Navigation – Plan du site

Reflections on Orality and Cultural Expression: Orality as a Peace Culture

Réflexions sur l’oralité et l’expression culturelle : l’oralité comme culture de Paix
Helen Oronga A. Mwanzi
p. 63-74


Cet article présente une étude approfondie de la littérature orale comme une expression artistique des craintes et aspirations d’un people: c’est à dire la sagesse d’un people. L’exposé souligne la volonté du peuple Luhya de s’assurer que la famille, la plus petite unité de la communauté, vit fondamentalement dans la paix ; cette paix s’enracine dans un savoir, un respect mutuel, un savoir-vivre et une sagesse qui ne sont jamais mieux exprimés que dans les chansons et mélopées. Cet article examine quatre chansons et une mélopée, qui toutes sont liées à la culture de paix du peuple Luhya et qui expriment la nécessité de cultiver et de maintenir la paix dans les foyers et au sein de la communauté. L’une des chansons est une salutation mise en musique ; les trois autres sont des chansons de mariage ; la mélopée est une salutation, qui nous semble se référer à un rituel. Toutes ont le même but : rechercher et maintenir la paix pour chaque individu et au sein des relations humaines.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1One Kenyan scholar has posited, thus: “Oral literature is a life-long experience” (1). In other words, in our daily utterances as well as actions, there is almost always an element of orality either verbalized or mimed. In this paper, I have chosen to focus on greeting or salutation as an art form whose function is to seek and perpetuate peace. The reason for this is simple: peace is eluding us every passing day; yet without it, it is impossible to plan for any meaningful development programmes; it is impossible to talk of the existence of a human society. Salutation in the Luhya language carries within it a wish for peace to the addressee. It is elaborate, and for many years it was used to convey concern for the welfare of the addressee as well as his/her entire environment or concerns. The replacement of this rich greeting with the foreign “Hi!” appears to be synonymous with the breakdown of law, order and etiquette. This increase in national cynicism seems to go hand in hand with the quick, almost indifferent response to greetings; thus, the cynicism is not an accident; it is a testimony to the death of our souls after relinquishing what is our own (warm, communicative greetings) for the other’s (brief, brisk and lifeless mouthing). The realization that whole communities are getting buried in the rubble of a foreign expression applied to local feelings and functions is the force behind this paper. The paper employs songs to exemplify the use of orality to perpetuate peace.

2Cultural expression is multi-dimensional. Any one given community will have several ways of expressing its culture. Curving artifacts that give prominence to certain aspects of life is one such way of expressing cultural values of the community of the artist. Designing houses in this way rather than in that may be communicative of a specific cultural value that can only be understood after some form of initiation into that culture has taken place. A case in point is the strong pike sticking out of a family house’s central rooftop prominently, and which is always removed just before the male owner of the house is finally laid to rest. This paper focuses on one of these several cultural expressions: orality. Being a unique form of expression whose life is vested principally in performance, yet enjoying the unique power of the spoken word that is its medium, orality boasts the special role of preserving and disseminating culture in a way that neither art, craft nor architecture can do.

3This paper sets out to highlight the use of song to store, transmit and disseminate the culture of peace in the Luhya community in Kenya. The first two songs I shall analyse exemplify the role of orality in expressing the need to cultivate and maintain peace in the home and peace within the community. The first song I shall examine is a greeting that has had melody developed to make it a lively and entertaining piece that can be performed by people of all age groups.

Solo: Mulembe, mulembe

Peace, peace

All: Omulembe kwa Nyasaye

It is the peace of God

Solo: Mulembe, mulem

Peace, peace

All: Omulembe kwa Nyasaye kwonyene

Peace is solely of God

4It is noteworthy that the word peace and its source - God - form two key words in the entire song. The word peace is also the Luhya language salutation. On meeting someone, anyone, one is obliged to salute thus: “Peace” (Mulembe) and the person being saluted is expected to respond by repeating the salutation, thereby affirming that there is peace. This initially refers to the well being of the respondent. It can be seen to be the equivalent of a question such as “Are you well/Is all well with you?” As the first word uttered between two people who are meeting for the first time, or even for the second time in a single day, this word Peace (Mulembe) carries a lot of significance to the relationship between the two who are exchanging the greeting. That the intonation is that of a question indicates that the person being addressed has the obligation to answer/respond. Hence, the word triggers off a conversation, however brief.

