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Author: Peter Amuka
Title: An oral reading of the written: the example of Masira ki Ndaki
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: An oral reading of the written: the example of Masira ki Ndaki
Peter Amuka

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 5, pp. 3, 15, 1993
Author Biography: Peter Amuka is Head of the Literature Department, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.

An Oral reading of the written: the example of Masira ki Ndaki [1]

by Peter Amuka

For a competent and first speaker of Dholuo (Luo language), Okoth Okombo's Masira ki Ndaki has many possible translations. [2] "One Doesn't Click One's Tongue at Misfortune" is perhaps the most literal though inadequate because it does not cater for the figurative meanings of the title. A chain of other probable translations are not difficult to come by thorough oral inquiry: "Wonders Never Ceases;" "Annoyance or Disgust Can't Deter Misfortune;" "Misfortune Strikes at the Wrong Time;" "Misfortune is Inevitable;" "Humanity is Helpless before Disaster;" "Nobody is Known to Solicit Suffering;" "Misfortune is Stupidly Stubborn" "Misfortune is Notorious for Stampeding." [3] The results of this oral exchange contradict my conventional understanding that a translation would be precise and neatly restricted to a few meaningful words. Almost every other reading of the title yields a different answer. There is an array of possible questions and answers with every attempt to make sense of this title; the reader is engaged in an endless oral exercise.

So many translations for a three-word title cannot but be explications, descriptions or creative processes in a search for meanings. I am almost naturally reminded of a riddling game in which, conventionally, each riddle has only one fixed answer and meaning. The book-title elicits a variety of responses and answers and should be really called an unconventional riddle; it encourages endless conversation with the reader. In other words, the expression Masira ki Ndaki, by virtue of its puzzling nature, creates texts in the form of reader-responses. As Walter Ong would have it, Okombo's book talks to its "fictionalized" readers. [4]

If we are agreed that Masira ki Ndaki is an extraordinary riddle, then we could as well state that it is the kind of item that Dholuo calls ngero or sigana. In English, the book may pass as a novel or novella. Not that the novel and ngero (sigana) genres mean the same thing; it is safe to state that they are close. [5] This is not the place to compare Luo and English literary traditions. Each tradition must be studied in its own right before comparisons may be highlighted. Nor am I intent on delving into Luo literary tradition per se. My primary objective in this essay is to attempt a reading of Masira ki Ndaki in the context of Luo oral literature in particular and oral tradition in general. And thus far, my opening argument is that the written text of the story is a representation of other texts, some visible and others not. The obvious inference from this is that the written text represents itself, the visible, just as the sign—any sign—represents itself the same way it may signify something else. Once the represented is connected with its sign, however, it becomes part of that sign. It, in fact, becomes that sign. For this death of the gap of referentiality between the signifier and signified, Roland Barthes' Mythologies is our major weapon. [6] If we return to the translations yielded by the oral interviews earlier, then the story's inscribed meaning is merely a meaning of many other meanings.

To echo Barthes in application, the differences between meanings are annulled by the one or any other text that represents them. Where or when one begins to amplify and describe these differences, one is indulging in rhetoric, a sure way to destabilize (sic) and, in fact, destroy the harmony in the world of meaning. I am positing that meanings create and re-create one another and that this attribute is inherent in art. Rhetoric is then a mechanism for displaying the social movement of art-forms for human communication. In words closely related to Stephen Tyler's The Said and the Unsaid, the said speaks very loudly about the unsaid as if each word or statement has an invisible shadow. [7] Logically, then, even the visible—the words on paper—are shadows of the invisible (this representative attribute of language is obviously traceable to Saussure, Barthes, Ong and many others). For our purposes, the crux of the matter is that Masira ki Ndaki is a visible shadow-sign-of the invisible. The story "talks" about the invisible (and either renders it visible in that very written form or sets it en route to visibility through the act of writing). With the knowledge that sound is invisible, we need not over-stress the fact that writing is an attempt to shape, color and announce it (sound). Writing can surely never be more oral.

The author's voice

It is a truism that a story is always assumed to be a writer's own creation. He is in it; his voice runs through it—is it—because he is the teller. I have already remarked that Masira ki Ndaki is a kind of riddle. It should also be added that it is a proverb, a puzzling saying. Which is the more the (sic) reason why the book-title alone inspires so many interpretations and, understandably, the numerous meanings and translations. Not surprisingly, the narrator declares from the very beginning that the story will undertake to treat the reader to "Gik ma ji pok oneno kata motimonegi rumbi ok gi nyal neno bergi kata rachgi," or "Events nobody has experienced or witnessed; events so foggy and unclear nobody knows how good or bad they are" (MN, p. 1).

