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date: 25 April 2019

Oral Traditions as Sources

Summary and Keywords

The use of oral tradition is a distinctive and essential element in many fields of African studies. History must acknowledge it; literature sees it as the medium for much of the indigenous creative endeavor across African cultures; anthropology and its cousin disciplines rely upon oral information for their understanding of traditional societies. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition as a source across disciplines involves two efforts: first, a survey of the reported oral tradition as available and documented in past periods, and second, a review of the principles and practices involved in the collection, analysis, and presentation of the oral tradition.

The paucity of written records has been grounds for dismissal of the notion of African history—most notoriously in the case of Hegel, who in ignorance wrote off the home of the human species—and more recently a cause of pride among African intellectuals who have asserted the value of the oral tradition in the face of skepticism rooted in prejudice and too often in overt racism. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition threads its path between extremes and occasional controversy. The era of the smartphone has made the documentation (and creation) of oral tradition almost too easy. Past generations made do in different ways. Their reports should not be dismissed, but studied; they are the available background to information collected in the modern era. Accurate collection and critical analysis are the essential tools for the understanding of oral tradition.

Keywords: oral history, oral literature, mythology, tradition, Africa, collection methods, sources

In Africa, the notion of oral tradition (oralité) has acquired a great importance: it represents an affirmation of African cultural value. For contemporary researchers, the use of oral tradition is a principal tool in reconstructing precolonial history and culture. Appreciation of the oral tradition varies among disciplines. For history and literature, it is an accepted field with innumerable variations in methods and analysis. Anthropologists often question its substance, seeing tradition largely in the chartering function defined by Malinowski, as a tool for legitimizing the present status of a given society and its institutions through the past.1 It is, however, a problematic concept. It is mutable over generations, and variable within a society; one should perhaps speak more strictly of oral traditions than of a source in the singular. Historical traditions will vary with the teller; perspectives vary within a given group. Religious traditions depend upon the cult. Forms of literature are protean and travel readily between cultures. As a basis, in this article, oral tradition is presumed to be information passed between generations: the notion of transmission and repetition is central, and the medium of orality is presumed in the absence of writing. At a minimum, the use of oral tradition as a source now requires a reliable and independent record of the information from the source (i.e., a sound or video recording). Appreciation and analysis of contemporary reports of the oral tradition require a knowledge of past, and often comparative, evidence.

The Past Periods of Collection

Excluding the period of classical antiquity, the first set of sources comprises travelers’ reports contained in Arabic writings going back to the 10th and 11th centuries, and continued, to some extent, through the travel narratives of European traders along the Atlantic coast beginning in the 15th century. These reports are mostly those of outsiders offering hearsay with greater or lesser comprehension and reliability. This period continues into the 19th century, when European explorations, presaging the future colonial conquest, offer fuller accounts.

To these accounts by outsiders can be added a second set of written accounts composed locally, in a variety of languages and contexts. Throughout the Islamic Sahel, authors composed written regional histories, dating to the 16th century and later. Most of these are in Arabic; some are in Swahili, Hausa, and Fulfulde and other languages. Elsewhere on the continent, coming somewhat later, one finds a variety of historical traditions compiled following the first substantive contact of rulers and foreigners, some of which precede the colonial conquest and others that seem a response to it.

The colonial period (1900–1960, roughly) offers a mix of reports by administrators (colonial archives continue to be consulted for all sorts of evidence), outside researchers, and a growing body of history and lore produced by African writers seeking to preserve and advance knowledge of their cultures.

A feature common to the three categories defined so far is that they do not reliably represent the oral tradition, in whatever form, for a simple reason: there was no technology for recording sound. Modern readers of these older texts cannot be sure that the recorder reported the informant accurately. While the early 20th century did offer some possibilities (e.g., Edison’s phonograph and its wax cylinders), there is little evidence for its wide use. Still, the collections and documents are essential resources, as evidence for (but not against) much earlier forms of the oral tradition; the written collections of the early 20th century in particular are valuable for their volume and because they are recent enough to be matched with later forms preserved by sound recordings.

Since the “suns of the independences,” there has been an explosion in the collection of oral traditions: technology offered accurate sound reproduction, new ideologies acknowledged its value and importance, and the spirit of national pride has encouraged research and collection.2 The volume of material now available is overwhelming.

Arabic and European Travelers’ Accounts

Medieval Arabic sources vary in their value and reliability. The authors did not live in sub-Saharan Africa, and many were content to reproduce information from their predecessors—for instance, the legend of the “silent trade” in gold that was first reported by Herodotus.3 Others, however, offer new information, occasionally naming their informants; Al-Bakri (d. 1094) is one such. Some material in his account that must be considered legendary—for example, the selection of kings by a maned serpent, or of the conversion of the kingdom of Malal to Islam because the prayers brought rain to end a drought—nevertheless echoes themes recorded in the modern oral tradition, and so deserves attention.4 Along with al-Bakri, we should note the accounts of al-Umari (1301–1349), who recorded (on the evidence of the emir Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali bin Amir Hajib) the passage of the Malian emperor Mansa Musa through Cairo on his celebrated pilgrimage; of Ibn Battuta (1304–1368), who offers one of the few eyewitness accounts of visits down the East African coast and also into the sub-Saharan kingdom of Mali; and of Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406).5 For his time, Ibn Khaldun set the standard. As his editors note,

Ibn Khaldun is unique among our external African sources. In his careful methodological approach to the use of oral evidence he reported the names of his informants, asked them to spell out some African names, and compared versions of two informants.6

