Oral history in Africa: A brief review of challenges and possibilities


In the immediate post-World War Two period historians trying to write precolonial African history “faced what seemed to be an insuperable hurdle” namely, the absence of written records before the mid-nineteenth century.[i] Anthropologists had studied Africa for over fifty years before this period, but “for most anthropologists, the past was the present.”[ii] Historians needed to either find alternative ways of reconstructing the precolonial African past or abandon the project.
Henige notes that in the aftermath of World War Two, historians interested in writing African history had two choices: they could rely on the work of archeologists, but this field was “in its infancy and in any case archeological evidence requires specialized handling and interpretation.”[iii] Or they could use oral sources which, at this time, were not considered legitimate sources of evidence for historical research by the mainstream historical establishment. The greatest challenges for historians interested in Africa were thus to minimize their dependence on archives and employ the anthropological methods of fieldwork, and “then to convince the historical establishment that  . . . respectable history could actually be gleaned from mouths rather than pages, and that those who did it were respectable historians.”[iv]
Work on precolonial African history was initiated by several European/Western historians whose “job was to establish some line-drawing historical maps and then to train others to fill in the voids . . . One of these pioneers was Jan Vansina.”[v] A medievalist by training, Vansina soon recognized while in the field in Africa that Africanist historians could use the techniques employed by medieval historians to collect data and write respectable histories. The appearance of his De la tradition orale in 1961 and its English version Oral Tradition in 1964 represented both a “trial balloon” and a clarion call for those who believed in the potential of oral tradition as a means of reconstructing precolonial African history. Vansina’s arguments in Oral Tradition made it clear that oral evidence needed both to be supplemented by archival material and subjected to the same rules of historical evidence that written sources were subjected to. Henige points out that during this early period, historians were divided into roughly three groups. At one extreme were those who unequivocally dismissed the possible use of oral traditions; at the other extreme were those who unconditionally defended the legitimacy of oral tradition as history. The middle ground was held by those who accepted the legitimacy of oral sources but, following Vansina, allowed that like all historical sources, they needed to be subjected to the rigorous rules of historical evidence.
Arguing for the potential legitimacy of oral sources was just one of several problems facing historians of Africa. A second difficulty had to do with the verification of the collected evidence itself. Early Africanist historians went into the field, collected data on notebooks and tapes, wrote their works, and then failed to share their original evidence with others scholars. This rendered them susceptible to the charge that the authenticity of the evidence they used was unverifiable by others. This problem has not been entirely surmounted because a uniform system of storing and making available oral evidence has still not been fully developed in Africanist historiographical circles.
A second controversy surrounds the ownership of oral data. Is it owned by the interviewer or interviewee? Is fieldwork a form of exploitation? As Henige puts it “the historian gains experience, raw materials, and a start on a life of scholarship. The interviewees, if nothing else, gain a new perspective on ingratitude, a place in bibliographies and, if lucky, in prefaces.”[vi] How to resolve such a difficulty remains elusive because there simply is no other way of doing oral fieldwork. Henige suggests returning copies of tapes to informants or depositing them in accessible locations such as libraries and archives. While depositing tapes in archives might be delayed to prevent their misuse by unscrupulous persons, Henige argues that they do need to be deposited at least within “a period of no less than five years nor more than ten years.”[vii] 
Once in the field, the Africanist historian faces yet another difficulty. Interviewing is not a simple and straightforward process. It requires the researcher to determine who to interview, where to interview, how to interview, what questions to ask and not to ask, and most important, what the “local intersocial protocols” are. In at least this respect, native Africanists have some advantage over their foreign counterparts because they might be fluent in the local languages and cultural idioms and have a better understanding of the nuances of intersocial protocols; interviewees may also feel more comfortable talking to them as opposed to strangers. Even here though, there might be issues of trust and reliability.
The problem of interpreters for non-native speakers of African languages – and this includes the native African scholar working in different environments – is particularly acute. Interpreters may willfully or otherwise distort messages, both questions and answers, and may inject their own views and opinions into the interview in both directions. Some words, concepts, abstractions, or idioms just defy interpretation from one language to another. As Henige points out, “interpreters interpret far more than just words, far more than even just thoughts and ideas, and . . . along the way the process is inevitably distorted, however unwillingly or unwittingly.”[viii] The presence of the interpreter may also have a distorting effect, especially if he or she is locally grounded and is therefore either considered biased or may not, in the eyes of the informant, be an appropriate recipient of the information being sought by the researcher “as this would transgress some aspect of local etiquette.”[ix] Even where the foreign researcher learns to speak the local language, an interpreter is often required because only native speakers of a language can understand the subtle nuances of that language, even though they might not be professionally trained to recognize their importance to the research process and may therefore fail to point them out to the interviewer.
G. N. Usoigwe (1973) suggests that it is almost impossible for foreign scholars to be sufficiently fluent in an African language to have meaningful discussions with old men, “most of whom tend to speak in an archaic fashion.” Usoigwe likens foreigners with only one or two years’ knowledge of an African language trying to do field research on the continent “to giving an African a one-year course in English and then dispatching him to Yorkshire and Lancashire to collect traditions relating to the War of the Roses!”[x] This, however, might be overstating the problem.
