Role of Oral Tradition in Africa: Survival & Knowledge Transfer

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Strengths of oral tradition

The received value system from European historians is that written history is superior and more civilised than unwritten oral history. To make true, non-Christian symbols & writings, non-Islamic symbols & writings or non-white symbols & writings were destroyed at various points: for instance the ancient Palace of the Asantehene in Ghana was blown up by the British in its entirety. At certain key moments, during the last 400 years pseudo-logic has been used to justify racist conclusions about Africa, Africans and modern descendants of Africa.  We think this is hypocritical, contrary to espoused academic standards and unfair. Luckily many American and European historians have stepped forward to display academic integrity; and in some cases to call out and discredit pseudo-academic works for what they are. Consider the following:

The word “planter”

If you were to search for what written history has to say about the occupation of the great grandfather of George Washington, written records would say “tobacco planter”. If you were to search in just one dictionary for “planter”:

The Cambridge English Dictionary would give you three British definitions of nouns 1/ someone who grows a particular crop in a hot part of the world 2/ a large container in which plants are grown for decoration and 3/ a machine used to plant crops and an additional definition from American English 4/ A planter is also someone who owns a plantation.

Under 4/ the reader would think that it only meant owning plantations. This would mislead you about the modern history of the Caribbean, South Africa and Canada where Britons kept 800,000 human beings in slavery in 1833 prior to the Slave Abolition Act of that year.

An uninformed reader would think a tobacco planter ran his plantation using paid labourers and that such a planter was also not a “slave trader”, one who buys and sells human beings for profit.

Some, not all, of our European and American historians have conflicts of interests, are dishonest and make a strong effort to mislead fellow scholars and the public.

The word “merchant”

Prior to changes in the moral environment a person like Sir John Gladstone of Fasque, 1st Baronet, FRSE LLD (11 December 1764 – 7 December 1851), father of the 19th century Prime Minister William Gladstone, would be described only as “a merchant and politician”. In 1799, John Gladstone was already wealthy with a fortune of £20,000. By 1828, his fortune had grown to £502,550. He built his fortune through “merchanting” activities, shipping insurance, ship-owning, renting out warehouses and renting out housing. He invested in commodity producing estates in the Caribbean. He was a strong advocate of “planting” and a member of the Liverpool West Indian Association. At this point, most readers would still think, ok, so what?

If you searched the Oxford English Dictionary for “merchant”, you would read the following:

“1a person who buys and sells goods in large quantities, especially one who imports and exports goods;

  • builders’ merchants (= who sell supplies to the building trade);
  • a coal/wine merchant;
  • Venice was once a city of rich merchants.

2 (British English, informal, disapproving) a person who likes a particular activity

  • a speed merchant (= somebody who likes to drive fast)
  • noise merchants (= for example, a band who make a lot of noise)

3 (Idioms) prophet of doom, doom merchant

  • a person who predicts that things will go very badly”

A reader without context trying to understand is no closer to understanding anything dodgy that John Gladstone made his money from. It isn’t clear he was a slave-trader. It isn’t clear some of the slaves that boarded his ships from Africa never arrived at the other side of the Atlantic. It isn’t clear that slaves had a nine-year life expectancy on his Caribbean sugar plantations such as the Vreedenhoop estate in Demerara. It isn’t clear that he produced sugar – Demerara sugar – and cotton from the Belmont estate and several other estates in British Guiana. It isn’t clear that John Gladstone as a businessman and/or a Member of Parliament opposed the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the abolition of slavery in 1833. It also isn’t clear that he was paid the largest amount out of 46,000 families for losses resulting from the Slave Abolition Act of 1833: a sum of £85 million in 2017 money. The 46,000 families were paid the equivalent of 40% of the UK GDP for 1833 – the equivalent of £300 billion in 2017 money.

It isn’t clear that when slavery was abolished, he switched to shipping indentured labourers from India to British Guiana and the Caribbean, illiterates who had signed employment contracts to earn in total over their future life expectancy less than their transport costs.(i)

Written history and written language, like the spoken word, can be twisted to obscure the truth.

