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Oral History and Life History as Sources

Summary and Keywords

Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and independent scholars have used oral history and life history, two slightly different but complementary methods, in order to help researchers develop a deeper understanding of the past in Africa. While both methods are best employed when analyzing late-19th-, 20th-, and early-21st-century history, these methods have also been used in histories of slavery and with survivors of trauma, displacement, and marginalization. Oral history is quite effective in gathering the histories of nonliterate populations, or people who are considered marginal to the larger society. While the study of oral history and life history has been powerfully fruitful in Africa, researchers must take care to consider both the benefits and limitations of these approaches. Is an oral history account the ultimate example of an unmediated African voice or do both individual and group memories reflect the selective memory that occurs as a result of the power dynamics evident in any society?

Keywords: oral history, oral tradition, orality, life history, gender history, methodology, historiography

Oral History and Life History Research in Africa

Oral history and life history are two very popular approaches to African history research that highlight the concerns that the larger field of African studies has had since its inception in the 1960s with orality and the oral transmission of social, political, and historical knowledge. African studies scholars have long been attentive to the fact that the dominant methodological approach of historical researchers is a concern with written documentation and, thus, a focus on archives, newspapers, journals, diaries, autobiographies, etc. However, it is important to remember that human beings have always had a history. Widespread dissemination of history through written documentation of the past has become more important for professional historians in comparison to the use of oral tradition, epics, songs, travel narratives, oral history, and life history.1 However, oral sources still offer a treasure trove of information for researchers. In this regard, choosing to rely solely on written archives forecloses the possibilities of understanding a much longer history and is potentially laden with problems because it privileges the written word over the multiple forms of transmission of knowledge that operate on the continent.

Depending upon which region of the continent a researcher is studying, much of the non-Arabic written documentation on pre-15th-century African history or colonial-era African history (roughly 1890s–1960s) was written by non-Africans who had their own interests and oftentimes, particular biases against what they saw in Africa. In these contexts, oral history and life history can serve as a corrective to written history, providing individuals with an opportunity to speak back or even to create their own archive. In particular, Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson’s influence on oral history debates has been to be attentive to class questions and emphasize the extent to which oral history can be used to subvert a middle-class and literate bias in established written histories.2 In relation to Africa, these questions of class and literacy loom large, especially when considering who will read a book of oral history. This is important because one major goal of oral history in Africa has been to write histories of nonliterate populations. If oral history is supposed to be for everyday people, a democratized methodology, or an effort to include the voices of those who have been deliberately silenced or written out of national history narratives, researchers are forced to ask: “What are the power implications of these exclusions and what role can oral history play in addressing these dynamics?”

Orality, Oral History, and Life History Definitions

African history scholars have long been concerned with how to analyze the oral transmission of history. In a context where written documents are nonexistent or contain the cultural biases of colonial officials, or class biases of political elites, oral history and life history methods have provided scholars with potent tools to help them make sense of Africa’s past. However, these methods have been and must be subjected to their own scrutiny. In particular, a romanticized notion that what individuals say should be taken at face value with no follow-up analysis (especially nonliterate individuals) has been criticized by scholars as a search for an essentialized, authentic, “African voice,” which potentially creates as many stereotypes as it attempts to deconstruct.

“Orality” or the oral transmission of knowledge can encompass many approaches. Because this is also true of oral history, a clear definition of oral history can be elusive. Scholars interested in researching oral history and life history in Africa should begin with a deep respect for the importance of oral tradition in the reconstruction of African history. This is because developing rigorous theories and methods for analyzing oral traditions has been a major concern of Africanist historians. The questions raised by oral tradition researchers are relevant for African oral historians as well because they range from questions associated with the philosophy of history to debates regarding the role of memory. The first volume of the UNESCO General History of Africa, for example, focused on methodological questions, with two chapters devoted specifically to analyzing oral traditions. Several other chapters emphasized historical linguistics and the value of language patterns in tracing African history prior to the 15th century.3 As Bethwell Ogot, one of the pioneer researchers of oral traditions among the Luo (Kenya) argued, African historians need to ask the right questions of themselves and their field in order to truly get a sense of what an oral tradition (or oral history narration) meant for tellers of the tale. He argued that instead of attempting to develop a method for discerning the validity of oral traditions,

We need studies which seek to achieve an understanding of a people through a study of their treasure chest, the profounder aspects of their culture, knowledge of their history, literature, and world-view, their philosophy, language and art; not for curiosity, or out of antiquarian interest, but as fit explanation for contemporary situations.4

Ogot’s injunction regarding oral tradition is relevant in relation to oral history and life history as well. Given that memories are contingent and co-constructed during the interview process, the goal of researchers should be to offer as comprehensive of a picture as possible of the past and the present, without creating or reinforcing stereotypes of African peoples as primordial and “untainted” by outside influences. Ogot recognized that the idea of a “primordial Africa” was a construction of African history and cultures that was created by Western researchers through their ignorance, in this case, of more than 400 years of the Luo passing down their history orally. The search for “pure” African cultures, untouched by outside influences, created an image of Africa that defined an entire continent of peoples as static, not modern, and unwilling or possibly even unable to change. At the same time, Ogot’s emphasis on a “fit explanation for contemporary situations” raised the important supposition that people’s recollections about their past are not just about the past, but also about the present, and could signal their hopes for the future. History, in Ogot’s framing, was important to help individuals make sense of their lives. Ascertaining the significance of history in any given context thus required careful attention to the multiple levels of meaning that narrators were attempting to convey in the interview exchange.

