Oral Literature in Africa - cover image

Book Series


Ruth Finnegan

Published On





  • English

Print Length

614 pages (xliv + 570 )


Paperback156 x 32 x 234 mm(6.14" x 1.24" x 9.21")
Hardback156 x 33 x 234 mm(6.14" x 1.31" x 9.21")


Paperback1879g (66.28oz)
Hardback2280g (80.42oz)



OCLC Number





  • JHMC
  • HBTD
  • 1H


  • SOC002010
  • LIT004010
  • DRA011000


  • PL8010


  • Oral literature
  • African culture
  • Orality
  • Unglue.it
  • Storytelling
  • Limba
  • Sierra Leone
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Oral Literature in Africa

  • Ruth Finnegan (author)
  • Mark Turin (foreword by)

Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa was first published in 1970, and since then has been widely praised as one of the most important books in its field. Based on years of fieldwork, the study traces the history of storytelling across the continent of Africa. This revised edition makes Finnegan’s ground-breaking research available to the next generation of scholars. It includes a new introduction, additional images and an updated bibliography, as well as its original chapters on poetry, prose, "drum language" and drama, and an overview of the social, linguistic and historical background of oral literature in Africa. Oral Literature in Africa has been accessed by hundreds of readers in over 60 different countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and numerous other African countries. The digital editions of this book are free to download thanks to the generous support of interested readers and organisations, who made donations using the crowd-funding website Unglue.it. Oral Literature in Africa is part of our World Oral Literature Series in conjunction with the World Oral Literature Project.


The most significant development in this new edition is its accessibility, for the book is now freely available online. [...] In these and other ways, Finnegan's study offers windows into new worlds while reminding readers who are returning to it of all that it encompasses and all that it has bestowed upon African oral literary studies. The book can now be read online, or downloaded as a free e-book or pdf. In its new form, the book is a gift given to us anew and, more importantly, given freely to the continent whence it came.

Felcitiy Wood

"Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa". Journal of Southern African Studies (0305-7070), vol. 40, no. 1, 2014. doi:10.1080/03057070.2014.877663

Full Review

Additional Resources

This volume is complemented by original recordings of stories and songs from the Limba country (Sierra Leone), collected by Finnegan during her fieldwork in the late 1960s.

[website]Original recordings of stories and songs from the Limba country

These recordings are hosted by the World Oral Literature Project

Table of Contents


Online Resources


Forward by Mark Turin




Note on Sources and References


1. The 'oral' nature of African unwritten literature

The significance of performance in actualization, transmission, and composition. Audience and occasion. Implications for the study of oral literature. Oral art as literature.

2. The perception of African oral literature

Nineteenth-century approaches and collections. Speculations and neglect in the twentieth century. Recent trends in African studies and the revival of interest in oral literature.

3. The social, linguistic, and literary background

Social and literary background. The linguistic basis — the example of Bantu. Some literary tools. Presentation of the material. The literary complexity of African cultures.


4. Poetry and patronage

Variations in the poet's position. Court poets. Religious patronage. Free-lance and wandering poets. Part-time poets. A note on 'epic'.

5. Panegyric

Introductory: nature and distribution; composers and reciters; occasions. Southern Bantu praise poetry: form and style; occa­sions and delivery; traditional and contemporary significance.

6. Elegiac poetry

General and introductory. Akan funeral dirges: content and themes; structure, style, and delivery; occasions and functions; the dirge as literature.

7. Religious poetry

Introductory. Didactic and narrative religious poetry and the Islamic tradition; the Swahili tenzi. Hymns, prayers, and incanta­tions: general survey; the Fante Methodist lyric. Mantic poetry: Sotho divining praises; odu Ifa (Yoruba).

8. Special purpose poetry — war, hunting, and work

Military poetry: Nguni; Akan. Hunting poetry: Yoruba ijala; Ambo hunters' songs. Work songs.

9. Lyric

Occasions. Subject-matter. Form. Composition.

10. Topical and political songs

Topical and local poetry. Songs of political parties and movements: Mau Mau hymns; Guinea R.D.A. songs; Northern Rhodesian party songs.

11. Children's songs and rhymes

Lullabies and nursery rhymes. Children's games and verses; Southern Sudanese action songs.


12. Prose narratives I. Problems and theories

Introductory. Evolutionist interpretations. Historical-geographi­cal school. Classification and typologies. Structural-functional approach. Conclusion.

13. Prose narratives II. Content and form.

What is known to date: content and plot; main characters. Types of tales: animal stories; stories about people; 'myths'; ‘legends' and historical narratives. What demands further study: occasions; role of narrators; purpose and function; literary conventions; per­formance; originality and authorship. Conclusion.

14. Proverbs

The significance and concept of the proverb. Form and style. Content. Occasions and functions. Specific examples: Jabo; Zulu; Azande. Conclusion.

15. Riddles

Riddles and related forms. Style and content. Occasions and uses. Conclusion.

16. Oratory, formal speaking, and other stylized forms

Oratory and rhetoric: Burundi; Limba. Prayers, curses, etc. Word play and verbal formulas. Names.


17. Drum language and literature

Introductory — the principle of drum language. Examples of drum literature: announcements and calls; names; proverbs; poetry. Conclusion.

18. Drama

Introductory. Some minor examples: Bushman 'plays'; West African puppet shows. Mande comedies. West African masquerades: South-Eastern Nigeria; Kalabari. Conclusion.






Ruth Finnegan

Visiting Research Professor and Emeritus Professor at The Open University

Mark Turin

(foreword by)