There is an unbroken continuity in African verbal art forms, from interacting oral genres to such literary productions as the novel and poetry. The strength of the oral tradition seems not to have abated; through three literary periods, a reciprocal linkage has worked these media into a unique art form against which potent influences from East and West have proved unequal. Vital to African literature is the relationship between the oral and written word; in seemingly insignificant interstices have flourished such shadowy literary figures as Egyptian scribes, Hausa and Swahili copyists and memorizers, and contemporary writers of popular novellas, all playing crucial transitional roles in their respective literatures. The oral tale is not “the childhood of fiction” (Macculloch, 1905), but the early literary traditions were beneficiaries of the oral genres, and there is no doubt that the epic and its hero are the predecessors of the African novel and its central characters.
The African oral tradition distills the essences of human experiences, shaping them into rememberable, readily retrievable images of broad applicability with an extraordinary potential for eliciting emotional responses. These are removed from their historical contexts so that performers may recontextualize them in artistic forms. The oral arts, containing this sensory residue of past cultural life and the wisdom so engendered, constitute a medium for organizing, examining, and interpreting an audience's experiences of the images of the present. The tradition is a venerable one.