The accounts by European travelers along the Atlantic coast of Africa after 1500 offer practical challenges, particularly the multiple languages in which they were recorded (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, Danish, and English, Italian, and even Latin). These accounts have the merit of being eyewitness testimony to events and conditions current at the time. Their shortcomings stem from the issues of translation, comprehension, and interest. The travelers were dealing with unknown cultures, with the reports of inland kingdoms that they did not know, and with information filtered through several languages in its passage to their ears. Their principal interest was in their commodities, although many clearly understood the appeal of exoticism in their accounts. Their value lies principally in the possibility of correlation with more recent testimony. The earliest story reported of Anansi the spider of the Akan-Ashanti peoples, for instance, appears in the narrative of Ludewig Rømer, from 1760.7

First Contact and Local Histories

The period of commercial travelers leads into that of explorers and missionaries; for simplicity, the start of this era can be dated to 1800, although traders and missionaries from the Islamic world had been at work long before that date in various parts of Africa, and Christianity traveled with the Portuguese traders around the coast from the 15th century onward. The common element here is the first encounter of the African societies with cultures of literacy. The response, often, was the same: the rulers wished the history of their kingdoms (with a particular emphasis on the legitimacy of their dynasty) to be recorded in this new medium.

Included in this section are precolonial local histories that did not serve dynastic goals. From the mid-17th century onward, we have the testimony of works, for the most part written in Arabic, among which is the Tarikh el-Fettach of Mahmoud Kâti, which was continued after his death in 1593 to cover events into the mid-17th century; the Tarikh es-Sudan of es-Sadi, covering the middle Niger up to the mid-17th century; the Kano Chronicle, for the Hausa territory that had become the Fula Caliphate of Sokoto in northern Nigeria, and on the east African coast documents such as the Chronicle of Kilwa, dated to circa 1500.8

Clearly, such works do not count as “oral tradition.” They are accounts serving local aims and constructed in terms of the politics of their era; Paolo de Moraes Farias offers a convincing account of the motivated construction of the two Soudanese Tarikhs.9 However, they offer our only evidence for the historical information current at the time of their writing. For their information on past or neighboring African kingdoms, the authors do not reproduce available Arabic sources; they relied on what passed as common knowledge in their world. Modern readers do need to apply filters to note religious, regional, or dynastic bias.

The 19th century is the era of European explorers (significantly, they were often military officers) who traveled to the interior parts of Africa. Their reports, like those of the earlier commercial travelers, are valuable as eyewitness accounts of conditions, political situations, commercial opportunities, and local customs. They are focused on the immediate present of the travel, although they also report traditions of the past as they encounter them, and occasionally forms of literature. The first extensive report of an African epic narrative, the story of Samba Gueladio Diegui from Senegal, appears in the 1856 narrative of Cmdt. Anne Raffenel.10

This period also marks the start of extensive missionary activity, although it must be remembered that Christians had reported on the history of the kingdom of the Congo in the 16th century.11 An element of their program was the translation of the Bible into the local languages; to that end, they engaged in linguistic studies. One byproduct of those studies was the collection of folktales, proverbs, and other forms of local lore. This 19th-century effort reflected the vogue inspired in Europe by the Brothers Grimm and their immensely influential collection of German folktales, and paralleled similar recording efforts throughout Europe. They also published much of the lore they had collected.12 The Rev. Callaway is a valuable source for early Zulu tradition, combining historical narratives and folktales as well as other narrative forms.13

In other cases, and particularly at the start of the colonial period, the forcible encounter with European control and literacy seems to have inspired local rulers with the desire to document their traditions; this phenomenon, incidentally, is global and understudied. Mention was made above of the historians using Arabic who documented the traditions of the kingdoms of the Sahel starting in the 16th century. Sultan Mohammed Bello of Sokoto wrote his people’s history when he came to power at the start of the 19th century.14 To that can be added collections such as that of Buganda, compiled around 1900 by Sir Apolo Kaggwa, which provides a history from the creation of the world and the activities of Kintu, the first man, down to the origins of the clans and the establishment of the royal dynasty.15 Farther south, Mwata Kazembe of the Lunda ordained a similar account.16 In the German Cameroon, the Sultan Njoya of Bamun ordered the compilation of the traditions, circa 1910.17 The delight and challenge of these texts is the way in which they start with mythological origins and proceed into historical times (whereby the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty is documented).

The Colonial Period

Colonial administrators collected and published a great deal of the material that they encountered during their service. The accuracy of their report on the oral tradition may be questioned, but the influence of their publications is undeniable. Capt. R. S. Rattray, serving in Ghana, brought the figure of Anansi the spider to the wider world and helped to establish transatlantic folkloric links: the figure of a tar-baby links Anansi and Br’er Rabbit of the American south, although their roles are different; Anansi sets the trap, while Br’er Rabbit is the victim.18 The three-volume tale collection of François-Victor Equilbecq (1913–1916) remains a valuable resource for early versions of tales.19

A noteworthy, voluminous, and much-neglected collection of oral traditions, spanning the extremes of the continent, is that of Leo Frobenius.20 His accounts of West African epic traditions (collected in 1905–1907, given in vols. 5 and 6), for instance, agree in significant detail with versions recorded in the modern era. His folktales, from Kordofan, the Kasai, Togo, and elsewhere, are rich. Franco-German antagonism in the colonial period led French researchers to disregard his efforts;21 a French translation of his work on African cultural history was used by members of the Negritude movement in France after World War II.22

