Tuesday, February 23, 2021

by Muchugu Kiiru Department of Literature University of Nairobi


Literary scholars in Kenya have recognized that oral literature is a cultural heritage worth

Preserving and accessing. To this end, they have used traditional information technology to good effect. In today’s world, however, modern information technology is available as an advanced complement of this traditional information technology. This paper examines challenges posed by the potential use of modern information technology to preserve and access oral literature in Kenya. In the process it discusses the place of oral literature in social development and challenges in use of traditional information technology to preserve and access oral literature.


1. Introduction

The nature as well as the function of information technology (IT) has been succinctly captured by

Graham Taylor when he says that:


IT is the combination of computing and, telecommunications to obtain, process, store, transmit and output information in the form of voice, picture, words and numbers (1986, p.15).


To the extent that information technology stores and outputs information, this technology can be used to preserve and access oral literature we, however, need to know whether oral literature is worth preserving. To do this we need to understand its place in human society.


2. Oral Literature and social development

In the course of our history, human beings have created art, which demonstrates that they are active creators and not passive consumers of culture. When this art outlives them is preserved, it becomes a heritage for those born later. Examples of such a heritage include cave paintings and pictures as well as writings done on ancient papyrus and tablets. In this respect, oral literature is such an art which, once preserved, becomes accessible to later generations. To this extent, two ancient stories have survive ancient Greece and become accessible to us because they were committed to writing. These are The Iliad and The Odyssey.


In Kenya, Kipury has stated that she collected Maasai oral literature because she was convinced that this literature would be lost to later generations if it was not preserved. To this end, she says that her study is “an attempt to record, and hence preserve, part of the rich heritage of Maasai oral literature before it is completely forgotten” (1983, p. vii). Such anxiety is understandable because oral literature normally flourishes during pre-literacy but wilts under literacy.

This being the case, oral literature captures and reflects a social moment that will neverrecur. In the process it captures both the beauty of and the insecurity rampant in the childhood of humanity. This insecurity is partly manifested in both an irrational fear of nature and a subjective interpretation of society which gave rise to a myriad of superstitions. In spite of this insecurity, however, the inhabitants of this childhood incessantly struggled against, and sought to harness, an awesome nature, as they, at the same time, struggled to cultivate culture in and build civilization out of a primitive society. Oral literature reflects some of these struggles and, in the process, becomes an aesthetic record and a living testimony of human will to overcome mental and physical constraints put in the way by nature and society. To this extent oral literature is an ally to dynamic forces of social development.




In addition to capturing a unique social moment, oral literature reflects what the author has referred to as unique “activists, demands, needs and yearnings of a people in their desire to understand phenomena like birth, death, love [and] marriage”, in the process and as a result, it “apprehends and fulfils historical necessity” (Kiiru, 1986, p.3). At the same time, since phenomena such as birth, death, love and marriage are universal in essence but particular in form, oral literature is a living demonstration that the experiences it explores and the yearning it embodies are germane to humankind all over the world and down the ages.

In these circumstances, preserving oral literature accesses to us an art, whose loss would have been invaluable and irreplaceable if oral literature had disappeared alongside the society which created it and of which it was an aesthetic reflection. But thanks to preservation, oral literature has become our universal birthright because, even when it is preserved in its primary form, it can be accessed in forms, such as translation and dubbing, comprehensible to people separated from its creators by place, time or both. Such a rendition has accessed to us not only The Iliad and The Odyssey but also Kenyan oral literature.

We will now look at the two types of information technology which have been or can be used to preserve and access oral literature. For the sake of convenience, we will refer to these as traditional information technology and modern information technology.


3. Traditional information technology

Writing, audio recording and video rendition are three technologies in use today in preserving and accessing oral literature. Although these technologies are being used concurrently, they came into use in this consecutive order: written forms, audio renditions and visual images. We, therefore, have witnessed a technological revolution in preserving and accessing oral literature because these technologies have made it more, since oral literature can be translated from its primary language into other languages these technologies have made oral literature accessible to people separated from its primary state by distance, time or language.

