The Books of Our Folk Literature
October 14, 2007
One of the definitions of literature alludes to its permanency and universality. Its forms of expressions include poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
These expressions are not limited to any particular language. Every written and spoken language has its wealth of literature. Unfortunately, some languages have been used as written languages over the ages whereas some other languages do not or did not have a writing system. While many written languages have had the chance for wider circulation of their literature, some other languages did not have that chance in the past or at the present time. Yet some languages may have been used as spoken languages for far too long that they may have perfected a wide array of spoken expressions. Still some other languages may have seen the day of their writing systems and may still lack a detailed accounting of their literature works.
In a 2002 interview with a private Ethiopian newspaper, Jean Doresse, the renowned French Egyptologist, had the following to say about the clear mentality of the Ethiopians: "When I went to Ethiopia I found the life, the ancient culture which was at the origin of ancient Greece. I found this in the vein of people more than the excavations. I found there the exact way of thinking, the clear mentality of ancient Greece. I am very much fond of reading Plato and some of his dialogues but I could not understand those dialogues until I visited Ethiopia. This is because Greek literatures were translated into different languages including French. But while translations were being made, there were always distortions in meanings. When I visited Ethiopia, I found ways of thinking and ideas that made me very clear with my Plato's readings."
One of the things that make this observation very interesting is Jean Doresse's ability to link the thinking processes of ancient Greece and the present day Ethiopia. The suggestion that there was much interaction between ancient Ethiopia and Egypt and ancient Greece makes the observation a very important point of departure.
Granted that there were enough interactions between ancient Ethiopia and Egypt and ancient Greece, how the trajectories of these languages fared over the ages will be an even more interesting subject to explore. While the Geez and Tigrigna languages have been used as written languages for a long time, Amharic was born as a new language with the rise of the Solomonid Dynasty in 1270 A.D. Other Kushitic languages, including Oromo, Afar, Somali, and so on languages have not been used as written languages until recent times. In Jean Doresse’s words, "Historians argue that the first language was Sabean. But Oromiffa, Somali and Afar languages use words whose origin is earlier than hieroglyphic Egyptian. They are the most ancient spoken languages." Yet, these languages are some of the oldest languages that are likely to have accumulated a treasure of oral literature over the ages.
While these pieces of information have a lot to say, a lot is left to say, which is most probably hidden in our oral literature. The exploration of what is hidden in our oral literature will probably be one of the most fascinating fields as we attempt to take off with an Ethiopian Renaissance. The treasure holders of the pieces of our oral literature are most probably the elderly people in Ethiopia who have been better trained in oral transfer of our knowledge. This generation and the generations to come are duty bound to take the time to do the explorations and bring our oral literature out to interested parties in a meaningful way. As we do the explorations, it is important to take proper accounting of the sources of the pieces. Perhaps, we already carrying the pieces in our veins, as Jean Doresse observed. That will only help those of us interested in this field to write award winning literature work that we will be proud of and the readers to understand the depth of our hidden oral literature.