The Africanist scholar who has received the most recognition for codifying a methodology with which to analyze oral tradition was Jan Vansina through his 1965 publication Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology.5 In this and subsequent works, Vansina’s working definition was “oral traditions are orally transmitted testimonies concerning the past.”6 These traditions were distinguished from eyewitness accounts, and Vansina made the further clarification that “not all oral sources are oral traditions, but only those which are reported statements-that is, statements that have been transmitted from one person to another.”7

As noted by Vansina, the distinction between oral tradition and oral history turned on the question of whether or not an individual was an eyewitness to or participant in events, or whether stories were repeated and passed down across successive generations. Subsequent work using oral history, for example, Anne Bailey’s study of remembrance of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade challenged the strict focus on eyewitness accounts, emphasizing instead the extent to which highly traumatic events could reflect oral tradition and oral history. Bailey demonstrated that the memories of the transatlantic slave trade were alive among the Anlo-Ewe in southeastern Ghana. This was partly due to the region remaining economically underdeveloped relative to the rest of Ghana as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and coexisting practices of domestic slavery.8 In contrast to Vansina’s foundational definitions, Bailey’s work thus highlighted the extent to which there were not always clear demarcations between oral tradition and oral history.

Life History

The life history approach to the oral transmission of knowledge is one that was largely borrowed from anthropologists. When used by historians, it provides an example of the cross-disciplinary fertilization of methods that often characterizes both life history and oral history research. Life history is defined as a written account told by an individual that goes beyond the individual or the personal and places narrative accounts and interpretations within a broader context.9

Some of the best-known studies by anthropologists are from the mid-20th century, when African history was in its infancy as its own separate discipline. Given the prevailing views about African cultures during the 1940s and 1950s, these authors were heavily influenced by structuralist approaches to research in Africa. Such studies include Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotommêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas, an extended series of interviews with a Dogon elder, and Mary Smith’s Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa.10 Mary Smith was not a trained anthropologist but got the opportunity to write Baba’s story when she accompanied her husband, anthropologist Michael G. Smith, to the British colony of Northern Nigeria in the 1950s. Her work was significant because a male researcher would never have been able to gain such extensive access to a married Muslim Hausa woman as a result of strict sex-segregation among Northern Nigerian Hausa speakers.

Life history research in Africa expanded tremendously in the 1980s, especially with scholars interested in researching life histories of African women. In part, this coincided with the inauguration of the 1980s as the “UN Decade for Women.” In works published in the 1980s and 1990s, Susan Geiger, a pioneer in using the life history approach to interview African women, described both life history and oral history as “feminist methods.”11 Geiger pointed to the porous boundaries between life history and other methods utilizing oral data but suggested that “a life history is generally distinguishable from other kinds of oral documentation as ‘an extensive record of a person's life told to and recorded by another, who then edits and writes the life as though it were autobiography.’”12 Because of the legacy of uneven provision of formal, Western-derived schooling to African girls and women, colonial-era documents often focused primarily on or were created by men. Collecting life histories of African women represented a deliberate strategy of going beyond the archives in order to develop a much broader understanding of African women’s stories and their lives.

Life history researchers tend to begin with a set of basic premises regarding what an individual’s story can tell them. However, they are also looking for patterns in the individual life story that reflect concerns within the larger society. Sometimes survey questionnaires are used as a starting point for the research in order to help scholars figure out who would serve as excellent research subjects. Jean Davison for example, originally developed a sample of 101 Gikuyu women from three age categories: old age, mid-life, and young adult, in order to find the seven women whom she ultimately featured in her book.13 At other times, the individual distinguishes herself or himself from the group. This was the case of the main interview subject of Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa: The Life of a !Kung Woman. Shostak was initially interested in interviewing another !Kung woman and was in fact unimpressed in the beginning with Nisa’s assertiveness toward her as a researcher. Over time however, Shostak recognized Nisa’s uniqueness and became increasingly interested in her life story. She ultimately collaborated with Nisa on two volumes of life history research.14 Both Shostak’s and Davison’s research highlight the re-study, an important aspect of life history research methodology, utilized primarily by anthropologists and sociologists. Returning to and re-interviewing the same individuals after an extended period of time gives historians a powerful tool in analyzing the effects of change over time and offers researchers an opportunity to see how their original interviewees have responded and adapted to those changes.

Oral History

In a 1978 guide that is regarded as a foundational text in the field of international oral history Paul Thompson argued that, “Oral history is as old as history itself. It was the first kind of history. And it is only quite recently [1960s] that skill in handling oral evidence has ceased to be one of the marks of the great historian.”15 Thompson’s quote is interesting because it highlights the very different trajectories that the academic discipline of oral history has had in comparison to the academic discipline of African history. Whereas African historians have largely recognized the “faults” associated with the written record, oral historians of Thompson’s generation often found themselves in the position of having to defend the value of oral history in comparison with written documents.