At the same time, occasionally at the request of colonial administrators, African writers were beginning to provide their own accounts. Mamadi Aissa Kaba Diakite in Nioro (Mali) provided a series of versions of local history covering the period from the empire of Wagadu down to the time of al-Hajj Umar Tal, derived from oral tradition, to a succession of French writers: Adam (1904), Arnaud (1912), Delafosse (1913), and Labouret.23 In Senegal, Cheikh Moussa Kamara composed extensive regional histories in Arabic, reporting the information from the oral tradition for the kingdoms along the Niger.24 In Nigeria, Jacob Egharevba published his first Bini history of the city of Benin in 1933; his works appeared subsequently in English.25 An example of collaboration may be found in Cardinall’s Tales Told in Togoland, in which the historical material on the Dagomba is credited to his informant E. F. Tamakloe (this material was later published separately).26 From Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta’s book, Facing Mount Kenya, provided an insider’s view of Gikuyu culture and history and, in a curious echo of the dynastic histories such as those of Buganda, the Lunda, and Bamun, has now become of official vision of the first president of independent Kenya.27 In Rwanda, Fr. Alexis Kagame apparently profited from a change in royal regimes around 1930 (the previous king had been hostile to the Belgians) to assemble a treasury of traditional and dynastic poetry; his texts have a greater claim to accuracy than some, for the royal poets were rewarded for memorizing and preserving poems composed by their ancestors.28

The methods of collection through these periods were cumbersome and complex. Consider this description from Melville and Frances Herskovits, Americans who worked in the French colony of Dahomey:

Our method of recording was to take the text directly on the typewriter as our interpreters translated the narrator’s flow of the story, given in Fon, the language of Dahomey. Except for native terms, or some locution phrased in Negro-French, which was set down as given in order not to interrupt the flow of translation, we wrote in English.

. . . We recorded the songs to the stories after the whole tale had been told, for no electronic apparatus was available at that time, and singing had to be done into the horn of a small machine that recorded the songs on cylinders.29

They note that observation of their recording technique affected the content: some performers extended their narrative; others sought to test the typing skills with the speed of their narration.30

The colonial period expanded interest in the collection of oral traditions and provided new opportunities. It also leads to the first reflections upon the nature and functions of the oral tradition, which until then had largely been considered the imperfect preservation of past lore. The Tiv of Nigeria offer an often-cited case study, reported by Laura Bohannon in 1952. The Tiv are an acephalous society linked by descent from a recognized ancestor; social relations are defined by genealogy. Conflicts are resolved through discussions that meander through family relationships. In 1912, a case from Shangev came before the colonial administrators, who recorded the genealogies. In 1950 another case arose, again in Shangev. This allowed a comparison by the researchers with the previously recorded genealogies (whose existence were unknown to the Tiv), and the observation of discrepancies in the recorded court testimony. The point, as Bohannon notes, is that the oral tradition had been adjusted to modern realities:

The implications of this dispute are obvious. When genealogies do not fit all the facts, alternate genealogies exist. Arguments about the substance of any portion of a genealogy do not invalidate the belief in its existence and provable truth.

. . . Genealogies validate present relationships; these relationships prove the genealogies; and the form of the genealogy is modelled on the form of present relationships.31

She also connects this process with the chartering function of mythology, as defined by Malinowski. She might have gone further, to note the transactional nature of the genealogical discussions among the Tiv: in disputes, the definitions of the kinship relations and their obligations were negotiable, and aimed at reaching a mutually acceptable resolution of the obligations as defined by an accepted kinship link.

The colonial period is one during which the volume of recorded information increases dramatically; it also aims at wider coverage. The combination of administrative needs and of the opportunities for research afforded the developing discipline of anthropology ample scope.32 All this material is subject to cautions: in the case of administrative reports, the tinge of possible coercion and distortion is ever present. In the case of anthropologists and missionaries, other possible biases seem evident.33

The Suns of Independence

In the period following World War II, colonized Africans began to assert themselves. The Negritude movement of Francophone Africa, centered in Paris (where Africans from many different colonies met and shared experiences), was a principal vehicle for cultural self-affirmation. Their traditional cultures, as articulated through the oral tradition (translated into print), were part of their evidence. The volume of material collected throughout the colonies, and its quality, supported their claim. 1960—the year of independence for many colonies of France and Great Britain—may count as the point when African oral tradition imposes itself.

Several strands may be traced in its development. For many Africans (and others), the claims of Mamadou Kouyaté, the griot of Fadama (as presented by D. T. Niane in 1960, in his version of the epic of Sunjata), are indisputable:

I am a griot. . . . Since time immemorial the Kouyatés have been in the service of the Keita princes of Mali; we are vessels of speech, we are the repositories which harbour secrets many centuries old. . . . My word is pure and free of all untruth; it is the word of my father; it is the word of my father’s father. I will give you my father’s words just as I received them; royal griots do not know what lying is.34

Few researchers in the Manden (or Manding) would agree with these claims, but they have acquired popular acceptance. Niane’s version of the epic of Sunjata (and the establishment of Mali) is not a good reflection of the oral tradition, especially when compared with more recent versions such as those collected by David Conrad.35 But it is the one now excerpted in the literature textbooks of West African lycées.

A more academic and less nationalistic approach was offered by Jan Vansina, whose 1961 De la tradition orale laid out a methodology and categorization of the varieties of oral tradition and their contexts, based on his work in the kingdoms of central Africa. His taxonomy of the forms of the oral tradition is as fundamental as that of Linnaeus in biology. The UNESCO General History of Africa in its first volume, dealing with methodology, recognizes both perspectives: Vansina offers an essay, followed by another by Amadou Hampate Ba, on “The Living Tradition.”36 In this same time frame, Kenneth Goldstein produced a guide for American folklorists that is relevant to the topic.37

Also at this time, Yves Person produced a ponderous and invaluable study of the relatively recent past of French West Africa: Samori: Une révolution dyula,38 covering the career and context of Samory Toure, who in the period from 1850 to 1900 united a central portion of West Africa in a new, eventually Islamic, dominion, before being confronted and defeated by the French colonial expansion. Person devotes little attention to principles of study, but his method was, for the time, unique and revolutionary: he had criss-crossed the old territories of Samory Toure and interviewed elders and other informants, of all relevant ethnicities, throughout the region. He then subjected their testimony to the same level of critical analysis and cross-referencing as he applied to consideration of documentary evidence such as the (dubious) treaties offered by the French to Samory in the late 1880s. In his critical use of oral tradition as a source for history, his results remain unsurpassed.

