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Prof. Dr. Leonhard Harding
Historisches Seminar der Universität Hamburg
Geschichte Afrikas
Von Melle Park 6
20146 Hamburg
Tel.: 040/4123-2591

Workshop "Orality and Literacy in African Societies": July 4-5, 1996


You are heartily welcome to this workshop, the second we organize, after our excellent experience of last year, when we met to discuss "History and Identity".

I. The objectives.

This time, under the heading "Orality and Literacy in African Societies" we want to exchange our experience in handling oral traditions with colleagues of other departments; we have two broad topics in mind: 1) to present our, i.e. the historians' use of oral traditions to colleagues of other departments in order to provoke their critical reactions; and 2) so see how they use these traditions and what the historian could learn from their methods.

This means, we want to try an interdisciplinary exchange of experiences. Or, this is more than urgent since all of us use oral traditions in our African fieldwork, very often, we must admit it, without knowing how our neighbour proceeds and to what results his methods enable him.

Let me in the following introduction present to you a whole set of questions the Africa-historians and other academics are asking, every-one from his point of view; this should help us to better see how our exchange could materialize.

Brigitte Reinwald will, at the very end of our debates, present a summary of our discussions and she will try to show what we could achieve and what rests to be done.

To draw some colourful lines of what we are going to do, let me tell you a brief story of one of my former students, from Mauritania; he told us that in his uncle's village every year the people reconfirmed an agreement with the crocodiles in the Senegal river: they went down to the river, a crocodile came out and in a kind of procession it was accompanied to the market place; there the people reassured the crocodiles that they would not kill them, and the crocodile assured the people that the fishermen would not suffer from the crocodiles.

You might add other stories, like that of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundjata, who after a youth of a heavily handicapped boy creeping on the ground, unable to get up, one day got so angry when his mother was laughed at that he asked for a thick iron bar, bent on it so that it began to cede, and he finished to erect himself for the first time, went to the Baobab in his mother's compound, pulled it out and threw it against his mother's offenders.

From another context you know, that in the oral traditions of many Yoruba people they explain that they have come from the East, from Mekka.

How to use these stories? How does the historian use them, how would the anthropologist or the linguist handle and interpret them? What would Michel Foucault have done with them?

These are the sorts of questions all of us are continually asking, hopefully so.

II. Sets of questions.

I would like to distinguish three broad kinds of questions linked to three spheres of problems; in our provisional plan, we called them "Different forms of oral texts and different ways of access", "Makers of History" and "From oral to written texts".

1. The first set of questions could be ranged under the heading "What do oral traditions tell us?"

What information do they express, what is their content, their message?

As in the case of written sources, there are different kinds of traditions, accounts, myths, tales, epics, genealogies, praise songs and others, each of them having a specific character, a specific audience and a specific message. What is the message of a myth, a tale, a genealogy, what do they tell us about the past or the society in which this message is transmitted from generation to generation?

If we try to analyse the message of an oral tradition, we discover that it is embedded in a specific role within the society; then the historian begins to ask: of which kind is this role in the society, in the political system? To which purposes are such traditions used in public? What is the relationship between the tradition and its actual function?

Both problems lead to a further, and perhaps crucial question: do oral traditions tell us something about the past, or do they express the actual collective interpretation of the past by a given group, or are they rather the individual view of somebody particularly gifted to memorize and perform, or of somebody charged to do so?

You see, the whole problem of historical truth is behind these questions, even if we cannot agree whether there is something like a historical truth or how it could be defined.

Jürgen Jensen and Ilsemargret Luttmann will try to show what the message of historical legends, genealogies, tales or other materials can be and how an anthropologist and a historian treats such texts.

There are other, more private texts, those of people, adults or children, traumatized by war or flight situations; Rainer Kokemohr, a psychoanalyst, will present some of them and will ask what their message is.

To summarize: this first set of the historians' questions concerns the message of oral traditions.

2. The second set refers to "the makers of history".

There are three broad directions the research goes into and where it asks its questions:

2.1 who did formulate the oral traditions? Who makes history? How far does the makers' influence go?

There is first the problem of the person who did formulate a tradition; who was it? was it an individual, an elder, someone charged to assemble the historical knowledge for the ruling group or to what other purposes? Or did several groups combine short texts into larger traditions? But why? Then there is the question about the role of colonial institutions and influences: we know that so-called educated Africans, teachers, catechists or pastors were encouraged to write down the traditions of their people. But what did they think appropriate to present to the whites, particularly to the missionaries if they were in their service, as their past and their culture? And how is the relationship between these traditions of the colonial period and older ones? Erhard Kamphausen will ask these questions.