Because there have been so many different approaches to oral history, oral historians have extensively debated its definition. Are oral histories the interviews themselves, the transcripts that are derived from the interviews (and now, sometimes made available digitally), or the final written product, synthesized through the historian’s analysis? Valerie Yow offers a basic definition of oral history as “the recording of personal testimony delivered in oral form with purposes beyond the recording itself.”16 Donald Ritchie’s more expansive definition suggests:

Oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization, or other form of public presentation.17

As Ritchie’s definition describes, oral history researchers are generally expected to begin by conducting extensive primary and secondary research in order to help them frame the questions that they will ask. Some researchers also begin by conducting a pre-interview in order to clarify for the interviewee the purpose of the research and the kinds of questions that will be asked. They also use that opportunity to have potential interviewees sign release forms. While it is not clear how widespread the use of release forms is internationally, in the United States, for example, oral histories are subject to copyright laws, and the narrators are the rightful owners of the copyright unless they release it to researchers in order to allow scholars to actually use and publish their words.18 In many African contexts, this concept can be quite uncomfortable or even odd for potential interviewees, perhaps because discussions of copyright foreground the power dynamics associated with both qualitative and quantitative research in academia. Many researchers find ways to address these concerns by sharing all or part of their work or double-checking their interviews with the people whom they have interviewed, thus making sure that both parties agree with the transcript details and subsequent interpretations.19

In particular, researchers studying African women have worked hard to theorize why sharing the research is important and to analyze the ethical implications of using an individual’s very personal recollections for professional (and therefore, personal) gain. For example, Susan Geiger in her study of Tanzanian female activists, decided to use “modified or directed life history interviews.” While Geiger asked particular questions, many of the life history narrators in her study chose to go beyond her direct questions and expand their narratives based upon the many feelings and memories that her questions evoked. Once the interviews (which were conducted in Kiswahili) were transcribed, Geiger and her research assistants “offered copies of their life histories to hear or read, correct if necessary, and keep.”20 While this offering was not always accepted, Geiger’s approach both echoed and subsequently influenced other life history and oral history researchers, who hoped to ensure that the people whom they interviewed could benefit in some way from the research that they helped to create. In a different context, Daphne Patai who conducted her research in impoverished neighborhoods in Brazil argued that sharing the research was not the same as sharing the profits that might emanate from any scholarly production. Because of this, Patai ultimately concluded that ethical research among peoples with such different economic resources from that of the researcher makes truly ethical research impossible.21 What is most notable about this debate among feminist researchers is the extent to which scholars like Vansina, for example, were not asking these questions with regard to their own research. While Patai’s argument may seem to call into question the whole endeavor of academic research, for some scholars, especially those influenced by postcolonial theory, this is precisely the point.22

These critiques of the ethics of research should be taken seriously. That does not mean, though, that oral history or life history should be abandoned as useful methods of scholarly inquiry. On the contrary, oral history and life history both provide a rich trove of evidence for social historians. One of the most exciting elements of these methods is that the research is dynamic. The people being interviewed are agentive actors who bring their own perspectives to the interview process. In this way, they often force interviewers (who are usually highly literate) to engage with historical research in a different way. Another example of the dynamic nature of oral history interviews is the fact that even in answer to the same question in a subsequent interview, it is unlikely that a person will give the exact same answer. This recognition forces oral historians to be attentive to patterns of emphasis, vocal inflection, and silences.23 As many anthropologists have found, life history research in particular can lead to a very close and longstanding connection between the researcher and the individuals whom he or she interviews. For these reasons, it is clear that doing oral history or life history research entails much more than placing a recorder or camera in front of a person and pressing “Play.”24

Theoretical Debates


An important debate in oral history and life history research has been a question that, on the surface, may seem quite simple: “What should the people being interviewed be called?” Common terms have included: interviewees, collaborators, research subjects, life historians, research partners, and informants. Oral history has also been described as: “writing people back into history,” “the voice of the voiceless,” and “the study of the non-hegemonic classes.” The social, political, and even regional contexts matter in this regard. For example, Nwando Achebe, while working in southeastern Nigeria, chose to call the people that she interviewed “collaborators.” In describing her method Achebe writes,

I used oral history to uncover Igbo and Igala people’s voices and generate new insights about their experiences of themselves. I created spaces in which Igbo and Igala women and men felt safe to make serious contributions instead of assuming passive roles in the investigative procedure. The process was indeed collaborative (hence my use of the term collaborator or oral history collaborator) encouraging a true exchange of ideas and experiences based on mutual respect, support, and accountability.25

While “collaborator” seems perfectly acceptable in Achebe’s late-20th- and early-21st-century Nigerian research context, both “collaborator” and “informant” had very different resonances in places like late-20th-century South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, or Zimbabwe, where the fight to end colonial rule and apartheid was violent, bloody, and divisive. In these contexts, “collaborator” or “informant” could invoke the nefarious political question of whether someone was cooperating with oppressive political regimes at the expense of their fellow citizens and freedom fighters. Other researchers have chosen the term “interviewee” to highlight the fact that people were answering, not forming specific questions related to the research. However, life history and oral history interviewees are not passive respondents to an interviewer’s questions. They often transform the interview experience based upon their own understandings of the project, their goals about what should be communicated, and why. This is a strength rather than a weakness in oral history research because it highlights what a person’s memories mean to her or him. In other words, one of the great values of oral history research is that it can help illuminate the question of historical subjectivity and how individuals see themselves as agents in their experience of history.


