No anthology of African oral poetry would be complete without some extracts from African epics. Yet no epic can properly be represented by an extract. The epic is by far the most ambitious of literary forms. It attempts, through the form of a long story usually concerned with a single but very special hero, to give a complete account of existence. Everything is included – the relation of men to the gods, the nature of good and evil, the place of the individual in society, the connection between the past and the present and between the present and the future. All this is put together in a pattern of events which make up a story. How that pattern presents itself to the storyteller will depend on who he is and on where and when he lives. But so far as he is concerned, the result will be the truth. As Mamoudou Kouyaté, one of the tellers of the Sundjata story, declares: ‘My word is pure and free of all untruth’.
The extracts from Sundjata are narrated by griots, professional poets and musicians, who in the past were attached to the courts of chiefs but who tend nowadays to be freelance. The Liyongo Epic, by contrast, exists as a series of well-known songs. All refer to a single story, the story of Liyongo, but they deal with separate episodes and exist as separate items. Only in the final extract (The Death of Liyongo) have the separate items been brought together in a single narrative.
In both cases, the poets insist on the relevance of their stories to our own time. Sundjata is presented as the pattern of what an ideal ruler should be like – a man of honour and courage, with a passion for order and a deep sense of justice. The Liyongo Epic is also concerned with justice and with honour. Unlike Sundjata, however, which recounts the triumph of lslam, Liyongo brings together in a man of distinction the different strands which make up Swahili culture.
We tend nowadays to probe these stories for their little bits of historical truth, discarding the jinns and monsters as creatures we no longer believe in. But the problem remains of putting together an explanation of the visible and invisible world. We can enjoy these epics for the story, for their human interest, for the glimpses they offer of the past. But we may enjoy them too for providing something our own age is unable to provide – a unified vision of life in which everything has its proper place, a statement of the truth as it appeared to the poet in which there remains something of permanent truth.