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Oral Traditions

Oral Traditions As A Source And As A Method Of Historical Construction

African and Africanist historians have professed the value and reliability of oral traditions for the reconstruction of the history of African peoples. Their weaknesses as a source of historical reconstruction have been argued as no worse than those of other sources of history, including written records. Various processes have been developed for the mitigation of these weaknesses by the methodical gathering and treatment of oral traditions. This has also involved the conceptualization of oral tradition and the classification of the genres that make up oral traditions. Each of these typologies has peculiar treatment types.

Oral traditions, among many African peoples, are more complex, better-organized forms of recording history than the stories and legends of some other preliterate societies. Traditional controls in the form of training and taboos have served to guarantee the reliability of historical accounts. "Palace historians" and griots often occupy hereditary positions, and the training of custodians of a society's history usually begins at an early age. Special occasions such as coronations, burials, births, and other rituals present opportunities to perfect their arts. Stringent sanctions are attached to any distortion of historical accounts. The fact that in such societies crimes and punishments are communal and that physical and spiritual influences guide social compliance provides added checks against manipulation of accounts. Oral traditions have thus been successfully employed to reconstruct the history of many societies in Africa. In Nigeria, the pioneering works of Kenneth Dike—Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta (1956)—and Saburi Biobaku—The Egba and Their Neighbours (1957, based on a 1951 thesis) relied mainly on gathered oral traditions and have survived much historiographical scrutiny to remain national historical classics. Substantial works on East African history have also depended on the collection and use of oral traditions following the pioneering works of B. A. Ogot. Jan Vansina's seminal theoretical work, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, articulated the major theoretical advances for the defense of the use of oral traditions in historical reconstruction. The case for oral tradition was further taken up in his more recent study, Oral Tradition as History. Vansina, however, not only makes a case for the validity of oral tradition in historical reconstruction but has produced historical works that fully utilize the method. These include The Tio Kingdom of the Middle Kongo 1880–1892 (1973) and The Children of Wool: A History of the Kuba People (1978). Vansina's influence as the foremost theoretician of oral tradition historiography is not in doubt.

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