5This brief conversation is what this song is all about. The song is performed to entertain guests as it passes on the message of welcome and good will. It underlines the idea that peace is of God; wishing each other peace is obeying God. This is suggested not only by the words Omulembe kwa Nyasaye kwonyene (peace of/from God only) but also from the fact that it is the phrase that has been assigned to all to sing as chorus. This arrangement alone implies the need for all to recognize the importance of saluting those one meets through wishing them peace that is from or of God. The sheer volume of voice with which the phrase is rendered is symbolic of the acclaim that the phrase has received through the years. In addition to this is its position as the final phrase of the song. This position gives it prominence. It becomes the phrase that remains in the ear of the audience long after the performance has ended.

6Besides the bare verbal contents of the song about peace, we have the accompanying rhythm of the song, the percussions which are mainly ankle-bells and cymbals. These are gentle percussions unlike the loud drums and horns that are usually associated with Luhya song and dance. The gentility of the percussions is augmented by the gentle body movement that is characterised by swaying of the upper part of the body and clapping. Then there are the neck and head movements which enable the dancers to convey the impression that they are addressing their audience and urging it to take the message in the song seriously. Finally, these movements and the accompanying gestures and facial expressions have a regal effect that makes the message communicated in the words have a chance to be heard clearly. It becomes clear that the words whose meaning is that peace belongs to God and God alone should be left reverberating in our ears, reminding us of the elaborate Luhya salutation that borders on a chant while emphasizing peace and prosperity.

7Now, peace being about the absence of war or violence of any form, the pronouncement of it as salutation establishes the fact that the speaker is not disturbed in any way; that there are no worries daunting him/her. The respondent is expected to confirm that he/she too has no reason to feel disturbed or worried. However, in the event that there is a daunting problem as often happens, the respondent will affirm that there is peace generally, and then point out the issue in this way: “Mulembe muno, nebutswa lebe ufwiye” (“There is lots of peace, but so and so is dead”). In this way the respondent is informing the initiator of the conversation that there is peace in the community, generally, but at the time of the conversation, that atmosphere of peace has been shaken by the death of one of the members of the community. In other words, a misfortune striking one family is a misfortune shared by all, and it must be incorporated in the greeting. This means that peace is indeed peace when that atmosphere of peace is being enjoyed by all.

8It is noted that it is the respondent who comes up with the hindrance to full enjoyment of peace in his/her community. I have only quoted one hindrance to peace, which might give the impression that death, the heaviest burden any family and community can shoulder and consequently the ultimate in agents of misery, is the only obstacle to peace. That is not so; there are several hitches to peace besides death, and these include criminal behaviour such as brawls that end in injury, arson, arrests of criminals and suspects alike; natural disasters such as prolonged drought, floods, crop failure and persistent cases of certain illnesses. All these are reasons for people in a given community to worry and to express their concern. They are burdens, and for this reason affirming the existence of peace must be accompanied by information on the type of burden currently daunting the community. This is because it is believed that the more people know about a particular any agent of misery or war the better they are placed to assist in helping bear that burden. It is believed that burdens must be shared.

9The salutation discussed so far is typical of daily greetings between neighbours and people known to one another though not living in neighbourhoods. A response to a greeting from a stranger will normally omit the mention of obstacles to peace. The reason for this is that etiquette demands that the local person talk about the state of the locality before a stranger can begin talking about the state of his/her location. In the event that the initiator of the salutation does not provide any further information about the local area in which the conversation is taking place, the salutation will end here with simply,







10The Luhya have yet another version which is commonly used in situation of expressing joy while receiving expected visitors such as those who have come to “bring porridge. Adopting this version, both the speaker/initiator and the respondent engage in a performance that is akin to a ritual. As a ritual, the salutation has the word Mulembe uttered to the accompaniment of a handshake the warmth of which should be communicated with the vigour of that handshake and a communicative eye contact. The rhythm of the chant ”Mulembe/Mulembe“ is kept regular right up to the end of the performance. It is believed that the more vigorous the handshake the more genuine the greeting is. In addition to this, there is the barrage of questions to complete the ritual. This question-and- answer session follows the initial word (Mulembe), and the questions call for and receive answers. For instance, a typical greeting session (ritual) seeks to get knowledge about the property and aspects of life of the respondent, in addition to the well being of the given respondent and his community: The ritual continues thus:

I : Emilembe chioluchendo?