Okombo is revisiting the age-old claim that the African story-teller is a teacher, a social educator on moral values and standards. He is "talking" by locking vice and virtue in combat in order to help us see and follow a moral path. He is telling us how and where to leap after looking right, left, backwards, and forwards. The teaching precludes preaching and proselytizing because the story-teller does not pretend to be a know-all. He seeks and finds refuge in the rhetoric of the story-line and the characters therein. About to be delivered is a story that is too heavy for the tongue to carry and communicate (pek ne lep wacho, MN, p.3). The tongue represents the teller and his community (audience). Despite his being the sole story-teller, the expression is meant to imply that his tongue carries a communal tongue (he does not say "my tongue"). The community is, in a way, talking to itself. From the front cover to this expression, the story lets the community speak to itself by merging its voice with the narrator's. Going by the same argument, the community actually teaches itself. The expression, "pek ne lep wacho" is indeed, an open invitation to the audience to immerse themselves in the discourse.

A retreat to the proverbial utterance, Masira ki Ndaki, helps us confirm that the narrator is steeped in oral culture through persistent provocation of audiential interpretation, judgement and participation. As Ong observes:

Oral utterance thus encourages a sense of continuity with life, a sense of participation, because it is itself participation. Writing and print, despite the intrinsic value, have obscured the nature of the word and of thought itself, for they have sequestered the essentially participatory word—fruitfully enough, beyond a doubt—from its natural habitat, sound, and assimilated it to a mark on a surface, where a real word cannot exist at all. [8]

The stress on "participatory" is mine if only to reinforce the stance that Okoth's narrative mission is pegged on the involvement of his audience. Where Ong argues that the written story obliterates the real world of orality, the response is that Okombo's story and its style of delivery including the artistic voice of the omniscient teller recreate that world.

Rumor-mongering as story-telling

Having subtly abdicated the responsibility of single-voiced story-telling, the narrator ingeniously harnesses the technique of rumor-mongering.

In the world of rumor, it is up to each individual to choose what type of information to take or leave (I need not explain the intrinsic orality of rumor). In the final analysis, language means what one wants it to mean for a specific purpose; only for a purpose do we take a rumor to mean one thing or another.

An utterance (most utterances) normally gets a meaning constructed for it by the respondent. Whatever is done, the attitude adopted and the directions taken are all acts accruing from the generative power of any particular one or number of rumors. By the time one acts in response to a rumor, the understanding is that the very rumor has exerted its powers and yielded results or answers. That rumors are echoed and multiply through a community testify to their power of motion and ability to survive.

Perhaps the character who generates most rumor in MN is Abayo, alias Kathorina Adongo. Rumored to be wallowing in secret love-affairs with a Seventh-day Adventist Pastor, Abayo commits the crime of crimes by eloping with her husband's former herdsboy and fisherman now turned into a rich coffee-smuggler in Aganda. Nobody knows anything for sure except for the fact that she finally dies after Jen Denja stabs her because of a rivalry over Akuko the coffee-smuggler. Ultimately, Abayo's profligacy is not mere rumor; she dies tragically at the hands of a professional prostitute. Rumor persists in social circulation in the sheer search for the truth. Abayo's eventual death now confirms rumor as the truth: she is adulterous, irresponsible and cheap. She has been acting—doing her part of the story we are being told—in bars and Akuko's bedroom. And her society acts by propagating her story. The re-telling of her narrative becomes a social act.

Abayo, the protagonist in the social act is represented by the words—stories—invented and woven around her life and character.

Because of her disappearance into a romantic and sexual link with Akuko, away form her husband's community, words in the shape of rumor fill her absence. Her identity is limited to the rumors about her social being. Her social circulation becomes a verbal exercise from mouth to mouth, ear to ear and, of course, eye to eye as she is relentlessly visualized through the language of rumors. This language converts her into a social object (and subject for that matter) to be bandied about; through the art of rumor her existence is verbally performed and incorporated into social speech acts. She earns her new name, Abayo, in recognition of her ability to act the irresponsible and immoral rambler. In keeping with oral tradition, nobody dare address Abayo by the same name in her hearing. Such names may only be used behind people's backs and not in their hearing and presence.

