(Supported by a Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities)
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Kenya -- Folklore

Kenya's many ethnic groups have a well developed and sophisticated folklore which embodies their history, traditions, mores, world-view and wisdom. Their legends recount the movement of people to and from the rift valley, into the highlands, the grasslands and the lake regions. Famous historical figures such as the Kikuyu Gikuyu and Mumbi or the Luo culture hero Liongo are represented in myths and legends. Myths include accounts of how cattle were given to a certain people by God. The Maasai have this legend, so when they went on cattle raids they were getting back what was rightfully theirs. The Kikuyu also have a similar story. Folk tales try to answer etymological questions, such as why the hyena has a limp and the origin of death. In many Kenyan cultures the message that men would not die was given to a chameleon, but he was so slow that a bird got to man before him and gave them the message that men would die. Folk tales also recount the adventures of tricksters. In Kenya, tricksters are usually the hare or the tortoise. The ogre is another popular, if evil, character in many Kenyan folk tales. The ogre devours whole communities but is eventually vanquished by the actions of a brother and sister. The brother then cuts the toe of the ogre and all the people it ate come out.

Each ethnic group has a large store of riddles, proverbs and sayings, which are still an important aspect of daily speech. Riddles were usually exchanged in the evening before a storytelling session. Riddling sessions are usually competitions between two young people who fictionally bet villages, or cattle, or other items of economic life on the outcome. Many cultures have a prohibition on telling riddles during daylight hours. The Kikuyu had a very elaborate sung riddle game, a duet called the enigma poem or gicandia set text poem of riddles. It is sung in a duet and the players are in a competition. The duet is strikingly different than the normal singing of the Kikuyu performed by a soloist and a chorus. The poem is learned by heart. A decorated gourd rattle accompanies the singing One gicandi may consists of 127 stanzas.

Proverbs are social phenomenon and as such they can be defined as a message coded by tradition and transmitted in order to evaluate and/or effect human behavior. Proverbs reveal key elements of a culture such as the position and influence of women, morality, what is considered appropriate behavior, and the importance of children. For example the Luo have these proverbs: (1) The eye you have treated will look at you contemptuously. (2) A cowardly hyena lives for many years. (3) The swimmer who races alone, praises the winner. Some Kikuyu examples includes: (1) Women and the sky cannot be understood. (2) The man may be the head of the home, but the woman is the heart. (3) Frowning frogs cannot stop the cows drinking from the pool. There are also several proverbs in Swahili and English that have become part of Kenyans' daily life. For example: Haraka Haraka haina baraka (hurry hurry has not blessing) and also, When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.

The Swahili people on Kenya's coast have had a rich oral tradition that has been influenced by Islam. Stories of genies are told side by side with stories of hare and hyena. There is also a very rich tradition of popular poetry that has been part of Swahili cultural life for over four centuries.

Kenyan radio and television shows use folklore as part of their daily programming. Oral literature is part of the secondary and university syllabus. Part of the requirement in these classes is for students to collect folklore from their parents and grandparents. Kenyans believe that folklore is an important part of their heritage and culture and are taking steps to preserve and encourage folklore and education. While global culture in the shape of movies, music and literature is replacing folklore, Kenyans are actively involved in its maintenance.

For Further Reading:

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Adagala, Kavetsa, and Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira. 1994. Kenyan Oral Narratives: A Selection. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Barra, G. 1991. 1000 Kikuyu Proverbs. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Campbell, Carol A., and Carol M. Eastman. 1984. Ngoma: Swahili adult song performance in context. Ethnomusicology 28 (3):467-493.

Fadiman, Jeffrey A. 1993. When We Began, There Were Witchmen: An Oral History of Mount Kenya. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gorfain, Phyllis, and Jack Glazier. 1978. Sexual symbolism, origins, and the ogre in Mbeere, Kenya. Journal of American Folklore 91:925-946.

Kabira, Wanjiku Mukabi. 1983. The Oral Artist. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya.

Kabira, Wanjiku Mukabi, and Karega wa Mutahi. 1988. Gikuyu Oral Literature. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya.

Kieti, Mwikali, and Peter Coughlin. 1990. Barking, You'll be Eaten! Nairobi: Phoenix Publishers.

Kipury, Naomi. 1983. Oral Literature of the Maasai. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya.

Knappert, Jan. 1979. Four Centuries of Swahili Verse: A Literary History and Anthology. London: Heinemann.

Miruka, Okumba. 1994. Encounter With Oral Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Mwakasaka, Christon S. 1978. The Oral Literature of the Banyakyusa. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Mwangi, Rose. 1970. Kikuyu Folktales: Their Meaning and Value. Nairobi: Kenya Literary Bureau.

Odaga, Asenath Bole. 1984. Yesterday's Today. Kisumu, Kenya: Lake Publishers and Enterprises.

Onyango-Ogutu, B., and A.A. Roscoe. 1974. Keep My Words: Luo Oral Literature. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya.

Towett, T. 1979. Oral Traditional History of the Kipsigis. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Wolf, Jan J. de. 1995. Bukusu Tales. Munster, Germany: Lit Verlag.


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