In African societies, oral tradition is the method in which history, stories, folktales and religious beliefs are passed on from generation to generation. Webster’s dictionary defines “oral” as, “spoken rather than written,” and it defines the word “tradition” as, “transmittal of elements of a culture from one generation to another especially by oral communication.”[1]

In another meaning of oral traditions much similar to the one express above it implies that, oral traditions are messages that are transmitted orally from one generation to another. The messages may be passed down through speech or song and may take the form of folktales and fables, epic histories and narrations, proverbs or sayings, and songs.[2]

According to Jan M. Vansina, the expression “oral tradition” applies both to process and its product. The products are oral messages based on previous oral messages, at least a generation old. He further explains that, the process is the transmission of such messages by word of mouth over time until the disappearance of the message. Hence any given oral tradition is but a rendering at one moment, an element in a process of oral development that began with the original communication.[3]

Oral tradition facilitate transfer of knowledge from one generation to the other, especially in pre-colonial African societies, where writing as a means of keeping records (for posterity) or passing information for immediate or future purpose was lacking in most parts of Africa. Consequently, oral tradition is a part of African culture and it forms the basis with other fundamental requisite for writing or rewriting African history.


 Oral tradition or oral evidence according to Eurocentric scholars is an inferior source material of writing history vis-à-vis written sources. They point out that, oral tradition lack absolute chronology, are extremely selective in their content, and are compromised by possible human errors.[4] William G. Clarence-Smith argued that the value of using oral traditions has been not for their intrinsic worth but sentimental, as they offer African historians the opportunity to present an independent history, “uncontaminated by colonialism.”[5] This view, as erroneous as it appears sum up the believe of the Eurocentric scholars about the role of oral tradition or evidence as source of history.

Eurocentric scholars equate history with written document that is history is synonymous with writing. They believe history only began when man take to writing as means of keeping records or otherwise. This line of reasoning or argument unfortunately, is faulty and shortsighted, because there are parts of human history that can only be accounted for or explained only through archaeological evidence, for instance Pre-history of man.

Apart from the fact that the Eurocentric view of oral evidence is shortsighted, it also has racist undertones. It must be recalled that the Eurocentric scholar had initially denied that Africans/Africa has no history. For instance, Professor Huge Trevor-Roper, a Professor of modern history at Oxford University, once said:

It is fashionable to speak today as if European history were devalued: as if historians, in the past, have paid too much attention to it; and as if, nowadays, we should pay less. Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.[6]

G.W.F. Hegel also had this to say of African history:

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it—that is in its northern part—belong to the Asiatic or European World.[7]

The assertion that Africa has no history is a complete negation on the uniqueness and values of oral tradition as a very rich source of history and ultimately the complete denial of it existence. Also the profoundly warped, trite and bias assessment of oral tradition by William G. Clarence-Smith, stated above is unfounded and acutely short of merit.

While it must be admitted that oral evidence or oral tradition as source material of writing history has it weaknesses and not infallible like every other sources of history, it is not in any way inferior to written source or any other source of history, as sources of history complement one another to achieve maximum result.



Among the various kinds of historical sources traditions occupy a special place.[8] While interviews with members of social and political elites have complemented existing documentary sources, the most distinctive contribution of oral history has been to include within the historical record the experiences and perspectives of groups of people who might otherwise have been hidden from history.[9]

Oral tradition has played and still playing a very important role in writing and rewriting of African history. For centuries it has helped preserved vital and very important traditions of various African societies.

Oral tradition has enriched the knowledge of African scholars about their various societies in writing African history through the African perspective and not bereft of objectivity nor short of creativity. In an era where African history was denied and ridiculed, African scholars through various oral traditions have re-position Africa, historically.






[1] African Oral Tradition by Sharon Wilson, Chicago, IL. http://www.blackandchristian.com/articles/academy/swilson-09-03.shtml


[3] Oral Tradition as History (Ed) Jan M. Vansina, University of Wisconsin Press, Google Books, P. 3

[4] Oral Traditions- The use of Oral Traditions and its critics http://science.jrank.org/pages/10524/Oral-Traditions-Use-Oral-Traditions-Its-Critics.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] There is no African History https://davidderrick.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/there-is-no-african-history/

[7] Eurocentric view about African culture and civilization http://ivythesis.typepad.com/term_paper_topics/2011/05/eurocentric-view-about-african-culture-and-civilization.html

[8] Opcite XI

[9] The Oral History Reader (Ed) Robert Perks Google Books


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