Peace with your journey to this place?

R : Mulembe

It was peaceful

I : Emilembe chie mungo wo?

Peace in your homestead?

R : Mulembe

It is peaceful

I : Emilembe chiabaana?

Peace with your children?

R : Mulembe

They are peaceful

I : Emilembe chietsing’ombe tsio?

Is there peace with your cattle?

R : Mulembe

They are peaceful

I : Emilembe chitsimbusi tsio?

Is there peace with your goats?

R : Mulembe

They are peaceful

I : Emilembe chietsingombe tsio?

Peace with your cattle?

R: Mulembe

They are peaceful

I : Emilembe chietsingokho tsio?

Peace with your chickens?

R: Mulembe

They are peaceful

I : Emilembe chiamakondiko?

Peace with your sheep?

R: Mulembe

They are peaceful

11The list of the details to be confirmed to be still at peace is endless. It all depends on how much time, energy and innovativeness the initiator has to spare for the ritual. It also depends on how much the initiator knows about the life and condition of the respondent. There are times when the initiator may enquire about possessions which the respondent does not have, but in keeping with the formula of the ritual, the answer remains the same - ”It is/They are peaceful“. This means that one cannot deny owning what is being enquired about.

12In order to retain this lengthy salutation, it is expected that the initiators (hosts) have a lot of time set aside for the ritual. Consequently, the visitors must prepare themselves for a lengthy ritual as each initiator stepping forward to greet the guests will be as prepared as the one before him/her. The number of questions asked is the same so that if there are ten guests, the initiators must be prepared to repeat the ritual ten times. This means that it can be so exhausting that those who have participated in a dowry (bride-wealth) handing in ceremony, which normally has a very high number of guests (respondents), have in most cases remained with the experience of the handshake imprinted on their mind long after the ceremony is gone and forgotten. The chant, the vigorous hand shake, the light in the eye of every initiator and the time taken to complete the ritual emphasize the people’s determination to propagate and perpetuate the culture of peace.

13Such is the attention paid to peace. It is viewed as being freely given to the human race; hence the statement : ”the peace of God“. The elaborate greeting and the song that has been composed to imprint the philosophy of peace on people’s mind are both integral parts to the desire to propagate peace: to refuse to take peace for granted.

14An analysis of the chant reveals that the Initiator enquires about the journey and then the home and family of the respondent. This concern leads us to our next batch of songs whose ultimate goal is to propagate peace in the family. Traditionally, a family starts with marriage which, in its turn, has its beginning in the giving and receiving of dowry or bride-wealth. The following song suggests that agreeing to get married is like accepting to go to live with an ogre and among ogres (amanani). This frightening innuendo tells a great deal about the people’s interpretation of the four roles of a man: man as a father, man as a son, man as a brother and man as a husband. The fourth role is the target of the song that sounds dismissive of a man as a being with sufficient humane feeling to be trusted with the life of a delicate being that the young wife is. The singers repeat over and over the line that says that it is solely because of cattle (the items of exchange in dowry) that she is going to live among ogres. The composer meant to make this fact clear - that a husband is not a relative nor is he a friend either ; it is only by patience, tact and wisdom that he can be transformed into a friend and then a social relative. Knowledge of this fact is crucial to the process of bonding and building a peaceful family. Hence, the song is meant to rub off any illusions about marital bliss. The essence of the message in the song is the wise counsel that marital bliss can only be experienced in a family which has cultivated peace and has maintained it through knowledge and emotional intelligence. This is the importance of this song whose first stanza is:


Ng ’ombe yambila;

