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Article

Stephen Belcher

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.

Article

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?

Article

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a prominent producer of doctorates in African history since 1963. As of 2017 the institution had granted more than 110 degrees. Philip D. Curtin and Jan Vansina, both pioneers in launching the field, led the program until 1975 and were joined in 1969 by Steven Feierman. Together, they supervised an initial cohort of graduates, several of whom became leaders of the then still-formative field, particularly in its methodological infrastructure, as well as in economic and demographic history, slavery in Africa and the Atlantic slave trade, and medical history. The distinguishing features qualifying a diverse array of individual intellectual trajectories as a coherent “school” include a focus on epistemologically historical approaches anchored in the intellectual perspectives of Africans as historical actors and often also as they engaged broader commercial Atlantic and Indian Ocean and world contexts; smaller numbers of more recent doctorates had subsequently sustained these orientations. Former graduates of the program, William W. Brown, David Henige, and Thomas T. Spear, returned after 1975 to update this framework by bringing social theory and cultural history to bear on the African historical actors at the program’s core. Since 2005, a third generation of faculty members, Neil Kodesh, James Sweet, and Emily Colacci (all students of Wisconsin PhDs teaching at other institutions), have added contemporary approaches to the Wisconsin school’s continuing commitment to Africans’ distinctive epistemologies as they engaged the flows of modern global history. Professionally, Madison graduates have, accordingly, led the ongoing effort to bring Africa in from its initial marginality—as the continent seen as uniquely without a history—into the historical discipline’s core. An aphoristic summary of the Wisconsin legacy might be “Africans’ worlds and Africans in the world.”

Article

Toyin Falola and Abikal Borah

Since the late 1950s, the field of African historiography has undergone many changes. While discussing African philosophies of history, one must acknowledge shifts within the discipline of history and the Afrocentric vision of historical scholarship as two constitutive processes through which different historiographical trends have come into being. It is difficult to take an essentialist position on African philosophies of history, because Africa has been at the center of various transnational and global processes of historical formation. As a result, the scope and scale of African historiography signals a variety of entanglements. The imperative lies in recognizing such entanglements in the longue durée of Africa’s past, to dislodge the narrowly framed imagination attached to African historiography. Considering the complexity of the terrain, it would be appropriate to view African philosophies of history and historiography from three different vantage points. Firstly, historical scholarship centering on Africa has produced critiques of the post-Enlightenment philosophy of history in Europe and elsewhere. This strand highlights the interventions posed by African historiography that decenter a globalized philosophical tradition. Secondly, the inclusion of African indigenous epistemological formations into historical scholarship has transformed the scope of African historiography. This shows shifts in the methodological approaches of historical scholarship and highlights the question of access to the multiplicity of Africa’s past. Thirdly, Pan-Africanism and Afropolitanism expanded the scope and scale of the African philosophy of history by thinking through the transnational and global connections of Afrocentric thought. In other words, Afrocentric historiography attends to the ideas of globalism and cosmopolitanism within its scope and scale.

Article

In his influential book, Kingdoms of the Savanna (1966), Jan Vansina described the rise of the kingdoms of the south-central African interior from the 15th century. These include the Luba (the mulopwe titleholders), Lunda (the nuclear Lunda, also termed Rund, of the mwant yav titleholders), Lunda-Ndembu, Chokwe, Pende, Luvale, Luluwa, Kanyok, Luba-Kasai, Kuba, Eastern Lunda, Yeke, and the Bemba. New analyses of oral traditions as well as the study of art, archaeology, ethnographic fieldwork, linguistics, and documentary sources haverevised understandings of these polities and added details. Historians have considered the context of the production of primary sources, in particular art and oral traditions, which were created during a transformative 19th century, when trade and violence contributed to the centralization of power for some polities and the disintegration of others. With subjects questioning the power of sovereigns, art, oral traditions, and oral praises projected royal genealogies and the qualities of kingship into a vague antiquity. The study of historical linguistics has also provided inroads into understanding the dissemination of political institutions and titles along with tentative accounts of their historical depth. Ethnographic fieldwork has further elaborated on the functioning of political systems and religious ideas. These diverse primary sources complicate the historiography of central African kingdoms; they also indicate the spread of alternative political and religious affiliations during the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular Luba fertility associations and Lunda fictive kin alliances.