From 1960 on, there is an ever-increasing volume of published materials from the oral tradition in history and literature. Oxford University Press launched the Oxford Library of Oral Literature, excellent collections of traditional forms of literature presented in bilingual format: Yoruba, Akan, Akamba, Xhosa, Ba-Hima, Kinyarwanda, Tswana. In France the Africanists began publishing volumes in the series of the Classiques africains, also in bilingual format and with the added feature in many volumes of a sound-recording (45 rpm, on soft vinyl, and later a CD) tucked into the book. Christiane Seydou’s presentation of Fulfulde epics, continued by a stream of other volumes, are exemplary.39 The Centre d’études historiques et linguistiques en tradition orale in Niger began publication of an invaluable series of documents representing the work of African researchers collecting and publishing oral traditions; the work of Oudiary Dantioko, for the Soninke, has yet to be matched for that group, and the regional histories of the Fula documented by Dioulde Laya are also valuable.40 In the Congo basin, the Centre d’études ethnographiques du Bandundu (CEEBA) produced an extensive series of folktales and myths for groups such as the Mbala, the Hungana, and others.41 Ruth Finnegan’s comprehensive survey, Oral Literature in Africa (1970) is an invaluable resource for work up to its publication.42

In more recent years, the technology of the internet and the cell phone have allowed an enormous expansion of material accessible to all. Innumerable websites reproduce older material and present new recordings; social media are another continent to explore. Efforts are underway to digitize older collections. This abundance entails cautions: questions of source, authority, and analysis become more complex as the original context becomes less perceptible. There is no accepted standard for crediting sources. Such problems arose earlier in the study of West African epics, once locally produced cassette tape recordings of epics began to circulate. Could one consider such recordings as authentic reflections of a community?43 What aspect of the oral tradition do they represent? On the web such questions are far more acute.44 The material presented is rarely accompanied by reliable attribution or critical analysis.

Collection, Assessment, and Responsibility

The collector of oral traditions is positioned between two communities: the one where the collection took place, and the wider audience for whom the collection and dissemination is intended. A measure of trust and responsibility in both directions is essential to the effort. The wider audience must have some confidence that the report truly reflects the traditions of the community of origin. Such confidence reposes upon the recorded evidence, and upon the validity of the interpretation provided by the collector. The community (or individual) that serves as source of the tradition is in turn entitled to respect, consideration, and often protection and discretion from the collector.

Recording Oral Tradition

The oral tradition exists in many forms, ranging from gossip and schoolyard jokes to proverbs (a favored subject of collection, both for the linguistic value and for the light they shed on cultural norms), to lineage histories preserved by a select group of elders or other informants, and passing through the familiar songs and stories of a community, the ritual invocations and utterances of ritual cults, and the lore of specialists.45 Appreciation of its value requires knowledge of its context and its source. It is thus the duty of the researcher, collecting oral tradition(s) and presenting it to a wider public, to document the underlying process. The source, the context of performance/narration, the method of recording—all are to some extent required to earn faith in the validity of the material presented.

Today, any publication based on oral tradition is presumed to represent an accurate record of the testimony offered, as supported by a sound- or video-recording of the event. The transcription and presentation offer further challenges: how to depict the oral delivery—the pauses, the raised or hushed voice, the variable tempo of speech? How can one include or acknowledge the musical accompaniment, if any? Should audience interjections be included? (These questions are of greater relevance in the transcription of oral literature, but still deserve consideration in matters of history.)

Given that much recorded oral tradition is in little-known languages, a second set of concerns arises regarding the translation of materials. H. F. Morris encountered one aspect of this issue when presenting the heroic recitations (dealing with cattle raids) from the Ba-Hima of Ankole, a kingdom lying between Rwanda and Bunyoro on the southwestern shores of Lake Victoria. The recitations included terms not to be found in the dictionaries compiled by missionaries. The missionaries in Ankole had collected their lexicon from the sedentary Bairu, rather than the pastoral cattle-herding Ba-Hima.46 The understanding of language and references is thus a central concern in all consideration of the oral tradition.47 The tradition of praise-poetry found across the entire continent presents a continuing challenge: the epithets incorporated in praises may well have been handed down through generations while their original significance may have been lost.48

Documentation also includes an appreciation of the context of collection. Jan Vansina’s work offers the most detailed taxonomy of the varieties of oral tradition, ranging from gossip through family tradition to the accepted consensus of a group of elders speaking for the community.49 The oral tradition is, in any given place, multifaceted: an individual has some knowledge of the family or group history; knowledge is also preserved in the lineage, often the prerogative of elders; and there may be a communal version of the larger group’s history that underplays past conflicts.50

The genre is also relevant. Local groups almost always distinguish their categories of narrative, separating folktales from history and adding other distinctions as needed. Some categories of speech are the prerogative of specialized groups—for instance, the griots of West Africa, a pluri-ethnic population that corresponds in ways to the categories of linguists or praise-poets widespread across the continent. In some cases, the distinction between “epic” and “folktale” would rest on the status of the performer/narrator: a jeli or, for example, a grandmother (although epic is almost always accompanied by some musical instrument).

Mnemonic devices may be employed: ritual objects or sites, or even documents: the Chronicle of Gonja from northern Ghana is little more than a list of names (in Arabic script) that serve as prompts for a much more expansive explanation by the informants relying upon their remembered information. The royal palace of Abomey contains the thrones of the kings, dating to the 18th century.