Cattle is taking me

Ng ’ombe yambila mumanani

Cattle is taking me to the land of ogres

Ng ’ombe yambila

Cattle is taking me

Eh! Ng ’ombe yambila mumanani

Eh! Cattle are taking me to the land of ogres


Ng ’ombe yambila,

Cattle is taking me

Ng ’ombe yambila mumanan

To the land of ogres

Ng ’ombe yambila

Cattle is taking me

Eh! Ng ’ombe yambila mumanani

Eh! Cattle is taking me to the land of ogres

15In addition to the image of the ogre that symbolizes the unpredictable behaviour of a husband, there is also the image of ogres (amanani). This is referring to the community. It is a community that the young woman knows nothing about. To love among them in peace, this young woman must be prepared to be integrated into it: to become part of the whole community. One cannot remain human and live ”in the land of ogres“. Therefore, a transformation is necessary. Thus, much as the words ”Cattle are taking me to the land of ogres“ Ng’mbe yambilmumanan may imply a passive acceptance and attitude, the expectation call for active participation in the process of transformation. This is the same process that yields peace and harmony.

16The performance of this song needs to be mentioned. This first stanza is repeated several times before the second stanza. And this repetition lends it the power of intoxicating the young woman into believing that once the dowry is given (the acceptable number of cattle has been driven into her father’s the kraal), the deal is sealed. Furthermore, when led by a good soloist, this stanza will ring from ridge to ridge, causing the family giving their daughter into marriage to swell with a sense of pride that they are the focal point of all activities taking place in the location. The stanza has the bride as the persona; it is performed from her point of view. The chorus that repeats after her is made up of young women mostly, and these too are conditioned by the stanza’s I-point of view to see cattle as important elements in the life of a marriage. It does not escape them, especially those who are within the age group of the bride - in - preparation, that their turn can come any time after this. The vigour with which this category participates in the performance is testimony to this aspiration.

17The second and last stanza of the song conveys mock-threat :


Eh- he ! Eh-he! Mwana wa m’ma, eh-he

:! Eh-he! Eh-he! My mother’s baby

Eh-he ! Olwa lelo !

Eh-he! Today is the D-Day!


Eh-he! Eh-he! Mwana wam’ma eh-he!

Eh-he! Eh-he! My mother’s baby

Eh-he! Eh-he! Olwalero

Eh-he! Eh-he! Today is the D-Day!


Nokone hena ? Nokone hena ?

Where will you sleep? Where will you sleep?

Omwana wa m’ma, nokone hena?

My mother’s baby, where will you sleep?

Nokone hena olwalelo

Where will you sleep tonight?

18It can be seen that this adopts the second person point of view. It is a direct address which requires the young woman to prepare and provide an answer to. The last night of the pre-wedding festivities is significant. The young woman is reminded that she will not sleep in the same familiar bed. Following the words in the first stanza, one can argue that the composer meant to remind the bride-in-preparation that where she is likely to land after the colourful wedding is not quite predictable; it may be a bed of roses; or it may be an ogres’ den. This question has the effect of a wake-up call; it dispels any passive tendencies so that the young woman is not handed to the bridegroom as a naïve being who is expectant of bliss without effort.

19Everyone joins in the chorus asking the bride several questions, ranging from questions on where she will sleep to those on whom she will socialize with. These questions are sung with vigour and in a tune that suggests concern and pity. Yet the word olwalelo (today is a day like no other - the greatest day in your life) implies admiration at the same time. This deliberate effort on the side of the singers to make the young woman who is preparing to leave the community envisage the difference between her life now and her life after the wedding is a time honoured method of dispelling fear and inducing peaceful acceptance in the midst of the anxiety of anticipation. Devoting a whole stanza to the exclamation - ”Eh-he my mother’s baby, eh-he! /Eh he! Toady is the D-day!“ - has the effect of enchanting the target of the song. The words, the tune and the entire performance acquire a magical effect on its primary audience—the young woman being prepared for marriage. Thrown into a trance by the power of repetition, the young woman is able to swim in the blissful world that awaits her in marriage even as she remains actively aware that the unknown conditions her to cast dreams aside and remain alert and ready to apply tact in order to sustain peace.

20As already pointed out, the performance goes on night after night for three weeks. It should be remembered that during all this time, the artist’s skill is in total control of the mind of the audience. The primary audience(the bride-in-preparation) can be said to be undergoing a kind of hypnosis (2).By the time the marriage ceremony takes place, the young woman has undergone a transformation; she is someone other than she was before the pre-wedding songs and dance started. She is at peace with the decision, sometimes taken without consulting her, to get out of her home and move into her own home. Made fully aware of the fact that men are as forbidding as ogres (amanani), the young woman is cushioned against any shocks that may be exhibited by the husband once she gets into his home, which she must practice to make hers as well.