However, these three technologies differ in the quality of preserving and accessing oral literature. These distinctions will become clear if we look at these technologies individually.



3.1 Written forms

From ancient times when tablets and papyrus were used as writing materials, to the medieval times when Johann Gutenberg invented the movable printing type the written word has become indivisible from human civilization in preserving and accessing information.


With regard to preserving and accessing oral literature, the significance of this written word becomes evident when a researcher uses a pen or a typewriter and paper to maintain a relatively permanent record while a reader decodes the primary language in which this record is transcribed. Once this record has been translated, and transcribed into other languages, it becomes accessible to international audiences literate in these languages, has now been translated into English, and therefore, has become accessible nationally and internationally.


In spite of this accessibility, transcription and translation of oral literature is a laborious and time-consuming task. In addition, transcription calls on researchers to achieve and impossibility in preserving oral literature accurately because oral literature is a performance. Consequently, researchers striving for accuracy have to transcribe it as it is orally rendered. However, this is no easy task. On the one hand, if an oral artist slows down the rendering of a performance these researchers can preserve linguistic elements of a performance fairly accurately. In the process, however, this verbatim transcription compromises or loses the spontaneity of and the non-verbal elements in the performance. On the other hand, in an endeavour to capture this spontaneity, researchers can transcribe a text as the oral artist performs but without an attempt to render it verbatim because transcription cannot keep up speed with the spoken word. In effect, such researches edit oral literature as it is enacted, recited or narrated and, in the process, render hat, in their judgement, is the substance of the oral text.


Whatever method these researchers use to transcribe oral literature, they cut off its illiterate creators, who cannot access it once it is written down. Translation of this literature into alien languages only succeeds in widening the gulf between these creators and their literature. Consequently, writing as a form of traditional information technology of accessing oral literature is elitist.


3.2 Audio renditions

The spontaneity oral literature compromises or loses when it is transcribed is captured by an audio recording which captures an audience’s responses, an artist’s speech rhythm or the sounds of instruments, such as the Kikuyu rattle. To this extent, an audio recording corresponds to a ‘live’ performance of oral literature because, as far as sound is concern, audio impression is faithful to a performance; the problem with this fidelity is that essential aspects of a performance and elements extraneous to oral literature are usually captured. Since these elements are not demanded by the literature, they have to be deleted-a cumbersome process.

Similar to the pen or typewriter and paper used in written forms of oral literature, the hardware and the software used in audio renditions of oral literature are cheap, accessible and convenient. In this regard, a cassette recorder is portable and uses readily available dry cells while audio tapes and cassettes are robust as they are easy to label, store and access.

But however robust this software is, it has a short ‘shelf-life’, needs careful handling and should be protected against dust-else irreparable damage will be done to irreplaceable data. At the same time, accessing data preserved on its track is cumbersome because such an access depends on how accurately listeners locate the required data from the tape counter.

Finally, audio renditions lose extra-linguistic elements, such as an artist’s bodily movements and facial expressions, which are integral to a performance of oral literature, as Plato and Thomson have observed. Thus, Thomson quotes Plato narrating an oral artist’s description of indivisibility of the artist’s physical and emotional state from the poetry he recites: “When I am describing something pitiful, my eyes fill with tears; when something terrible or strange, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs” (1980, p. 357). In ‘Studies in Ancient Greek society; Thomson relates a poetic ‘outburst’ to the bodily movements of a performer: “As she spoke, she grew excited, her language became more fluent, more highly-coloured, rhythmical, melodious and her body swayed in a dreamy, cradle-like accompaniment” (1961, p. 437). These extra-linguistic aspects are lost in a sound recording.


3.3 Visual images


Moving visual images of oral literature overcome some of the limitations associated with the written word and the audio recording. This is because these images capture the spontaneity that is lost during transcription and the visual action that is lost in audio recording. Added to this is the convenience of the basic equipment needed for preserving oral literature: the video camera is portable while the video cassette is cheap. However, access of required data on a video cassette is cumbersome because the viewer has to depend on either notes based on the counter/timer or memory, as images speed by to locate the relevant material. At the same time, video cassette recorders and video displays screens used to access oral literature the relevant material. At the same time, video cassette recorders and video display screens used to access oral literature are prohibitively expensive in Kenya and, even if they were relatively cheap, their use is circumscribed by electricity which is not available in most rural areas of the country.