An issue sometimes neglected is the status of the researcher. The researcher is an outsider and must gain access to the community’s life; this is the principle underlying participatory anthropology. In some situations, however, added questions apply. Gender is an obvious issue, affecting access to men’s or women’s knowledge. Maturity is a less noted criterion. Some women’s groups are reticent toward a researcher, even female, if she is not married and a mother. There are social as well as personal qualifications in earning the trust of the community.51

Analysis of the Oral Tradition

A long-recognized feature of the oral tradition is that it is mutable. While oral tradition may preserve lore from the past, it only exists in the present. Jack Goody noted how the oral tradition is reconstructed, through remembrance and retelling, from generation to generation, and defined it as the homeostatic function; this concept echoes Malinowski’s concept of the “chartering function” of mythology.52 This feature is of greatest concern to historians, seeking accuracy; students of oral literature rejoice in variants, and in the social sciences the multiple accounts and perspectives simply add mass to the analysis.

Goody’s perspective reflects his field experience. He has recorded different versions of the “White Bagre” and “Black Bagre,” ritual texts of an initiatory cult of the LoDagaba (or Dagari) of northern Ghana, at periods between 1951 and 1969. He encountered significant differences in his later recordings, especially in the “Black Bagre,” a creation narrative. The “White Bagre” is to some extent a ceremonial script and so less susceptible to change.53 In a remarkably short period of time, the mythic narrative of the cult expressed in the “Black Bagre” had changed. This should not be surprising in matters of faith; as peoples change their beliefs, they quickly adjust their narratives. Conversion to Islam and to Christianity has affected many local historical traditions. The question whether the earlier traditions might still be reconstructed is, perhaps, open, although the probability diminishes with each passing year. The presumption would be that the connection selected for a link with the imported faith might reflect some features or issues in the earlier mythic narrative.54

A classic problem combining issues of recording, documentation, and mutability is to be found in Marcel Griaule’s presentation of the teachings of a blind Dogon hunter, Ogotemmêli in Dieu d’eau (Conversations with Ogotemmêli).55 Griaule’s work presents itself as a cosmogony that eventually aligns curiously with the symbols of the zodiac. After his death, this line of presentation was continued by Germaine Dieterlen and Youssouf Tata Cissé in Le renard pâle, a work marked by a belief in esoteric meanings.56 The claims presented in Conversations with Ogotemmêli have been vigorously challenged by later ethnographers, especially Walter van Beek, who had worked with the Dogon and in their fieldwork found little basis for the information offered by Griaule.57 Griaule’s successors in France, however, continue to defend the work.58 A further complication was introduced by an article claiming that the Dogon had identified the star Sirius as a double star, a feature not visible to the naked eye. This claim has made the Dogon a vector for evidence of interstellar communication.59

Feedback is another issue. There are apocryphal stories of a researcher interviewing an informant who, on a given point, asked for a moment’s pause, and withdrew into a chamber, to emerge with a book written fifty years earlier. In the modern era, the loop between published information and the literate representatives of the oral tradition is strong and must be recognized. Since Cheikh Anta Diop proclaimed the unity of African cultures, with an origin in Egypt, Egyptian origins have entered the discourse.60 In the Mande world, entirely new themes have arisen. One important and illustrative vector in this process was the collaboration between the Malian scholar Youssouf Tata Cissé and the jéli (griot) Wa Kamissoko that resulted in two major publications.61 The new additions to the reconstructed oral tradition include the Charter of Kurukan Fugan, allegedly a set of rules (a constitution) laid out by Sunjata Keita after he had defeated Sumanguru and created the empire of Mali (c. 1235). It is now presented in two forms: one deriving from Mande hunters (through the writings of Cissé), and one deriving from the works of Souleymana Kante, a Guinean savant who invented the N’Ko alphabet.62

A second addition to the reconstructed oral tradition of Mali is the transatlantic voyage of Abou-Bekri II, predecessor of Mansa Musa.63 Al-Umari records Mansa Musa’s claim that his predecessor set sail on the Atlantic, a claim that deserves scrutiny.64 There is no evidence that Abou-Bekri ever landed.65 Still, al-Umari’s account—as rediscovered and adopted by the literati—has filtered back into one stream of the Malian oral tradition, and is now part of the semi-official, state-sanctioned version in Mali.66 The absence of evidence is not an obstacle to popular belief.

Feedback, cooption, imagination, and 20th-century accretions do not invalidate the value of the oral tradition as a source. These factors point, rather, to the need for critical analysis: the status of the informant and the source of the information conveyed, the context of the presentation (individual, group?), the nature of the information, the possible interests involved, and the possibility of external pressures and constraints, with all these questions considered in light of earlier and other evidence.

One delicate topic, central in African historiography, is the question of slavery and slave origins. In the oral tradition—be it that of the community or of a family—such origins are usually kept silent. As Martin Klein notes, “those of slave descent do not like to recognize their slave origins even when the person’s origins are well-known.”67 Olivier de Sardan’s work, Quand nos pères étaient captifs (1976) offers a composite set of first-person narratives from the Zarma of Niger.68 As modernization and urbanization transform African societies, other delicate issues, often gender related, are emerging.

A last and central point is the frame of reference and background material addressed in the analysis. Some years ago, in a regretful essay, Donald Wright—having worked on the kingdom of Niumi in the Gambia for many years—pronounced a “Requiem for the Use of Oral Tradition to Reconstruct the Precolonial History of the Lower Gambia.”69 His pessimism was unwarranted; he had used too narrow a focus in approaching a region of multiple ethnic histories and overlap.70 The oral tradition is fluid and travels easily. Researchers need to cast their nets widely for an appreciation of the potential background to the information they have collected.

Responsibility toward the Sources

At its best, the collection of oral tradition provides a voice for those who are not represented in written history and preserves the traditions of a community; the long-term value of the enterprise can be seen in the United States, where 19th-century ethnographic accounts have in some cases helped Native American peoples reconstruct the heritage that had come under assault from the government. But the old understanding of the oral tradition as a form of lore that existed somehow above and beyond the mass of the folk, rather than the minds of individual members of that folk, has been abandoned.

