Isidore Okpewho: The scholar as epic hero

Isidore Okpewho

Isidore Okpewho

Professor Isidore Okpewho whose mortal remains will be interred in Upstate New York this weekend was the greatest scholar of oral literature in the world for several decades. His academic work and career spanned over forty years, marking a critical watershed in the evolution of a distinct African heritage of oral literary aesthetic discourse. Okpewho’s studies on the African oral epic and heroic narratives first came into limelight in the mid 1970s as he concluded his doctoral research on the genre for the University of Denver. Within a short period, his originality of approach and profundity of thought inaugurated a golden era in the oral epic scholarship worldwide. Like an epic story itself, his career was a compendium of creative energies: he was a critic, theorist, essayist, translator, editor, fabulist, and novelist.

Okpewho helped to bring studies on African oral literature from the shadows of European social anthropology and folklore. A British archivist, William Thoms coined the term ‘folklore’ in the mid 19th century to designate traditional customs, beliefs, and ideas endangered by capitalist industrialization of the age. Many European colonial administrators, missionaries, and travellers who came to Africa described every unwritten tradition, including genres of oral literature, as folklore. The foreigners ignorantly assumed that the unwritten traditions of knowledge were inferior and it took several decades of dedicated scholarship to overcome the racist prejudice. South Africa’s Bernard Vilakazi, Ghana’s J. H. K. Nketia, Guinea ‘s D. T. Niane and Nigeria ‘s Adeboye Babalola were among the earliest generation of indigenous scholars of oral literature. In 1970, a young British anthropologist, Ruth Finnegan published her continent-wide survey of the various oral genres under the title, Oral Literature in Africa.

It was a defining moment for the discourse on African oral literatures. A great book always raises controversy and Finnegan’s did. In the section on oral narratives, she expressed doubt about the existence of an oral epic in Africa. She had relied on published sources and knowledge about the genre was unsure in European circles. Okpewho immediately challenged Finnegan’s judgment. He was equipped to so do; he had earned a solid degree at Ibadan in European Classics. He had deep knowledge of epics in Greece, Rome, England, France, Russia and the Scandinavian counties. He was thoroughly groomed in the theories of comparative literature. With this formidable scholarly arsenal, Okpewho published his PhD thesis in 1979 as The Epic in Africa: Towards a Poetics of Oral Performance. In this book, he defined the epic form as a grand narrative or story about the heroic deeds and exploits of persons who have extraordinary gifts and undertake adventures and risks for honour and defence of community or nation. He reviewed major African oral epics such as “Sundiata” and “Kambili” of the Mandinka of Senegambia area; the “Mwindo” of the Banyanga of the Congo Basin, and the “Ozidi Saga” of the Ijaw of the Niger Delta.

Okpewho also promoted the decolonization of oral literature discourse in another respect. From the 1940s, American and European insights on oral poetics were yoked to the concept of the formula defined by Professor Milman Parry and popularised by his successor-associate, Albert Bates Lord, as “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea”. This formulaic fetish constrained many scholars from recognising the aesthetic integrity of oral traditions that do not rely on this method of composition and performance. Okpewho and his African compatriots avoided this narrow “formulaic” path and thus enabled their researches to blossom.

In the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the development of the discipline of oral literature grew apace. At the University of Lagos, Babalola was the doyen; Oyin Ogunba initiated the course in Ibadan before Okpewho transformed it from the 1970s. Dare Olajubu was the “great masquerade” in Iloriin; Wande Abimbola, Olabiyi Yai, Ropo Sekoni, and Karin Barber were active in Ife. In Zaria and Kano, Dandatti Abdulkadir, ibrahim Yaro and Graham Furniss were the pioneers. In eastern Nigeria, the field was dominated by Donatus Nwoga, Romanus Egudu, Chukwuma Azuonye, and Helen Chukwuma. These various theatres of oral literature scholarship benefited from the frontier-opening effort of Okpewho.

In 1983, Okpewho expanded the theoretical inquiry from epic to the domain of myths and mythic imagination. His book, Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance opened fresh vistas into a subject that had been vastly misapplied by functionalist anthropologists and Christian religious bigots. A fascinating essay of Okpewho was published in the 1988 book, The Heroic Process: Form, Function and Fantasy in Folk Life. Titled “Once Upon a Kingdom: Benin in the Heroic Traditions of Bendel State, Nigeria,” the essay examines numerous variants of epic narratives and images generated by the 1000-year-old Benin kingdom/empire and its influences in the rainforest cultures in the western Niger Delta. With due permission, I published the essay as Chapter 5 in my edited volume Radical Essays on Nigerian Literatures (2008). This essay formed the analytical fulcrum for Okpewho’s provocative book of 1998: Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony and Identity.” Here, Okpewho 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.

In the field of the pedagogy and research on African oral literature, Okpewho’s most cherished books are African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity (1992) and his edited anthology of essays, The Oral Performance in Africa (1990). The 1992 book contains excellent guides for fieldwork in oral literature and performance arts. The scholarly merit of Okpewho’s works is always evident in his wide-ranging comparative sweep of references. Every angle or nuance to an issue is thoroughly examined; potential objections and contrary opinions by others are anticipated and commented on. The 1992 book covers over 400 pages with about 300 references; the Once Upon a Kingdom….” contains 348 references.

Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology was his last book and was published by the University of Rochester Press. I have not seen the book but it is another pathfinder work based on the inimitable seven-day performance of the ancient Ijaw Ozidi epic by the multi-talented bard, Okabou Ojobolo and collected and translated by the Nigerian poet laureate J. P. Clark. When the first edition of the Ozidi Saga was published in1977, it was universally acclaimed as the best sample of the oral epic in the world. Okpewho did much to proclaim the aesthetic attributes. In the edition issued by Howard University Press in the early 1990s, Okpewho added a 30-page critical prefatory essay. This was what he developed into the book of 2015.

At Delta State University, Abraka, where I have taught oral literature courses for a decade a half; every major book of Okpewho is a handmaiden of our studies. We are further endeared to his works because his paternal natal community of Oria-Umiaghwa Abraka kingdom is part of the host of the university. Okpewho did well to merge his Urhobo paternal roots with those of his maternal ones of Igbo of Asaba. This dual heritage is well reflected in the names of his children and those of major characters in his works of fiction.

In his research and scholarship, Okpewho was always humble and truthful. He faithfully acknowledged the sources of his data. When he taught at the English Department at Ibadan, the research essays done by his students served him well in broadening the geo-cultural spread of his examples and he mentioned the works and names of his undergraduate students. I enjoyed this privilege too. Okpewho and Olatunde Olatunji, a scholar of Yoruba oral literature, were the co-supervisors of the final phase of my doctoral project in Ibadan. I worked on Udje satirical song-poetry tradition of the Urhobo people of Delta Sate and completed it in 1982. I swelled with joy in 1985 when Professor Okpewho included one of the songs in my Ph. D thesis in his anthology titled The Heritage of African Poetry, published by Longman.

Besides his excellent works of fiction, Okpewho was a specialist in African Diaspora studies. But he will be best remembered for his original contribution to the discourse of oral literature and epics. The value of his scholarship in this area is comparable to that of Professor Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal on Egyptian sciences and philosophy, Professor Samir Amin of Egypt on African political economy, Professor Ali Mazrui of Kenya on African history, and Professor John Henrik Clarke on African American history and arts.

* G. G, Darah is a professor of Oral Literature and Folklore, Delsu, Abraka, and President, Nigerian Oral Literature Association (NOLA)

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Isidore Okpewho


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