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Ilsemargret Luttmann
Karpfangerstr. 5
20459 Hamburg
Tel: 040/37 17 06


I would like to contribute to the general topic of oral tradition by giving an example of the way oral tradition is used by Africans themselves and more precisely by looking at the role it plays in the intellectual or ideological discussion and in social life. I'll cite the case of the Basaa in South-Cameroon[1] by referring to two literary types of oral tradition, a myth and an epos.

My main statements are the following:

1. The various forms of oral tradition have an imminent ideological and especially socio-psychological function in that sense that they deliver vital intellectual elements in support of cultural identity and cultural self-consciusness.

2. The special use and function of oral tradition in the case of the Basaa can be largely explained by historical and socio-political factors.

3. As I see it, there is a visible gap and contradiction between the Basaa interpretation of the morality of oral texts and its narrative contents.


I refer to a series of doctoral dissertations, articles and, to a lesser degree, to books that have beeen written by Basaa authors in the period between the late 19s and the middle of the 1980[2]. - The subjects the Basaa mostly delt with, center around the reproductive mecanisms of their society which they do not analyse under functionally differenciated aspects but which they treat as un undivided entity made up of religion and politics, the living and the dead, the visible and the invisible world.

When you go through their studies, you will be striked by their ahistorical, unempirical argumentation that offers the vision of a timeless society while referring to a mythical past. They seem to have a vital interest in showing a culturally distinct and unique way of life as if under stress from outside manipulations or themselves in danger of loosing their identity.

As to the availability of and acces to pieces of oral tradition, they are very scarce and often very poor in details and narrative logic which may be due to the fact that they have been collected rather lately. Those who can be considered as the holders of oral tradition are gradually disappearing and at that, they agree only halfheartedly to the transmission of their knowledge which still seems to be looked upon as esoteric and confined to secret initiation rites. An author who once tried to have a short part of the legend reproduced by the same story-teller - because some pages of his manuscript got lost on his way to France - found himself frustrated[3]. The man told him that he would not repeat himself, because important things were only told once, otherwise they would loose their "substance".

Furthermore, I would like to cite the missionaries who, at the beginning of the century, were complaining about the poor knowledge the people had of their ancient past, their origins and metaphysical conceptions.

Without knowing how to interpret these particular circumstances I just did not want to fail to mention them, as they may give some hints for eventual comparative studies. From my own experience in the Basaa context in different roles as an "interviewer", but more often auditor, guest, stranger, intruder, woman, rival, spy, etc., I should state that it is extremely important to investigate more deeply in the subject that is in different qualities and status or even modes of existence of knowledge, spoken words, verbal interaction or instruction according to their specific contents and to the set of circumstances in which they are used.

Historical Background and Socio-Political Organisation

I should go on by giving you some relevant elements of the historical background and the socio-political organisation of the Basaa. - Nothing or very little is known of the geographic origins of the Basaa anterior to their arrival at the frontier between the savanna and the rainforest, more precisely at the inselberg named Ngok Lituba in Basaa (stone with a hole), which may be dated around the 15th century. Whereas they had formerly been part of a larger migration movement, they evolved into a linguistically and culturally more distinct group during the process of sedentarisation. For several reasons (demographic expansion, military attacks from expanding groups from the North) large parts of the original population started migrating southwards, crossing the Sanaga-river and colonising the southern forest zone up to the Atlantic coast. They occupied an area as large as from the actual city of Duala in the West to the region of the Beti and Bulu in the East. This southward expansionist movement occurring between the 15th and the 19th century created an extreme geographic dispersion which favoured political decentralisation and social segmentation.

The socio-political organisation of the Basaa society is based on autonomous and equal kinship groups which form clan-like units. The integrative forces within these communities are not very strong because the family households based on two or, at the utmost, three generations bear the main political power. Ideologically, the relationship between the family chiefs is supposed to be egalitarian, but in reality, individuals are striving for more power and for a dominant position. The family chiefs and other, more specialised influential men do not possess executive power; their authority is mainly due to individual faculties combined with magical power. Physical violence as means of sanctions is prohibited

The dynamics of the Basaa society are made up by the two opposing/antagonistic forces: the struggle for independence and autonomy by the family units which includes potential inequalities on the one side, and, on the other side, the necessity of unity on the regional level, of social and political cooperation for reasons of cultural and social survival.