Audio evidence and wire taps

If verbal evidence does not count or is inferior, one has to ask the question why use wire taps for espionage, or plant spies for intelligence gathering, why plant wire taps into criminal organisations, or why gather audio evidence of wrong doing.

Gathering important unwritten information. Wire-tapping provides evidence that person a spoke to person b – it implicates both person a and person b, if one confesses to a crime or a conspiracy to commit crimes. Many crimes are discussed verbally, but the truth is seldom written down, or left written in a way that implicates a criminal. In non-criminal but fascist environments, truth is communicated verbally if leaving written information could endanger the life of the author.

Safety. It is dangerous (higher risk) to plant a spy in a drug-trafficking, terrorist or organised crime environment. Wire taps – non-written evidence – provide a safe means of gathering information for law enforcement, without putting investigators in physical harm’s way.

Banking security

Each human being has a voice as unique as finger prints, containing up to 100 characteristics due to the physical configuration of their throat and mouth. A voice is so unique it is safer to use a person’s voice than questions and answers passwords. Each person therefore has a “voice print”. Barclays Plc in the United Kingdom in 2016 decided to stop using passwords and offer voice recognition to all its customers. Why?

Using an English 8-word sentence as a password is many times stronger (one hundred, trillion, trillion times) – i.e. one followed by 26 zeros – than using an eight character password composed of lower case, upper case, numbers and special characters.

Court witnesses

Court witnesses are vital for many reasons. The witness might be the victim, might appear for the prosecution team or for the defence team. Since witnesses are so important perpetrators of crimes carrying serious consequences or capital punishment often try to kill witnesses. The role of a witness is so important, witnesses to serious crimes are offered witness protection at the expense of the state, and most witnesses who appear in court get 2 to 4 weeks minimum advanced notice, reimbursed expenses, help if disabled, a Sign language translator if the witness has difficulty hearing or providing oral communication, translators if the witness doesn’t for instance speak English but appears in a British court, and support to prepare the witness for their day in court. Is orally provided information not important?

Sign Language

Hearing-impaired people use sign language to communicate. Aristotle summed up many prejudices against hearing-impaired people when he declared the “deaf and dumb” were “incapable of being taught, of learning, and of reasoned thinking. To his way of thinking, if a person could not use his/her voice in the same way as a hearing person, then there was no way that this person could develop cognitive abilities.” (Source: Deaf Heritage, by Jack Gannon, 1980)

On Standard English, “very dumb” has the meaning “incredibly stupid”. How come?

Aristotle would also have a heart attack if he learnt the light exists as both a particle and a wave, to a mind unacquainted with Einstein’s theories. Clearly, we cannot conclude that a person is incapable of reasoned thinking because they use sign language yet we conclude that other civilisations are mentally inferior because they conserved history orally instead of in written form.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) composed many of his most admired works during the last 15 years of his life even though by 1816 he was completely deaf. (v)


At almost every conference, the main events are experts lined up to speak to a massive audience. The theme of any conference may be trade, business, economics, academic subjects or political issues such as the World Economic Forum. Most “developed economies” tend to pick their Chancellor, Prime Minister or President based on speaking ability. Who for instance thinks that POTUS Donald Trump takes in any information that isn’t delivered audibly through Fox News? Or who would elect a President or Minister that isn’t a good verbal communicator? Did most adults in Britain read econometric reports by eminent economists before voting to leave the EU? Do all adults with voting rights read the manifestos of all parties contesting elections before voting for one party?

Cognitive biases

Even when fair and truthful information is provided in written form, we as human beings are capable of making erroneous decisions due to more than 180 different cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a failure to make a rational judgement due to mistakes when perceiving inputs into our mind, processing information or formulating judgements.

Religious preaching

Consider if all believers in Christianity, Hinduism or Islam past, present or future are uncivilised, or mentally inferior because they listen to sermons and preaching, based on religious texts that reached modernity due to oral tradition.