A distinction that is made between oral history and life history researchers is that oral historians are generally expected to produce an accessible transcript, and quite a bit of attention has been directed toward questions of where the transcript will be housed, and whether and how it will be made available to future researchers. The reliance on transcripts raises particular methodological questions associated with the challenges of working with oral documents. After all, these are also aural, meaning that the researcher has participated in the interview experience, heard the interview, and is aware of when narrators have made audible pauses or increased the velocity of his or her speech, thus indicating strong emotions or deeply felt points. It is not possible to reflect these kinds of changes in a transcription, and, therefore, subsequent researchers have little way of gleaning subtler cues of meaning from these types of transcripts. One opportunity that the digital revolution has provided is that researchers can create CDs or link audio files from their interviews online in a digital format allowing readers to hear the interviews for themselves. This brings the focus of the interview back to the aural nature of the oral history experience and allows listeners to hear some of the most relevant ideas expressed in the interview without having to comb through a potentially cumbersome transcript. This is also important because complete, professional-level transcriptions are expensive to produce and can potentially redirect the focus from the oral history narration back to the written transcript. Researchers can also create digital indexes for the transcripts so that interested audiences can jump directly to sections of the interview that are most interesting to them. Using digital technology in this way addresses some of the previous scholarly concerns about placing too much emphasis on transcripts as sources and addresses questions regarding the accessibility of oral history materials because the interviews themselves can potentially be made available to larger audiences.26

Language and (Re)presentation

In presenting the oral history or life history work, should the researcher provide lengthy historical introductions to each section? Or does this obscure the voice of the narrator and re-inscribe power relations between literate and nonliterate populations? Should the interviews be presented with brief introductions and then readers would analyze long sections of transcript with very minimal editing from the researcher?27 Does this approach allow readers to make their own conclusions? Most important, how does translation change the meaning of the interview? If the majority of the people who are going to be interviewed for an oral history project are interviewed in their mother tongue, but the readers will access the material in the language of the former colonial masters (one example is translating a non-gendered African language like Yoruba into English, French, Portuguese, etc., which are heavily gendered), how does the experience of translating an interview obscure meanings and intentions within the final project? One useful question to ask is “Would the person whom I have interviewed recognize himself or herself in the words that I have put on the page?” If not, this is a good indication that the author needs to strike a better balance between writing for an academic audience and writing to serve the communities in which one is working. This may seem like a contradictory and even impossible task; however, it speaks to questions that many African historians have asked regarding who their audience is and who their work is expected to serve. Because a dominant impetus in African history as a discipline has been to endeavor to write in an anticolonial (or even de-colonial) tradition, African historians are in the right position to raise these kinds of questions and influence oral history debates associated with them, not just in Africa, but in international oral history circles as well.


As Jamie Monson and Barbara Cooper both found in their research, silences are sometimes an unexpected part of the oral history process. In Monson’s research about the TAZARA railway in southeastern Tanzania, she learned, for example, that simple, open-ended, unstructured questions about how the railway had changed individual lives yielded little information that was useful to her project. Instead, some of her questions actually made people uncomfortable. It wasn’t until she adopted a life history approach and asked a broader series of questions before asking about the railway that individuals gave more expansive, richer responses.28 Barbara Cooper had a different experience while interviewing Nigérien Hausa-speaking women. She had initially intended to write a much broader history and “recast the tale of this Sahelian region so that it would include the lives and experiences of the women who lived there as farmers and traders, mothers and wives.”29 However, she quickly learned that asking questions specifically about marriage provided a “safe” theme, which allowed the women whom she interviewed to discuss larger historical and social dynamics.30

An analysis of silences in oral history interviews provides an opportunity to consider the dynamic and challenging nature of any research project, but especially oral history and life history research. Preparation is essential before beginning interviews. However, numerous scholars repeatedly acknowledge the extent to which their training and preparation only partially prepared them for the reality of the work, attention, detail, and reflexivity that are required in order to successfully complete an oral history project. Silence is a major challenge that these scholars have faced.31 It is difficult to achieve one’s goals if interviewees will not answer the questions or will do so in such a formulaic way that their responses hardly go beyond what is already mentioned in the written documentation. When this happens, as Cooper and Monson have demonstrated, being able to reassess methodological approaches and adjust the types of questions asked can go a long way toward addressing the underlying causes of silence in an interview.


Translation and the importance of how meaning is communicated through an individual’s mother tongue is a hindrance to making oral history accessible to both the audiences that help to produce it and the audiences in and outside of Africa that consume it. This in turn raises the same questions that historians continue to struggle with in relation to analyzing the purpose of employing oral history as a methodology: what it is useful for, and who the audience is for an author’s or project’s work. To a certain extent, concerns regarding access to transcripts and dissemination of oral history accounts have been addressed as a result of the digital revolution and the widespread use of digital media and technology since the 1990s. Digital recording (as well as video) has meant that interview transcripts can both be read and heard. Two institutions that have been exemplary in disseminating this kind of research are the South African History Archive and the History Workshop at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (see “Links to Digital Materials” in this article). In addition, nongovernmental organizations have fruitfully used oral histories to draw attention to their concerns and activism.32

These examples demonstrate that the transformations associated with advances in digital technologies provide tremendous promise regarding the dissemination of oral histories. The limitations of digital resources are the rapid changes in technology and, therefore, the ephemeral quality of digital materials (something that students and academics alike often take for granted). It is important to note that even though digital history makes more material available online, there is still a “digital divide” both in Africa and in under-resourced environments outside of the continent. Not everyone has consistent access to the requisite technology that would make transcriptions or oral interviews available. As recording technologies change rapidly, this brings the ability to recover earlier oral recordings back under the purview of experts and librarians, meaning that sometimes specialists are required in order to make the recordings accessible to a wide audience.