3.4 Dynamics of traditional information technology

In spite of the limitations which we have outlined, traditional information technology, if exploited, can be used to preserve and access oral literature widely.

In regard to its written form, traditional information technology in the form of books, newspapers and magazines preserves and accesses oral literature in its primary state or through translation. In addition, the oral literature contained in these publications can be put on  microfilms, which are both efficient as a backing storage and accessible once appropriate equipment is used. However, a drawback to the accessibility of oral literature through the written word is illiteracy because the audience this traditional information technology implies is literate.

In relation to its audio rendition, traditional information technology can widely disseminate oral literature via the national radio network, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). This radio station broadcasts in several literature in its primary and translated languages. Such a national dissemination will be possible because in Kenya radio receivers are cheap and their use is widespread.

Similarly, video images are accessible to a national audience via telecasts on the national television network, KBC-Television. Once these images are dubbed or subtitled, language barriers will be broken. Consequently, the preserved oral literature will be accessible to viewers who otherwise would be unable to understand the primary language used to preserve the oral literature. A problem in Kenya is the limited ownership of television sets compared to the extensive ownership of and accessibility to radio receivers.

In the end, there is a need to exhaust the existing output possibilities presented by traditional information technology. The failure to effectively exploit these possibilities is, perhaps, one unstated impediment to adopting modern information technology as a complementary information technology to preserve and access oral literature. It is to the possibilities of this modern information technology that we now turn.


4. Modern information technology

Modern information technology comprises computerized and telecommunications which, relative to traditional information technology, are prohibitively expensive in Kenya.

However, considering the rapid strides made in technology every day, this becoming cheaper. The lowering of prices, as well as the continuous training of more and more information technology literate personnel, has made this technology accessible on the desk and on the lap.

In this section we will briefly discuss tapes, disks and optical storage systems as three primary types of backing storage and data communication and network systems useful in preserving and accessing oral literature.


4.1 Tapes and disks

Whatever their distinctions are, tape and disks share one advantage over traditional information technology: speedy and direct access to data. They, therefore, overcome some of the limitations we noted in relation to audio renditions because, once data is keyed in, it is directly and speedily accessible. Disks access this data through a directory and index, which is a revolutionary leap from the counter used to locate material on audio tapes and cassettes. However, like audio tapes and cassettes, computer tapes and disks should be handled carefully in order to protect data. In this respect, the recording surface of a disk should not be touched and the disk should be neither bent nor exposed to dust. In addition, tapes and disks should not be secured, and back-up copies of programs made because, should be data on the original tracks be corrupted, keying in documents all over again in tiresome.


Although tapes and disks preserve and access data directly and speedily they are, in a manner of speaking, a form of transcription, which neither preserves nor access audio-visual dynamics integral to the ‘literature’ under discussion. At the same time, the modern information technology, to which tapes and disks are integral, is expensive relative to traditional informational information technology relating to written forms and audio renditions.


4.2 Optical storage systems

To an extent, optical storage systems, comprising of optical disks and interactive video, preserve and access audio-visual dynamics of oral literature because the optical disk stores as well as pictures. In this way they overcome the limitations of tapes and disks. At the same time, they overcome the cumbersomeness of accessing material on the video cassette because, in Taylor’s words:


Computer control enables rapid random access (unlike video tape) and interactive viewing according to individual need…. Control software allows the user to programme the disk reader to search for particular video frames or to control sound output. (1986, p.51)


Their advantages notwithstanding, optical storage systems are expensive.

4.3 Data communications and networks

Data communication and networks systems open up revolutionary opportunities and possibilities of preserving and accessing oral literature on a wide scale. Data communication or network systems can preserve oral literature on and access it from a database on a national scale speedily and directly. While such access is somewhat similar to broadcasts, which have been centrally beamed to schools in Kenya since the 1960’s and whose timetable is national and fixed, it would have an advantage over broadcasts because one can access oral literature when one requires it.