Much of the bible and Christian tradition has been transmitted through time orally, when the Israelites were in Egypt, in exile in Assyria and Babylon. When the Rashidun caliphates compiled the Quran, they needed support from Hadiths, and companions of their prophet.


If “pre-history” is before writing and the earliest human ancestor dates to 3.3 million years ago, was it a fool that developed “agriculture” after eons of “hunter-gathering”?

Nabta playa

Nabta playa is 800 kilometres from Cairo, in “Sub-Sahara Africa” – the new coded word as of 2017 to split Africa by skin colour. It is a UNESCO site. A review of Egyptian archaeo-astronomical sites and comparison of them to Nabta playa concluded that it displays solar and stellar alignments later used by Egypt during its writing period. It is an astronomical device from 6,000 BC (8,000 years ago) for observing the 365 day calendar and other celestial phenomena. Since the creators of Nabta playa left no trace, how come it took 8,000 years for everyone else to understand the astrophysics used by illiterate Africans 8,000 years ago?


Sometimes it is possible to have incomplete information even after collecting written documents, statistical data, photographs, maps, letters, diaries and public records. Oral tradition allows people to transmit intent, culture, viewpoints and perspectives. Oral tradition allows interviewees to relate changes in societal norms, values, beliefs, traditions and political correctness – something static written documents sometimes can’t convey. Someone holding oral information can provide information that was deliberately left out through cross-examination, interview techniques or rapport-building. It helps understand information about families, individuals and communities. When documentaries are done about individuals, producers will often wish to get interviews with friends and family to capture non-public information about the subject individuals.

In Great Britain, the Bureau of Military History collected 1,700 interviews from First World War veterans for research in 2003. Why?

Between 2003 and 2006, the BBC invited the public to send in memories and recollections of the front lines in the Second World War, gathering 47,000 recollections and 15,000 photographs online.

As part of the Millennium Memory Bank (MMB) project, 40 BBC radio stations collected recorded personal oral histories during 1998 and 1999 from varied cross-section of the UK’s the Century Speaks series. This added up to 640 radio half-hour documentaries. Why?

Other massive interview projects have been carried out in the United States, the Middle East, Asia, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe.

Promotional tours

When film stars, book writers, academics or politicians want to promote themselves or a message, they go from country to country, global city to global city, conference expert panels to expert panels, TV network to TV networks giving interviews. Why? Do books sell themselves or manifestos get read without promotional speaking?

Women’s history

How many women have been left out of written “Western” history? At one point women did not have votes, could not have property rights, were not admitted to universities, were not admitted into corporate boardrooms, were not allowed to join political parties, were not allowed anywhere near “power” or “authority”. As of 2018, the United States of America, France, Japan and China have never had a female president.

Working class history

The history of most societies tends to record the activities of the elite and powerful – heads of states, monarchs, presidents, ministers, prime ministers, viceroys, suzerains, judges, generals, admirals, philosophers, leading academics and chief priests. Class struggles only get recorded when suppression of them fails. In general working class autochthons can be imprisoned, killed, massacred, oppressed, written out of history, die nameless if they don’t become famous, gain power, gain popular support or get justice.

Law giving

Many societies around the world have formulated civil law based on oral tradition: debates among the legislature, speeches among politicians, spin campaigns by political parties, closed-door meetings, rallies held from place to place, opinion polls and partisan volunteers going door to door to hear and convince voters.

We therefore find that although some African societies did not have writing, they had rule of law and their inhabitants lived by these rules.

Europe values its own oral tradition

Not all powers of government are covered by law and constitution. For everything else, in some countries there are pregorative powers. How come?

Europe observes customs – we have bachelor and bachelorette parties before weddings.

Europe passes down superstitions – “knock on wood for good luck”, google “blue blood German”

Europe passes down beliefs about weddings:

  • It’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding
  • The bride wears white to symbolize chastity
  • The bride needs something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue
  • Sweden – gold and silver coins are placed inside a bride’s wedding shoe

Europe uses oral tradition in prose, film, literature and tourism

  • Nursery rhymes to teach children
  • Jokes to break the ice
  • Stories to teach lessons
  • Mythologies to sell books on Amazon
  • Mermaid stories about Cornwall at the Eden project
  • The pantheon to sell tours in Rome etc.