Digital access has opened entire new fields of inquiry in African oral history, but also new areas of concern. What are the implications, for example, of an oral history project where communities document their experiences of displacement, but the government that moved them is still in power? In addition, to what extent does speaking to a researcher make her or him immediately vulnerable to retaliation—either from community members or government officials? How does the type of recording device being used (audio, video) and the possibility for widespread dissemination of a person’s history change what an individual shares or how they share that information?33

Finally, to what extent does relying upon published research—either online or in print— miss important projects that are being conducted by nongovernmental organizations, libraries, museums, or community associations interested in cataloging their own history?34

Memory, Authority, and Equity

Some scholars believe that oral history is a much more egalitarian method of social history research because in addition to academic researchers, anyone can do it. Successful oral history projects have been completed by: journalists, children interviewing older relatives, curious friends, and community members.35 The interview experience often serves as a wonderful way of helping individuals and communities value the uniqueness of their experiences and think of themselves as historical actors. This kind of recognition is vital if history as an academic discipline in Africa is going to continue to address questions of power, the sociology of knowledge and knowledge production, and the ease of access to historical information.

One important shift in emphasis that has occurred since the 1990s is the development of “memory work” or “memory studies.” Partly as a result of the end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, and the opening up of previously repressive regimes in many parts of the world, the subfield of memory studies developed in order to help researchers devise new tools to bring forth forcibly hidden or repressed memories. This was evident in countries like Russia (the former Soviet Union) through the work of Svetlana Alexievich, South Africa following the end of apartheid by Sean Field and Zimbabwe through research by Ruramisai Charumbira.36 Even prior to the 1990s, Africanist scholars had already begun debating whether oral historians were being too simplistic and romantic in their approaches to their research. Was it enough to collect narratives before that human library of knowledge burned?37 Borrowing heavily from literary scholars, Africanist oral historians began to move away from the creation of oral testimonies as archives. Instead of focusing on efforts to determine the accuracy of whether a narrative was “true” or not oral historians concentrated on identifying what people’s testimonies meant, how they reflected historical subjectivity, and how multiple layers of meaning could be gleaned (or not) from an oral history or life history interview.38 Influenced by international oral historians like Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli, Africanists began to recognize the extent to which oral histories help us learn not only what people remember about their pasts but also why they remember what they do.39

At the same time, the perceived “democratic” nature of oral history raises the question of whether the academic historian’s involvement in oral history research is necessary at all. In South Africa, for example, numerous projects were conducted in the 1990s following the end of apartheid. These oral histories attempted to empower people to speak about their experiences after having their memories and histories repressed for over forty years during the apartheid regime.40 Denis and Ntsimane make the important point that “the South African government—along with municipalities and various other public bodies—is one of the few governments in the world, if not the only one, to actively promote oral history in schools, museums, archives, and heritage sites.”41 They rightfully point out that in this context, oral history is less the preserve of academics and is thus a much more public-, municipality-, and community-based affair. While it is therefore true that it is not necessary for an academic historian to be involved in order for an oral history project to be done well, for scholars it remains imperative to think analytically about how and why they intend to approach their research using one particular method or another. Scholars can also participate in the process of analyzing oral histories, reminding their audiences about the multiple levels of debate associated with memory, method, dissemination of materials, and audience.

African and International Oral Histories

In describing oral history debates in the 1980s, Barbara Cooper lamented the fact that oral historians working in Africa and other members of the international oral history scholarly community did not closely study each other’s work. Cooper writes, “It is, to my mind, a terrible shame that the communities of historians working on tradition in Africa and on oral historical evidence elsewhere did not begin to find significant grounds for convergence, comparison, and regrouping around the very issues of partiality, structuring, and subjectivity that both were attempting to come to terms with.”42 Fortunately, this has changed somewhat. The International Oral History Association held its biannual meeting in South Africa for the first time in 2002, and the bibliographies of several of the books listed in the “Discussion of the Literature” section of this article demonstrate a much wider engagement with oral history examples from around the world.43

Still, there is room for ongoing connection and collaboration among researchers. It is not clear the extent to which life and oral historians from other parts of the world have consistently paid attention to developments in Africa and vice versa. Given the vibrancy and extensive use of life history and oral history work on the African continent, it is surprising that these wonderful projects do not always have as large of an audience as they should. Following Cooper’s directive, Africanist oral historians should read widely as well, paying close attention to the work of international oral history scholars. This is necessary, not because Africanist researchers need guidelines from outside of the historiography of the continent in order to do their work, but because African oral history work can benefit from a deep engagement with oral history and life history projects occurring within the international oral history community. This keeps African examples from being ignored and has the potential to correct biases of researchers unaware of the scholarship originating from Africa. Most important, it can help both fields answer some of their most vexing and challenging questions. After all, answering questions, challenging assumptions, and expanding the breadth of knowledge available to a wider community are three of the primary reasons why anyone undertakes scholarly research. Actualizing these goals is one of the great joys of what it means to be a scholar of African history.