In addition, such a national data communication and network system opens up possibilities of developing educational and cultural material derived from oral literature. Once preserved, this material is accessible through a central computer or interconnected computers. This is material students can easily identify with because it is derived from their environment- past and present. In the process, the students will learn that their forbearers created a splendid culture, which was a consequence of and an impetus to social development. In this way, the students will be challenged to become creators of culture and not indiscriminate consumers of cultures they hardly identify with.

The immense pedagogical opportunities and possibilities opened up by data communication and network systems notwithstanding, this information technology is an expensive investment. At the same time, the dire consequences of relying on a central/national database means that no data can be accessed from it should it break down–an occurrence that can be obviated through an installation of regional data communication and network systems.



5. Challenges of Modern information technology

We now turn to challenges posed by the use of modern information technology to preserve and access oral literature. As we do so we should bear in mind Van Ryckeghem’s caution that “information technologies are not to be considered as magic devices” (1992, p. 48), and Avgerou and Land’s observation that technology “is appropriate only to the extent that it has a chance of furthering some national objectives” (1992, p32).


5.1 Justification

A fundamental issue needs to be addressed: a need to develop a sound theoretical justification for using modern information technology to preserve and access a primitive art form. This justification is particularly necessary if we bear in mind that modern information technology has been designed and developed to cater for sophisticated needs of an industrial society.

In so far as we perceive oral literature as a means of promoting backwardness or romanticizing illiteracy we will to a similar extent find it difficult to justify the use of modern information technology to preserve, let alone access it. In other words, it would be pointless to employ modern information technology to preserve and access what it the very antithesis is of: backwardness and illiteracy.

Our challenge, therefore, is to expose educated hypocrites who may implicitly promote backwardness and romanticize illiteracy under a guise of preserving and accessing oral literature and a ruse of returning to our roots. In the process these people would forget that oral literature is an embodiment of progress and humanism, and, therefore, is central in revealing the human spirit without which social development would not be thinkable. Consequently, an appreciation of this centrality of the human being to social development calls upon us to study the place of technology in human culture so that we may understand how technology ameliorates man’s poor state. Such a study is relevant because hardly any studies have been carried out in Kenya relating to the use of modern information technology in preserving and accessing literature.


5.2 Researchers

Modern information technology, being imported, is not only novel but also foreign to literary researchers in Kenya. To this extent, and in circumstances where it might be perceived as alien, its introduction or adoption has to contend with possible conservatism ingrained in researchers by traditional information technology.

Coupled with this perception is a possible technophobia arising out of a possible feeling by humanities-based researchers–the backbone of studies in oral literature–modern information technology is computer wizardry researchers designed and developed by scientists to dazzle computer illiterates.

The effect of such an attitude will be a resistance to accept modern information technology to preserve and access oral literature. In the same breath, researchers ill- disposed towards modern information technology can build up their arsenal against its adoption by pointing out that it is traditional information technology with which they were familiar and which they have tested and found workable. Indeed, such researchers will hardly discuss strengths and weaknesses of using traditional information technology to preserve and access oral literature but will use it without any apparent critical examination or theoretical justification.


In Kenya, Akivaga and Odaga have not taken traditional information technology for granted but have discussed some its relations to research into oral literature (1983, pp. 6-7; 127-31). However, a number of researchers in Kenya hardly examine this relationship but seem to take for granted the use of traditional information technology to preserve and access oral literature. In this respect, Kipury talks about merely “collecting some of the narratives” (1983, p. ix) in collecting her Kikuyu folktales. Kabira and Adagala briefly talk about fieldwork as “the field becomes not only a source of material but in the process of data collection, the researchers become educated” (1988, p. 54). Briefly mentioning the traditional information technology he employed in his collection of Akamba stories, Mbiti says that he “personally recorded some of them as they were told by various people” but “was also assisted by pupils, students and teachers in different parts of Ukambani, who wrote down the stories as they were narrated after which they sold them to me” (1984, p. vi). Similarly, in Ndai and Gichandi Pick merely says that at his request a rattle player “wrote down the original text of the poem of 150 stanzas” (1973, p. 150). The translation of Kenyan oral literature into English is briefly mentioned by Mwangi (1983, p. ix) and Mirimo(1988, p. iii) while Kabira and Mutahi point our limitations of transcription by saying that “any publication of oral literature (sic) material presents only part of the total performance which is presented in language form” (1988, p. 2).