21That peace must be propagated at all times is further highlighted in the community’s pre-wedding and wedding songs. Here I shall refer to songs that sound like they are composed to instill fear in the young woman getting married. However, an examination of the songs reveals that they are actually composed to help cushion the bride-to-be against any culture shock and to teach her the tactics of avoiding conflict. Being the physically weaker of the two in the event of aggression in her married life, she is given folk wisdom in songs such as:

Solo: Nolangwa

When you are called

All: Ee-hee


Solo: Omwene nolangwa

When you yourself are called by name

All: Obolenge, “Ndi hano ”

Always say, “I am here”

22This underlines the wisdom behind displaying such obedience as almost borders on servility with the full knowledge of the fact that one is acting for the sake of surviving in a potentially hostile environment. The idea is that when dealing with people hitherto unknown to one, it pays to regard them as unpredictable as ogres (amanani). Thus, lying low and sounding servile while studying the situation and the actors in it is wise. To achieve one’s goal— trust, acceptance, respect and the attendant peace of mind—this deliberate expression of obedience that is normally characterized by responding to summons with the full sentence ”I am here“ Ndi hano rather than the usual casual ”Yes" Yee is necessary. Clearly, this is urging the bride to embrace character transformation in order to establish and develop a peaceful environment in her new family. Thus, the price of peace is high, and this is the message of the song. Repeated over and over again as are other song that are composed to prepare a young woman who is about to leave familiar ground for the unknown which is expected to be her permanent home, this song becomes the community’s way of acknowledging the challenges a young wife is wont to meet and providing a way out of any possible conflict arising from the challenges. This means the way to avoid conflict in a marriage is to avoid provoking the husband who is metaphorically referred to as “the ogre” at this stage.

23Men in their role as suitors are referred to as ogres. This reference is not in song alone; it is found in several oral narratives. The ogre is a symbol of the Bad Man whom the young woman has to be wary of even as she lives with him; she must not take him for granted, for he can devour her. The paradox here is clear: the ogre is fearsome; yet it can be very attractive and lovable when he decides to be; it combines vice and virtue, ugliness and beauty, ability to embrace warmly and ability to embrace to kill and eat, the urge to kiss passionately and the urge to swallow the same object of love for food. Thus, preparations for marriage are deemed to constitute the right environment in which to introduce these conflicting attributes found in one person: the husband. The power of tact to turn the ogre in the man into a social, harmless human being is immortalized in this song that is sung night after night for three weeks. The song dubs in all the contradictions and by the time the young woman is being handed over to the bridegroom, she is ready to plant and cultivate peace and happiness in her new home, using tact.

24It is further recognized that in the accepted social setup into which the young bride is to walk and become a wife, a peaceful environment will also depend on how she relates with her mother-in-law. This being the case, there are songs composed to help introduce to this new phenomenon. So far, the young woman has only referred to her mother and those relatives and neighbours closely known to her as mother. However, after the dowry has been accepted and she is being prepared for her impending new life away from these familiar faces, the following message is sung to her over and over again until it becomes the unmistaken truth of her fast approaching new life:

Solo: Nobutinyu

It is difficult


Oh, yes!

Solo: Nobutinyu okhulanga mama woundi

It is difficult to call someone else’s Mother

Mama wuwo

Your Mother


Oh, yes!

25Sung with a great deal of vigour accompanied by gestures meant to convey a deep understanding of the difficulty, this song exhorts the young woman to walk into the new relation with full knowledge of the need for such humility as will enable her to refer to her mother-in-law a mother rather by name or any other epithet she might fight more fitting than the fond title “Mother”. This song aims at conveying the message that the young woman will have to do as the proverbial Romans do: refer to her mother-in-law as everyone else in the home, except Father and grandchildren and co-wives in the case of a polygamous family, does. Such gestures a display a readiness to toe the line are crucial in the process of bonding and blunting the barbs of discord.

