• It is a form of art verbalized, dramatized and performed.
  • Oral literature can be categorized as either fiction or nonfiction.
  • Nonfiction is informational text that deals with an actual, real-life subject.
  • Fiction is a text that deal with non factual subject.


  • There are various genres of literature.
  • These genres include:
  1. Oral narratives
  2. Oral Poems/Songs
  3. Proverbs
  4. Riddles
  5. Tongue-twisters
  6. Puns
  • Proverbs, riddles, tongue twisters, and puns are short forms of oral literature. This is because of their length.



Study of oral literature is important to a student since he/she :

  1. Is able to understand his/her culture and appreciate the culture of others.
  2. Is able to appreciate his/her history.
  3. Appreciates the creativity in oral literature as a means of understanding other African arts.


Definition of Fieldwork

  • It refers to the process of collecting oral literature material from the field.
  • Field study can be carried out by anyone including a student.

Importance of Fieldwork

  1. Since oral literature is a performed art, a student can witness and experience the performance. When this written, the live aspects are lost.
  2. It enables a student to have a contact with the community and the culture of that community.
  3. A student is equipped with research skills.
  4. It also enables for recording of history of a community.

Stages in Fieldwork

There are five key stages in fieldwork:

  1. Preparation

Adequate preparation should be taken in to consideration for a meaningful research. You can do the following:

  • Identify the narrator or informant.
  • Identify the location of the informant.
  • Plan when to visit the informant.
  • Plan the necessary tools for recording the materials.
  • Get the administrative permission to conduct the research.
  • Decide on the method of data collection to use.
  • Budget for the fieldwork.
  1. Material collection
  • This is where the actual information is gathered.
  • There are different methods of collecting oral literature materials:
  1. Observation
  2. Interviews
  • Participation
  1. Use of questionnaires, etc.
  • Do this carefully.
  1. Recording of information


You can record the material collected by:

  1. Writing the information;
  2. Taping the information; or
  • Filming it.
  1. Processing the information
  • In preparation for interpretation, analysis and dissemination, scrutinize the information.
  • Put down the recorded information in writing. You can do this word for word. This is called transcription.
  • You can translate it in the language you would like it to be shared. This is
  1. Analysis and Interpretation of material

At this stage:

  1. Classify the material into genres and sub-genres using particular criteria.
  2. Identify the themes.
  • Identify styles used.
  1. Identify functions of the item.
  2. Interpret the information.
  3. Draw conclusions.


Methods of Collecting Oral Literature Materials

  1. Interviews
  • An interview involves meeting the respondent face to face and verbally asking questions in order to seek the required information.
  1. Recording performance

First hand information on things like performance and chanting can be recorded using tape recorders, etc. during the festivals in which they are performed.

  1. Observation
  • This is a way of gathering information or data by watching behavior, events, or noting physical characteristics in their natural setting.
  • Observation can either allow one know he/she is being observed, or without him/her not being aware.
  1. Participation
  • The collector of the material can also participate in the enactment of the oral forms like dance and song, etc. if he/she has the skills to.
  • It is important to note that his/her participation should not distract him/her from her investigative roles.
  1. Administering Questionnaires
  • A questionnaire is a research instrument containing series of questions and prompt given to the informant for the purpose of gathering the information.


Methods of Recording Oral Literature Materials

  1. Memory of the Researcher. There are individuals who can remember all the information collected especially if it is not long.
  2. Use of tape recorders.
  3. Videotaping
  4. Written records. You can have writing materials to put down the information gathered.

Challenges Likely to be Encountered during the Fieldwork

  • An oral researcher can encounter problems while in the field.
  • Some of the challenges one is likely to face in an attempt to seek the required information are:
  1. Language barrier. If the researcher is unable to understand the language of the informant, and vice versa, no information is likely to be collected.
  2. Hostility of the informant community.
  3. Transport challenges.
  4. It might be expensive.
  5. The informant might ask for payments.


Definition of an Oral Narrative

  • A narrative is a prose that recounts events, people, and places.
  • A narrative can either be fictional (non factual) or nonfictional (factual).
  • The terms used to mean the same as a narrative are tale, folktale, or a story.
  • At its essence, an oral narrative is a story spoken to an audience.
  • An oral narrative is handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.
  • As we learnt earlier, an oral narrative is one of the genres of oral literature.
  • A person who tells a story is known as a narrator.

Qualities of a Good Narrator

A good narrator :

  1. Is confident.
  2. Is able to use the non-verbal skills like gestures, facial expressions, etc.
  3. Uses stage well.
  4. Involves their audience in the narration.