Discussion of the Literature

Because oral history is truly an ancient form of historical research, it is impossible to provide a historiographical overview of the most influential works in the field, in the textbook sense of historiography. Debates regarding oral history and life history in Africa necessarily dovetail with new advances in oral tradition research. In addition, continuing with the theme of cross-fertilization, many oral history researchers make use of methodological tools in life history research, anthropology, literature, and psychology. As Ogot, Alagoa, and Denis and Ntsimane remind us, a historiography of oral history across the entire continent of Africa is actually not advisable, because of the diversity of African histories.44 In fact, writing such an article runs the risk of reifying the dominant conventions of Western researchers. For example, oral history projects in South Africa were developed in many cases to counter the oppressive and silencing power of the apartheid state. In contrast with West Africa, where settler colonialism did not occur, historians still utilized oral history to “speak back” to an archive (often one created by officials associated with the colonial encounter or privileged African elites). Oral history research in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, or Morocco has developed very differently from work in Nigeria, Niger, or South Africa. In other words, the political climate within each country also determines the types of oral history projects that will be conducted, primarily because the political climate has such a powerful influence on both collective and individual memory. It is thus important to acknowledge that some of the fundamental assumptions of the research will vary according to the country and cultures in which a researcher is attempting to operate.

This recognition of the diversity of the African continent is not new in relation to African history and, therefore, should not foreclose an attempt to guide researchers toward helpful literature. Review essays and introductory chapters from several different sources provide a good starting point. For a general historiography of oral history, Alistair Thomson’s “Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History” is a good place to begin.45 Foundational texts in the field include Paul Thompson’s The Voice of the Past, Alessandro Portelli’s, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History, and Ronald Grele’s Envelopes of Sound.46

For oral history in Africa, there are rich examples from across the continent. Some of the most extensive literature comes from scholars working on or writing from South Africa. These include Belinda Bozzoli (with Mmantho Nkotsoe), Women of Phokeng: Consciousness, Life Strategy, and Migrancy in South Africa, 1900–1983; Charles van Onselen’s The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper; and Isabel Hofmeyr’s “We Spend Our Years as a Tale That Is Told,” Oral Historical Narrative in a South African Chiefdom.47

Alan Wieder’s Voices from Cape Town Classrooms: Oral Histories of Teachers Who Fought Apartheid and Bahru Zewde’s Documenting the Ethiopian Student Movement: An Exercise in Oral History are good examples of how African oral history scholarship in the early 21st century moved away from a primary focus on nonliterate or marginalized populations.48 This is an important development because it also signaled a change in emphasis from considering educated Africans as somehow “tainted” by literacy, as if by knowing how to read people lost their ability to recall other important events in their lives.

David Henige’s Oral Historiography offers useful cautionary guidelines regarding interpreting oral evidence.49 Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives, Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, and each edition of The Oral History Reader are all excellent edited volumes.50 Finally, edited volumes focused specifically on Africa-related topics include: African Words, African Voices, Oral History in a Wounded Country, and Oral History, Community, and Displacement.51 Each of these books provides excellent resources, which can help a researcher develop a solid understanding of major debates in this extensive and rich field.

Primary Sources

Oral history projects, recordings, transcript maps, and complete transcriptions are housed in numerous libraries and archives across the African continent. Many life history researchers will clearly identify that the recordings and transcriptions of their interviews are part of their personal possessions, but they are occasionally willing to make these materials available to new researchers interested in the same topic. It is best to begin with the national and local archives of the country where one intends to conduct the research. Research libraries on the campuses of African universities also serve as major repositories for oral history projects. Two notable projects are the Botswana National Archives and Recording Services, which has been collecting oral histories since 1982, and the Swaziland Oral History Project, which was established in 1985.

Centre for Popular Memory (CPM), University of Cape Town.

History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

International Oral History Association.

Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

South African History Archive: Archive for Justice.

WoMin: African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction (see especially “Resource Library” and “WoMin Research” tabs).

Further Reading

Achebe, Nwando. The Female King of Colonial Nigeria, Ahebi Ugbabe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

    Alagoa, Ebiegberi Joe. The Practice of History in Africa: A History of African Historiography. Port Harcourt, Nigeria: Onyoma Research, 2006.Find this resource:

      Baker, Alison. Voices of Resistance: Oral Histories of Moroccan Women. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.Find this resource:

        Clark, Gracia. African Market Women: Seven Life Stories from Ghana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

          Denis, Philippe, and Radikobo Ntsimane, eds. Oral History in a Wounded Country: Interactive Interviewing in South Africa. Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008.Find this resource:

            Falola, Toyin, and Christian Jennings, eds. Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003.Find this resource:

              Field, Sean. Oral History, Community, and Displacement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.Find this resource:

                Geiger, Susan. TANU Women: Gender and Culture in the Making of Tanzanian Nationalism, 1955–1965. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.Find this resource:

                  Gluck, Sherna Berger, and Daphne Patai, eds. Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. New York: Routledge, 1991.Find this resource:

                    Henige, David. Oral Historiography. London: Longman, 1985.Find this resource:

                      Miller, Joseph C. The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History. Kent, UK: Dawson and Sons, 1980.Find this resource:

                        Mirza, Sarah, and Margaret Strobel, eds. Three Swahili Women: Life Histories from Mombasa, Kenya. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

                          Perks, Robert, and Alistair Thomson, eds. The Oral History Reader. 3rd ed. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

                            Portelli, Alessandro. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.Find this resource:

                              Romero, Patricia, ed. Life Histories of African Women. London: Ashfield Press, 1988.Find this resource:

                                Tonkin, Elizabeth. Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                                  van Onselen, Charles. The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894–1985. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.Find this resource:

                                    Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Chicago: Aldine, 1965.Find this resource:

                                      White, Luise, Stephan F. Miescher, and David William Cohen, eds. African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                                        Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                          Zewde, Bahru. Documenting the Ethiopian Student Movement: An Exercise in Oral History. Addis Ababa: Forum for Social Studies, 2010.Find this resource:


                                            (1.) See, for example, Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2012); and Karen Barber, I Could Speak until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women, and the Past in a Yoruba Town (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991).

