African Archives and the Oral Tradition

By Mazrui, Ali Al'Amin | UNESCO Courier, February 1985 | Go to article overview

African Archives and the Oral Tradition


Mazrui, Ali Al'Amin, UNESCO Courier


African archives and the oral tradition

HOW important are archives for Africa? Do we not have more serious problems of malnutrition, ignorance, disease, political instability, and general underdevelopment?

Let me answer the question indirectly. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle there is a reference to the dog that did not bark. The importance of the evidence was negative. If the dog on guard had not barked, the intruder must have been someone familiar to the dog. The dog's silence was the devastating piece of evidence, the telling clue.

My concern in this essay is with the historical importance of something equally negative--the comparative weakness of the archival tradition in Africa and its devastating consequences for the history of our people. Africa was silent about its history; the African archival dog did not bark at crucial moments. This had serious consequences for Africa's place in international stratification.

The archival tradition may be defined, quite simply, as a cultural preoccupation with keeping records, a tradition of capturing the past through preserved documentation. This means much more than establishing national archives; it means a particular propensity for recording the dates of births and marriages, collecting maps, preserving love letters, and keeping household accounts, as well as documenting treaties, contracts and the like. Because the archival tradition was weak in Africa, the scientific tradition became weak, our languages atrophied and so did philosophical tradition--with ghastly consequences for our peoples across the centuries.

Why was the archival tradition weak in Africa? Firstly because most indigenous African cultures refuse to regard the past as a bygone or the present as transient. The ancestors are still with us and we ourselves will be ancestors. If the present is not transient why bother to record it?

A related reason for the weakness of the archival tradition in African cultures is the weakness of the calendar tradition (including the tradition of the clock). Many of my fellow students in Mombasa, Kenya, in the 1940s did not know when they were born. The first president of my country, President Jomo Kenyatta, did not know when he was born.

There is a Gregorian calendar, an Islamic calendar, an Indian calendar, a Chinese calendar--but no African calendar apart from the revised Orthodox Christian calendar of Ethiopia.

The third reason for the weakness of the archival tradition in Africa is the weakness of the written word. Many African societies have only come to know the written word during the last century.

This is not to say that Africa is uniform. Quite apart from other differences the continent as a whole operates within a triple heritage of culture. This triple heritage consists of indigenous, Islamic and Western traditions.

Modern archives are mainly Western in conception, and they are also Islamic to some extent. But can they be indigenized? Or are they inevitably part of the imported sections of Africa's triple heritage?

To the extent that archives until recently have been viewed almost entirely as collections of written records, the indigenous aspects of the triple heritage have not been viewed as archival material. Muslim Africa has been better endowed with written records than non-Muslim indigenous Africa. These records in Islamic societies have sometimes been in the Arabic language, but they have also sometimes been in African languages using the Arabic script.

But what is a document? Here we are mainly concerned with the written word. But there are five categories of documentation in all:

--Material documentation such as archaeological evidence, from pottery to Great Zimbabwe, from skeletons to coins.

--Written documentation: a mystical reverence for the symbols of literacy has conditioned our view of what constitutes archival relevance itself. …

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