Classification of Oral Narratives

  • Narratives are categorized into different classes.
  • These classes are:
  • Myths
  • Legends
  • Ogre or monster stories
  • Trickster stories
  • Etiological Narratives
  • Dilemma stories
  • Fables
  • Spirit tales
  • Allegory
  • Myths
  • Deal with origins.
  • There is a supernatural being involved.
  • They explain the origin of death, origin of a group of people, etc.


Characteristics of Myths

  1. A story that is or was considered a true explanation of the natural world (and how it came to be).
  2. Characters are often non-human – e.g. gods, goddesses, supernatural beings, first people.
  3. Setting is a previous proto-world (somewhat like this one but also different).
  4. Plot may involve interplay between worlds (this world and previous or original world).
  5. Depict events that bend or break natural laws (reflective of connection to previous world).


  • A legend is a story about an outstanding person who has participated in the historical events of a community.
  • A legend is a story of a hero known to people.
  • Based on fact but also includes imagination material.
  • There is also an element of exaggeration.
  • There are also historical events.
  • Some well known legends are:
  1. Koome Njue
  2. Wangu wa Makeri
  3. Mugo wa Kibiru
  1. Mekatilili wa Menza
  2. Fumo Liyongo
  3. Luanda Magere
  • The target audience of legends are usually the youth so that they can emulate the hero or heroine.

Main Features of Legends

  • There are extraordinary actions done by the hero.
  • Facts in such stories are historical.
  • Features mentioned are actual ones.
  • In some, there is an aspect of betrayal.
  • Element of exaggeration is common.
  • Birth or death is associated with some mystery.
  • Events are in the present world; the one we live in.

Ogre Stories

  • An ogre usually represents an evil.
  • Ogre are usually destroyed at the end.
  • They have happy ending.

Functions of Ogre Stories

  1. They warn against strangers.
  2. They caution youth against marrying the people they don’t know.

Trickster Stories

  • A character makes up for a physical weakness with cunning and subversive humour.
  • The trickster alternatives between:
  1. Cleverness and stupidity;
  2. Kindness and cruelty;
  • Deceiver and deceived; and
  1. Breaker of taboos and creator of culture.


Etiological Narratives

  • They explain the origin of a certain phenomenon.
  • An etiological narrative is an imaginative story triggered by question “how or why” something came to be in the world.
  • Examples are:
  1. Why rainbow appears in the sky after it rains.
  2. Why hare has a short tail.

Why Turtles Live in Water

Turtles used to live on the land, they say, until the time a clever

turtle was caught by some hunters. They brought him to their village

and placed the turtle before the Chief, who said, “How shall

we cook him?”

“You’ll have to kill me first,” said the turtle, “and take me out of

this shell.”

“We’ll break your shell with sticks,” they said.

“That’ll never work,” said the turtle, “Why don’t you throw me

in the water and drown me?!”

“Excellent idea,” said the Chief. They took the turtle to the river

and threw him into the water to drown him.

They were congratulating themselves on their success in drowning

the turtle, when two little green eyes poked up in the water and the laughing turtle said, “Don’t get those cooking pots out too

fast, foolish people!” As he swam away he said, “I think I’ll spend

most of my time from now on, safely in the water.”

And it has been that way ever since.

Dilemma Stories

  • A dilemma story shows a character or a group of characters faced with two or more alternatives, none of which is easy to make.
  • The conflicting situation arises for a character to choose from.
  • A dilemma story is a morally ambiguous story, thus allows the audience to comment or speculate upon the correct solution to the problem posed in the story.
  • A dilemma story has a perplexing situation, which presents different possibilities, and both of them seem practically acceptable.


Functions of Dilemma

  1. Dilemma gives the audience an insight into characters’ lives.
  2. It also creates suspense. This is because the audience will be left wondering which choice the character will make.
  • Fables
  • Feature animal characters.
  • Animals speak as human beings.
  • Now read the story below.

Once upon a time, there was a hare who loved to boast of his speed in front of the other animals. He asked the tortoise to take up the challenge in the next competition with him.

All the animals were surprised that the tortoise took up the challenge. He was known to be a very slow animal. However, a day was fixed for the great race and all the animals looked forward to it.

On the day of the race, no animal went to the market. No one went hunting; all the animals gathered together, excited to watch the race between the tortoise and the hare. Both animals were ready, each of them felt confident and everyone wondered why the tortoise was so confident since they felt he was no match for the hare.

The elephant started them off when he blew his big whistle and the sound rang across the entire jungle. Every year was alert, every eye fixed on the two competitors. Who will win the greatest animal race in history?

The hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped. In order to show that the tortoise was no match for him and should not have accepted his challenge in the first instance, he lay down to have a nap.

