The Continued Importance of African Oral Traditions

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This article is an extract from the lecture “The Origins of Modern Africa” given by Apeike Umolu in January 2022. 

Political societies⁠1 in Africa are the oldest in the world and as such the people of the continent have been engaged in continuous thought about their “origins” for longer than any other community. This makes the African experience the optimal site from which to explore theories of the origins of political society.

Furthermore, the unique nature of the modern African experience as a result of the Great Dislocations⁠2 of the 15th to the 20th centuries makes the African experience prime epistemological and experiential ground on which to grapple with questions of “beginnings”, “turning points”, and all the moments in between. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, or the philosophy of knowledge. It is  not a particular piece of information but what we consider to be information and what we consider to be truth, and the means through which we believe we can acquire truth. Because of the unique position that Africa is in, having some of the oldest societies, but also because so many of its people have been displaced in the last five hundred years, it means that Africans have had to think a lot about their origins, more perhaps than any other peoples over such an extended period of time.

Throughout the bulk of human history, waves of peoples migrated across Africa following the waterways around the continent and populating its four corners. In addition to these overground migrations, communities migrated by sea, tracking their way around the coast over millennia. With them they took language, culture, and of course religion and their various forms of social organisation. The first Great Dislocation also took Africans to the Americas in the largest systematic and prolonged forced migration of humans and human capital in history. In the Americas, African culture and society continued to evolve and proliferate. Following the second Great Dislocation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which involved various co-options of African political society on the continent as a means of commandeering Africa’s economic productions, in addition to a second non-coerced wave of emigration out of centres of African civilisation on the continent and from parts of the diaspora in the mid to late 20th century, African culture has continued to inculcate various world cultures with African notions of social and political philosophy.⁠3 The second non-coerced wave of emigration was the post-World War Two emigration out of the Caribbean, particularly large numbers of the Afro-Jamaican community making their way to the United States or to Britain for example, or a little bit later on in the ‘80s and the ’90s, the large numbers of Africans, particularly from Anglophone countries, moving from the continent to the United Kingdom and also from Francophone countries to France.

As a result of this rich and dynamic history however, it is difficult to talk about the origin of any specific African political society. The societies we now know as Akan, or Afro-Caribbean, or Black British have developed in many cases over hundreds of years as a result of waves of entry into, movement within, and dislocation from various localities,  mentalities, and political realities. Thus, a theory of the origins of political society in the African tradition is by definition a multiplicitous enquiry. Pan-Africanism’s attempts at various times in the last one hundred years to regard itself as evidencing a single political and cultural origin for Africans has been met with accusations of naivity at best and disingenuity at worst. Global Africa theory as espoused by historians such as Ali Mazrui and Hilary Beckles represents an improvement of sorts in this regard, in that it condones greater mutuality between the continent and the diaspora as sites of authentic African  knowledge production. While noting the important place of Africa, Beckles’ “global Africa” accepts diasporic spaces as legitimate starting points in the exegesis of notions of African origin, allowing origin stories to begin in the current locale of each African community, without such an act negating the community’s claim to African heritage or right to be thought of as existing as part the global Africa body politic.⁠4 

Related Video: The Origins of Modern Africa

We begin with a defence of origin stories as a genre of knowledge. Origin stories are by their nature part science, part memory, part literature, part religion, and part political tools of national unity or acts in collective esteem building. Cosmogony is the branch of science that concerns the origins of the universe. Colloquially when used it often includes theogony and anthropogeny which concern the origins of deities and human beings respectively. African cosmogony is the oldest such science and we see many of its elements in the cosmogonies of different communities around the world proving the interconnectedness and oneness of humanity. But to what extent can we use such cosmogonies to determine the “truth” of the political origins of a people?

Considering first the very concept of an origin story as a theory of the beginning, in many ways it is impossible to conceive of the beginning because to do so, one would have to conceive of a time before the beginning. And if there was a time that was before the beginning, when did that time begin, and why does that earlier beginning not dislodge the later beginning? This is sometimes dealt with by distinguishing the “primordial” from the “temporal”, where the primordial is that which has existed from the beginning and therefore existed before the commencement of the temporal plane, being the plane on which humanity and other life came to exist. A conception of the beginning that distinguishes between a time that was primordial and temporal in this way, where there was agency in the primordial without needing to have  corporeality, that means there were no humans there, but there was something there that had agency, this is a fundamental building block of what we call religion – the idea that before there was humanity there was something or some things that had agency. In this primordiality filled by an agent-ful being or beings, there was the capacity to consider the world outside of one’s self, to conceive of cause and effect, and to be consequential. In many parts of the African tradition the primordial beings had knowledge of and interacted with each other and with the supreme being in primordiality so that one could discern some primordial political organisation by examining their interactions. All of this is to say that when exploring the origins of political society, how a community conceives of the politics of primordiality provides useful insight into their understanding of and the history of their temporal political organisation. This is the first case for taking seriously African cosmogony in any investigation of the history of the people of the continent and their descendents.

