West Africa’s oral histories tell a more compelling story than traditional post-colonial narratives
The last few years have witnessed a growing recognition of oral histories in Western academies. With more authors, filmmakers and artists from around the world highlighting the rich oral histories of West Africa, the tradition of passing knowledge through generations has invited a moment of change within wider Western establishments.
Oral histories are rich, complex tools of storytelling, which contain fine details of ancestry and ancestral experiences. These oral narratives are important modes of transmitting knowledge, especially as they bring alive histories that are not present in archives, books and other forms of literary tradition.
With recollections of the past often told through idioms and long, enthralling storytelling, oral histories are the vessel between the present and the past, and in many ways act as a tool of cultural preservation.
Griots of western Africa from Senegal and Mauritania across to Mali and Nigeria use oral traditions which date back over 2,000 years. They often accompany storytelling with musical instruments such as the Kora, a 21 stringed lute-bridge-harp, drums or horns to tell stories. Similarly, elders from the region which is now modern day Ghana are steeped within the oral tradition, and act as conduits of knowledge by passing down proverbs, some of which are reflected in Kente cloth print.
As history presents itself through the people, culture within West Africa shows itself to be dynamic and continuous. However, throughout history, the oral tradition has been dismissed by Western productions of knowledge. In essence, they have deprived the complexity of the oral tradition through presenting false written narratives about Africa which exclude lived experiences, and draw on loaded colonial clichés.