our youth with a sense of cultural heritage and rootedness in their heritage through the formal teaching of orature in schools and universities, the informal sector is not left behind.
Since the turn of the century, several initiatives keen on orature and embedded in communities across the country have emerged. These have become sites of knowledge and preservation, attracting foreign visitors as well as local students on their field trips in their orature training.
One of the most vibrant initiatives is in Kisii, known as the Mwanyagetinge Cultural Artefacts and Animal Sanctuary Centre. It is located near the beautiful escarpment called Manga Hills, along the Kisii-Nyamira Road. Run by Shem Ageta and local elders with the support of governors of Kisii counties, it attracts students from across the country interested in Gusii culture and oral traditions.
While there, you will hear of the prophet Sakwa, who was born 180 years ago and died at the start of the last century. You shall learn about the gallant warrior Otenyo, whose head was cut and ferried away by the colonial government after he led a rebellion at the instigation of his stepmother, a prophetess called Moraa. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The centre can organise local cuisine and field trips, and can host more than 100 visitors in liaison with neighbouring communities and facilities.
On the Coast, similar efforts are remembered in Malindi county. Here, a community-based organisation named Madca, led by elders like barrister Joseph Mwarandu, has been preserving the culture and cultural activities of the indigenous coastal communities of Kenya since 2003, with a focus on the Mijikenda heritage.
In 2006, Madca established cultural centres, including one in Bungale, Kilifi county, attracting numerous visitors and students annually due to the burial site of the national hero, Mekatilili wa Menza. Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi regularly take drama and theatre arts students to this centre and a similar one in Kwale county.
Madca collaborates with various stakeholders to organise the annual Mekatilili wa Menza Mijikenda Cultural Festival. However, the organisation faces funding challenges, and it is anticipated that both the national and county governments will intervene to address this matter, given its national and cultural significance.
In the Nyanza region, the Thimlich Ohinga endangered archaeological site in Migori county is worth visiting. Managed by Kelvin Saitoti of the National Museums of Kenya, this complex of stone-built ruins collaborates with the local community to showcase cultural performances for visitors, including students of orature. Located 50km northwest of Migori town, the site is a gazetted National Monument recognised by Unesco.
It is high time that county governments designated special public lands in their jurisdictions to support private initiatives focused on cultural preservation. Each county houses diverse communities with distinct cultures and heritage.
To prevent our children from becoming victims of time’s passage and losing connectivity to their ancestral cultures, they should not only learn about them in classrooms but also have places to visit that enhance their learning experiences. Cultural heritage sites, such as the one in Kisii, should be commonplace rather than rare. Relevant ministers at both the national and county levels should collaborate on policies to inaugurate these centres.
The saying goes that education is what begins where the classroom ends. The essence of this is that learning is a lifelong process that extends beyond the confines of formal education. By establishing sites and incorporating field trips as a method of learning, the current curriculum can make the teaching and learning of our cultures and oral traditions a joyful and memorable experience for our children.