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Research project

African Oral Literatures, new media and technologies

African oral literatures, new media and technologies: challenges for research and documentation


This project aimed to create and implement international cooperation in new fields of African Oral Literature Studies. To this end, a series of conferences and workshops were organized by the African Departments of Leiden University, the University of Hamburg, the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales INALCO (Paris), the University of Naples L'Orientale, and the School of African and Oriental Studies SOAS (London). The research group underpin international cooperation by producing joint research programs. 

This project was jointly funded by NWO, The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and partner Universities Oral literatures represent a fundamental component of the intangible heritage of African cultures and the humankind. The importance of studying Oral Literatures is recognized by anthropological, linguistic, historical and literary research (Barber and Moraes Farias 1989, Boyer 1990, Finnegan 1992, Hamilton 1998, Hayward and Lewis 1996, Kashula 2001, Okpewho 1998). Mythical and epic narratives, folktales, heroic and love poems, funeral lamentations, ritual incantations as well as urban songs, popular theatre and many other oral genres are appreciated and studied as a cultural harvest of human and artistic worth addressing and giving form to fundamental questions and acquisitions of individuals and their societies. 

Nowadays, the study of African Oral Literatures faces new research challenges due to expanding technologies of audio-video recording and their increasing popularisation and mass-diffusion (Beck and Wittmann 2004, Ricard and Veit-Wild 2005). 

The series of conferences and workshops will address these challenges and the integration of technology into a novel approach of African Oral Literature as ‘total event’. That is to say, the researchers will discuss methodological and theoretical implications in - and offer new directions for - the study of all the relevant aspects of the African oral genres (language, form and content, performance, literary and social context, history) when these genres are recorded or produced on audio-visual and electronic devices. The researchers will further assess a preliminary inventory of African Oral Literature video recording existing as documentaries and private materials of researchers at the respective institutions, they will evaluate the geographical, linguistic and literary areas recorded and yet to be investigated, and related scientific publications. Building on the discussion and results of the conferences, the workshops will offer the organisational forum for producing a joint research program on Technological Research, Analysis, Documentation, and E-learning of African oral literatures to be submitted at European calls for tenders.

Project background

The audio-visual recording technology affects documentation as well as theory and methodology of research in African Oral Literature and the way this knowledge is taught in an academic setting. Scholars and students have become aware that collecting and analysing printed transcriptions and translations only give a faint portrait of oral poems and tales and their literary and social functions in Africa (Finnegan 1992, Okpewho 1992, Schipper 1990). The difference is like documenting and studying a live pop-concert or the written text of the songs: the pop-concert is a ‘performance’, i.e. an artistic, cultural and social event that constructs meanings and networks including but also going beyond the written text. What get lost in the written text are the intonation and the gestuality along with the eventual musical accompaniment, the interactions between performer and public, the clothing and scenography, and the context and politics of the performance. Furthermore, the necessity of new forms of documentation and research is strengthened by the changing conditions of oral production in the last decade, given by the increasing number of African “artists of the word” – storytellers, singers etc. – that make use of new media technologies to create and spread their songs and poems. These changes reopen questions about definition, interpretation and research methodology in the field of orality and ‘popular cultures’ in Africa (Barber 1997, Cosentino 1987, Furniss 1996, Ricard and Veit-Wild 2005). 

Documentation and investigation of African oral genres are however largely based on material accessible in written form (Coulet Western 1975; Baumgardt and Bounfour 2000, Görög-Karady 1981; Westley 1991), while only a handful of experimental projects offer a few examples of new technological documentation and research methodologies (Furniss 2006, Merolla’s ongoing project 2006).  

The academic meeting series African oral literatures, new media and technologies: challenges for research and documentation intends to address problems and potentialities of African Oral Literature Studies in relation to the expanding Audio-Visual Technology and to produce new international research projects. Assessing the present range of investigation and technological documentation of oral performances in African studies and raising new questions by means of pan-African comparative perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches (literature, linguistics, anthropology, folklore studies, history), the researchers will also contribute to discuss and redefine the cross-disciplinary (anthropological, historical, linguistic and literary) fields of research on Orality and Popular Culture. 

Importance and surplus value of international cooperation for local research group and for the international partners. 

Documenting and studying Oral Literatures constitute a pivotal enterprise in the scientific investigation of African cultures. Thanks to the cross-disciplinary approach of conferences and organizational workshops, the project African oral literature and technology: challenges for research and documentation will foster integration and synergy of individual and institutional expertise leading to a major scientific joint project for the study and preservation of African intangible heritage and for the position and visibility of this field of study. 