Europe passes down legends

  • About the Roman and Greek mythology
  • About King Arthur and Camelot
  • Robin Hood
  • About El Dorado
  • About Hercules
  • About the Loch Ness monster etc.

Europe uses oral tradition in Songs

  • Jack and Jill
  • Folk music
  • Mary Had A Little Lamb
  • The Grand Old Duke of York
  • “Humpy Dumpty” about a cannon etc.
  • Star Spangled banner from the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” by Francis Scott Key

Europe uses oral tradition in dancing, to work out how to do

  • The Waltz
  • The Flamenco
  • The Two-step
  • The Paso-Doble etc.

Europe considers Homer a legendary author for writing the Iliad and Odyssey; poems that were both transmitted orally (ii).

Weaknesses of archaeology

Archaeology needs to displace people. People have to vacate archaeological sites for archaeological evidence to be gathered. Since people still live in most areas in Africa apart from the Sahara Desert, clearly digging up earth in search of evidence has limited scope.

Archaeology needs funding. The top 10 wealthiest countries hold 73% of all private wealth (iii). Individuals and institutions in the top 10 wealthiest countries invest 85% in their home regions, unlike where Europe invested during 1500 AD – 1960 AD when slavery, when the removal of Native Americans from their lands was legal and when colonialism once practiced. Once all these behaviours changed, the wealth created abroad was repatriated.

Known American and European biases in interpreting written history

  • Subordinating information from Islamic Africa as Arabian
  • Carthage is “Phoenician” not African, Ptolemaic Egypt is “Greek”, Islamic North Africa is “Arabian”, “Ancient Egyptians” are “Indo-European”, Minoans are “Indo-Europeans”, Phoenicians are “Indo-European”, Hyksos
  • “Indo-European” is used when Europe isn’t leading in human innovation. Specificity (India, Syria, Persia etc.) is used after Europe develops a world presence
  • Focus on military conquests
  • Searching for Europeans, or Arabs (Indo-Europeans) if Europeans not found, as causations of developments in African history
  • Hamitic theory
  • Monument building
  • Centralised polities over decentralised polities
  • Preference for Latin-based languages over other languages
  • Double standards. The holocaust was genocide. The murder of Africans due to the Berlin-conference was the “Scramble for Africa”. The net murder of 15 million Native Americans between 1491 and 1691 AD (iv) and enslavement of Native Americans under the Encomienda system is the “Age of Discovery”.
  • Europeans invading foreign sovereign nations is called “pacification” or “the crusades”, Africans invading Europe is called a “Moor invasion” or “Muslim Spain”.

Complements to written history

Most professional historians don’t rely only on internal written documents. To arrive at a complete view, history is compiled from a variety of different sources: archaeology, art, astronomy, foreign contemporary evidence, economists, epigraphy, geologists, iconography, linguistics, mathematicians, military historians, musical historians, natural history, philosophy, physicians, physics, religion, rock engravings, surgeons, stratigraphy, physical anthropologists and toponymy.

Likewise, oral history is a gadget in the toolkit of history compilation. Written history is not the only instrument in the history toolbox.

General limitations of history

Limitations of historical evidence:

  • Evidence is random
  • The data that reaches us is subject to time and chance
  • Practices, ideas, beliefs, music, and languages perish, merge and/or transform
  • Whatever doesn’t survive we are unable to study
  • Evidence found tends to be what we are looking for (confirmation bias)
  • Past conditions cannot be replicated
  • Absence of Gregorian calendar in the articulation of time by black cultures
  • Lessons of the past cannot always be applied in the future due to the lack of control over events which override self-control
  • History is a function of deliberate action and also action with unintended consequences. With hindsight a coherent explanation may be possible but drivers are not always pre-meditated actors
  • Understanding of languages and dialects such as deciphering of Meriotic
  • The articulation of self and the world
  • The ends justifies the means VS morality of means (witchcraft)