It seems evident that every group and every individual has its own historical experience and view of the past, at least of his own past. But what does this mean more precisely? Are there different traditions in a society, the ones emanating from aristocratic families and others from the "commoners'" homesteads? Do women have specific traditions, and slaves and other underprivileged groups, as well?

Where are the links between the traditions of women and those of men? Could they possibly differ within the same family? What about the "collective memory", what about a collective "historical consciousness"?

If the versions of the past differ, whose version did impose itself? Why could it do so? because of its content, its force of conviction, or because of the quality of the speaker, or because of the social or political rank of the speaker, as Mamadou Diawara suggests?

Mechthild Reh will ask how women make history, what they are entitled to tell or want to tell the researcher, and Benson Osadolor asks questions about the historical role of art, of the famous Benin bronzes in the kingdom of Benin; he wants to show how art was conceived to stress historical continuity and legitimacy, or how art makes history.

2.2 Who transmits the traditions and what is his influence, when he adapts them to his audience? What does this adaptation in performance mean, is it to change, to manipulate the text, its form, its message, its content?

This problem does not only concern the large performance before a numerous african public, it is relevant, too, for everyone of us if in our fieldwork we ask questions to an old man or an old woman: what do the interviewed people want to tell us, what is he or she entitled to say? How do they adapt their answers to our intellectual and social capacity of understanding? Will a woman tell the same story as a man / her husband? Will she tell the same story to a female interviewer as she does to a male one? to a european or to an african? We should suppose that in every case the version is different.

What does this mean for the historian who might be highly interested in the actual social and cultural structure of the people he interviews, but whose main interest is to know something about past events?

Here were are in the very centre of our concern in this workshop.

2.3 When we turn to specific people, professionals of history making, griots, praise singers, story tellers, amateur local historians - as Axel Harneit-Sievers does - or ordinary people, the questions become more stringent still: what does the griot do, what does he tell his audience? What might a griot know of the past, where did he get his information from? Does he adapt his message to his audience, and if so, to what purpose and to what ends? Can we call him an historian, who wants above all to inquire the past and try to interpret it from the voices of the actors? In other words: what are the relations between the past, its representations, the griot and the audience? And what will then be the role of the griot in his society? is he a critical observer, a critical warner as the historian in the West is or should be, or is he rather a kind of praise singer of the ruling elite? For sure, he will be all of this, but how? And what about the praise singer and the praise songs, Dag Henrichsen is to talk about?

Finally, the story teller, the praise singer, the griot and the academic western historian: how are they to be differentiated ? What is their respective role in the process of "making history"?

3. And then there is our third category of questions, the problem of the transition from orality to literacy. We will not be able to show all its dimensions; I can only refer to the debate launched by the theories of Jack Goody about what happens when a society begins using a written alphabet and to fix its thoughts in written form.

But we can concentrate on the text and their fate as well as their impact on the society. This is the set of questions referring to the texts themselves and to the societies whose memory the traditions are supposed to express.

3.1 The first question is: what happens when a living tradition is fixed, moulded into a definite form, loses life but gains in consistency? Does it change its character, if it can no longer be adapted or covered with different colours in a performance before a living public whose reactions and whose needs were taken into account by the narrator?

3.2 What happens in a society, if one version of the past is written down and made public, if ordinary people or journalists, politicians, historians, anthropologists and other academics refer to this version and forget the others? Will it eventually become the only version, a sort of official version, will it claim exclusive validity? And the other versions, will they fall into oblivion like in literate societies where the immense majority of personal or group memories is simply forgotten because no one cares about them?

3.3 Once a version is written down, it will have an enormous impact upon the other versions and the collective memory and it will gradually transform the historical consciousness. People will tend to refer to this version and to forget the others or measure the other ones on this model. Dietrich Rauchenberger will show how this happened in the case of the famous "tarikhs".

Under these circumstances, the task and the responsibility of those who write down traditions and engage in editing them, will be twofold:

a) to protect the wealth of numerous and different versions, without preferring one; but is it possible to edit one text without harming the collective historical consciousness, without reducing it to one official version?

b) to treat the tradition very carefully, in order to transmit its proper character, its images, its symbols, its language and style, knowing perfectly well that the written version is only a shadow of the living text; and what about the translation into other languages, can they transmit the atmosphere of performance and reaction?

Gesine Krüger and Kathrin Pfeiffer will try to answer these questions.

3.4 We might ask as well as Brigitte Reinwald does, whether and how a film can transmit oral traditions and historical consciousness, or on the other side how a film transforms the historical consciousness of a group.