Article

The Highveld covers a quarter of South Africa’s central plateau and is one of the most extensively investigated archaeological landscapes in Africa. Cattle-herding, farming communities first occupied these grasslands sometime between the 15th and the 17th centuries. A surge in the importance of cattle pastoralism among the so-called Late Iron Age populations of southern Africa seems to have caused this “grassland rush.” With it came a boom in the construction of dry-laid, stone-walled structures, an innovation the success of which is evidenced by the tens of thousands of ruins visible on aerial imagery of the Highveld. In places their agglomeration reaches urban proportions. Sotho-Tswana culture dominated this grassland rush by assimilating the many Nguni- as well as Khoesan-speaking communities that had also moved into the Highveld. The Highveld’s cultural landscape was rearranged by the southern African civil wars of the 1820s—the Difeqane, as it is known in the Tswana language. Shortly thereafter, the arrival of white settlers in the late 1830s heralded the beginning of the colonial period. Archaeologists in the Highveld have largely aimed to illustrate the historical record and oral traditions pertaining to the Sotho and Tswana communities. More usefully they can focus on questions that these records cannot answer. For example, archaeology can help to fill the many gaps in the records; it can investigate the history of things—such as the changing regional settlement patterns and the diffusion of technological innovations—about which the records are silent, and it can test hypotheses to explain the evolution of social and political complexity in the precolonial Highveld. In this way archaeology can help to balance the mostly “top-down” political view provided by the oral traditions and historical records with a “bottom-up” view of social, technological, and architectural developments among the precolonial farming communities of the Highveld.

Article

Writing Africa’s history before the 10th century almost always means relying on sources other than written documents, which increase in number especially from the 16th century onward. Archaeology (including the study of art objects), the comparative study of historically related languages, paleo-environmental studies, and oral traditions provide the bulk of information. Writing Africa’s early history ideally involves collaboration among experts in using each kind of source, an increasingly common practice. Despite the challenges of analysis and interpretation posed by this base of sources, early African history has a depth and breadth akin to the histories made from the written sources in archives. Even so, whereas written documents provide details about individuals and precise dates, the sources for writing early African histories more often provide detail about conceptualization, for example, of time, hospitality, and individualism and about larger, environmental contexts shaping those concepts and shaped by the actions of the people who held them. Translating such concepts and scales of action into accounts accessible to those—including many historians—not steeped in the methodological conventions underlying the analysis of each source is a major challenge facing historians of Africa’s earlier past.

Article

Nikolas Gestrich

The Empire of Ghana is one of the earliest known political formations in West Africa. Within the context of a growing trans-Saharan trade, Arabic sources begin to mention “Ghāna,” the name of a ruler as well as of the city or country he ruled, in the 9th century. Repeatedly named in connection with fabulous riches in gold, Ghāna had acquired a preeminent role in the western Sahel and was a leader among a large group of smaller polities. Ghāna’s influence waned, and by the mid-14th century its ruler had become subordinate to the Empire of Mali. Over the course of a complex history of research, the Empire of Ghana became equated with the Soninké people’s legend of Wagadu and the archaeological site of Kumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania was identified as its capital. Yet between historical sources, oral traditions, and archaeological finds, little is known with certainty about the Empire of Ghana. Most questions on this early West African empire remain unanswered, including its location, development, the nature and extent of its rule, and the circumstances of its demise.

Article

Peter R. Schmidt and Kathryn Weedman Arthur

Several trends in the historical scholarship of Africa require recognition and remediation. The first is a quickly shrinking interest in African history of the past two millennia, with a shift in emphasis to early hominins and to the modern period. The precolonial history of Africa, once a subject of considerable excitement for historians, historical linguists, and archaeologists, is fading from interest. The high cost of interdisciplinary research is one reason, but a deeper, more alarming cause is the rapid erasure of oral traditions by globalization, disease, and demographic changes. Archaeologists and heritage experts are faced with a need to find innovative means to investigate and recover historical information. One proven path is partnerships with communities that want to initiate research to document, recuperate, and preserve their histories. Community approaches in other world regions have shown important research results. Adapting some of the philosophy and methods of other experiments as well as innovating their own approaches, archaeologists and heritage managers in Africa are increasingly involved in community projects that hold out significant hope that the quickly disappearing oral and material history of Africa can be preserved and studied into the future. Two case studies—one from the Haya people of Tanzania and the other from the Boreda Gamo of Ethiopia—illustrate that long-term and trusting partnerships with local groups lead to important historical observations and interpretations. Such collaborations also lead to thorough documentation and preservation of historical sites and information that otherwise would be lost to posterity. Moreover, they account for the ability of local groups to initiate and to conduct their own research while recognizing local control over heritage and history.

Article

African literature refers to (a) African oral literature (also called Orature) and (b) written African literature from West, North, Central, East, and Southern Africa. African oral literature encompasses works from Africa’s ancient and classical narrative traditions and spans oral narratives, proverbs, drama, poetry, chants and songs, riddles, and so on. With the earliest known works located in ancient Egypt, written African literature includes inscriptions on pyramid walls, the short story, the novel, poetry, drama, autobiography, and so forth. Women’s literature in Africa refers to African literatures by and about women. While storytelling styles vary by region and experiences shaped by history and society, the themes are linked by complex worldviews rooted in a common evocation of human experiences that seem unique to the continent. The languages of African literature include Africa’s indigenous languages as well as the languages acquired by different African societies as a result of the continent’s encounters with the East and experiences of Western colonization.