Limitations of historical method:

History is conscious and unconscious. It is a balance between private and public information. It is a balance between “ours” and “theirs“. It may be “obvious”, “induced”, “encrypted” or “deduced”. It may be intuitive and scientific, recorded and unrecorded, corroborated and uncorroborated, the product of the creativity of actors and passives. It is an art working out which combination to use of political science, linguistics, geology, anthropology, archaeology, etc. (i.e. various theories of selecting elements from a historical context and characterising them.) It is a combination of the multiple facets of human experience (parents, children, rulers, subjects, love, war, psychology, responses to weather). It includes imagined (lies) and factual (truth) history. It is a collective effort between scholar and subject. It is a balance between practical usefulness and dispassionate academic objective and integrity. Nazi Germany provides the worst cases of developing “practical” history – “making it up” to help people believe problems are due to mixing with inferior races.

Africa’s recent challenges

African people were traded as commodities, teaching indigenous writing systems was suppressed, passing down African names was suppressed, passing down African languages was suppressed, African religions were eliminated, social organisation was destroyed, people were removed from their land, generations were made to work unpaid, millions were murdered at end of the Maxim gun after a conference by 14-countries, it wasn’t called the “Axis of evil” or “a genocide”, African inventions were re-labelled European such as “Pythagoras’ Theorem”, Black Scientists at NASA were Hidden Figures, children are taught that Africa is one giant Safari Park in Lion King, civilised newly-created nations looted the uncivilised to pack out their museums with culture, newly created countries lumped together so many different “nations” achieving political consensus is almost impossible. When world wars were fought and won, some countries deliberately left out African combatants from victory parades and decades of memorial ceremonies, which through omission perpetuated ignorance about African contributions to modern society.

Yet, oral tradition has kept the African contribution to history alive. As Christianity – which Europe claimed to believe in – grew under persecution, Africa has grown under oppression and what was done in the dark is now brought into the light so that it can be examined as fit for purpose.

For instance people from “Ile Ife” (in Osun state, Nigeria) – a toponym meaning “the place from which humanity spread out” – taught that humanity came from Africa; later, this was confirmed by the Human Genome project.

Concluding remarks

Like written history, history compiled from oral tradition still needs to be engaging and overcome cultural barriers in transmission. Future generations may not speak the language of their ancestors. It needs to demonstrate that it is objective: covers women and men, the ruling class and the working class, clarifies lies and disseminates the truth. It needs to be engaging to penetrate and enter public memory.

With oral tradition, history and politics can be put into music and made memorable. This has been achieved by griots, artists like Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba and in Diaspora by artists like Black Starr. We have also received less entertaining information orally.

Oral history needs to reach unfamiliar cultures and people. It should not exist merely to push nationalistic, racist, chauvinistic or convenient agendas, but should illuminate our thinking. It works best when combined with other methods of collating history, which I call the complements of written history.

On this site, we demonstrate that there is a lot to learn about Africa’s past and inspiration to draw from its contributions to humanity. Information has been gathered from many sources, in some cases from received oral tradition. If you have any stories you’d like to share, please contact us.


(i) Legacies of British Slave-ownership. UCL Department of History 2014. 2014. Retrieved 27 June 2014.

(ii) Ahl, Frederick; Roisman, Hanna (1996). The Odyssey Re-formed. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801483356. Retrieved 23 November 2016.

(iii) Jeff Desjardins. (2018). The 10 Wealthiest Countries in the World. Retrieved 19 November 2018.

(iv) American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present; Erin McKenna, Scott L. Pratt; Bloomsbury; 2015; Page 375

(v) Solomon, Maynard (November 2000). Beethoven (2nd revised ed.). New York: Ingram Pub Services. ISBN 978-0-8256-7163-0.

How to create oral history

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Role of Oral Tradition in Africa: Survival & Knowledge Transfer

by Editorial Team time to read: 15 min