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

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Jensen
Institut für Ethnologie
Rothenbaumchaussee 64a
20148 Hamburg
Tel.: 040/4123-2293


I am going to report on research, the fieldwork for which was done fairly long ago, and I am not talking about texts only, as it is the central topic of this workshop. But I want to demonstrate the great variety of materials used in social anthropological research, when dealing with the past. I want to give some information about my social anthropological fieldwork in two places, specially about the types of oral sources I tried to get in the course of the studies and the intentions to use them.

The first area of fieldwork were the Buvuma islands in Lake Victoria on the Uganda side. I have been there 1966/67 for 15 months, 1970 for three months, 1972 for one month and 1974/75 for 12 months.

The aim of the studies were the following. I was interested in continuities and changes of cultures after extreme events. In the 19. century most those islands were independent, some tributary to the state of Buganda. 1893 the islands were conquered by the British with the help of Baganda troops and in 1900 they were incorporated into Buganda officially. But the years immediately following saw the great sleeping sickness epidemic, and the majority of the population, until then of a high density, died. 1908 the whole remaining population was removed to the internal parts of the nearby Buganda province of Kyaggwe. only after 1920 the people could return and part of them decided to go back there. At the time of fieldwork only few parts of the islands had a permanent population, about 2000, very few compared with the 56000 in 1900.

Now I wanted to find out how far the culture of the people there was still different from the main trends of Baganda culture, and what continuities were there from the precolonial local culture, what was changed according to the trends of modernisation of Buganda, and when changes came and why. Also I wanted to see how the precolonial history was related to the already reconstructed history of neighbouring areas. This program wanted research, at the same time about the present conditions of the time of research, and about the past. The research was done mostly in the southern part of the main Island Buvuma, where about half of the population was concentrated, the other parts of the island group being covered with lesser intensity.

I do not want to talk here about the research about the present, which was intended to cover the whole range of cultural forms, but actually was especially concentrated on social organisation and economic activities.

The research related to historical times can be subsumed under three headings:

1. The reconstruction of the culture immediately before or just at the time of colonialism there, that means, before or just about 1900.

2. The reconstruction of aspects of precolonial history.

3. The reconstruction of historical events and dynamic processes of culture from 1900 to the present time of fieldwork.

For all of them the main source were types of oral sources from the population, other types of sources to be used so far as they could be found.

1. Reconstruction of cultural forms about the time of 1900

I had to get information mostly by interviewing older people of both sexes, those between sixty and ninety years, and others, who had received traditional knowledge from their parents and relatives.

The backbone of the research about this topic as well as the reconstruction of precolonial history was a regional survey of former settlements and their inhabitants, i.e. patrilineal lineages.

Very often people used place names for parts of forests, grasslands and parts of the present settlements, which clearly were the names of former villages. Others could be traced only by asking informants, and, of course, only the informants could give the information who the inhabitants formerly were. I could localise about 300 villages and mostly also the lineages living there, belonging to about 100 clans. All information with some reference to geographic positions could be connected with this information, as political organisation, relations of war and peace, trade relations etc. Other place names, as landing places, hill tops, rocks in the lake were also starting points t get more information on localised phenomena.

It was also possible to make observations in the landscape, and then try to find informants to give explanations on topics not to be seen. The whole area is overcrowded with remains of the recent past. Terraces of former fields, field markings, fortifications, and many smaller objects were easily to be seen. But information about, for instance, land rights and other rights, of possession had to be asked for, and functions of the remainings. By using such fixing points as localised phenomena I tried, as far as possible in the time present, to get evidence from informants on the different aspects of culture.

Most of the contents of the statements I used to fix in outline, but sometimes I had also full texts. For instance, I had also records of music, mainly with singing, and then I got transcriptions of the texts from the tape. Part of the songs, those in Luvuma and very often no longer in use, because the ritual events where they were belonging to were no longer existing, can be regarded as parts of the precolonial culture, for they were fairly standardised. But there were also other texts, relating to some customs or part of historical legends, written sometimes by people themselves for mex in Luganda.

