Oral Tradition as a Historical Source

By Ki-Zerbo, Joseph | UNESCO Courier, April 1990 | Go to article overview

Oral Tradition as a Historical Source


Ki-Zerbo, Joseph, UNESCO Courier


Oral tradition as a historical source

BESIDES the two major sources of African history (written documents and archaeology), oral tradition takes its place as a real living museum, conserver and transmitter of the social and cultural creations of peoples purported to have no written records. This spoken history is a very frail thread by which to trace our way back through the dark corridors of the labyrinth of time. Its custodians are hoary-headed old men with cracked voices, whose memories are often dim, who have the stickler's insistence on etiquette (vieillesse oblige!), as behoves potential ancestors. They are like the last remaining islets in a landscape that was once imposing and coherent but which is now eroded, flattened and thrown into disorder by the sharp waves of modernism. Latter-day fossils!

Whenever one of them dies, a fibre of Ariadne's thread is broken, a fragment of the landscape literally disappears underground. Yet oral tradition is by far the most intimate and the richest of historical sources, the one which is most filled with the sap of authenticity. As an African proverb puts it, "The mouth of an old man smells bad, but it says good and salutary things". However useful the written record may be, it is bound to stiffen and dry up its subject. It decants, dissects, schematizes, petrifies: the letter killeth. Tradition clothes things in flesh and blood and colour, it gives blood to the skeleton of the past. It presents in three dimensions what is often crowded onto the two-dimensional surface of a piece of paper. The joy of Sundiata's mother,(*) overwhelmed by the sudden recovery of her son, still bursts forth in the warm and epic tones of the griots of Mali. Of course, we have to skirt many pitfalls in order to winnow the material offered by oral tradition--to separate the wheat of fact from the chaff of words that are only there for the sake of symmetry or polish, and of set phrases that are only the formal wrapping of a message from the distant past.

Speech is a weighty matter

It has been said that oral tradition does not inspire confidence because it is functional--as if every human message were not by definition functional, including archives, which by their very passiveness, and beneath an appearance of neutrality and objectivity, conceal so many lies by omission and clothe error in respectability. It is true that the epic tradition in particular is a para-mythical recreation of the past, a sort of psycho-drama revealing to a community its roots and the corpus of values which nourish its personality; a magic passport enabling it to travel back up the river of time to the realm of its ancestors. That is why epic and historical utterance are not exactly the same. The first overlaps the second, with anachronistic projections forward and backward in real time, and with concertina effects like those found in the earth in archaeology. But do not written records suffer from these enigmatic intrusions too? Here as elsewhere we must seek the nugget of sense, try to find a detector which identifies pure metal and rejects slag and dross.

Of course, the Achilles' heel of epic is the weakness of the chronological sequence. Mixed-up temporal sequences cause the image of the past to reach us, not clear and stable as in a mirror, but like a fleeting, broken reflection on the surface of a ruffled stream. For example, the use of the average length of reigns or generations for measuring distances back into the past by extrapolation from recent periods has been vigorously disputed, and has to be accepted with great reserve, since demographic and other changes may have taken place. Sometimes an exceptional and magnetic monarch polarizes the exploits of his predecessors and successors around his own person, and the others are literally eclipsed. This applies to certain dynasts in Rwanda, and to Da Monzon, King of Segou in the early nineteenth century, to whom the griots attribute all that kingdom's major conquests. …

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