Slowly but surely, the tortoise plodded on. He had a goal, he had a focus and he never looked back. When the hare awoke from his sleep, he saw the tortoise near the finish line. He jumped up and tried to catch up with him but it was too late. The deed had been done.

To the amazement of all the animals, the tortoise had crossed the finish line. It was unbelievable. The hare

was humbled. He had no choice but to congratulate the tortoise and accept him as the winner. All the animals learnt a very important lesson from the tortoise.

  • Spirit Tales

Ghosts or spirits feature in such stories.

  • Allegory
  • Real life is represented by characters and events.
  • Though embodies real life, it is presented as if it is fictional.

Setting in Oral Narratives

  • Through a community’s oral narrative, we can learn a lot about them.
  • An oral narrative give information on the following:
  1. The physical environment. Features like lakes, mountains, forests, etc. are mentioned.
  2. Economic activities.
  • These are the activities or occupations through which the community earns its livelihood.
  • These activities include:
  • Hunting
  • Livestock keeping
  • Crop farming or cultivation
  • Bee-keeping, etc
  • the mention of products like honey, tools, sorghum, milk, etc will lead us know the economic activities of that community.
  1. Social activities

These are activities like ceremonies, religious practices and forms of entertainment.

  1. Political activities

Here we learn:

  • The power structure
  • War activities



Oral narratives have many features. The main ones include:

  • Use of opening formula. This is used to indicate the beginning of a story. It also removes the audience from the world of reality and take them to the world of fantasy. A world of fantasy is where bones speak, a king is the lion, etc. some commonly used opening formula phrases are ‘ a long time ago…’, ‘once upon a time’, ‘there once was ….’, and ‘long, long ago…

Opening Formula serves the following functions:

  1. Announces the coming of a narrative.
  2. Gets the attention of the audience.
  3. Removes the audience from the world of reality.
  4. Identifies the narrator.
  • Use of Closing formula. It makes the end of a story. It also removes the audience from the world of fantasy and take them back to the world of reality. Here are examples of closing formulae:
  • And that is why …
  • And there ends my story.
  • From then onwards …
  • To come to the end of my story …


A closing formula serves such functions as:

  1. Announcing the end of the narrative.
  2. Momentarily releases the audience from concentration.
  3. Brings back the audience to the world of reality.
  4. Clears the way for the next narrative or activity.
  • Use of idiophones. There is the use of words that imitate the movement or sounds made by characters in the story. For example,
  • The bees flew buzz buzzbuzz.
  • The woman laughed hahahahaha.
  • The branch was cut kacha.
  • A word, phrase, a song, or even a sentence can occur more than once in a story. The repetition is meant to:
  1. Bring out the meaning.
  2. Emphasize a point.
  • Maintain the rhythm.
  1. Sustain the mood in the story.
  • Use of songs. Many narratives have songs. The songs perform the following functions:
  • Brings out the character traits.
  • Brings out the theme.
  • To entertain.
  • Imaginary and factually impossible things are created in the story.
  1. Familiar objects or persons well known are referred to.
  2. Complex problems are explained and clarified by referring to something the audience is familiar with, eg.
  • The bible
  • History
  • Famous people
  • Use of suspense.
  • Here the audience is left wondering what will happen next.
  • The climax is delayed.
  • There is also the use of dialogue. A character speaks directly to the other. Dialogue is used to bring out the theme, character traits as well as to develop the plot of the story.



  • There are several story telling devices a narrator can decide to use when delivering an oral narrative.
  • The techniques a narrator can use include:
  • Use of gestures. Gestures are meant to reinforce the idea. For example when talking about a character going, you can stretch your arm to show that.
  • Altering your facial expressions according to the emotion and feelings in the story. Do not frown when the emotion happy.
  • Varying the tone of your voice depending on what you are saying and who is saying it. The tone should be low when for example a small animal talks, and high when a big one speaks.
  • Changing the pace of narration. There are those unimportant details that can be said faster.
  • Involving the audience in the narration. Asking them to join you when singing will be okay.
  • Use of mimicry. Here a narrator imitates the speech, action or other mannerisms of the character, for example, the walking style of a character, etc.


Read the story below and then answer questions after it.

A long time ago, there was a pregnant woman whose husband had gone to work in a distant place. The husband was a blacksmith. At the woman’s delivery, an ogre played mid-wife to her. Apart from that the ogre also assisted her in gathering firewood from the forest and also cooked her food.

Every time the ogre came back from the forest, he would pretend to offer her food saying, “wagaciari nduke tuhiuhio” (Translated as: Newly delivered mother, take this delicacy). He then munched down the food himself. He would repeat this with whenever offering her gruel saying:”Wagaciari nduke gacuru. Wrega nganywa.” And drank it himself.