Sources deserve credit and have often received it. A noteworthy example is Harold Scheub’s The World and the Word, devoted to the person and tales of Nongenile Masithathu Zenani.71 He worked with this female storyteller for some fifteen years, collecting Xhosa narratives of great worth. We could use more studies presenting the repertory and biography of skilled narrators. It is to the credit of Charles Monteil, a French colonial administrator, that he acknowledged the assistance of his principal informants, Karé Tammoura and Gran Koaté, as well as his interpreter, Souleïman Goundiamou.72

Sources also deserve protection, all too often (this is an issue shared with journalists). Certain forms of oral performance such as praise-poetry skirt the political.73 Questions of history may well be controversial. Throughout the social sciences, the discussion of certain topics can be fraught. The researcher works around the threats to open discourse and must be sensitive to the delicacy of certain topics and interests during the process of collection. In the process of publication, measures to protect informants at risk are a duty. Under such circumstances the use of pseudonyms is a minimal form of protection.

The responsibility toward the community can vary. Oral tradition is not monetized in the way that traditional pharmacopoeic knowledge of plants may be. At the very least, the community should have access to the records produced by the research; such access, however, cannot be guaranteed. Too many researchers have found that the tapes or books they left with local institutions have vanished or deteriorated. The situation is certain to improve, as African institutions become stronger. There is also a new, perhaps preferable, alternative: placement on the web. Cell phones are now ubiquitous and thus allow access to remote information.

The Future of Oral Tradition

Technological and social changes are transforming our understanding and presentation of the oral tradition. There are no doubt opportunities for the classic collection moment: sitting in the deep shade of a mango tree listening to elders or co-wives or hunters. For history, the time of oral tradition may be passing, as literacy effaces communal memories. For literature and the social sciences, opportunities remain rich and innumerable and now—with a diaspora of African peoples outside their homelands—worldwide.

Cahiers de Littérature orale (Paris): a valuable periodical covering topics in the study of oral literature, with articles in French and English.

Further Reading

Barber, Karin. I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women, and the Past in a Yoruba Town. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Biebuyck, Brunhilde, Sandra Bornand, and Cécile Leguy, eds. Pratiques d’enquêtes: Cahiers de Littérature Orale No. 63–64, 2008.Find this resource:

Diawara, Mamadou. La graine de la parole. Stuttgart. Franz Steiner Verlag, 1990.Find this resource:

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Literature in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.Find this resource:

Furniss, Graham, ed. Poetry, Prose, and Popular Culture in Hausa. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.Find this resource:


(1.) See, for instance, Jan Jansen, Épopée, histoire, société: Le cas de Soundjata, Mali et Guinée (Paris: Karthala, 2001).

(2.) The phrase is taken from the title of a novel by Ahmadou Kourouma, Les Soleils des indépendences (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970). The reference is to 1960, the year in which many colonies of France and Great Britain were granted independence.

(3.) P. F. de Moraes Farias, “Silent Trade: Myth and Historical Evidence,” History in Africa 1 (1974): 9–24.

(4.) Nehemia Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 77 and 82.

(5.) For al-Umari, Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources, 252–278; for Ibn Battuta, idem. 279-304. For Ibn Battuta’s travels in East Africa, see Said Hamdun and Noel King, eds. and trans., Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (London: Rex Collings, 1979).

(6.) Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources, 318.

(7.) Ludewig Rømer, A Reliable Account of the Coast of Guinea, ed. and trans. Selena Winsnes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 80–83.

(8.) Mahmoud Kâti, Tarikh el-Fettach, eds. and trans. O. Houdas and Maurice Delafosse (Paris: J. Maisonneuve, 1913); Adberrahman es-Sa’di and Tarikh es-Soudan, eds. and trans. by O. Houdas (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1913–1914). See also the new partial translation by John Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1999), covering the period to 1613 and including other documents. H. R. Palmer, Sudanese Memoirs, vol. 3 (London: Frank Cass, 1967), 93ff. G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, ed., The East African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), 35–37.

(9.) See his volume, Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles, and Songhay Tuareg History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(10.) Anne Raffenel, Nouveau voyage dans le pays des nègres, 2 vols., vol. 2 (Paris: Napoléon Chaix, 1956), 323–337.

(11.) John Thornton, “The Origins and Early History of the Kingdom of Kongo ca. 1350–1550,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 34.1 (2001): 89–120.

(12.) See, for instance, C. Hoffmann, “Märchen und Erzählungen der Eingeborenen in Nord-Transvaal,” Zeitschrift für Kolonialsprachen 6 (1916?): 28–54, 124–153, 206–243, 285–326.

(13.) Rev. Canon Callaway, Nursery Tales, Traditions, and Histories of the Zulus (London: John A. Blair, Trübner, 1868).

(14.) F. J. Arnett, ed. and trans., The Rise of the Sokoto Fulani (Kano, Emirate Printing Department, 1922(?)). This text is also available online.

(15.) Sir Apolo Kaggwa, The Kings of Buganda (1900); English translation by M. S. M. Kiwanuka (Nairobi, East African Publishing House, 1971). Kaggwa serves as a reminder that the kings themselves did not compose these histories. Kaggwa was an early convert to Protestant Christianity, and a secretary in the court of the king of Buganda; he served as prime minister of the kingdom during the colonial period. My thanks to Thomas Spears for drawing my attention to the details of his biography.

(16.) Mwata Kazembe XIV, My Ancestors and My People, Rhodes Livingstone Communication 23; English translation by Ian Cunnison, Bantu Historical Texts, vol. 2: Historical Traditions of the Eastern Lunda (Lusaka Rhodes Livingston Institute, 1961).

(17.) Sultan Njoya, Histoire et coutumes des Bamun, trans. Henri Martin (Mémoires de l’institut français d’Afrique noire [Centre du Cameroun], 1952.)

(18.) R. S. Rattray, Akan-Ashanti Folktales (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930).

