Word of mouth from Kenya

09 September 2002
IN KEEPING with its mission to bolster research into African oral traditions, the Department of Southern African Languages and Literatures is hosting two Kenyan scholars who have registered for their doctoral degrees at UCT

Jack Ogembo from Maseno University College started on his PhD earlier this year, while Zachary Waita from Egerton University is in the process of rounding off his research. According to Professor Sizwe Satyo, who heads the UCT department, the duo is making a major contribution to the department's efforts to develop research into oral traditions.

Ogembo's thesis, to be titled Art in Ethno-Medicine, will investigate how traditional healers (or, his preferred appelation, "medicine men") make use of art – whether it be painting, crafting sculpture or storytelling traditions – in the practice of traditional medicine. His research will be focused on medicine men who practice among the Luo community in the South Nyanza district of Kenya.

Even more specifically, Ogembo will concentrate on how these medicine men treat a mental disease caused by a spirit known as juogi. Ironically, all the medicine men who treat this ailment initially suffered from the disease and, upon healing, acquired the skills to heal others, says Ogemba.

"Art and medicine have always been bedfellows," he adds, pointing out that in ancient Greece artists always doubled up as doctors. "And I have found in Kenya that most good traditional medicine men also turn out to be very good artists."

Waita, in turn, has been focusing his attention on the effect social and political changes in Kenya have had on the country's oral traditions.

He will be concentrating on the traditions of the Agikuyu people in central Kenya, investigating two themes: firstly, courtship, marriage and family, while also looking at the social construction of gender within a traditional and modern society; and secondly, politics and governance.

"What I wanted to do was see how oral and written traditions have been used to convey political ideas from the beginning of the 20th century all the way to the present," Waita says. Another chapter of his thesis will look at the oral and literary traditions that have appeared on AIDS over the past 10 years, he notes.

According to Satyo, working alongside colleagues – both Ogembo and Waita teach in Kenya – has allowed him to gain new insights into his own work on oral and literary traditions. "I think it's important for the department and UCT to set up these kinds of links with scholars elsewhere in Africa," he observes.

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