This continued for a while, and while the ogre became fat and sleek, the nursing mother became very thin and weak.

During those days, women used to put castor seeds out to dry in the sun. While the seeds dried,the doves could come and steal those  seeds. One day, the woman spotted a dove and said to him:

“You dove, you have eaten all my castor seeds. Now, if I send you on an errand, will you carry it out?”

“Yes, I can,” the dove answered.

“Right, I would like you to fly to the land of blacksmiths and once you get there, pass the following message:

Muthuri uguturai blacksmith                     I say, oh you

Cangarara-il-ca                                                 Ciangarara-I-ca

Taratura narua-il                                           Hasten to finish whatever you are doing.

Cangarara-il-ca                                                  Cangarara-I-ca

Mukaguo niaachiarire-I                                your wife is with child

Cangarara-i-ca                                                Cangarara-i-ca

Agiciaithio ni irimu-I                                       An ogre is playing nurse to her

Cangarara-i-ca                                                  Cangarara-i-ca

Ekwiruo nduke tuhiuhio-I                                She is being offered food

Cangarara-i-ca                                                   Cangarara-i-ca

Na warega ngaria-I                                            But the ogre eats eats it all

Cangarara-il-ca                                                   Cangarara-i-ca

The dove delivered the message as requested. When she got to the land of the blacksmiths, she sang the song. The blacksmiths heard the dove singing and asked each other, “Whose wife is expecting a baby?”

One of them confessed he had an expectant wife and he was asked by the rest to find out what was happening at home. When he  got home, the wife told him the whole story.

All this while, the ogre was in the forest gathering firewood. The husband sharpened the knife in readiness to face  the ogre. The ogre came back and dropped the firewood with a thud,thu. He then rebuked the mother saying: “Wagaciairi urogua na mururumo ucio.” (Newly delivered mother, may you fall with the same thud!)

The nursing mother responded back, “O nawe urogu.”(You too!)

The ogre was surprised. He said, “You surprise me with your arrogance today. Could it be that the blacksmith is back?”

The blacksmith got angry and even before the ogre finished talking, he speared him. Shortly, before the ogre died, he cried with aloud voice saying, “It is just as I had thought. The sojourners have come back. Oh dear me I am dying because of my greed!” And with these words, he died.

There ends my story.


  • What features of this story qualify it as an oral narrative?
  • If you were the one narrating the story, how would you have performed the last paragraph?


 Read the narratives below and then answer questions that follow.

Girl and the King

Long ago there was a wealthy king who started off on a journey to visit the king of a neighbouring country. On his way he was accompanied by his bodyguard and a large group of ministers. Owing to the nature of the landscape, the only means of transport was by camel. Somewhere along the way, he found a group of girls fetching water from a well. At once he was struck by the resemblance of the girls, but on closer observation he identified one girl he had fallen in love with. He at once decided that he would do something to engage her. He gave the girl his blazer, which he instructed her to wear always as a sign of identify. He further promised that once he was back in his country, he would send for her and the emissary would identify her by her jacket.

After the king’s departure, the other girls begun to envy the lucky girl and constantly begged her to let them try the blazer on, but she wouldn’t budge. Days passed into weeks and the girl still faithfully kept wearing the king’s coat. Over time she begun to wonder whether the king had forgotten his promise but still she kept wearing the coat.

One day she went to collect firewood in the company of the other girls. As she was moving about in the bush she saw a pirate monkey admiring her and she stopped to give it the time. The pirate greeted her and commented on the beauty of the blazer she was wearing. She immediately told the pirate the story behind her acquisition of the coat. The pirate then requested that she let him try it on so that she could see how beautiful it was.

The girl reluctantly agreed to let the pirate try the coat on and no sooner had it done so than it jumped into a tree and left the girl in wonder. The girl begun to climb the tree and the pirate jumped to the next tree. As the girl ran from tree to tree, the pirate kept jumping and soon disappeared from the girl’s sight. The girl returned home miserable but consoled by the thought that after all the king had forgotten his promise.

Shortly after that incident the king sent his messengers to collect the girl and reminded them that they would find several identical girls and that they would identify the bride by a blazer bearing his seal which she would be wearing When the messengers came to the village where the girls lived they were unable to identify the one they were looking for, as all of them resembled one another. The particular girl tried to explain that she was the one but the messengers did not take her because she did not have the king’s coat.

They searched the whole village without finding the girl and eventually gave up, and were on their way home when one of them spotted the pirate in the tree.

The messengers then ran after the pirate and managed to arrest it and take it home to the king. 

  • Classify this narrative.
  • Identify the features of oral narratives present in it.



- Advertisment -

Most Popular

- Advertisment -
- Advertisment -