For non-believers in rumor, suspense is created and Abayo's story goes on until the truth reveals itself. In the author's own words, "Ne en sigana mabor mokalo. Kendo onge ng'ato achiel ma nong'eye duto" (MN, p. 22); "It was so long and complicated a story nobody knew it all." The narrator acknowledges the enormous length of Abayo's story and confesses that, like everybody else, he can only re-tell one of its fragments. When she finally dies, her story rumors and all—remains unfinished. No sole owner of the whole Masira ki Ndaki story really exists. [9] Every member of the community has his/her fragment of an unattainable whole piece. The creative potential of the oral literary piece is as limitless as Okombo confesses in his narrative.

Like Abayo's, Jen Denja's tale does not seem to have a beginning or an end. Her last name is a Luonisation of the English word "Danger." Nobody is sure of her origins. Rumor has it that she may be the daughter of a prostitute who probably lived and died in Asego (MN, p. 39). For some people, she may be Congolese. Forever young-looking, it is also rumored that she periodically sloughs off her skin to renew her sweet and magical appearance. The surest thing about her is that she is able to defend her lovers like a tigress; it is on a mission to recover one of them that she murders Abayo. Many more rumors exist about her. She is the Daughter of Satan and knows the police so well that she will escape with the murder. Whatever the plausible rumor about her, Jen's last name, Denja, tells her character and story. In fact, like Abayo, her name is her character, life-story and all. Even without reading Okombo's story, a speaker of Dholuo would guess very accurately what sort of people the two ladies are. The audience is quite capable of telling itself the ladies' stories on the basis of the possible meanings of their names.

The Speaking human body

One of the easily most significant subjects in the narrative is the human body.

The word "masira" means the misfortune that befalls Abayo, and ipso facto, Okune, the husband who cherishes her beauty so much. The human body enjoys a very special place as a literary subject in Luo oral art.

This body, but particularly the female one, inspires songs, dances, feasts, etc. Fabulous rumors revolve around the bodies of female beauties. Ironically, however, the most powerful and popular bodies are dead ones.

Just to cite an example, the despised Abayo is suddenly the darling of her community in her death. No one dares address her as Abayo, the pejorative name. Her real name, Kathorina Adongo, comes back to life almost spontaneously. As a spirit, her body recovers social respectability. And as the story-teller is at pains to explain, her fate is attributable to "teko mar jachien" ("the power of the devil," MN, p. 18). In addition to Jen Denja's killing hand, some invisible spiritual power must also have made a more substantial contribution. No human being kills or gets killed without the cruel compulsion by some evil spiritual force. To cut our story short, Abayo's dead body creates many more stories by the grave, in the grave and well after the burial.

Her body also creates history. Whereas mourners are expected to be fed by the neighbors of the bereaved, a new tradition seems to have sprung up: Abayo's mourners would like her own homestead to feed them (MN, p. 19). One may call all this cultural transformation or subversion. With her death, Abayo's body becomes an embodiment of history or cultural tropes. It attracts mourners who would like to feast and rejoice; it rekindles their histories and points to the past in relation to the present. Michael Holquist states, in reference to Foucault and Elaine Scarry among others, that:

the body is best appropriated as a semiotically charged magnet of social and aesthetic forces, the most comprehensive icon of historical and cultural specificity. [10]

We should recapitulate in response to Holquist's observation: the dead body is attractive to mourners because it created hopes of merry-making; the body is beautiful because any attempt to associate it with an ugly past is equal to an invitation to suffering for the living. The body acquires new and special powers in its deceased form.

Having noted the empowering faculties of the dead object once known as Abayo, I want to purposely resurrect her and retreat into her past before the fateful day at Misori.

It is because of Abayo's bewitching beauty that Okune pounces on her like the "Olith" (hawk), that he is (MN, p. 14). When they finally marry, the song about her beauty is poetically infectious and causes upheavals in many people's hearts (MN, p. 15).

It is also owing to the power of their bodies that romantic signals stream through Abayo and Akuko as they drink and dine at Miya ta Miyi Hotel [I-give-you-if-you-give-me-hotel]. Abayo's laughter thrills and burns Akuko; to put it literally, her body produces a special sound that turns Akuko on. Moreover, her breath is so special, he feels it profoundly but cannot talk back; the breath speaks louder than words. the narrator quips that "Ber Abayo nomake ka sipak" ("Abayo's beauty entranced and trapped him like a magnet"). "Nochako neno Abayo kaka dhako" ("He began to notice the woman in Abayo," my emphasis; MN, p. 36).