From the materials received it is not possible to give an account so full of details as is normally possible with material by direct observation, always with possibilities to check interview materials by participant observations, but it is possible to give a reconstruction of the cultural conditions about 1900 in outline, seeing the main differences to contemporary Baganda-culture, and having the starting point for the reconstruction of the dynamic processes in this century.

2. Reconstruction of historical developments in precolonial times

For this there are possibilities of reconstruction only for certain aspects according to the type sources to be available.

The materials to be found are legends of origin, movement and settlement of clans and lineages, and - connected with those - genealogical data; that means, the older parts of genealogies referring to times before 1900.

The starting point for all this was again the regional survey of settlements and the localised lineages. I had to try to get at least statements about origins, clan affiliations, if possible genealogical details and - where possible - texts of clan legends.

I had to find clan elders, if possible, or other remembering clan traditions of the respective groups, or other people of age, who could give some statements also about groups originally living as neighbours near by. According to the events of radical dislocation in the beginning of the century it was not possible to find informed elders of any group. Actually only few such authoritive persons could be found. But it was very helpful to find later in the library of Makerere University College a Paper written by a member of the royal family in Buganda, Ggomotoka, who was administrator in the islands 1938/39. This man had consulted many of the elders, especially those of the formerly dominating clans, to give evidence about their oral traditions, and he had written down all this in a manuscript in Luganda.

Genealogies I took mainly from those groups originally settling in the southern part of the islands, where I did most of the research and where many of the original settlers were still represented by some members. One clan elder also had a genealogical book of his own group and others with the same totem object, then regarded as related groups. I was always welcome to get material from different informants or even written material from legends and genealogies of the same groups. Then there are chances for comparison.

Historical legends and genealogies had also some relevance for the presently living people, and they were helpful to understand recent relations of kinships and marriage, but this aspect cannot be discussed here. Of course, recent functions are also important for the evaluation of the sources for historical reconstructions. There were some cases to be interpreted as recent manipulation. Some versions tried to show origins in Buganda, and relationships with clans of Buganda. For the situation before the incorporation such references do not make any sense. But the incorporation into Buganda give reasons to search for nearer connections with Buganda. In one case minipulation in this manner was clearly connected with claims for land rights.

Always historical legends and genealogies had something to do with rights, political positions and relations, relations of patrilineal relatives and marriage relating, and any work of reconstruction has to take account of such functions of the sources.

Actually I tried to produce a reconstruction of the settlement of the whole island. It was possible to get relative chronologies of the arrival of clans in small areas, normally no dissence about the oldest remembered sellter. Also internal fissions of clans into lineages and smaller migrations could be traced.

For the area of the southern part of the main island with more detailed information than for other parts, especially by the possibility to get much genealogical material, it was possible to try an even more detailed reconstruction, for there was also material about mini-movements, families living outside their localised lineage, and marriage connections.

More difficult was the organisation of the findings into absolute chronology, and it was necessary to use additional hypotheses and references to calculations for neighbouring areas as Central Buganda, Kyaggwe, Busoga and Areas east of Busoga.

All the problems of interpretation of historical legends and genealogies discussed in the literature on method were present in the material, as, for instance, telescoping of genealogies, male bias of patrilinear groups, different versions of different branches of a clan or great lineage, etc.

But I tried to produce a whole reconstruction of immigration, settlement and internal movements of the whole area.

Of course, I tried also to get tales about the important events of the colonial occupation. But I found that oral sources were extremely problematic for this topic. Just some months ago a native from the islands, now a student of catholic theology in California and interested in the history of the islands, send me some of his findings and there were also some tales related to the occupation. One story mixed two different events, the unsuccessful war of Kabaka Mutesa I. against the islanders in 1875, in the presence of Stanley, and the actual occupation 1893 by Captain Williams. The other story was a type of folk etymology of the name "Bavuma". This story tells that the name also resulted from the fights during the occupation in 1893. But in fact Speke travelling nearby on the mainland already gives "Uvuma" as the name of the island, and there are other, more convincing explanations of the name. Actually, I had heard already the same story. Therefore, such stories show that the occupation was a very important event for the people, but the stories give little information about the event itself. Now the third point.