                                            (3.) Joseph Ki-Zerbo, ed., UNESCO General History of Africa I: Methodology and African Prehistory (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981). Chapters 7 by Jan Vansina and 8 by A. Alidou Hampaté Bâ focus on oral tradition. Chapter 10 by Pathé Diagne, chapter 11 by Dmitri Olderogge, and chapter 12 by Joseph H. Greenberg discuss linguistic sources.

                                            (5.) Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (Chicago: Aldine, 1965). Vansina’s work was first published in French 1961 as De la Tradition Orale.

                                            (6.) Jan Vansina, “The Use of Oral Tradition in African Culture History,” in Reconstructing African Culture History, ed. Creighton Gabel and Norman R. Bennett (Boston: Boston University Press, 1967), 57.

                                            (7.) Vansina, Oral Tradition, 19.

                                            (8.) Anne C. Bailey, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005).

                                            (9.) Ardra L. Cole and J. Gary Knowles, eds. Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2001), 18–20.

                                            (10.) Marcel Griaule, Conversations with Ogotommêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (London: Published for the International African Institute by the Oxford University Press, 1965). The book was first published in French as Dieu d’Eau: Entretiens de Ogotommêli in 1948. Mary F. Smith, Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa (London: Faber and Faber, 1954).

                                            (11.) Susan Geiger, “What’s So Feminist about Women’s Oral History?” Journal of Women’s History 2, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 169–182.

                                            (12.) The quote is from L. L. Langness, The Life History in Anthropological Science (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965), 4–5, cited in Susan Geiger, “Women’s Life Histories: Method and Content,” Signs 11, no. 2 (Winter 1986): 334–351. See also, Geiger’s “What’s So Feminist,” and TANU Women: Gender and Culture in the Making of Tanzanian Nationalism, 1955–1965 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997).

                                            (13.) Jean Davison with the women of Mutira, Voices from Mutira: Change in the Lives of Rural Gikuyu Women, 1910–1995, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO, and London: Lynne Rienner, 1996), 46.

                                            (14.) Marjorie Shostak, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), and Return to Nisa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

                                            (15.) Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 25.

                                            (16.) Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 4.

                                            (17.) Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 1.

                                            (18.) Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan discuss these questions in detail in The Oral History Manual (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002), especially in chapters 3 and 7. The appendices to Philippe Denis and Radikobo Ntsimane’s Oral History in a Wounded Country: Interactive Interviewing in South Africa (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008) provide detailed ethical guidelines and a copy of a sample release form. In addition, they suggest that interviewees should agree either in writing or by oral recording with how their interviews will be used. See also John A Neuenschwander, A Guide to Oral History and the Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

                                            (19.) This practice has been influenced by Michael H. Frisch’s book A Shared Authority: Essays on Craft and Meaning in Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). However, subsequent researchers have made more use of Frisch’s notion of “shared authority” rather than contributing to further theorizing regarding this concept.

                                            (20.) Geiger, TANU Women, 16.

                                            (21.) Daphne Patai further argued that expecting to share transcripts with interviewees is not always possible as funding for research becomes more scarce and researchers are less likely to be able to spend extended periods of time returning to the individuals they once interviewed. See her “U.S. Academics and Third World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?” in Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (New York: Routledge, 1991), 137–153.

                                            (22.) Kirk Hoppe ignited a contentious debate among life history researchers with his 1993 article. See Kirk Hoppe, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?: Issues of Representation in Life Narrative Texts of African Women,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 3 (1993): 623–636; Heidi Gengenbach, “Truth-Telling and the Politics of Women’s Life History Research in Africa: A Reply to Kirk Hoppe,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 27, no. 3 (1994): 619–627; and Kirk Hoppe, “Context and Further Questions: Response and Thanks to Heidi Gengenbach,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 28, no. 2 (1995): 359–362.

                                            (24.) Scholars who discuss intimacy, friendship, and conflict in life history research include Sondra Hale, “Feminist Method, Process, and Self-Criticism: Interviewing Sudanese Women,” in Women’s Words, ed. Berger Gluck and Patai; Jean Davison, Voices from Mutira; Geiger, TANU Women; Alison Baker, Voices of Resistance: Oral Histories of Moroccan Women (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998); and Gracia Clark, African Market Women: Seven Life Stories from Ghana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

                                            (26.) See Douglas A. Boyd, “I Just Want to Click on It and Listen,” in Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement, ed. Douglas A. Boyd and Mary A. Larson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 76–98. I am thankful to one of the anonymous reviewers for bringing this article to my attention.

                                            (27.) This was the approach taken by Irene Staunton in Mothers of the Revolution (Harare, Zimbabwe: Baobab, 1990). After slightly less than thirty pages of background information, Jenny Hammond followed a similar approach in her interviews with Ethiopian women. The goal in the case of both books was to “let the people speak for themselves.” See Jenny Hammond (with Nell Druce), eds., Sweeter than Honey: Ethiopian Women and Revolution (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1990).

