The Swahili people along the coast have a rich oral tradition that has been influenced by Islam. For example, stories of genies (jinni) were told side by side with those of the hare and hyena. There also a very rich tradition of popularity poetry that has been part of Swahili cultural life for more than 400 years.
In Oral traditions and Material Culture; an East African Experience, Sultan Somjee cites examples from the Maasai, Kalenjin, Rendille and Swahili communities. Among the Kalenjin, for example, the writer notes, mothers partake in rituals that acknowledge the transmission of their thoughts and feelings through visual and oral art.
Kalenjin women perform a dance, kutteret which means ‘beat the pot’. It is a dance performed at night in a plea for rain. Kutteret is sung to rhythmic steps and swaying of the body and cooking sticks that women hold in their hands.
An integration of triple art forms material culture, song and dance n comprises kut teret as a prayer ritual for and to drought. Each art form complements the other and without one of the three, kut teret cannot per-formed. Together, they comprise the feminine art domain of the power to bring rain. In this prayer ceremony, the women wear no clothes.
Among the Rendille, urup, a funnel-shaped milk container made of wild sisal, is held in cupped hands by elders who perform the ceremonies of blessing, peace and prosperity. A Rendille prayer goes thus: Urup inuhobobo (May your milking container stay warm). Fresh milk is warm, a sign of plenty.
Somjee states that the examples show a combined approach to the study of oral traditions and material culture: Visual and oral traditions are active and living modes of communication in Africa. They are also domains of the arts and have parallel social and aesthetic material. The oral and visual forms interact with other art forms such as dance, music and the written word.
Material culture and oral art are dramatized to audiences and are performed in public and seek the participation of the audience. The two have an old tradition that reflects the human need to express concepts and feelings orally and visually.
To some extent, oral traditions and material culture share methodologies derived from literary studies, art, design and ethnography. Personal objects represent a kind of African art, created mostly for practical reasons as opposed to religious, ritual or ceremonial purposes.
In large measure, materials avail-able in the local environment dictate what can be made. Such objects represent the history of the maker. Headrests, for example, have a long history in Kenya. Today, they are less common but are still used in the semi-arid plains of northern Kenya where people herd livestock for a living. Headrests appear in a broad range of styles, and often more than one style is used in the same community.