However, today’s researchers who seem to take traditional information technology for granted are the very people who will be directly – at least initially – involved in the use of modern information technology to preserve and access oral literature. As a result, the challenge is to make them feel at home with sophisticated electronic systems should they be technophobic and aware of advantages accruing to an adoption of modern information technology should they be conservative. Above all, it is important to stress to them that traditional and modern information technologies are complementary, but not antagonist nor mutually exclusive.


5.3 Technical constraints

Modern information technology, which is in expensive and portable compared to both the first massive computers and contemporary powerful personal computers, is now available. Despite these advances, however, it is principally used in business and offices. This is because it was initially designed for foreign industrial economies and subsequently introduced by subsidiaries of multinationals in the modern business and public sectors in Kenya. Consequently, researchers intending to use it to preserve and access oral literature need to adapt it to the task at hand.


5.4 Elitism

In Kenya, modern information technology caters for an urban coterie. At the same time, modern information technology is a sophisticated electronic system which is operated and maintained by a specialized corps. To this extent it is elitist cutting off a vast rural based population which, together with vast sections of the educated population, is illiterate in modern information technology.

The social danger of this scenario is that the use of modern information technology can be perceived as, and even accused of, accentuating, instead of blurring, distinctions between people literate and illiterate in modern information technology and dichotomies between town and country. This is especially so in research into oral literature where modern information technology will be used by a coterie of academic researchers to preserve oral literature from illiterate ‘sources’, but access it to computer-literates.

In the end, the issue will not be a mere adoption of modern information technology. Instead, the question will be: should we ensure that the vast population is educated to a level where it is a well-disposed recipient of information technology? This is food for thought.


5.5 Context

The socio-politico-economic environment is a central variable with regard to the use of modern information technology. The context is important especially when or if governments do not perceive modern information technology “first and foremost as an essential factor of a country’s economic development” to use Okot-Uma’s words 91992, p.17). We should add to such apprehension, fears expressed that a consequence of using sophisticated electronic systems will cause widespread unemployment or loss of manual jobs.

In such circumstances, the use of modern information technology in preserving and accessing oral literature will have to contend with considerable resistance. Add to this resistance contextual priorities: to what extent is modern information technology a priority in Kenya which is reeling under pressures of feeding its people and making endeavours to industrialize? At the same time, how high up do preserving and accessing oral literature rate as a priority in Kenya in which literature, both oral and written, comprises a peripheral section in the secondary school English syllabus.

Once more this is not a light issue because when some scholars discuss information technology and culture what they appear to have in mind is the cultural context which modern information technology should operate but not its use in preserving and accessing cultural heritage, to which oral literature is indivisible. Such thinking of culture as contextual and not textual is discernible in a statement made by Van Ryckeghem:


The question at stake is not whether technology determines culture or culture determines technology but whether and to which extent a degree of mutual adaptation is possible and how eventually change can be monitored. In this perspective, the failure of many technology implementations can be partly ascribed to conflicting values, habits and organizations (1992, p.44).


6. Conclusion

Bearing in mind the statement by Avgerou and Land that “Technology can never be an end in itself. It is appropriate only to the extent that it has a chance of furthering some national objectives” (1992, p.32), let us acknowledge possibilities opened up by modern information technology to preserve and access oral literature. Depending on what end we put it, this modern information technology will then achieve what technology has achieved in human history: act as a catalyst in speeding up processes to develop society and harass nature for our good–if we only understand what this good is. After all, this is what we ask of technology: to be an efficient tool in the service of generic man.



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