                                            (29.) Barbara Cooper, Marriage in Maradi: Gender and Culture in a Hausa Society in Niger, 1900–1989 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997), xviii.

                                            (30.) Cooper, Marriage in Maradi. See Introduction, especially xxi and xxix–xxxii.

                                            (31.) See Achebe, The Female King, 10–11 for the turning point in her research on Ahebi Ugbabe. Prior to this particular interview, other people in Enugu-Ezike had been reluctant to answer questions about Ugbabe in much detail.

                                            (32.) One example is the NGO WoMin: African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction. This organization has used oral history as part of a range of research tactics to draw attention to the negative environmental effects of resource extraction on various African communities. The website provides numerous examples, but the oral histories are contained in the detailed research reports, listed under “WoMin Research.”

                                            (33.) An excellent resource regarding digital history is Oral History in the Digital Age. For a detailed discussion of best practices associated with putting massive amounts of personal information online, see Doug Boyd, “Informed Accessioning: Questions to Ask After the Interview,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, ed. Doug Boyd et al. (Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2015).

                                            (34.) While Alagoa’s work is not focused on oral history, it offers an important cautionary note about the threats of violence that can result when community-sponsored historical research projects tell a story that is different from accepted community beliefs. Alagoa’s research is a good example of the politics of research or, to put it differently, the extent to which all research potentially has political implications. See Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, “The Dialogue between Academic and Community History,” in African Words, African Voices, ed. White, Miescher, and Cohen, 91–102.

                                            (35.) For an example of the use of oral histories as an aspect of healing memory work with children see Sinomlando.

                                            (36.) See Svetlana Alexievich, Keith Gessen (trans.), Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (New York: Picador, 2006). In 2015, Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her journalism and oral history work. Also see Sean Field, Oral History, Community, and Displacement: Imagining Memories in Post-Apartheid South Africa (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); and Ruramisai Charumbira, Imagining a Nation: History and Memory Making in Zimbabwe (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015). For earlier work, see also Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, especially chapters 1 and 3.

                                            (37.) This is a paraphrase of a proverb spoken in many African societies: “When an old man dies, it’s a library burning.” In oral history circles, this quote has been attributed to the Malian writer and ethnologist (anthropologist) Amadou Hampâté Bâ. See Perks and Thomson, Oral History Reader, “Introduction to the Third Edition,” xviii.

                                            (38.) Notable works include Elizabeth Tonkin, Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Isabel Hofmeyr, “We Spend Our Years as a Tale That Is Told”: Oral Historical Narrative in a South African Kingdom (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann: 1994).

                                            (39.) Luisa Passerini, Fascism in Popular Memory: The Cultural Experience of the Turin Working Class (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and Portelli, Death of Luigi Trastulli, 1991.

                                            (40.) See multiple contributors in Field, Oral History, Community, and Displacement.

                                            (41.) Denis and Ntsimane, Wounded Country, 13.

                                            (42.) Barbara Cooper, “Oral Sources and the Challenge of African History;” in Writing African History, ed. John Edward Phillips (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005), 196.

                                            (43.) This led to the creation of the Oral History Association of South Africa in 2005. Denis and Ntsimane, Wounded Country, 18.

                                            (44.) Ogot, “The Construction of Luo Identity and History,” in African Words, African Voices, ed. White, Miescher, and Cohen; Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, The Practice of History in Africa: A History of African Historiography (Port Harcourt, Nigeria: Onyama Research Publications, 2006); and Denis and Ntsimane, Wounded Country, 2008.

                                            (45.) Alistair Thomson, “Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History,” Oral History Review 34, no.1 (Winter–Spring, 2007): 49–70. A similar version of this essay is in the Part 1 “Critical Developments: Introduction” of Perks and Thomson, The Oral History Reader, 1–21. Perks and Thomson are very direct about the fact that the Reader never had a budget for translation. As a result, the volumes are dominated by oral histories collected in English. Another source for projects in French is listed on Sinomlando’s website under “Memory Work in Francophone Africa.”

                                            (46.) Thompson, Voice of the Past; Portelli, Death of Luigi; Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Ronald Grele, Envelopes of Sound (Chicago: Precedent, 1975).

                                            (47.) Belinda Bozzoli with the assistance of Mmantho Nkotsoe, Women of Phokeng: Consciousness, Life Strategy, and Migrancy in South Africa, 1900–1983 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991); Charles van Onselen, The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894–1985 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996); and Hofmeyr, “We Spend Our Lives.”

                                            (48.) Alan Wieder, Voices from Cape Town Classrooms: Oral Histories of Teachers Who Fought Apartheid (New York: Peter Lang, 2003); and Bahru Zewde, Documenting the Ethiopian Student Movement: An Exercise in Oral History (Addis Ababa: Forum for Social Studies, 2010).

                                            (49.) David Henige, Oral Historiography (London: Longman, 1982).

                                            (50.) Personal Narratives Group, eds., Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Berger Gluck and Patai, Women’s Words; and Perks and Thompson, The Oral History Reader. Each edition of the Reader has been revised to include new articles.

                                            (51.) White, Miescher, and Cohen, African Words; Denis and Ntsimane, Wounded Country; and Field, Oral History.