26Working on promotion of peace in the family is not limited to the wife alone; men too are prepared in song to develop tact to establish and develop peace. In order to exhort men to propagate peace, songs have been composed to highlight certain gestures of tact and generosity. One of the songs used for this purpose is the following:

Solo : Njayile

I have despised

All : Njayile

I have despised

Solo : Njyile, njayile Khasaatsi

I have despised, I have despised Khasaatsi


O! lo---lo---lo---lo)

Woh, lo---o----lo---- lo!

Njayile, njayile Khasaatsi

I have despised, I have despised Khasaatsi

Solo : Khasatsi wEbutsotso

Khasatsi, the man from Butsotso


Yasiesia nyakhusaala

He greeted his mother-in-law

Alirunga Siina lero?

What will he pay her for this today?

27In this song sung during the preparations for a wedding focus is on the bridegroom-to-be (Khasaatsi, in this case; the name used is always that of the actual bridegroom-to-be) being trained on how to relate with parents-in-law. In order to maintain peace, a suitor must be given lessons on how to greet his mothering-law. This greeting -to stretch out her hand and respond: “peace” to one’s fiancee’s mother - must be paid for. This practice involving paying for a hand contact with one’s mother-in-law continues after the wedding, and it is maintained almost as a ritual as long as a wife’s mother lives. In other words, one must pay for coming face to face with his mother-in-law and exchanging greetings. The payment/token is meant to draw the line between the two; it marks the social distance between mother-in-law and son-in-law. Hence, the lines, “He greeted his mother-in-law/What will he pays today?” are instructive; they imply the existence of the element of a fine for any failure to give a fiancee’s mother her due after greeting her.

28The song quoted above is composed to communicate the message that one who greets his mother-in-law and does not give the expected token is despised. Khasaatsi is a man who represents any suitor or husband who fails to part with the expected token upon greeting the mother of his fiancée or wife. Fiancés and husbands alike are reminded during this period when the foundations of peace in marriage are being laid that respect for mother-in-law is a key component of the peace building process. This component is so crucial that the failure of one to observe it is reason for the whole clan or location of his birth (Butsotso Location, in this case) to be included in the blame; hence, the song talks of “Khasaatsi of Butsotso”. This inclusion is meant to provoke the suitor’s or husband’s friends, clan or anyone or group of people from his native location to join hands with the complainants and compel him to pay/give the expected token for any unpaid for handshake with mother-in-law. Thus, to avoid being despised by relatives of one’s fiancée or wife and thereby providing room for discord to thrive, one must fulfill such a basic social expectation as giving tokens for greetings exchanged with one’s mother-in-law.

29Stylistically, the repetition of the sentence, “I have despised/I have despised/I have despised/I have despised” before even the mention of the object of the verb “despised” is pronounced is significant. These words emphasise the necessity to toe the line and so as expected: give the mother-in-law her due, thereby raising one’s status and ensuring peace of mind as well as peace in the relationship that is being established.

30In conclusion, it is important to point out that the search for peace among the Luhya of Kenya has a central role in the oral literature of that community. There are, for instance, several proverbs which have been composed to promote peace. Some of them end up sounding contradictory, but when they are analysed, their meaning becomes clear. There are also several narratives whose main theme is peace and how to seek and maintain it. Thus, in a world in which peace is constantly eluding us, it pays to go back to these stories, proverbs, chants and songs and find out how they can be used to serve us today for the good of humanity.

Haut de page


Bukenya, A. S., W. M. Kabira & O. Okombo,  1994,  Understanding Oral Literature. Nairobi: University of Nairobi Press.

Bukenya, A. S. & M  Gachanja,  1996, Oral Literature: A Junior Course. Nairobi: Longhorn Publishers.

Eric, H., 1963, Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Amuka, P. Oral Literature and the Constituents of Knowledge, in A. Bukenya, Kabira, W.M. & Okombo (eds.), O. Understanding Oral Literature, p.3

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Helen Oronga A. Mwanzi, « Reflections on Orality and Cultural Expression: Orality as a Peace Culture », Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 63-74.

Référence électronique

Helen Oronga A. Mwanzi, « Reflections on Orality and Cultural Expression: Orality as a Peace Culture », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 80-1/2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 27 mars 2019. URL :

Haut de page


Helen Oronga A. Mwanzi

Associate Professor of Literature, University of Nairobi, ( or

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Société des africanistes

Haut de page
  • Logo Société des africanistes
  • OpenEdition Journals