Another complex problem related to field research in Africa is whether informants should be paid for their time, energy, and information. How should they be compensated? Giving out cash payments could encourage informants “to maximize their return by providing ‘more’ and ‘more’ congenial information.”[xi] In order to avoid being perceived as niggardly, field researchers must find a way of occasionally expressing their gratitude to informants “by means of local sumptuary goods” even though this might still have some effect on the interview process.[xii]
Before going into the field, the prospective researcher has to contend with two further difficulties: time and money. Making time to squeeze fieldwork in busy schedules is one thing, especially for researchers with families. Getting adequate funding to spend adequate time in the filed is quite another. Doing group interviews in the field is one possible way of cutting down on time and money; but this could result either in “a completely fragmented notion of the past or one so homogenized that it constitutes no more than common opinion.”[xiii] Local differences in opinion or socio-cultural loyalties might surface in group interviews and make it hard to locate the most reliable testimony. Forceful personalities might hijack the group interview and give their own versions simply by the fact of their social standing, while better-informed members of the group may remain silent in deference to age, status, power, or social etiquettes.
Once in the field, and after all protocols are observed, the historian still faces the task of breaking the ice and asking the right questions, or avoid asking the wrong questions. Explaining to informants the reason for the research and how it would benefit them and their community is one way of starting out. But once started, the researcher should avoid asking leading questions that would elicit teleological responses.  Keeping an open mind and avoiding the temptation to have his/her views confirmed by the informant is one way of navigating the tricky waters of oral field research. The researcher must keep in mind that most oral testimonies are also performances, particularly in group situations, where “societies’ pasts are consciously shaped into texts that reward performance by subordinating the story-line to performing opportunities” and information is often couched in theatrical terms.[xiv] In such instances, it is difficult to distinguish historical knowledge from its “laden contexts.”[xv]
While oral historians like historians working with written documents can sometimes go back to existing sources to cross-check their information, checking on sources, people in this case, might prove difficult because while written documents are unchanging, human informants may change their views or stories, forget aspects of the information transmitted before, or even die. The same informant might give different answers to the same questions even at the same sitting, which is why the oral historian must allow for slight variations in names, dates, or other information from oral sources. Explaining in footnotes the nature of changes or variations in oral testimony is one way of dealing with this problem.
Oral sources might in some cases be actually informed by written sources, what folklorists call “feedback.”[xvi] Henige faced this problem during his research on tiny southern Ghanaian polities called “stools.” Apparently, disputants over these polities during the colonial period had a habit of asking the colonial authorities for copies of documents on these “stools.” Some of the contents of these same documents were later narrated to researchers as oral tradition. Henige found evidence of similar processes in Polynesian oral testimonies suggesting that they were influenced by stories taken from the Bible. In a world where the notions of plagiarism or copyright do not exist, such re-rendering of material from written documents as authentic oral testimony represented a case of “fighting fire with fire. The colonial masters palpably placed greater value on written sources than on oral traditions and those invoking the past did the same thing, but, cleverly, did it sub rosa.[xvii] Historians can work through this difficulty by comparing their oral findings to the body of documents produced around their specific periods of interest. Consulting mission records where they exist and/or finding out how educated or acculturated to the western tradition their informants are is another helpful strategy. Oral historians must recognize that oral traditions are not a coherent body of information passed down from generation to generation and must do everything within their means to allow the possibility of distortion, accommodate inconsistencies, and verify their evidence before venturing to publish it as historical knowledge.
The oral historian must also confront the problem of chronology because “without chronology there can be no history.”[xviii] Because history is the study of change over time, the duration and progression of events need to be established as accurately as possible. Yet, oral testimony rarely includes clear notions of time. Here, the use of written documents on approximate periods of historical enquiry, where they exist, might be helpful. In the absence of written documents, “generational dating, purported eclipses, and archeological dating” may be used. Each of these methods though, has its own specific problems. What constitutes a generation? How could we be sure that a phenomenon described as an eclipse was actually an eclipse?
Oral traditions are often the main and, in some cases, the only source for precolonial African history, and serve a useful function in supplementing inquiry into more recent periods. The historian of Africa must choose between spending time in the field actually interviewing people, or transcribing already recorded testimonies in an office or other specific location. Both approaches are time and energy consuming. But actually going into the field to do one’s own research seems better than simply transcribing tapes already recorded by others. In any case, tapes have the tendency to disintegrate and become unusable when stored over long periods of time. The difficulty of collection and interpretation aside, the use of archeological data in conjunction with oral data is a useful method for the reconstruction of precolonial African history.
Philip Curtin (1968) suggests a painstaking blueprint for the recording and preservation of oral traditions.[xix] Direct recording is followed by editing, translation, and transcription of the spoken translation into written text. Armed with patience, tact, and a tape recorder, the oral historian can capture and preserve oral texts. Both Leonard Thompson (1969) and G. N. Usoigwe (1973) find Curtin’s blueprint unsatisfactory. They both cite the fact that oral traditions are evolving and changing narratives and that “the great difference between an oral tradition and a document is that an oral tradition changes as the living society of which it forms a part changes.”[xx] This is similar to Henige’s argument above that a single narrator may give a different version of the same story within days or even hours of giving an earlier version.
Usoigwe maintains that it is the research atmosphere that determines what method to use. Researchers should not enter the field armed with rigid ideas on how to conduct proper interviews, as Curtin suggests. They should be flexible and ready to adapt to unexpected circumstances. Also, knowing what informant to seek depends on what type of society the historian finds himself/herself in. Among the Kitara of northwestern Uganda for instance, the researcher should know that “the main fabric of Kitara history” is “preselected and predetermined” by traditional elites close to the ruling families. Griots as we understand them in much of West Africa do not exist in these societies. Historians must both appreciate this fact and look beyond the traditional informants in order to recover the histories of minorities and subalterns within Kitara society.
Most debates about oral histories and oral traditions center around issues of definition and methodology. Yet despite all the hype about the unreliability of oral sources, written sources may suffer from the same weaknesses as oral sources. All written documents are subjective; someone writes them with particular goals in mind and for particular audiences.