Internationally, the project will attract research and funding for the field of Oral Literatures in the framework of African Studies. Locally, the project African oral literature and technology: challenges for research and documentation will enhance research and publication in this field of study and the research focus on Orality and Technology in the framework of the CNWS, the University of Leiden and the Africa Studies Centrum.

Leiden University

  • dr. Daniela Merolla (project coordinator)
  • dr. Jan Jansen (project coordinator)
  • dr. Felix Ameka
  • Prof. dr. Maarten Mous

University of Hamburg, Germany

Contact person: Prof. dr. Mechtild Reh

Asia-Africa Institute Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), Paris, France

Contact person: Prof. dr. Abdellah Bounfour, CRB.

University of Naples L'Orientale, Italy

Contact person: Prof. dr. Giorgio Banti, Department of Study and Research on Africa and Arab Countries

The World Oral Literature Project

Contact person: Dr. Mark Turin

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, England

Contact person: Prof. dr. Graham Furniss, Centre of African Studies

The specialist’s meetings in the form of conferences and workshops will produce several durable results: 

  1. A research network supported by the network website providing information on the network activities, access to existing data bases, a virtual forum for scientific exchange amongst institutions and researchers in the field of African Oral Literature and Technology, and virtual accessibility and openness of the network activities for the scientific community. 
  2. An inventory of published and unpublished video materials and related scientific research already existing at the African Departments of the network and at the respective libraries, internet collections etc.
  3. Publications in the form of articles and a final volume integrating new questions and answers from the areas of research indicated in the project. 
  4. A joint research program to be submitted at European tenders.
  • Barber, Karin and De Moraes Farias ,Paulo (Eds.), Discourse and its Disguises, the Interpretation of African Oral Texts, African Studies Series, Birmingham University, Birmingham, 1989.
  • Barber, Karin, (Ed.), 1997, Readings in African Popular Culture. London : The International African Institute, SOAS, and Oxford: Curry.
  • Beck, rose Marie, and Frank Wittmann (Eds.), African Media Cultures, Transdisciplinary Perspectives, Köln: Köppe Verlag, 2004.
  • Boyer, Pascal, Tradition as Truth and Communication: A Cognitive Description of Traditional Discourse, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, Mass., 1990.
  • Baumgardt, Ursula and Abdellah Bounfour, Panorama des littératures africaines, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2000.
  • Cosentino D.J., 1987, Omnes cultura tres partes divisa est? African Studies Review 30, 3, 85-90.
  • Coulet Western, Dominique, A bibliography of the arts of Africa, African Studies Association of Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., 1975.
  • Fabian, J., 1998 Moments of Freedom: Popular Culture and Anthropology. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
  • Finnegan, Ruth, Oral Poetry, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1992 [1977].
  • Finnegan, Ruth, Oral traditions and the verbal arts, Routledge, London/New York, 1992.
  • Furniss, G., 1996, Poetry, prose and popular culture in Hausa Edinburgh/London : Edinburgh University Press for the International African Institute.
  • Furniss, Graham, R esearch database on Hausa popular literature and video film, Electronic Project, SOAS, 2006.
  • Görög-Karady, Veronique., Littérature orale d'Afrique noire : bibliographie analytique, Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris, 1981.
  • Hamilton, Carolyn, Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention, Harvad UP, Cambridge, Mass., 1998.
  • Hayward, Richard J., and I.M. Lewis (Eds.), Voice and Power, The culture of language in North-East Africa, Essay in Honour of B.W. Andrzejewski London: SOAS, 1996.
  • Kaschula, R., 2001, Introduction, in R.Kaschula (Ed.), African Oral Literature, Functions in contemporary contexts, pp. i-xvi. South Africa: Faculty of Humanities, University of Cape Town.
  • Okpewho, Isidore, Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, hegemony, and Identity, Indiana UP, Bloomington, 1998.
  • Okpewho, Isidoro, African Oral Literature, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1992. Schipper, Mineke, Afrikaanse Letterkunde, AMBO, ’s-Gravenhage, 1990.
  • Ricard, Alain, and Flora Veit-Wild (Eds.), Interfaces Between the Oral and the Written / Interfaces entre l'écrit et l'oral, Matatu Series, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2005.
  • Westley, David, A bibliography of African epic, Research in African Literatures, 1991, vol. 22, no. 4, p. 99-115.
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