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Revisiting Isidore Okpewho orature and African literature


The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors.

A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors (Chinua Achebe, 1958:97).”

The above excerpt from Chinua Achebe is a fitting tribute to Professor Isidore Okpewho, the doyen of African oral literature who departed this world to that of the ancestors on the 4th of September, 2016 at the age of 74.


A scholar, critic, novelist, and a classicist, Okpewho transversed the academic landscape of Africa, Europe and America, excavating, nurturing, propagating and preserving the intangible cultural heritage of the African people for nearly five decades.

Truly, to us in Africa, death is not the finality of man especially when such a man led a fulfilled life while on earth. He only transits from one plane of existence to another, assuming a more dignified status as an ancestor.

Besides, the volume of Okpewho’s scholarly and creative works which he left behind as intellectual quarry for continuous mining and interrogation makes him an ancestor who constantly watches over his people from a higher plane.

Okpewho was Urhobo. It is therefore apt that he should be serenaded with the lore of the ancients:
Papa yonreẹobove
Avwanre yonreẹobna

Papa hold firm the ancestral world
We are in charge of the world of the living

This essay is an evaluative excursion through the major works of Isidore Okpewho. It offers a brief insight into some of his scholarly and creative works that defined his place as a literary colossus of African oral literature and presents him as a universally acclaimed authority in the mould of the epic hero in the cultural sense of heroism.

Okpewho is one of the finest and prolific scholars in the field of oral literature in Africa and Europe in the last three decades. His critical works: The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (1979), Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983), A Portrait of the Artist as a Scholar, An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at the Faculty of Education Lecture Theatre, University of Ibadan, Thursday, 18 May, (1989), African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (1992), Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (1998) and Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology (2014) attest to this assertion.


Of course early efforts at studying African oral literature were started in the 18th century by European missionaries and were geared towards linguistic studies meant primarily to aid the process of colonialism and facilitate evangelisation.

The result was the publication of various texts on African languages and folklore. Materials collected and published on folklore included various narratives, historical texts, proverbs, riddles and songs many of which foreground racist prejudices on the ingenuity of African oral literature.

Rev. S.W. Koelle’s African Native Literature or Proverbs, Tales, Fables and Historical Fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu Language published in 1854 by the Church Missionary House in London is a good example.

However, works by indigenous scholars such as Bernard Vilakazi of South Africa, J. H. K. Nketia of Ghana, D. T. Niane of Guinea as well as Adeboye Babalola of Nigeria created a ferment that placed research on African oral literature on its rightful pedestal. Oyin Ogunba’s Ph.D thesis: “Ritual Drama of the Ijebu People: A Study of Indigenous Festivals” (1968) was a pathfinder in the field of traditional drama.

The work became a reference point in the study of indigenous dramatic and oral poetic forms in Africa. But it was the publication of Okpewho’s seminal book: The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance in 1979, a work which derives significantly from his Ph.D thesis submitted to the University of Denver, Colorado in 1976, that heralded the belief that African oral literature scholarship has come of age.

In this work, Okpewho presents with lucid evidences that the epic genre is available in Africa contrary to western assertion that the genre is lacking in the continent. Ruth Finnegan (1970) had hastily concluded that the epic as it is known in European culture does not exist in Africa. To be specific, she asserts that: “epic poetry does not seem to be a typical African form” (110).


Okpewho’s conviction and courage as an African cultural nationalist is well expressed in this work. He tells us in a personal interview with Ezechi Onyerionwu that:

When I was considering a topic for my doctoral dissertation (thesis), my supervisor casually drew my attention to a statement made by the British scholar Ruth Finnegan, in her book Oral Literature in Africa (1970), that the ‘epic’ was not a prominent feature of African oral traditions; Finnegan’s judgment was based on her comparison of the ancient Greek poet Homer, the epitome of the European tradition of the epic, and the little she had seen of the African evidence of the genre.

Combining my training in the Classics and my early experience of listening to skilled storytellers telling fantastic tales of heroes and their feats, I decided to challenge Finnegan’s claim about the relative absence of the epic in African oral traditions (164).

The significance of Okpewho’s book therefore bears essential testimony to the validity and vitality of the epic as a distinctive oral form in Africa.

He explains that an “oral epic is fundamentally a tale about the fantastic deeds of a man or men endowed with something more than human might and operating in something larger than the normal human context and it is of significance in portraying some stage of the cultural or political development of a people” (34).

