“Nothing but ogre”: Problems in the Conception and Practice of Folklore in Kenya
I n my days as a Graduate Assistant in the literature department where I now work, I registered students for their courses. Few students voluntarily signed up to study oral literature.1 Common objections included: “besides teaching, what can you possibly do with oral literature?”, “there is no place for oral literature in the job-market!”, “can you please tell me why I should study oral literature?” and “after paying so much money for tuition, do I have to be forced to study oral literature?” As is common wisdom in folkloristics, probing the mundane often helps to uncover profound meanings, and my yawn-filled clerking days led me to think about the conception and practice of folklore in Kenya. My students’ disconcerting comments force us to revisit the place of oral literature in the Kenyan curriculum as well as our broader understanding of the discipline. Why, contrary to what has been commonly assumed, do young people in and out of learning institutions insist on oral literature’s “irrelevance” to their lives? During fieldwork I often encounter young people who proudly claim that they have not witnessed a single performance of a folkloric text, and that other than what was read to them in school, they have no idea whether “these things still exist!” Obviously, there are folklore texts in circulation every day, but can their users be blamed if their understanding of this material differs from our academic notions of how it ought to be described? Beyond this, is there something in the usage of such texts that academics have either over-looked or failed to grasp entirely? I seek to examine some problems associated with lay and scholarly uses of the term folklore. At a different level, I am interested in arguing for an expansion of the scope of the discipline to reflect the complex, ever-changing ways of folk expression.