(19.) F.-V. Equilbecq, Contes populaires d’Afrique occidentale (Paris: G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1972).

(20.) Leo Frobenius, Atlantis: Volksdichtung und Volksmärchen Afrikas, 12 vols. (Iena: Eugen Dietrichs, 1921–1928).

(21.) See the critique by Charles Monteil in “La légende de Ouagadou et l’origine des Soninké,” Mémoires de l’IFAN 23 (1953): 367–368.

(22.) Leo Frobenius, La civilisation africaine, trans. H. Back and D. Ermont (Paris: Le Rocher, 1987).

(23.) M. G. Adam, Légendes historiques du Pays de Nioro (Sahel) (Paris: Challamel, 1904); Robert Arnaud, L’islam et la politique musulmane française (Paris: Comité de l’Afrique française, 1912); Maurice Delafosse, Traditions historiques et légendaires du Soudan occidental (Paris: Comité de l’Afrique française, 1913); Henri Labouret, “Livre renfermant la généalogie des diverses Tribus noires du Soudan . . .” Annales de l’Académie des sciences coloniales 3 (1929): 189–225. The document published by Labouret was actually the earliest account produced; he details the work of Mamadi Aissa Kaba Diakite on pp. 190–191.

(24.) See, for instance, Cheikh Moussa Kamara, “La vie d’El-Hadji Omar,” ed. and trans. Amar Samb, Bulletin de l’IFAN 32, ser. B, no. 1 (1970): 44–135, 370–411, 770–818. Amar Samb’s introduction offers background on the author. For a local history by the same author, see “Histoire de Ségou,” ed. and trans. Moustapha Ndiaye, Bulletin de l’IFAN 40, ser. B, no. 3 (1978): 458–488.

(25.) Jacob U. Egharevba. A Short History of Benin, 3d ed. (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1960).

(26.) A. W. Cardinall and E. F. Tamakloe, Tales Told in Togoland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

(27.) Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (London: Secker and Warburg, 1953).

(28.) Alexis Kagame, La poésie dynastique au Rwanda Memoires de l’Institut Royal Colonial Belge, 1950); Alexis Kagame, Introduction aux grands genres lyriques de l’ancien Rwanda (Butare: Editions Universitaires du Rwanda, 1969).

(29.) Melville J. Herskovits and Frances S. Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-cultural Analysis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1958), 6–7.

(30.) Herskovits and Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative, 7

(31.) Laura Bohannon, “A Genealogical Charter,” Africa 22 (1952): 301–315; the quotes are from pp. 311 and 312.

(32.) The International African Institute is now reissuing the volumes of their ethnographic survey of Africa, collected 1950–1977.

(33.) The Herskovits report one story in which the missionary account of the fall in Eden, blamed on Legba (the trickster of Fon mythology), is rejected. “They tried to teach us the rest about the beginning of man and woman, but the Dahomeans do not agree. They say this is not their story. They know nothing about Legba trying to give fruit.” Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative op. cit., 151.

(34.) D. T. Niane, Soundjata ou l’épopée mandingue (Paris: Présence africaine, 1960); English translation by G. D. Pickett, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (London: Longman Group, 1965), 1.

(35.) See David Conrad, ed. and trans., Epic Ancestors of the Sunjata Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1999); David Conrad, Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2004). There are many other transcriptions of versions of the epic of Sunjata.

(36.) Jan Vansina, “La tradition orale et sa méthodologie,” in Histoire générale de l’Afrique, vol. 1: Préhistoire et méthodologie, ed. Joseph Ki-Zerbo (Paris: UNESCO, 1980), pp. 167–190; Amadou Hampate Ba, “La tradition vivante, », idem, pp. 191–230.

(37.) Kenneth S. Goldstein, A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1964).

(38.) Yves Person, Samori: Une révolution dyula, 3 vols. (Dakar: IFAN, 1967–1976).

(39.) Christiane Seydou, ed. and trans., Silamâka et Poullôri (Paris: Armand Colin/Classiques africains, 1972); Christiane Seydou, Hama le Rouge (Paris: Armand Colin/Classiques africains, 1974). This outstanding scholar has continued her publication activity to the present, and her collected works are an invaluable resource for the Fula epic tradition.

(40.) First established in 1968 as the Centre régional de recherche et documentation par la tradition orale (CRRDTO), the Center changed its name to the Centre d’études historique et linguistique par tradition orale (CELHTO) in 1974. See Oudiary Makan Dantioko, ed. and trans., Soninkaara Tarixinu: Récits historiques du pays Soninké (Niamey: CELHTO, 1985), as well as his earlier “Tamba Sire” et autres chants épiques du pays Soninké (Bamako: DNAFLA, 1982). Dioulde (also Julde) Laya has produced a number of works on Fula tradition; for history, see Traditions historiques des ethnies de la région de Dooso (Dosso) (Niamey: CRRDTO, 1970) or his Traditions historiques de l’Anzuru (Niamey, n.d.).

(41.) The CEEBA collections counts over twenty titles of folktales. Representative examples are: Sam Kingala and [?] Ngwabana, Tu es méchant, personne ne te mangera! Mythes Hungana, series 2, vol. 28 (Bandundu: CEEBA, 1975); Mudindaambi Lumbwe, Pourquoi le coq ne chanta plus: Mythes Mbala 2, series 2, vol. 8 (Bandundu: CEEBA, 1973).

(42.) Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), now available online. For bibliography, one might add the work of Veronika Görög, Littérature orale d’Afrique noire (Paris: G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1981).

(43.) Conrad’s Epic Ancestors (n. 40) illustrates the value of such material. Robert Newton’s dissertation, “The Epic Cassette,” discusses the issues in the Mande world.