Ideological Functions of the Myth

Now I want to illustrate the ideological and socio-psychological use of one important myth of the Basaa accounting for the life of the first ancestors which started in the grotto and was to be continued outside in the surrounding savanna[4]. It is less concerned about chronological events and a dramatic literary evolution than about the development-process of the social organisation among the founders of the Basaa people. - One version of this myth was delivered in the 1960s; since then it has been constantly reproduced as a source of historical value[5].

a.) In fact, the different authors show a particular interest in giving evidence of the common geographic origin of the Basaa people as a whole in the specific area around the the grotto which is fundamental to their belief in autochtony, in their privileged status of firstcomers which entitles them to certain rights or at least to symbolic respect on behalf of the latecomers (i.e. the Duala, Bulu and Beti). On the level of the internal organisation, the idea of autochtony gave birth to a hierarchical structure which privileges the autochtones at the expense of the foreigners. It has grown into a real ideology which is nowadays perceptible and connected with the development of the consciousness of ethnicity[6]. - On the one hand, the value of autochtony is a promoter of national pride and an important instrument for the construction of cultural identity. Its development has to be seen against the historical background of the long period of gradual sedentarisation, a period which the Basaa associate with the qualitative progress in socio-political organisation or with civilisation in general. On the other hand, it may be a psychological compensation for its economic regression and its political marginalisation in the context of the post-colonial state[7].

b.) The Basaa society is organised along patrilinear principles which, in the written texts, appear as a framework for the (rather artificial) system of genealogies ending up in one common founder (more precisely nine brothers) similar or identical with the version established in the myth. Here again, we have proof of the socio-psychological function of oral tradition in the sense that it helps to sustain the idea of unity through strong kinship bonds to counterbalance the influence of geographic dispersion and social individualism.

c.) The ideal type of organisation as it is outlined in the myth is taken as an empirical description of their own society. The various authors claim the Basaa society to be ruled even politically by pure moral considerations and they try to convince the reader and themselves that this system is able to produce balanced social relations that do not bear any potential of conflict in them.

The Narrative Contents of Epics

In contrast to these ideological views, the stories told in form of poems and epos open a somewhat different perspective on the traditional way of life[8]. Most of them center around an anti-hero, a powerful and antisocial individual who shows no respect for the communal institutions and who does not believe in interdependency. He is instead relying on his own physical and intellectual superiority which enable him to live according to his own rules and often at the expense of others whom he subordinates to his personal arbitrary rule.

These literary creations give a more realistic account of the inherent tendencies of a segmentary acephalous society caracterised by uncontrolled struggles for power and the weakness and fragility of integrative forces necessary to maintain order. In general, they do not offer a simplistic moral solution to the conflict, as in most cases the non-conformist character and destroyer of law and order is not a definite looser.

To cite an example: I refer to the epos titled as "Hitong"[9] which has been created during the first half of the 19th century.

The hero or better anti-hero Hitong emerges of a conflictual situation between his own family and a rival family who has abducted his daughter-in law. His character and biographical development are painted in opposition to the declared moral system of the traditional society. As a young man he provokes the separation from his father to whom he no longer pays due respect. Later on, when he succeeds in founding an important familiy of his own, he would no longer rely on consultations with his equal partners, i.e. the other family heads, but he would take decisions on his own. Besides, he is not attached to the religious beliefs in the power of the ancestors who control the development of the society. Instead of acquiring the moral standard which gives access to political authority, he bases his power on the number of his followers or descendant family members. In the end, he even insults the most precious symbol of religious and magic power by (mis)using it to glorify his military victory over his rival. Though Hitong does not survive the conflict, he is by no means defeated by traditional morality or its representatives, but he is killed by his own son who is thus perpetuating disorder.

Although Hitong is the evident enemy of the established system, he is by no means counterbalanced by the traditional authorities. Their values, their conception of regulating mecanisms for social relations are demonstrated in the introductory part, they prove to be inefficient against Hitong's ambitions and individualistic behaviour. From then on, they never reappear on the scene; they remain silent, condamned to passivity.

The official comment on this epos stresses its educational function as a moral authority teaching authentic Basaa values and proving their superiority but fails to see that it negates, in such an obvious manner, the general idealistic assumptions of a harmonious society.

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