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Written & Oral Traditions in Africa (500-1800 CE)

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  • 0:01 Written & Oral Traditions
  • 1:07 Folktales
  • 1:48 Proverbs & Griots
  • 2:42 Written Traditions
  • 3:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explores the written and oral traditions of pre-modern Africa. It highlights folktales, proverbs, griots and the travelogue known as Rihlah.

Written & Oral Traditions

Oral and written traditions are present in almost every culture. For instance, I'm guessing almost all of us can recite 'Hickory, Dickory, Dock.' Yes, we probably never took a test on it, and we probably didn't even read it in a book. Instead, we heard it as we were being tucked into bed or as we sat on our grandmas' laps. In other words, it was passed down orally to us. It is an oral tradition of our American culture.

Likewise, most cultures have written traditions. These are the parts of a culture that have been written down. Great examples of the United States' written tradition are the many written accounts of George Washington leading the country in revolution.

In the same manner as our culture, the history of Africa has its own oral and written traditions, which is especially rich in the area of oral tradition. In today's lesson, we'll explore the oral and written traditions of Africa during the timeframe of about 500 to 1800 CE. Since the oral traditions of Africa are so plentiful, we'll start with them. As we do this, we'll focus on folktales, proverbs and griots.

Folktales

For starters, a folktale is a tale passed down through a people group that is usually based on superstition. In Africa, most folktales were passed down orally. These oral traditions were usually used to teach socially accepted behavior and values within African society.

One of the most famous and lasting folktales from early African history is the story of a rather tricky rabbit who always seemed to be getting himself in and out of trouble. To prove the sticking power of folktales passed down orally, today this character is known rather famously as Brer Rabbit, a rascally bunny whose antics still delight children all around the globe.

Proverbs & Griots

Sort of similar to folktales, proverbs have also played a large role in African oral tradition. A proverb is a short saying that uses things from everyday life to teach a lesson or give advice. The people of ancient Africa used proverbs as a way to show what they valued. One rather famous African proverb that has survived the ages goes something like this: 'The best way to eat an elephant is to cut it into tiny pieces.' The lesson this one teaches is that if you have a big problem, take it a step at a time.

Now that we've covered folktales and proverbs, let's discuss the people who usually passed them down. In many parts of Africa, griot was the name given to people who pass down oral traditions. In fact, most African communities had their own griot. Sort of like record keepers, these griots would tell tales, speak proverbs and even sing songs to pass down the traditions of their cultures.

Written Traditions

Moving away from oral traditions, written tradition became important in West Africa as merchants from the North began trading in the region. Although the written traditions of pre-modern Africa are rather few and far between, there are some that have made their way down through history. Most of these written records or traditions came by way of travelogues that North African Arabs kept while traveling over the continent.

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