Each one of the two bodies have acquired new powers over themselves. Akuko is no longer the herdsboy and fisherman her own husband had brought up; he is wealthy. "Kendo ngima ma ne gidakie ne chalo mana mar minista" ("They [Akuko's coffee smuggling group] lived so luxuriously they were no different from a Cabinet Minister," MN p. 29). No wonder Jen Denja notices Akuko and makes him a lover. Like Abayo, Jen means to monopolize Akuko's body and being as a gateway to his wealth.

Beyond the living and dead body of Abayo, she represents the story of the status of the woman's body and the socio-cultural values the Luo attaches to it. We are told that "dhako en mar pacho" ("a woman is the property of the whole homestead or village," MN, p. 46). This is an allusion to a song I reproduce here in full:

Chogo mar odiere
Gir libamba
Ng'at modong'
To gwene
To ogwe mach!
The cervical axis
Resource of the clan [11]
Whoever survives
Gnaws at it.
[Odhiambo: 1991] [12]

The woman may only earn this song in marriage. An unmarried woman is as good as a wildcat who is never honored with a burial within a homestead; like a wildcat she gets buried outside in the wild. This is as much as saying that the body of an unmarried dead woman is a devil. Since Abayo was once married to Okune and had a number of children, she may not be buried like a cat.

I have dwelt at length on the human body because it speaks and tells real and fantastic stories about the past, present and future; it also signifies cultural values whether prejudiced or fair.

Let me revisit an instance when the body speaks for real (I have already summarized the "silent" romantic speeches of bodies). A good example is to be found when we are told, "Iye nowang' adieri adieri" ("He [Okune] was fuming with anger," or, literally, "his stomach was genuinely aflame with anger"; MN, p. 4) Nothing can recreate this intensity of anger better than the metaphor of a burning stomach and by implication all the innards.


As it is, the living tell the dead stories and vice-versa. They use one another to create and re-create real and imagined lives. The human body is therefore a language unto itself; the body is imbued with the power to create stories, culture and history. In the case of the latter, it may get locked up in one's body as happens with Nyakwota. He only needs to get drunk in order to expose the Seventh Day Adventist Pastor's immoral life (MN, p. 49). In his drunkenness, he avails and creates a complete identity and personality of the churchman who is simultaneously a true and false prophet.

If we operate on the understanding that Abayo is the nerve-center of Masira ki Ndaki, then it is apt to recall that: "wach tho dhakono nodung'o buro e piny Luo" ("her death was like a whirlwind blowing all over Luo country," MN, p. 51). We are also told that her story goes beyond Luo borders into other nations. The Abayo ngero moves like the wind, defying territorial and artistic boundaries. Finally Okombo also confirms that "Nyinge mar Abayo nolokore ngero" ("Abayo's name grew into a tale, narrative or proverb," MN, p. 51). And having been told that ngero has no beginning or end, we know that Masira ki Ndaki is a womb for the creation of other tales; as a fragment of the negro genre it signifies other fragments.

1. Read at a British Council Seminar in Eldoret, Kenya In September, 1991.

2. Okoth Okombo, Masira ki Ndaki (Nairobi: Mawazo Publications, 1983).

3. Oral interview with Mr and Mrs. Kembo and Mrs. Claris Amuka at Moi University, August, 1991. Most of the translations were condensed from their descriptions and explanations.

4. Walter J. Ong, S.J., Interfaces of the word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 59.

5. P. S. O. Amuka, Ngero as a Social Object, M. A. thesis, University of Nairobi, 1978.

6. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press, 1972) & Trans, A. Lavers.

7. Stephen Tyler, The Said and the Unsaid; mind, meaning and culture. (New York: Academic Press, 1978).

8. Ong, p. 21. My emphasis.

9. At a seminar organized by the Kenya Oral Literature Association in Nairobi (15th-17th August, 1991), Dr. Kivutha Kibwana, a lawyer, suggested that nobody should own a copyright of published oral literature. One might say that all Luo readers share, with Okoth Okombo, the copyright of Masira ki Ndaki.

10. Michael Holquist, "From Body—Talk to Biography: The Chronobiological Bases of Narrative," The Yale Journal of Criticism, v. 3, n. 1 (1989), pp. 1-35.

11. Maximal lineage.

12. Atieno Odhiambo, personal translation, 1991. Unpublished.

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