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For a long time, I believed Africans would be better off, if someone with foresight had just written everything down. By “everything”, I mean our collective history. I know I’m not the only one who hated being in history class, eager to read about the African experience, in the grand scheme of world history, only to be let down by the puny chapter of pre-colonial African history.

So long, I’ve lived with the impression that not much exists about West Africa before the middle passage because so much of what we know, was passed on orally and with that, we can’t tell fiction from fact. The oral tradition of recording history irked me—until I read Sundiata; An Epic of Old Mali by D.T. Niane.

In D.T. Niane’s Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali—which has been compared to Homer’s Odyssey and other great epics, I learned about the importance and power of the spoken word within African societies. The art of oral history was the golden thread that wove together this page-turning epic about Sundiata, a.k.a. “Mari Djata” the great warrior king.

“I teach kings the history of their ancestors so that the lives of the ancients might serve them as an example, for the world is old, but the future springs from the past.”

– Sundiata; an epic of Old Mali (p. 1)

 

The epic was told by master-griot Mamadou Kouyaté. With his words, he highlighted his singular role as a vessel of speech. His family has served in this capacity for centuries, and the words he spoke had been passed down from father to son, for generations. Not unlike the ancient scribes who were from a select class of learned people in ancient Egypt. His family has been the vessels-of-speech for the Keita princes of Mali (the royal families) for generations.

“The art of eloquence has no secrets for us; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; by the spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations.”

– Sundiata; an epic of Old Mali (p. 1)

 

They said Africa was static, “Without History.”

D.T. Niane is A historian committed to decolonizing African history. In his best-known literary work, “Soundjata ou l’Épopée mandingue” (1960), he recounts the story of the legendary (Soundiata Keïta) founder of the Mali empire, as told to him by a traditional story-teller (griot). His work was part of a wave of literature which sought to propose heroic models to the African people during the independence struggle.

With decolonization and independence, African nationalists and liberalist perspectives rejected the notion of a barbaric and static Africa “without history.” Africanists vigorously reject this Eurocentric and anti-African historical philosophy that privileged written sources as the only rational basis for historical scholarship and that denied the possibility of civilization and history to small-scale and non-literate societies dominant in Africa.

Until the late colonial period, Western historians believed that Africa—south of the Sahara—had no “civilization” and thus no history. Others insisted that even if there were events of a historical nature, such a history was unknown and unknowable, since African societies, for the most part, were “non-literate” and as such left no (written?) records that historians could study.

But we’ve always had our stories. And we still have our griots.

oral history

Little did I know that history lives on through the spoken word—through griots and others who keep and pass on stories of the past. I’m familiar with griots; the kora-strumming, praise-singing, caste of story-tellers that use folk-style music to trace genealogies, recount epics and span generations. Because their art has been relegated to occasional performances in the “Africa program” in the local public library, I was unfamiliar with how old and rich the historical content of the griot tradition is.

The Griot or oral tradition is found throughout West Africa; from Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. though each linguistic group calls it something different, griots are acknowledged as oral historians, that use poetry and music to sing praise, tell stories, or give political commentary. Griots pass down accounts of birth, death, and greatness such as the infamous epic of Sundiata the Great–the warrior who founded the Mali empire.

There would not be any heroes if deeds were condemned to man’s forgetfulness, for we ply our trade to excite the admiration of the living, and to evoke the veneration of those who are to come.

The challenge to authenticate Africa’s classical past continues and scholars use an array of sources and multidisciplinary methods from archaeology, ethnography, anthropology, linguistics, art history, and oral traditions.  With such varied sources, scholars have succeeded in showing that Africa not only had a history, but that its history and the writing of it date back to ancient Antiquity.

Reading this epic by D.T. Niane opened my eyes to the beauty and relevance of the griot’s art. Now I understand that griots aren’t just telling stories—they could’ve done that through books—they’re using their voices to help us feel the past; adorning past events with their words.

The prophets did not write and their words have been all the more vivid as a result. What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books!

– Sundiata; an epic of Old Mali (p. 41)

What’s your take on this epic? Have you read it? How do you feel about written history vs. oral history?

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