Communication: Oral and Nonverbal Traditions

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Communication: Oral and Nonverbal Traditions


The First Historians and Teachers. Long before the eighth century, when Muslim scholars began writing histories of West Africa in Arabic, the ancient kingdoms of West Africa relied on the oral tradition to pass on their histories. These accounts of villages and clans and genealogies of ruling families were kept by people now known as griots, a French word meaning “traditional minstrel,” which probably replaced African words such as dieli in the Bambara language. Griots served as oral historians, storytellers, poets, dancers, musicians, and actors, teaching the clan its history and keeping the memories of their people. Each clan or village had its own griot. Royal families often hired griots to preserve their personal stories and events of their dynasty. According to an ancient Soninke epic, the first griot known by name was Gassire, who composed a praise song, or pui, that is said to recount the origins of the kingdom of Ghana. According to the North African Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited the Empire of Mali in 1353, the griot was one of the most important people in a West African royal court. He wrote that the position of king’s griot was passed down in a family within the same clan. A griot acted as his ruler’s main aide. When messengers arrived at a court, they gave their messages to the griot. The griot also taught the princes, led court musicians, and conducted ceremonies. Even after there were scribes in Mali, many messages were still communicated orally through griots.

Drum Talk. Drums are the most common instrument in Africa, and historically they played a significant communication role. The main kind of drum in West Africa is a tension drum with an hourglass shape. It is sometimes called a “talking drum” because its rhythm and sound mimic the human voice. Using it as a medium for communication, people in West Africa could communicate rapidly over long distances, reaching places a day’s journey away with “drum talk.” Especially in the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, administrators of the huge West African empires used drum talk to communicate with each other. Griots often used talking drums to describe the kings of an empire. A story passed down about an ill-favored Yoruba king says he first heard the public’s demand for his departure through drum talk. Drummers also used drum talk as a musical form. At festivals and ceremonies, a drummer would find a particular rhythm for the dancers and use his rhythmic beating to communicate a message to the audience, who understood the drum vocabulary.

The Meaning of Clothing. Since ancient times the fabrics and patterns of West Africans’ clothing have communicated much about the person wearing it. Sometimes the use of a certain kind of cloth conveyed a message. For example, the Asantehene, king of the Ashanti people in the southern forest area of West Africa, historically wore expensive silk cloth, conveying the message that he was “the most wealthy and powerful person in the kingdom.” If others had worn the same cloth, they would have been challenging the king’s power. This particular kind of cloth could have been kente made by weavers at the Ashanti court from silk fibers traded by Europeans on the trans-Saharan routes. The fabric was handwoven in many colors, patterns, and textures. Al-Bakri, an eleventh-century Spanish-Muslim geographer who based his history of West Africa on information from earlier writers, said that in Ghana only the king and his heir (his sister’s son) could wear sewn clothes. Everyone else wrapped their bodies in large pieces of fabric. The designs woven into or printed on fabrics were also a means of communicating information about a person. The Akan peoples of the forested regions on the Gulf of Guinea developed a complex system of symbols that they used on their clothing.

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The Honor of the Trousers. One of the highest awards the king of Mali could give for a job well done was the “Honor of the Trousers.” The king presented civil servants and military persons with a pair of wide trousers. The size of the trousers correlated to the number and greatness of the subject’s deeds. These pants were baggy in the hips and narrow in the leg, resembling those seen in illustrations for the Arabian Nights.

