Tradition of oral literature in the works of Chinua Achebe-An Insight

A. Hazel Verbina, Asst. Prof. of English, Dr. G.R. Damodaran College of Science, Civil Aerodrome post ,
Avinashi Road, Coimbatore -641028 (Tamilnadu) - India

Ph. 9894870659, <>

In the growth and development of modern African literature, African traditional oral poetics is playing a very significant role. Many African novelists now expect that the riches of the African oral tradition will nourish the novel form. Traditional African drama, often associated with ritual and social events, tends to emphasize mime, dance, music, costumes, and masks rather than verbal art. This paper concentrates on Achebe and his uses of oral tradition in his novels... This paper, therefore, seeks to plumb the significance of African traditional oral poetics in the novels of Chinua Achebe.

The Oral tradition was the basis of African culture. It consisted of history, religious practices, cosmology, rituals, folktales, proverbs, riddles, games , songs , dance, magic, epic tales, myths and narratives. The African incorporated the everyday rhytms of life into his expression. The Nigerian oral tradition thrives from the indigenous beliefs and general attitudes to life. They transmit and store the values of their experiences by telling the tales to the younger generations as guide. Therefore, validating the assertion of Chinua Achebe (1975) in his essay, "the Image of Africa", (African) oral traditions do have significant functionality and serve a far more utilitarian purpose, which doubles as mainstream intention meant for cultural preservation and ultimate ‘survival’ of the people. Far from the overblown purpose of entertainment, African oral literature functions as a viable medium to educate, preserve history and foreground indigenous norms.

African proverbs and stories draw upon the collective wisdom of oral peoples, express their "structures of meaning, feeling, thought, and expression," and thus serve important social and ethical purposes: "The story itself is a primary form of the oral tradition, primary as a mode of conveying culture, experience, and values and as a means of transmitting knowledge, wisdom, feelings, and attitudes in oral societies"; a central position is thus "given to the story in the oral tradition… by African writers in the shaping of their literary world and works.

Achebe makes a frequent projection of African culture through the use of oral traditions like proverbs, riddles, jokes, epic, folktales and legends. One could study African folktales, songs, and proverbs. Achebe uses proverbs as a way to communicate the African oral tradition within the frame of the western novel. Chinua Achebe was the vanguard in this literary movement that seeks to defend the African heritage, but the achievement of Achebe seems to end at the level of the word. The style of Achebe’s fiction draws heavily on the oral tradition of the Igbo people. He weaves folk tales into the fabric of his stories, illuminating community values in both the content and the form of the storytelling. Achebe absorbed the folk tales told to him by his mother and older sister, stories he described as having "the immemorial quality of the sky, and the forests and the rivers". Abdul Janmohamed, a literary critic has notably commented that Achebe has deterritorialised English in representing the native oral tradition. Another hallmark of Achebe’s style is the use of proverbs, which often illustrate the values of the rural Igbo tradition. He sprinkles them throughout the narratives, repeating points made in conversation. In Achebe, however, proverbs and folk stories are not the sum total of the oral Igbo tradition. In combining philosophical thought and public performance into the use of oratory, his characters exhibit what he called "a matter of individual excellence part of Igbo culture. Achebe frequently includes folk songs and descriptions of dancing in his work Achebe’s novels as well as his short stories are heavily influenced by the oral tradition, and like the folktales they follow, the stories often have morals emphasizing the importance of cultural traditions.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe mixes Western linguistic forms and literary traditions with Igbo words and phrases, proverbs, fables, tales, and other elements of African oral and communal storytelling traditions in order to record and preserve African oral traditions as well as to subvert the colonialist language and culture. This paper indentifies proverbs used in "Things Fall Apart" and attempts to question the relationship of oral elements to the meanings and messages of the novels. Things Fall Apart recreates an oral culture and a consciousness imbued with an agrarian way of life, and demonstrates, as Achebe put it, "that African peoples did not hear of civilisation for the first time from Europeans". At the same time, he sought to avoid depicting precolonial Africa as a pastoral idyll, rejecting the nostalgic evocations of Léopold Senghor and the francophone négritude school of writing.

African novelists like Chinua Achebe often introduce oral stories— such as narrative proverbs, song-tales, myths, folktales, fairy tales, animal fables, anecdotes, and ballads—into literature. One of many examples from Things Fall Apart is Ikemefuna’s song, a condensed version of an Igbo folktale, according to Emmanuel Obiechina:

"Eze elina, elina!
Eze ilikwa ya
lkwaba akwa oligholi
Ebe Danda nechi eze
Ebe Uzuzu nete egwu

The tale about the Earth and Sky in Things Fall Apart, for example, emphasises the interdependency of the masculine and the feminine. Although Nwoye enjoys hearing his mother tell the tale, Okonkwo’s dislike for it is evidence of his imbalance. Later, Nwoye avoids beatings from his father by pretending to dislike such "women’s stories" Okonkwo’s friend Obierika voices the most impassioned oratory, crystallising the events and their significance for the village. In Things Fall Apart, ceremonial dancing and the singing of folk songs reflect the realities of Igbo tradition. The elderly Uchendu, attempting to shake Okonkwo out of his self-pity, refers to a song sung after the death of a woman: "For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for whom it is well."This song contrasts with the "gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism" sung later by the white missionaries.

No longer At Ease and A Man of the People take recourse to the oral traditions of African proverb and literate tradition of  code-mixing in restorying the native experience. Proverbs and short stories plays a crucial role in Ibo & Nigerian culture throughout Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer At Ease. Obi, the protagonist of No Longer at Ease, is at one point met by women singing a "Song of the Heart", which Achebe gives in both Igbo and English:

Achebe’s novel Arrow of God juxtaposes a mother’s oral storytelling with a son reading the first page in his Igbo primer, the first book ever to enter the family compound. The novel narrates the coming of literacy to Igboland by focusing on three quite different images: the python in a box as an image for the book (and the Domestication of the Savage Mind); the road through the forest as a symbol of writing and its power; and the solitary man, shut up in a closet, who attends to a disembodied voice but is distracted by noises from outside as a metonym for the experience of reading.

In examination of how proverbs work in the novel would be a way to discuss theme, clarify character, and explain the culture. Achebe says, "when I use these forms in my novels, they both serve a utilitarian purpose, which is to reenact the life of the people that I am describing, and also delight through elegance and aptness of imagery. This is what proverbs are supposed to do".

Chinua Achebe himself explains that a story "does many things. It entertains, it informs, it instructs." "If you look at these stories carefully, you will find they support and reinforce the basic tenets of the culture. The storytellers worked out what is right and what is wrong, what is courageous and what is cowardly, and they translate this into stories" We can learn much about a culture by learning its stories.

Oral African storytelling is essentially a communal participatory experience. Everyone in most traditional African societies participate in formal and informal storytelling as interactive oral performance—such participation is an essential part of traditional African communal life, and basic training in a particular culture’s oral arts and skills is an essential part of children’s traditional indigenous education on their way to initiation into full humanness.


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This paper was presented in 9th Internatinal Writers Festival-India (An International Concference of Poets, Writers & Scholarsw) held at Nellore (Andhra Pradesh) on 9-10 November, 2013


(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2014)