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empty Posted November 2003

African Oral Tradition Part Three
By Sharon Wilson
Chicago, IL

Parents, grandparents, and even the elderly of the village had the important responsibility to educate the children, passing on information from one generation to the next. Stories were often told to convey values and morals in order that the customs and traditions continue to be observed. Mbiti comments:

Morals deal with the question of what is right and good, and what is wrong and evil, in human conduct. African peoples have a deep sense of right and wrong. In the course of years, this moral sense has produced customs, rules, laws, traditions and taboos which can be observed in each society...Morals keep society from disintegrating...the family is the most basic unit of life which represents in miniature the life of the entire people...parents have a duty to look after children, protect them, educate them...10

Within families, it is the fathers who bring up the sons and the mothers who bring up the daughters. The grandparents are also responsible in oral teaching. It has been said that the grandmother is the most competent teacher of oral transmission of knowledge. Her human experience makes her a living library. Any elderly person can intervene in the transmission of tradition. The elderly are available sources who put their experience and memory to the service of educating the children.

In Africa, the transmission of tradition, values and morals through storytelling is everybody's responsibility as a community. Agatucci explains:

Oral African storytelling is essentially a communal participatory experience. Everyone in most traditional African societies participate in formal and informal storytelling as interactive oral performance, such participation is an essential part of traditional African communal life, and basic training in a particular culture's oral arts and skills is an essential part of children's traditional indigenous education on their way to initiation into full humanities.11

Stories help people to identify who they are and where they and their culture came from. Stories are educational tools, which are often accompanied by music and sometimes dance. They could be about people, animals, or spirits, whether they are good or evil. The stories most often told are folktales. They are most often for their entertainment value but in particular, to convey moral values. They often feature an animal hero. Stories of a trickster-hero (in the form of a spider, tortoise, rabbit, human, or god) are most popular. To reiterate, Oral tradition explains the mysteries of the universe and the rhythms of life. Oral tradition has been the means that has allowed the expression and preservation of African culture.

In conclusion, although the written word has taken dominance in literary arts, the spoken word has been the strength of the African people for many generations. It has been a major and valuable part of African heritage with great spiritual significance. Even in Traditional African Religion, Oral tradition has been the mode in which religious beliefs have been passed on despite the absence of written scriptures and can be found in the hearts of the people. In another book by Mbiti, he reminds the reader: "Religion in African societies is written not on paper but in people's hearts, minds, oral history, rituals, and religious personage like the priest, rainmakers, officiating elders and even kings. Everybody is a religious carrier."12

Agatucci asserts regarding Griots and the spiritual dimension of oral tradition and the art of storytelling:

[Griots] training often includes a strong and spiritual...dimension required to control the special forces believed to be released by the spoken/sung word in oral performances...the spoken word as spoken in the following Bambara praise poem...

Praise to the Word The word is total: It cuts, excoriates forms, modulates perturbs, maddens cures or directly kills amplifies or reduces According to intention It excites or calms souls13

Sharon Wilson is a student at St. Xavier University in Chicago. This article is used by permission.

[10] Mbiti 174-175
[11] Agatucci's web page
[12] John S. Mbiti African Religions and Philosophy (Portsmouth: Heineman 1999) 3.
[13] Agatucci's web page

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