Languages. Most West Africans speak languages in the Niger-Congo language family. The first offshoot of the parent Niger-Congo language, breaking off around 3000 B.C.E., was probably the Maude branch, spoken in many parts of West Africa. The largest branch of this family is the Benue-Congo group, which includes the Bantu languages, spread by immigration to East and South Africa, as well as Yoruba, Igbo, and Edo, spoken mainly in Nigeria. Other Niger-Congo language groups are the Kwa branch, spoken in coastal regions from Liberia to Nigeria; the Gur branch, spoken in northern Nigeria and much of Côte d’ivoire and Burkina Faso; the Ubangi and Adamawa branches, spoken across the northern part of Central Africa; the Atlantic branch, spoken from Liberia north to the desert above Dakar in Senegal; the Kru branch , spoken in southwestern Côte d’ivoire and southern Liberia; the Ijoid branch, spoken in the Niger delta; and the Dogon branch, spoken in northeastern Mali. Smaller numbers of West Africans, primarily from northern Nigeria east toward Lake Chad, speak languages in the Chadic branch of the Afro-Asian family, which includes most of the languages of North Africa. The chief Chadic language of West Africa is Hausa, spoken in Niger and northern Nigeria. Other West Africans speak one of the Nilo-Saharan languages that are found from the great bend in the Niger River east to Ethiopia and parts of the upper Nile Valley, Uganda, and Kenya.

Languages around Lake Chad. The peoples living around Lake Chad, on the eastern edge of West Africa, speak two distinct languages, demonstrating what happens when a barrier to communication arises. The east and the west sides of the lake were both habitable, but swamps around the south side of the lake helped to keep the two different ethnic groups on either side of the lake from mingling. As a result, they developed two distinct language systems. The Hausa on the west side spoke the Chadic language Hausa, and the Kanuri people on the east spoke the Nilo-Saharan language that bears their name. The Hausa people apparently lived on the plains of Bornu west of Lake Chad for hundreds of years, and some scholars have speculated that their language may have been influenced by immigrants from the north. They were an agricultural people who grew food crops and cotton. They had contact with the outside world because these products were desired on the trans-Saharan trade route. Yet, they remained somewhat isolated, building fortified walled cities for protection from outside attacks and encircling these urban areas with farmland and homes. The Kanuri culture and language on the east side of Lake Chad was entirely different. In the twelfth century and later, they owned a large number of horses, and many were fighting men. As trans-Saharan trade routes became increasingly important, the Kanuri expanded their state, adding ethnic groups who spoke other languages.


About three-quarters of all Africans, including most West Africans, speak one of the languages in the sub-Saharan Niger-Congo family. With similar words for many common objects and actions, this family includes the following branches and languages:

Mande branch
Mandinka (Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Côte d’ivoire)
Bambara (Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Côte d’ivoire)
Dyula (Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Côte d’ivoire)
Mende (Sierra Leone)
Kpelle (Liberia)

Benue-Congo branch
Bantu languages
Zulu (South Africa)
Xhosa (South Africa)
Fang (Cameroon)
Bulu (Cameroon)
Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin, Togo)
Igbo (Nigeria)
Edo (Nigeria)

Kwa branch
Ewe (Togo, Ghana)
Anyi (Côte d’ivoire)
Baule (Cø d’ivoire)
Akan languages
Ashanti (Ghana)
Fante (Ghana)

Gur branch
Mossi (Nigeria, Côte d’ivoire, Burkina Faso)
Bariba (Nigeria, Cø d’ivoire, Burkina Faso)
Gurma (Nigeria, Cø d’ivoire, Burkina Faso)

Kru branch (Cø d’ivoire and southern Liberia)

Atlantic branch
Temne (Sierra Leone)
Wolof (Senegal)
Fulani (Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon)

Dogon branch (northeast Mali)

Ijoid branch
Ibibio (Niger Delta)

Source: Kwame AnthonyAppiah and Henry Louis GatesJr., eds,, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (New York: Basic CivitasBooks, 1999).


J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, eds., The History of West Africa, second edition, 2 volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, 1987).

Akan Cultural Symbols Project <>.

Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds., Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999).

Carrie Beauchamp, Social Fabric: Exploring the Kate Peck Kent Collection of West African Textiles, University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, 2002 <>.

Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songbay: Life in Medieval Africa (New York: Holt, 1994).

D. T. Niane, ed., Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, volume 4 of General History of Africa (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1984).

Ivan Van Sertima, ed., Blacks in Science, Ancient and Modern (New Brunswick & London: Transaction Books, 1983).

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Communication: Oral and Nonverbal Traditions

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Communication: Oral and Nonverbal Traditions