(44.) See Daniela Merolla, Jan Jansen, and Kamal Naït-Zerrad, eds., Multimedia Research and Documentation of Oral Genres in Africa (Zurich: LIT-Verlag, 2012), for some discussion of these issues. See also the new edition: Daniela Merolla and Mark Turin, eds., Searching for Sharing: Heritage and Multimedia in Africa (Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2017).

(45.) Finnegan, Oral Literature, documents and discusses collections of proverbs, pp. 389–425.

(46.) H. F. Morris, The Heroic Recitations of the Bahima of Ankole (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), 26–27.

(47.) Historical linguistics, all the rage 150 years ago, seems now to have lost its prominence, and African studies—not adequately included in the past efforts—needs more work in the field. See Christopher Ehret, History and the Testimony of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), for some appreciation of the value of the discipline.

(48.) Finnegan, Oral Literature, discusses questions of patronage and the genre of panegyric, pp. 81–146; Stephen Belcher, Epic Traditions of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), positions praise-poetry in its relation to history and to epic traditions, pp. 16–26.

(49.) Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), esp. 17–25.

(50.) Ivor Wilks, Nehemia Levtzion, and Bruce Haight, Chronicles from Gonja, Fontes Historiae Africanae Series Arabica 9 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

(51.) Problems also arise for a member of the community who has become a researcher; see Mamadou Diawara, “Les recherches en histoire orale menees par un autochtone, ou L’inconvénient d’être du cru,” Cahiers d’Étures africaines 97 (1985), 5–19.

(52.) Jack Goody and Ian Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy,” in Literacy in Traditional Societies, ed. Jack Goody (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 28–31.

(53.) The 1951 version was published as The Myth of the Bagre, OLAL (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972); the later version published with S. W. D. K. Gandah, Une récitation du Bagré (Paris: Armand Colin/Classiques africains, 1980). He describes and documents the differences in the versions in the introduction to the later publication, pp. 18ff., with illustrative tables of the variants at 40–41 and 46–47.

(54.) For an illustration of the process, see Paolo de Moraes Farias, “Pilgrimages to Pagan Mecca,” in Discourse and Its Disguises, eds. Karin Barber and Paolo de Moraes Farias (Birmingham, AL: Centre for West African Studies, 1989), 152–169; for a parallel in northern Europe, see Georges Dumezil, From Myth to Fiction: The Saga of Hadingus, trans. Derek Coltman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).

(55.) Marcel Griaule, Dieu d’eau: Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli (Paris: Fayard, 1966); English translation: Conversations with Ogotemmeli (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).

(56.) Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, Le Renard pale (Paris: Institut d’ethnologie, Musée de l’homme 1965).

(57.) Walter van Beek, “Dogon Restudied: A Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule,” Current Anthropology 32 (1991): 139–167. His essay is followed by commentary from other parties. Questions about Griaule’s work had been raised earlier; see James Clifford, “Power and Dialogue in Ethnography: Marcel Griaule’s Initiation,” in ed, Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, ed. George W. Stocking Jr. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 121–156.

(58.) By Luc de Heusch, “On Griaule on Trial,” Current Anthropology 32.4 (1991): 434–437, and by Geneviève Calame-Griaule, “On the Dogon Restudied,” Current Anthropology 32.5 (1991): 575–577.

(59.) Marcel Griaule, “Un système Soudanais de Sirius,” Journal de la Société des Africanistes 20.1 (1950): 273–294. The notion was expanded by Robert K. G. Temple, The Sirius Mystery (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1976).

(60.) For influence on the Congo, John Thornton, pers. comm. For wider influence in the northern Bantu region, see works of Theophile Obenga. Islam and the practice of pilgrimage to Mecca also put Egypt on the map in traditions of origin before Afro-Centrism.

(61.) Wa Kamissoko and Youssouf Tata Cisse, La grande geste du Mali (Paris: Karthala/Arsan, 1988); Soundjata, la gloire du Mali (Paris: Karthala/Arsan, 1991).

(62.) One problem with this claim is the existence of competing versions on either side of a political divide. In Mali, the charter is associated with the hunters’ associations, through the work of Youssouf Tata Cissé (see n. 56); in Guinea, an alternate version is presented, grounded in the work of Sulemana Kanté, inventor of the N’Ko alphabet. For a description of the problem, see Stephen Belcher, “Some Observations on the Textualization of the ‘Charte de Kouroukan Fougan,” in Mande Mansa: Essays in Honor of David C. Conrad, eds. Stephen Belcher, Jan Jansen, and Mohamed N’Daou (Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2008), 48–54.

(63.) Related by al-Umari in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, 268–269.

(64.) Mansa Musa was not the only ruler from the western Sudan to make the Hajj; so did the Askiya Muhammad of Songhay. The purpose of the latter was to expiate the guilt for killing his predecessor.

(65.) The claims of Ivan van Sertima in They Came Before Columbus (New York: Random House, 1976) have not been reliably substantiated.

(66.) See Nubia Kai, Kuma Malinke Historiography (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), for a presentation of these ideas. On the transatlantic voyages, see Ivan van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus.

(67.) Martin Klein, “Studying the History of Those Who Would Rather Forget: Oral History and the Experience of Slavery,” History in Africa 16 (1989): 211.

(68.) Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, ed. and trans., Quand nos pères étaient captifs: récits paysans du Niger (Paris: Nubia, 1976).

(69.) In History in Africa 18 (1991): 309–408.

(70.) The same critique can be leveled against some of the essays in Joseph Miller’s valuable The African Past Speaks (Folkesone: Dawson and sons, 1980). Writers documenting neighboring kingdoms failed to note the similarities in the myths of origin and narratives of legitimation from one group to another.

(71.) Harold Scheub, The World and the Word (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

(72.) Charles Monteil, Les Bambara du Segou et du Kaarta, ed. Jean Bazin (Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1977), 25–26.

(73.) See the essays in Graham Furniss and Liz Gunner, eds., Power, Marginality and African Oral Literature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995) for a broad survey of this topic.