During ancient times, the greatest asset of human societies was its tradition and culture, by which it was able to maintain a continuity of its existence across multiple generations. The knowledge of these was preserved and passed on from one generation to the next be way of mouth, in informal settings, a process often known as ‘Oral Tradition.’ In Africa, some vestiges of this tradition are still alive, and allow us to understand its various facets.
Long before the books, printing press, paper and internet, people used to preserve their knowledge in the form of memory and pass it on to others by way of oral communications. Everything they knew about themselves, the world around them in which they lived, their ancestors and the values which formed the basis of their societies, were all preserved and communicated within the society in this way, which is also referred to as the ‘oral tradition’. This oral tradition is known to be there all over the world, but the place where it has been studied most in recent times is Africa, where the identification of such oral traditions has attracted a lot of attention and their analysis is gradually helping the historians discover many facets of African history that has been hitherto undiscovered.
What does it mean to us today ?
Many forms of Oral tradition by which knowledge and tradition were passed on to the next generation are known. As one would expect, the knowledge preserved by way of oral tradition is often very different from the knowledge preserved by way of written history. Converting these Oral Traditions into reasonably history that can be considered authentic by modern standards requires a lot of efforts in deciphering and filtering the contents, which then need to be corroborated with our existing knowledge and understanding about the related subject
However, here one must understand and appreciate the fact that Oral Tradition itself was never a way of preserving facts of history in the manner modern history attempts to do today. In fact, it can be best considered as a form of cultural communiqué that was a comprehensive method for communicating the culture, tradition and values that were considered precious and necessary for the next generation to survive and prosper, as a society. It should then be one of the endeavours of those studying it to recognise it as such, and also preserve and study it in that very form, even if it is not considered worthwhile to promote and grow further.
Some specific forms of Oral Tradition
Among the many forms of Oral Tradition that have been identified, documented and studied, the following are some of the common ones.
Grots are the traditional masters of elocution in West Africa, who display excellent commands over words and expressions and use it convey messages to the people in a form that holds their attention and in a manner that their message is understood and retained by the masses. Griots are one of the most recognised forms of Oral Tradition of Africa, and provided significant insights into this age old practice. Female version of Griots are Griottes. It is commonly believed that much of West African tradition and culture has been preserved over the ages through the words of Griots.