This position is supported by anthropologists such as Daniel McCall and S.A. Shokpeka who hold that the deification of state actors and institutions are actually reflections of the pre-existing importance of those actors and institutions to the community. This is to say that, supernaturality is bestowed upon that which is already important. It is wrong to read into oral tradition the suggestion that supernaturality precedes temporal significance when in fact the opposite is true. Certain people and institutions in society were so important that the people deified them, elevating them in memory to supernatural beings. Thus, by exploring origin stories which often reference to the supernatural world and by examining the categories of people and institutions have been deified, we can know what people and institutions were previously most impactful to the communities on earth that codified these traditions. This is because importance on earth precedes deification. In this way, an exploration of the supernatural elements of origin stories can teach us a lot about the temporal political history of various state actors and institutions, and what types of interactions between the two have been important at various stages of the society’s history.

A further defence of the importance of origin stories as a genre of knowledge can be drawn directly from their inculcation with supernaturality as it is importat to appreciate that African societies do not simple use oral traditions or simply refer to the supernatural, they are oral societies and they are spiritual societies in a very fundamental way. On the latter concept, their spirituality, the historian Akinola notes that ‘the African world view [is one] in which super- and preter-natural events occupy an important role. Life itself cannot be fully comprehended except through reference to those mysterious forces which often influence events. Thus, although a man may be the principal in the life drama, there are other forces to which he (as well as life itself) is subject’. On the importance of orality to African consciousness, it is important to note that an oral society is a completely different organism from a literate society, or more accurately, one in which the written word is revered above the spoken one. It is not simply a matter of the prioritisation of orality in the transmission of information however; the entire social contract is a reflection of the oral nature of human interactions in that society. The historian Hampaté Bâ calls oral tradition ‘total knowledge’, meaning it is the vehicle for the transmission of everything man knows about anything. The historian Ki-Zerbo notes that ‘for the African, speech is a weighty matter – an ambiguous force which can make and unmake, which can be the bearer of evil’. Thus, the oral capacity of a community is reflected in its constitution, in what it values, what it prohibits, what it venerates, what it punishes. In a society without love letters, an African embrace may be a language form more capable of nuance than its counterpart in writing. One only needs to observe the multiple and strict rules of salutation in many African societies, the various methods of prostration and genuflection, to understand that there is orality even in the movement of the body. This is why the historian Vansina offers that ‘a scholar who has to work with oral traditions must thoroughly understand and accept the attitude towards speech of an oral civilisation’. Thus, when we talk about oral tradition, we are talking about oral societies, and understanding the constitutional implications of orality in that society will greatly assist in the deciphering of the meanings hidden in the recitation of their histories, foremost among them, their origin stories. Therefore, you cannot study the history of African societies, which are fundamentally oral societies, without considering as your most important source, their oral traditions.

Origin stories can be divided into three broad categories: primordial, pre-historic, and political-historical. The primordial stories recount the creation of the material universe (cosmogony), the creation of any lesser deities below the creator deity (theogony), their relationships with each other and the supreme being (what I would term the primordial political order), and the creation of humanity (anthropogeny). These primordial origin stories suppose a time when the universe was ordered fundamentally differently  to how the universe appears to us today and are therefore theories of both spirituality and corporeality and by extension they constitute theories of consciousness and the delimitations of the three. Next we have pre-historic origin stories. These are pseudo-political in nature, recounting some prior political society of the people, evidence of which has long been lost but impressions of which are preserved in social memory and in whispers in their customs of various “before” cultures. Finally, we have origin stories within political-historical memory that concern the political origins of the people as a result of known migrations, conquests, or defeats. These are events that the people clearly remember and the evidence of which is baked into their language, their forms of social living, and their physical placement on the planet. 

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    1 Goertzel (2010): offers the following definition of political society: “The phrase political society is used in different ways, generally revolving around the process by which the interests and values of civil society are articulated and aggregated for action by government. A large variety of groups and organizations take part in this process … More is known about each of these kinds of groups and organizations than about how they function collectively to aggregate and articulate the interests and values of a society as a whole.”

    2 By the “Great Dislocations” is meant those series of events commonly known as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonisation of Africa.

    3 This is a variation of Ali Mazrui (1994) definition of “global Africa”

    4 Mazrui’s (1994) definition of “global Africa” brings diasporic sites of African civilisation within the bound of the linguistics, semantics and consciousness of the modern African world. Michael O. West (2005) however defines the term as more closely aligned to Pan-Africanism, being not merely the notion of supra-continental African statehood, but the idea of supra-continental citizenship in that the distinct political struggle against European hegemony undertaken by Africans globally was the concern of every African global, those suggesting a supra-continental citizenship. Beckles (2021a, 2021b) idea dislodges the continent and the continental experience from any position of privilege and democratises African identity, holding the diaspora as equal sites of uncaveated African intellectual production and political action.