Such are, broadly speaking, questions asked by historians, questions concerning the message of oral traditions.

III. Questions asked in other disciplines.

Many colleagues in other disciplines do ask the same questions about the message of a tradition. But there are different interests, as well and different fields of inquiry:

1. The linguists are more interested in the form of a tradition, how this form came about, why specific words were used, specific symbols, styles, and what all this tells us about the society, its imagery, vocabulary, its social structure, its environment, its history and even its mental structure.

2. The anthropologists are basically interested in the structure, the hierarchies, the norms, the customs, the beliefs, the systems of thought and the material culture of a society. For them, oral traditions are testimonies, signs of this society, not of particular events or developments.

3. Michel Foucault would use oral traditions as historical sources as well, but his questions would not be reduced to the message of these texts, he would investigate the origin of a tradition, or as he would say the origin of the discourse, its different layers, the numerous series converging in the event and the multiple forms of exclusion challenging this discourse.

4. Psychoanalysts and educationalists take the message of personal texts seriously, but they go further to ask why people have formulated such a text, which events did create specific states of mind, fear, anger, or hope in the persons concerned; how they did traumatize a person and let her transmit this trauma and let the trauma invade other spheres of her consciousness.

To this list many other approaches could be added. Let me stop here to summarize, that this variety of questions and of methodological approaches to the use of oral traditions is a wealth all of us should benefit from. This is exactly what we had in mind when we proposed this workshop: to listen to the others, try to understand and to take part in their questioning, in order to be introduced into other dimensions of understanding.

IV. Basic definitions.

Let me now very briefly present some basic definitions of different kinds of oral traditions in order to facilitate our debates about different approaches.

Jan Vansina, in his "Oral tradition as history" (London 1985), proposes the following definitions:

1. "Oral History: The sources of oral historians are reminiscences, hearsay, or eyewitness accounts about events and situations which are contemporary, that is, which occurred during the lifetime of the informants. This differs from oral traditions in that oral traditions are no longer contemporary. They have passed from mouth to mouth, for a period beyond the lifetime of the informants." 12-13.

2. "Oral traditions - as verbal messages which are reported statements from the past beyond the present generation. The definition specifies that the message must be oral statements spoken, sung, or called out on musical instruments only... All oral sources are not oral traditions. There must be transmission by word of mouth over at least a generation." 28.

"A tradition should be seen as a series of successive historical documents all lost except for the last one and usually interpreted by every link in the chain of transmission. It is therefore evidence at second, third, or nth remove, but it is still evidence unless it be shown that a message does not finally rest on a first statement made by an observer." 29.

3. "When accounts of events have been told for a generation or so the messages then current may still represent the tenor of the original message, but in most cases the resulting story has been fused out of several accounts and has acquired a stabilized form. The plot and sequence of episodes changes only gradually after this." 17.

4. Personal reminiscences: "Reminiscences become family traditions, known and told by one or more people even after the death of the person whose reminiscences they were." 18.

5. "Group accounts ... are the oral memories of groups such as villages, chiefdoms, kingdoms, associations, and various kinship groups.... They are told officially on formal occasions. They are often the property of a group." 19.

6. "Traditions of origin and genesis are what anthropologists term myth. They are accounts that originate out of speculation by local sages about these questions (the origin of the world, the creation of mankind, the appearance of their own particular society and community), out of pre-existing material of the same nature or borrowed from other communities, and out of heavily fossilized group accounts. Traditions of origin are new accounts and they may or may not remain stable over long periods of time." 21-22.

7. "Stories of migration" should be understood as cosmologies." 22.

8. "Cumulative accounts are accounts such as lists or genealogies which have to be continually updated. They form a basis for the local chronology by providing epochs, units of duration used to evaluate how far in the past something happened... Genealogies show what the relationships between contemporary groups and between individuals today are and when these change they are manipulated to reflect the new relationship." 24

9. "We call epic a narrative couched in poetic language, subject to special linguistic rules of form. Usually epics contain hundreds or thousands of verses and present a complex tale full of wonders and heroism, centred around a main personage... Many epics have a historical dimension: the hero once really lived..., or some of the incidents, usually the main plot, correspond to actual events." 25.

10. "Tales" are performed in everyday language chosen by the performer, and a certain amount of innovation is highly appreciated. They are considered to be fiction.... there is no original and there cannot be an original...

Among tales occur historical tales. They differ from accounts in that they are told for entertainment and are subject to the dynamics of fiction. Names and settings can be changed at will." 25-26

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