3. The dynamics of recent cultural processes

I have already demonstrated, what type of material I had for the reconstruction of the cultural conditions just before the great changes, and mentioned that I had observed the conditions to be found in the sixties and seventies. The content of changes were the differences to be found between the two fixpoints of time.

But there had to be evidence also for the actual events, especially in relation to remigration and resettlement, and for personal life events of people as well as indications, what type of change took place when in the course of time.

For the area of the southern part of the main island, I made survey of all the households found there at the time of the research, with material about the household composition and economic activities. But I used to ask also for the life histories of the heads of the households and, of course the genealogical connections, that is, the material already mentioned, but for the present topic important for the more recent parts of them.

Those mostly personal recollections show much of the traumatic experiences of the sleeping sickness epidemic and the evacuation, children often living in households of distant relatives, because parents and other relatives were dead, and the struggling for the reconstructing of the social organisation, the new settlement pattern.

Information about the time of changes of special aspects I tried to get normally in connection with the interviews related to the reconstruction of the precolonial culture, but the life histories sometimes gave hints to the times of introduction of innovations and also the conditions, such as remarks about school education. But, of course, processes often cannot be fixed exactly, but it is sometimes possible to find out, under what conditions and through which persons they started to spread later to other people.

For checking some of the policies of the government I could use the Government publications, and there is a research report about the population movements in relation to the sleeping sickness. What I did not use and that is a gap are archives of government institutions and the catholic church. But here was wanted a report about oral materials and this was actually the source material I had tried to find.

Let me have only a few remarks about another research at another place. After a first visit 1982 I have done another field research in Mauritius in 1984 for ten months. Then it was research in an area without any original nature inhabitants, but all were descendants of relatively recent immigrants. This was a research in a multi-ethnic village, Trou-d`eau-douce, on the East side of Mauritius. This research had the aim to study the present tendencies in ethnic identity and interethnic relations in this village. It is a big village with more than 4000 people, and there were represented seven different ethnic groups and eight different religious confessions. I had to study - at the same time - the similarities of all or some of the groups and the most marked differences, and the types of relations among the groups.

I also wanted to try a reconstruction of the development of this village since its foundation. In the archive of Mauritius I found some instructive material about the last century, as detailed maps with names of household owners and the raw material of a census from 1831. Also, there were many remains of the past from the last century in the village or in the vicinity.

But I had dome also here a household survey with recollections about the development of the household and genealogical material. From this it is possible to trace the arrival of most family groups of all ethnies represented there, and the critical evaluation of this material and archival sources together with census reports allows a fairly useful reconstruction of the settlement of members of the different groups since the time of the foundation of the village about 1830, and it can be seen that the main groups were already present in the second part of the last century.

There was still another point to be mentioned. I said that there are many remains from the last century, the function of most to be identified by documentary evidence in the archive. I also tried to ask the people about them. There were some remains connected with a family of Moslems, and members of this family were able to give some interesting information. But otherwise there was difference. People of all groups had some ideas, that the island of Mauritius was known to the Portuguese, and that there were settlers from Holland and then the French, before the island became British; probably this is was learnt already at school. And they tried to connect the remains to be seen with earliest settlement. But they always were prepared to have connections at least with the French (this was actually in the 18th century) or the Dutch, in one case even with the Portuguese and not with the time of inule. And sometimes there were even some stories of pure fantasy. Such talks are not useful for historical reconstruction, but they are evidence of the historical consciousness of a population. And there are useful as examples to be known, if purely oral material has to be interpreted, without any checks.

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