Symonds Kichamu Akivaga died on Tuesday, leaving behind a legacy as one of the pioneer scholars of oral literature in Kenya.
Together with Asenath Bole Odaga, also deceased, Akivaga wrote Oral Literature: A School Certificate Course, which was a foundational text in the teaching and learning of oral literature way beyond secondary school.
Other important texts were Austin Bukenya et al’s Oral Literature: A Senior Course, and Okumba Miruka’s Studying Oral Literature.
ROLE OF ORAL LITERATURE
Akivaga’s foray into oral literary scholarship came when the pan-Africanist wave was sweeping through the university literature curriculum in Kenya, and when the young Kenya was struggling to rediscover its cultural soul by internalising its oral heritage.
Alongside other more political strategies of nation formation, the teaching and learning of oral literature was considered an important way of raising national awareness of cultural differences, create national oneness, and deepen learners’ understanding of important values like fairness, justice, hard work and other forms of social responsibility.
At a time when the world of scholarship and politics was still debating whether the African was a rational being or a mere mimic of his white benefactors, oral literature was found to be both a repository of Africans’ reason and a means of conveying the same to the younger generations.
In fact, Africa’s moral and cultural philosophies are encapsulated in the many oral narratives and proverbs that were first introduced to schools via the work of Kichamu Akivaga and his contemporaries in the discipline.
For clarity, Kichamu Akivaga was not alone in trail blazing this area.
In Kenya, he had the likes of Eddah Gachukia, with whom in 1978 they edited Teaching of African Literature in Schools.
After the Akivaga generation, other scholars were Ciarunji Chesaina, Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira and, way later, Peter Wasamba whose project on digitisation of African oral literature attracted collaborative interest from colleagues in University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Wasamba’s unmatched interest and extensive research in oral literatures in Kenya saw him, in 2015, publish Contemporary Oral Literature Fieldwork: A Researcher’s Guide, which could well be the only book that has emerged in the recent past focusing on oral literature, and with a methodological bent at that.
As we acknowledge this, it is time perhaps to ask ourselves questions regarding the direction that the study and teaching of oral literature is or should currently be taking.
The pioneers like Akivaga have recently exited the scene; Asenath Bole Odaga, Okumba Miruka, and Owuor Anyumba preceded them.
Their successors like Austin Bukenya, Ciarunji Chesaina, Wanjiku Kabira, and Peter Amuka have done their bit, while others like Peter Wasamba and Egara Kabaji are now holding fort.
How, now, should the research and teaching of oral literature be conducted in the era of ubiquitous audio-visual technology of education and entertainment?
How can oral literature, in whatever conception, be deployed as a socialising tool in the era of many alternative moralities?
As we mourn Kichamu Akivaga and celebrate his successors, we must pose the challenge to the current batch of oral literature researchers and educators to guide us in confronting this challenge.
The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi