BACK to Home Page  Workshop: Orality and Literacy in African Societies

Dr. Gesine Krüger
Helenenstr. 17
22765 Hamburg
Tel.: 040-3893303


I would like to talk about a project based at the University of Hannover that actually started on monday. Therefore, I am not going to present results but rather ideas and questions. The project is called in German:

Zu einer Alltags- und Sozialgeschichte des Schreibens und der Schriftlichkeit in Südafrika, 1890- 1930.

This title gives you already an idea about the subject and direction of our research.

Doing research on literacy from the 1890s until the 1930s, we rather put emphasise on writing than on reading. A first and simple reason for doing so is that writing produces sources. The reader can only consult his or her memories and talk about past experiences and therefore it is much more difficult to research historical forms and practices of reading.

A second reason is that written sources have their own history - to a certain extent independent from the writer. The question why certain documents have been stored, why - for example - petitions and letters to the administration have been answered or not answered is as relevant as their actual content, and this is indeed an important aspect of a social history of literacy in South Africa.

The communication between the African population and the colonial bureaucracy will be one field of investigation of our project.

The theoretical background to our project is influenced by two connected debates.

The first debate centres around the interaction of literacy and modernisation and secularisation respectively. The main question here is whether and how the introduction of literacy has directly influenced so- called "oral" or "traditional societies" regarding modernisation and secularisation. Disputable terms anyway.

The second debate deals with questions of literacy and orality in general - a very important, complex and manysided debate as this workshop has demonstrated quite lively. Within the debate on orality and literacy, orality - that means oral tradition, praise songs, myths, tales and today interviews as well - is regarded as dominant modus of social organisation in African societies. A modus that guarantees social cohesion and embeds the individual into a historical and religious framework.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the famous South African historian Shula Marks classifies her publication of letters written by an African girl in the 1930s as part of oral history. There is still a tendency to see literacy and orality as competing systems with literacy being regarded as strong and orality as rather weak and vulnerable.

Yesterday, it was mentioned that if one version of the past is written down, people will tend to refer to that version, and the wealth and variety of different versions is lost. Whether specific versions of history are generally accepted and prevail is first and foremost a question of power, rather than due to the introduction of literacy.

To understand and to examine literacy as part and parcel of African cultures is a recent development within the South African debate (and probably elsewhere on the continent). However, the current debate in general puts strong emphasis on the necessity to contextualise not only orality but literacy as well. Literacy is not regarded anymore as neutral technique on the one hand or as imperative to modernisation on the other hand. Niezen for instance has challenged in his article "Hot Literacy in Cold Societies" the assumption that:

widespread literacy constitutes the central criterion to distinguish "savage" from "domesticated" society, presented by Goody in a number of works

and the

close associations between alphabetic literacy and the growth of knowledge and between restricted literacy and traditional societies.[1]

Now, I would like to give you some background informations regarding a history of writing in South Africa and our project.

Talking about literacy in South Africa we have to keep in mind that although literacy was introduced in the 17th century by European missionaries, the transformation of African languages into standard or literary languages was a joint project, from the very beginning. It was highly dependent on African informants and experts.

The introduction of both script and scripture through missionaries was so strongly connected that African communities in the Cape regarded the progress of the mission as "progress of the word". This view was supported by the fact, that, nearly exclusively, the missions had been responsible for black education. They were in charge of the vast majority of black schools and institutions for higher education from the 18th century - by the way, until the 1950s.

But attending a school was not the only way to get access to the literate world. Chiefs, who were unable to write and read used missionaries as secretaries and sent their dependents to school. Sometimes, chiefs even employed literate secretaries especially to control European correspondence. (As we know from the example of Haile Selassie, not to read and write can also be a manifestation of status and power.)

From the beginning, literacy was not a white domain only. Moreover, to be white did not mean to be literate. Until the late 1920s, illiteracy was a serious problem among the white population in South Africa. About 35% of the white children had never seen a school in their life.

At the same time, the Cape was looking back at a history of 200 years of black formal education. The first black newspaper under leadership of a black editor was already founded in 1884. There is no doubt that members of an influential educated black elite were able to articulate their interests at least from the early 19th century through books, newspapers and all kind of written texts.

For the purpose of our project, however, it is useless to regard every literate person as being part of the mission educated elite. At least, such a definition would be meaningless, as we assume that literacy was much more widespread and not the dominant feature of an educated elite alone.

Therefore we are not going to concentrate on prominent figures, such as black intellectuals, politicians and clergy men - even though their posthumous works and private archives are still scattered and not systematically explored. Instead we ask for the significance of writing in every day life and, by that, we will not only include members of the educated elite but turn our focus strongly to the common people. As I know from my research in Namibia, much more people wrote than one may suggest. To discover their writings, we are going to consult public archives in Germany and South Africa and - if we are lucky to get access to them - "family archives" and private collections as well.

The question immediately arising is, how to find these documents and texts, as they are not published and even more scattered than documents of the educated elite. For this reason, we have defined different fields of research.

At first, we will turn our attention to groups like small African Independent Churches and the Amalaita, which are combining aspects of welfare clubs, burial societies, and neighbourhood associations. These groups commonly have a special costume for men and women, regular meetings and annual celebrations, central places of remembrance, new symbolic expressions by incorporating elements drawn both from an idealised African past and the European colonial order, and consist of widespread social networks on the local and national level.

Secondly, we will investigate the wider context of missions and educational institutions.

And our third field will be the membership of trade unions and their newsletters and circulars. Here, published and unpublished letters to the editor are of special interest.

In all those cases, letters will be the dominant genre of writing. As we already know, groups such as for instance migrant workers held contact with their relatives through correspondence at the turn of the century.

The extensive and excellent research on social history in South Africa gives us the opportunity to start our project from quite different angles using their findings as a first source.

By looking into the published books and research papers, we found many examples of and an amazing variety in the use of literacy and hints where to find material as regards the just mentioned case of migrant workers.

A second source are the archives. We are not planning to concentrate on state archives only - where petitions, confiscated documents and other sources are to be found. Another promising field of research are the archives of educational institutions such as Lovedale, Inanda, and Fort Hare. Here we are interested, for instance, in what scholars wrote for private purposes. From a professor of the Inanda Girls College, the following bon mot is delivered. At the turn of the century if I remember correctly, she wrote, regarding the amount of letters the girls were writing: "I should not be called master of belle letter but master of love letters."

Let me now turn to some first considerations and hypothesis.

One important question is: What does literacy actually mean? The answer seems to be quite simple. Literacy is the ability to read and to write - in South Africa either the respective African language and/or English or Afrikaans. Organisations and institutions dealing with literacy programs, however, distinguish further levels of literacy, for instance full and functional literacy.

The assumption, that a mere categorisation of different levels of literacy does not sufficiently explain practical problems and solutions, is background to a project recently launched in Cape Town. The project is based on interviews with taxi drivers and aims at a more comprehensive understanding of their state of literacy. This is our starting point as well. We would like to focus on people who wrote and their different uses of and ways how to deal with literarcy.

As we know from European and American examples, it is possible for illiterate people to live for decades undiscovered, sometimes even without the knowledge of their familiy and relatives, and to organise their every day life in a literate society. Without denying the problem of increasing illiteracy in Europe and the United States, I'm still thinking that this example shows that, to be part of the literate world and to get information, which normally is transmitted by written media is not only dependent on the personal ability to read and to write. Sometimes it is sufficient to know a person who is able to read a newspaper or to write a letter. To put it in a more post-modern way: being able to read is not a pre- condition to "read" the town.

Another point concerns teaching and learning and is connected with European concepts of literacy which include the idea of individual literacy as true literacy. A probably surprising observation is that we found something like "literacy associations", for instance farm workers who teach each other writing to be able to hold contact with distant relatives through letters. A phenomenon that we already know from Namibia after the German- Herero war 1907, where work parties collectivly organised evening classes. As formal education is not necessarily a condition for literacy, we are not starting with a history of institutions but of writing itself.

What I have said so far may lead us to a point where we have to ask whether there has been a phenomenon of "group literacy". My main point is that, in South Africa, we see the development of an African literacy that cannot be explained against the background of either incomplete literacy or destroyed orality. Let me please add a last sentence in German as I am not able to translate the following correctly:

Ich glaube, daß die Widerständigkeit und der Eigen-Sinn, der oralen Texten und Traditionen zugeschrieben wird, ebenso in den schriftlichen Zeugnissen zu finden ist, mit denen wir uns beschäftigen.

[1] Comparative Studies in Society and History 33 (1991) 2, pp. 225- 254, p. 225.

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