His elucidating treatment of various strands of the epic traditions such as the Sundiata of Senegal, Old Mali and Gambia, the Mwindo of Congo, and the Ozidi Saga of Nigeria with comparative instances from various European epic traditions put to rest the long standing western prejudices of the existence of the genre in Africa.


Okpewho’s efforts in bringing into a broader spectrum, a critical perspective on how literary engagements in Africa thrived before colonialism was manifest in his theoretical inquiry into the mythic imagination of the African people.

His second full-fledged book, Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance served as a compendium for the study of African oral literature.

In this work, Okpewho confronts various western restricted theories on the study of myth in an attempt to put his thesis on myth in Africa in its cultural perspective.

As a scholar who pays attention to details, he succinctly captures the critical ingredients of myth that enables a storyteller recreate a tale with factual history without losing its mythic relevance.

To him therefore, myth is not just about tales about people or events in timeless past but “that quality of fancy which informs the creative and configuration powers of the human mind in varying degrees of intensity”(16).

In other words, the value of a myth does not lie in its surface appearance but goes beyond the formal architectonics of the conscious innovation of the individual storyteller.

Okpewho’s critical thesis in the book lies in the fact that western typologies and theoretical basis are inadequate in the study of African oral literature.

It is in this regards that G. G. Darah (2016) believes that the book “opened fresh vistas into a subject [myth] that had been vastly misapplied by functionalist anthropologists and Christian religious bigots” (34).


Efforts at establishing a platform for the collection, study and publication of folklore materials in Nigeria were already started by the introduction of the journal, Nigerian Magazine in the 1960s.

The publication of Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book by Nigerian Magazine edited by the eminent scholar, Yemi Ogunbiyi in 1981 opened the floodgate of scholarly enquiring into Nigerian and African indigenous theatre and dramaturgy.

The chapters by experts most of whom were already established are highly engaging. This was quickly followed by Oral Poetry in Nigeria edited by Abalogu, N. Nchegbulam et al in 1981.

However, Okpewho’s revolutionary steps extended the debate to include oral experts from Ghana, Malawi, and South Africa in his edited anthology, The Oral Performance in Africa (1990).

The over thirteen articles in the book treat various aspects of oral performance, improvisation, theories of oral literatures as well as fieldworks and preservation of oral literary materials. The book became a critical source book for both students and teachers of African oral literature.

In 1985, Okpewho published an anthology of African poetry taking materials from the oral and written tradition of African poetry with the title The Heritage of African Poetry: An Anthology of Oral and Written Poetry.

The illuminating introduction to the anthology which shows his versatility with various aspects of African poetry, explores the link between the oral and written traditions of African poetry.


In order to create a platform through which students and scholars of African oral literature can interact in the field of research and pedagogy, Okpewho later published his significant book on African oral literature titled: African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (1992).

The twelve-chapter book contains essential guides to issues about the place of the oral artists, his art and performance nuances as well as fieldwork resources.

Furthermore, Okpewho’s critical oeuvre in the oral narrative genres manifested in his 1998 book, Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony and Identity in which he analytically examined various legendary tales that mirror the socio-political past between the ancient Benin kingdom and other neighbouring communities of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

The book’s literary merit lies significantly in its critical articulation of various strands of the social upheavals and political intrigues that pervaded the ancient Benin empire especially its socio-historical leanings with other communities in the western Niger Delta.

It foregrounds the idea of myth as it affects the Ogisos and Eweka’s dynasties in ancient Benin, the people’s power in relation to social justice as well as the oppressed and the oppressor dynamics in the social construct of the people.

As Okpewho explains in the Preface of the book, “Once Upon a Kingdom investigates the contending images of dominance and self-assertion in the conflict between privileged elements (the “center”) and others (the “margin”) who are determined to defend their defining interests and identities” (ix).

His contextual analysis of the tales collected from his Anioma-Igbo section of Delta State not only address the hegemonic conflectual indices that have put many African societies on their toes but present an ideological template for the evaluation of the clannish bias that constitute the compositional nuances of many African oral narratives.


According to Darah, Okpewho in this book revisits the ideological issue of how the communities and peoples of the Anioma-Igbo section of what is now Delta State explored the resources of folktales, myths, and legendary stories to celebrate their centuries-long struggles to be emancipated from the ideological and political sway of the Benin monarchy and its hierarchies of power (34).

