Keeping Kenya’s Orality Alive by Githanda Githae                

There is a famous phrase that goes, ‘When all other means of communication fail, try words’. Indeed this proves that oral skills are vital to each and every person in the whole world! These are the skills that make us all human.

Karibu to our journey of oral skills back in our mother land, Kenya.  This is a very short insight into our small world of orality that connects us. We are known to be a people with vibrant traditions, culture and heritage, speaking over 42 different languages in the country. Oral skills in Kenya have been with us for generations, there is no way we can separate ourselves from its roots. Our mode of communication was through the use of orality in different traditional forms like, storytelling, songs, poetry, recitations, riddling, proverbs, jesting etc. The list is endless.

Since time immemorial the skills have helped our society to engage and share information, through expressing ones views or opinions in any way you deem fit for interpretation. One had to have the ability to communicate one’s knowledge and understanding verbally and fluently.

Our orality was also ‘published to literature’ through narratives, verse, prose, drama, ballads, you name it. . Way back even into the 17th century, we engaged in metre, metrical forms, impromptu, stanza syllables, rhyme scheme, epigrams, cryptic language, form of the refrain non-narrative, non-lyrical poetry, epic poetry forms ,jingles ….’ again here the list is endless.

The society as whole was very articulate, always learning from each other and aiming to become more proficient speakers. Communication became very swift and different mediums were born, like face to face conversations, baraza meetings, group discussion, traditional leadership, Village Committees, Farmers Committees etc. Our orality shaped our experiences, explained, gave it meaning, created memories and most of all gave us the power of becoming a highly skilled orator.

Each and every event/function in Kenya was always accompanied by an oral form, this of course varied from tribe to tribe.  (These two serve as an example and cannot be exhausted);

  • During a Swahili wedding- the gungu is the oldest type of Swahili oral form about love; it is traditionally sung/spoken at weddings, often by the women for the bride. It contains reflections on marital love with covert allusions to lovemaking, but also with more philosophical feeling
  • During a Luo funeral- some of the traditional burial rituals include publicly announcing the death with drums playing, mourners chanting, singing, dancing etc

We must fight to preserve our orality and make it our prime importance. In order to keep it alive we have created spaces for different platforms. For example we hold; schools drama and music festivals, book cafes, storytelling festivals, cultural events, open mics etc.

In conclusion, the importance or benefits of oral skill cannot be overemphasized! Enjoy reading this poem (our orality) which is based on a Kenyan folklore…..

The Huntsman by Edward Lowbury

Kagwa hunted the lion,

Through bush and forest went his spear.

One day he found the skull of a man

And said to it, “How did you come here?”

The skull opened its mouth and said,

‘Talking brought me here.’

Kagwa hurried home;

Went to the king’s chair and spoke:

‘In the forest I found a talking skull.’

The king was silent. Then he said slowly,

‘Never since I was born of my mother

Have I seen or heard of a skull which spoke.’

The king called out his guards:

‘              Two of you now go with him

And find this talking skull;

But if his tale is a lie

And the skull speaks no word,

This Kagwa himself must die’

They rode into the forest;

For days and nights they found nothing.

At last they saw the skull; Kagwa

Said to it, “How did you come here?”

The skull said nothing. Kagwa implored,

But the skull said nothing.

The guards said, ‘Kneel down.’

They killed him with sword and spear.

Then the skull opened it’s mouth;

‘Huntsman, how did you come here?’

And the dead man answered,

‘Talking brought me here.’

Moral of the story?



May 2019 Article – Keeping Kenya’s Orality Alive