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Oral Traditions: Overview

Oral Traditions: Overview

The challenge of reconstructing the history of nonliterate or preliterate societies makes necessary the study and interpretation of oral traditions. Many such societies have gone to great extents to preserve and transmit the knowledge of their past in oral forms. The phrase oral traditions refers to folklore, legends, tales, taboos, and stories through which knowledge of the past is preserved and transmitted from one generation to another. Oral traditions must be differentiated from oral evidences, which are experiential. Such traditions record the origins, movements, and settlements of peoples; the genealogy and chronology of royalty, priests, and citizens; and the important landmarks in history. Besides, much oral tradition can be gleaned from surviving cultural practices such as burials, rituals, games, and language.

Virtually all societies, including literate ones, have depended on oral traditions for the reconstruction of their histories at one point or other. "Once upon a time" or "long, long ago" are the usual introductions to the oral narratives that European and Native American children heard throughout their childhood and early adolescence. The knowledge of pre-literate historical periods is derived in some form from oral accounts. As writing and documentation developed and literacy became widespread, however, this genre of historical recollection became less important in the literate societies. This is because of the presumed unreliability of oral traditions as compared with documents. Indeed, by the nineteenth century, a form of historiographical tradition had become established in Europe that held that only written sources could produce historical reliability. This was not unconnected to the development of archives and the documentary traditions of the medieval European courts. Europe-based historians of the nineteenth century tended to consider that nonliterate societies had no history.

Oral Tradition and the Search for the African Past

Thus, although oral traditions are not peculiar to black Africa; their use as a source for the construction of African history has attracted the most attention. Not many of the continent's peoples developed any extensive form of writing. Thus, the earliest written sources on African peoples were the accounts of European and Arab traders, travelers, and explorers who wrote about their experiences primarily for home audiences, or as personal memoirs. For this reason, many of the historical studies on Africa were considered not history but anthropology. Archaeological findings of early African civilizations were attributed to foreign influences. It is in this context that the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper contended that Africa had no history apart from the activities there of Europeans and Arabs. This contention drew sharp responses from the intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlanticincluding representatives of the evolving colonial African historical consciousness. There is also a sense in which the denigration of the African past was a replication of the European racial and colonial enterprise, referred to by Edward Said as a "race construct" of "otherness," that is, the creation of a negation of the European ideal in conquered and dominated peoples. The challenge for colonial African and indeed intellectual responses to the question of African history was to prove its existence through the only source that seemed available at the time: oral traditions.

Oral Traditions as a Source and as a Method
of Historical Construction

African and Africanist historians have professed the value and reliability of oral traditions for the reconstruction of the history of African peoples. Their weaknesses as a source of historical reconstruction have been argued as no worse than those of other sources of history, including written records. Various processes have been developed for the mitigation of these weaknesses by the methodical gathering and treatment of oral traditions. This has also involved the conceptualization of oral tradition and the classification of the genres that make up oral traditions. Each of these typologies has peculiar treatment types.

Oral traditions, among many African peoples, are more complex, better-organized forms of recording history than the stories and legends of some other preliterate societies. Traditional controls in the form of training and taboos have served to guarantee the reliability of historical accounts. "Palace historians" and griots often occupy hereditary positions, and the training of custodians of a society's history usually begins at an early age. Special occasions such as coronations, burials, births, and other rituals present opportunities to perfect their arts. Stringent sanctions are attached to any distortion of historical accounts. The fact that in such societies crimes and punishments are communal and that physical and spiritual influences guide social compliance provides added checks against manipulation of accounts. Oral traditions have thus been successfully employed to reconstruct the history of many societies in Africa. In Nigeria, the pioneering works of Kenneth DikeTrade and Politics in the Niger Delta (1956)and Saburi BiobakuThe Egba and Their Neighbours (1957, based on a 1951 thesis) relied mainly on gathered oral traditions and have survived much historiographical scrutiny to remain national historical classics. Substantial works on East African history have also depended on the collection and use of oral traditions following the pioneering works of B. A. Ogot. Jan Vansina's seminal theoretical work, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, articulated the major theoretical advances for the defense of the use of oral traditions in historical reconstruction. The case for oral tradition was further taken up in his more recent study, Oral Tradition as History. Vansina, however, not only makes a case for the validity of oral tradition in historical reconstruction but has produced historical works that fully utilize the method. These include The Tio Kingdom of the Middle Kongo 18801892 (1973) and The Children of Wool: A History of the Kuba People (1978). Vansina's influence as the foremost theoretician of oral tradition historiography is not in doubt.

The Use of Oral Traditions and Its Critics

There are obvious problems with the use of oral traditions. Critics easily point out that they lack absolute chronology, are extremely selective in their content, and are compromised by possible human errors. William G. Clarence-Smith argued that the value of using oral traditions has been not for their intrinsic worth but sentimental, as they offer African historians the opportunity to present an independent history, "uncontaminated by colonialism." Many of the theoretical advances in oral tradition have focused on how to lessen the impact of these weaknesses. The use of oral traditions demands a distinct professionalism that is not altogether dissimilar to that employed by historians who rely on other, "conventional" sources. Historians employing oral traditions, though, need to acquire additional qualities, including, as Phillips Stevens has commented, intuition, which is not usually required by conventional historians.

Oral traditions have had much wider influence on global historiography that its critics would concede. The emphasis on written sources as the only reliable source of historical reconstruction has mellowed with the acknowledged contributions of other sources of history including archaeology, paleography, and linguistics, as well as oral traditions. An interdisciplinary approach to historical reconstruction has gained much currency among historians. Besides, the debate over oral traditions has also shed some critical light on written documents as sources of history, with a view to strengthening their reliability. It has become realized, for instance, that many written documents are in reality processed oral traditions. The study of oral traditions has developed as a recognized discipline and various projects in the collection and processing of these traditions are being undertaken in research institutions across the world.

See also Historiography ; History, Idea of ; Memory ; Oral Traditions: Telling, Sharing .


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Clarence-Smith, William G., and Fernand Braudel. "A Note on the 'École Des Annales' and the Historiography of Africa." History in Africa: A Journal of Method 4 (1977): 275281.

Curtin, Phillip D. "Oral Traditions and African History." Journal of the African Folklore Institute vi, nos. 2/3 (1969): 137155.

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Stevens, Phillips, Jr. "The Uses of Oral Traditions in the Writing of African History." Tarikh 6, no 1 (1978): 2130.

Vansina, Jan. "Oral Tradition and Its Methodology." In UNESCO General History of Africa I: Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by Joseph Ki-Zerbo. Paris: UNESCO; London: Heinemann; and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Translated by H. M. Wright. Chicago: Aldine, 1965. Originally published in 1961.

Sola Akinrinade

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