Okpewho’s last critical book, Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology draws important resources from earlier research works to continue the debate on the oral epic in Africa and also foregrounds the critical interaction between the artist and his audience in an oral performance setting.

With scholarly textual analysis, the book not only examines the mythic world of the Ijaw people of the western Niger Delta and their environment which constitutes the cultural milieu on which The Ozidi Saga is narrated, but provides essential socio-political and historical materials for The Ozidi Saga.

A versatile and innovative writer, Okpewho translates his deep knowledge of the social and cultural background of the African people into creative works which earned him recognition as novelist as well as many awards.

Unlike his contemporaries such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugu wa Thiong’o, J.P. Clark, Ayi Kwei Armah as well as Gabriel Okara who confront the issues of colonialism and political insensitivity of many post independence African leaders in their works, Okpewho addressed matters that affect the family especially with respect to polygamy, the destructive nature of the human society as reflected in the Nigerian civil war, the hypocrisy in the environmental politics of the Niger Delta of Nigeria as well as the inherent loss of identity in the African American person which results from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

His creative works include: The Victims (1970), The Last Duty (1976), Tides (1993) and Call Me By My Rightful Name (2004).

In The Victims, Okpewho explores the conflictual indices of polygamy that have ravaged many homes in Africa. Like J.P. Clark’s poetry collection, The Casualties in which he presents everyone: the victorious and vanquished of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970 as casualties, Okpewho sees the unmanaged conflict arising from polygamous homes as capable of engulfing the entire family: husband, wives and children.

The novel narrates the story of a sad woman who feels betrayed by her husband of three years who had to marry another wife because of her inability to bear him a second child. Okpewho in the story examines the themes of immorality, rebellion, and poverty inherent in many polygamous homes in African and foregrounds the attendant disaster that comes with it.

The story’s literary aestheticism is expressed in the form of a warning to men who marry many wives that their lean resources and mental disposition could not be able to manage.


Furthermore, In The Last Duty and Tides, Okpewho engages the two significant national issues that have threatened the corporate existence of the Nigerian state since independence – the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970 and the Niger Delta environmental degradation as well as the quest for social justice.

The Last Duty tells the story of the general loss and deprivations that derived from the Nigerian Civil War.

However, it did not deal with the general crisis of physical casualties such as killings, rapes, hunger and wanton destructions that results from the three years war but deals with the tragedy that is inner and psychological; invisible wounds that adumbrate man’s inhumanity to man.

The social and psychological trauma that Aku and her husband, Oshevire had to go through in the hands of Toje and society foregrounds the everlasting tragedy that is entrenched in the psyche of many who were engulfed by the war.

The Tides on the other hand, evaluates the national hypocrisy that constitutes the environmental war in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Okpewho in this novel uses the characters of the two unjustly sacked journalists, Tonwe and Dukumo to engage the insidious complexities of national and regional allegiance that have threatened the foundation of the Nigerian state since independence.

Hence we constantly find the two friends making hard choices between ethnic sentiments and national goals.


In Call Me by my Rightful Name however, Okpewho engages the dual themes of cultural identity and homecoming which have been the hallmark of his many researches.

He draws significantly from his oral literary experience (the Yoruba oriki) to explore the traditional theme of return to source.

The story which revolves around Otis Hampton, a young African American who falls into periodic spasms and utters a series of chants which his family could not decipher, seeks spiritual rejuvenation from his ancestral roots in Nigeria.

In this story, Okpewho skilfully weaves the story of an arduous quest and discovery that is necessary for the individual that is lost from his root to embrace in order fulfil his mission on earth. Hampton in this novel represents the many African Americans who daily seek means to reconnect with their ancestral roots in Africa.

It is obvious from the foregoing that Okpewho is a scholar-writer who did not only use his intellectual strength to propagate the cultural lore and identity of Africa but used his creative works to propagate same.

His effort can be said to be nationalistic and even heroic because it was done in pursuit of honour for the “living” literary traditions of his Africa.

In other words, Okpewho’s nationalism and heroism are manifest in his efforts at using his intellectual and creative strength in the propagation of the entire traditional setting of Africa with specific treatise of its oral cadences that held the people together before the advent of colonialism.

His effort in putting African oral traditions on the world map knew no bounds.

Essentially, they are reflected in the titles of his scholarly books and essays which bear homage to the African oral past and contemporary experience. His place in the ancestral court is therefore assured.
• Peter E. Omoko teaches in the Department of English, Delta State College of Education, Mosogar, Delta State, Nigeria.

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