'Words Have No Legs, Yet They Walk.' (Africa's Oral Method of communication)(How Ideas Travel)(Interview)

By Sopova, Jasmina | UNESCO Courier, June 1997 | Go to article overview

'Words Have No Legs, Yet They Walk.' (Africa's Oral Method of communication)(How Ideas Travel)(Interview)


Sopova, Jasmina, UNESCO Courier


Africa's continent-wide lines of communication based on respect for the spoken word

* In traditional African societies knowledge was transmitted orally. Did this restrict the spread of ideas?

Youssouf Tata Cisse: Not at all. In Africa ideas travelled with people. Human migrations, initiatory journeys, conquests and trade routes made pathways along which ideas crisscrossed the continent.

Since ancient times Africans have moved about and carried with them knowledge, technology, beliefs, traditions and languages. What other explanation can there be for the fact that one finds the same ideograms tattood on the bodies of Moroccan women and depicted in the statuary of the Bambara and Malinke peoples of west Africa? How can you explain the existence of the same place names, the same divinities, the same rites and the same musical instruments in the Nile Valley and in west Africa? Comparative studies on the affinities between pharaonic Egyptian and certain African languages by the noted Senegalese writer and Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop, and his research on the migrations of peoples, based on purely linguistic data, say a lot about this flow of ideas in Africa.

The Nile Valley is often mentioned in the oral traditions of the Soninke and Malinke, who regard it as the original homeland of their ancestors. Intrigued by this, I carried out research into place names and ethnic names and found nearly 400 names in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia that also existed in west Africa. Here are a few examples: El Kantara in Egypt, and Kantara, a Soninke clan name and fore-name; Segala, the name of an island in the Red Sea and of several villages in Mali and Cote d'Ivoire; Dakar in Ethiopia and Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Moreover the oldest divinities of Pharaonic Egypt - Bes, the oryx, the vulture, the ibis, the falcon and the sphinx - are still celebrated in Mali where they have their masks and statuettes.

The absence of writing was no obstacle to the spread of knowledge. The cult of the spoken word in Africa meant that speech was an important channel for the communication of knowledge and ideas. That is why Mali's Bambara people say, "words have no legs, yet they walk." Nothing can stop them.

* What role have initiatory journeys played in the spread of ideas?

Y.T.C.: Initiation is much more than a handful of "exotic" rites. It is a general education that begins at six years of age and ends at around thirty-three. Traditionally, it was carried out by six societies to which initiates belonged one after the other, depending on their age and the knowledge they had acquired. They learned everything: history, the origins of peoples, languages, mathematics, technology, morality and the secrets of nature and the universe. During this process of learning about life, young initiates were supposed to travel, and they went to foreign lands with their teachers, musicians, dancers and craftsmen. They lodged with local people and discovered new ways of life, new crafts and new languages. In turn, they put on shows in which they demonstrated their own knowledge. Enrichment was mutual. Only when they had learned three languages did they return home. This indicates the importance attached to knowledge and respect for others. Nowadays these initiatory journeys occur during the dry season, but in the past they lasted seven years.

* What influence was exercised by the griots (story-tellers and masters of ceremonies) and the donikeba (teachers)?

Y.T.C.: Doni in Bambara means "knowledge", and the donikeba are "makers of knowledge". We also have doma, or "knowers", and soma, or "priests". These masters have an extraordinary memory, and are the guardians and propagators of tradition. In the past their social status was so high that they enjoyed diplomatic immunity in wartime.

Masters of the spoken word that they were, griots acted as negotiators and ambassadors in times of conflict, as did smiths, wood-cutters and hunters, who were reputed for their manual dexterity and their knowledge. …

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