The problems associated with the sources for African history.
“History,” according to E.H. Carr, “cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with those about whom he is writing”. Throughout the pursuit of history, we search for a link between the past and the present, and that, almost definitively, arrives in the form of written sources. However, how should we approach history when written sources elude us, and all we have to rely on (for the most part) are oral sources and tradition? A nature that certainly defines the so-called ‘acephalous’ societies of pre-colonial Africa, and to a lesser extent contemporary Africa. Orality is not seen in modern scholarship, admittedly dominated by Western and Europeanized thought, as a viable or reliable source for constructing history. Yet, does this orality consign Africa to the peripheries of history, to the wastelands of historical thought and theory? Is Africa, as Hugh Trevor-Roper once claimed “unhistoric”? This essay will examine whether oral sources are a sufficient foundation for the history of a continent, and whether their innate weaknesses and flaws as a source indeed render them, as previously believed, inadequate for such a venture. Of paramount importance in this essay is to assess whether a history of Africa can survive within the ideas of what History is and should be, ideas ultimately Western, indeed European, in their conception. Or can we separate Africa from Europe, both in terms of colonial impact and historical theory, and create a purely Africanist history? Hence, by the end of this essay, I hope to have displayed that oral sources have value within themselves as a source for history, and that the constraints of European history need not necessarily apply to Africa. Perhaps then, Africa can be resurrected from the “graveyard of academic publishing”.
According to John Tosh, “oral tradition is still a living force in those countries where literacy has not yet displaced a predominantly oral culture”. Certainly pre-colonial and even contemporary Africa are both societies where orality and oral tradition permeate every aspect of society, politics and everyday life, and where “historical knowledge [is] conveyed purely by word of mouth”. Oral tradition represent ‘a body of knowledge’ transmitted over several generations that forms the basis for the African community for thinking about the present. Oral tradition communicates knowledge of pre-colonial Africa to the present generations, whereby it teaches values and beliefs integral to the culture, such as the history of the origins and migrations of particular peoples, and also validates the political and social status quo of the present by providing the history of groups or peoples. For example among the Lozi people of Western Zambia, each royal tomb has a guardian descended from the deceased who retell the stories and preserve the history of the royal lineage. Indeed oral tradition validates ethnic identity, social status, claims to political office and rights to land, by communicating the history of the past to the present. Thus oral tradition is an ostensibly legitimate means whereby there is continuity between the past and the present.
Even today orality forms the basis for communication in Africa. First is the radio, which Ellis highlights as the main form of mass media in Africa, and second is the phenomenon of radio trottoir (‘pavement radio’) which “selects the most credible rumors and repeats them, helping to form popular consensus”. Both of these examples convey the unattestable fact that African society values information communicated by word of mouth more than information conveyed by the government or other formal institutions. Evidently then, when examining the sources for African history, we must remove ourselves from our Western book-centered mindset, and instead appreciate the difference in culture and understanding of history between ourselves and the African society we wish to study.
Yet it would be wrong to suggest that there is only oral tradition as a basis for African history. Although oral tradition is dominant, there do exist several examples of written sources. Indeed, not all of pre-colonial Africa was illiterate, and there still remain chronicles, dating back to the sixteenth century of the Ethiopian and Timbuktu kingdoms, and from areas on the East Africa Coast, such as the nineteenth century Sokoto caliphate of Nigeria. Furthermore, one can learn of pre-colonial Africa from the written accounts of European missionary societies and the European trading companies, although admittedly, these somewhat represent an “outsider’s view” of African history. Yet, the written sources we have offer only brief glimpses into pre-colonial Africa, and do not offer a continental, but a more localized history. Thus, faced with the inadequacy of written sources for African history, we are left with oral tradition as our primary means of writing African history.
Yet whether it is our primary means of examination or not, we must nevertheless analyze oral tradition is a source in its own right. According to Tonkin, oral tradition’s main problem is precisely that: its orality. One cannot escape the shortfalls of oral tradition, which include according to Irwin, its inherent biases, the variability of messages, the casualness of transmission and the selectivity of sources. Furthermore, being an oral phenomenon, the element of ‘performance’ in the retelling of the stories and traditions has social and memorial repercussions. Let us not forget however, that as oral tradition is so embedded in past and present African society, the power of recall is often astonishing, and oral tradition does indeed create a line of African history through the generations. However, according to Vansina, the two main problems with “the prototestimony of a tradition” are memory loss and interpolation, whereby meaning is lost in changing social contexts. Indeed John Tosh defines this prototestimony as “no more than the community’s present-day self-image put into time perspective”. As oral tradition fulfills the function of justifying social and political features of contemporary Africa, often aspects of the past are used, and often modified, as a form of political justification, and other aspects which no longer fit the current model of society being espoused, are excluded. Thus, oral tradition as a source in itself certainly raises many problems concerning reliability and legitimacy in the face of the function that it fulfills.
Yet, we encounter similar problems with the reliability of written sources, and they are still viewed as viable sources for the pursuit of history. What renders oral tradition as obsolete in our modern historical perspectives? Clearly, we must discuss what has been coined ‘Eurocentrism’ in African history, a dominance originating in the era of European colonialism. According to Fuglestad, “the West has always been, and still is, the model for historians”. This Western monopoly over history began at the time of the Renaissance, but had become universal by the nineteenth century, with what E.H. Carr calls “the fetishism of documents” in Europe, a turning point in the use of oral sources in history. Thus in the current historical climate, one dominated by this ‘Europeanized’ view of history, oral sources hold no value, or indeed, no place at all in conventional historical study. This Western bias in history began with the acclaimed H.R. Trevor-Roper, who claimed that “the history of the world, for the last five centuries, in so fat as it has significance, has been European history”.
This led Trevor-Roper to conclude that “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present [1950s] there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa”. A bold claim, but one that nevertheless represented the sentiment of the time, as it was not before the 1960s that anyone even thought of writing a history of Africa. However, Fuglestad attempts to remedy this European monopoly over African history, claiming that Trevor-Roper defined the rules of the game and imposed his own “Eurocentric straightjacket” on Africa. Fuglestad suggests that we must appreciate the African perspective of history away from Trevor-Roper’s idea of purposive history, especially when we consider that there does not exist any African word for ‘history’, nor indeed ‘chronology’. According to Benjamin Ray, the African understanding of time and chronology can be defined as such: “time is episodic and discontinuous … There is no absolute ‘clock’ or single time scale”. Clearly, an Africanist history must be written independently of this idea of purposive history, as it itself pertains to what Mircea Eliade terms ‘ l’eternel retour’, whereby African attempt to re-enact the ‘perfect’ society established by the ancestors. Clearly, the purpose of oral tradition is not to create a Trevor-Ropian purposive movement in African history but instead to educate African in what their ancestors did in the past, in order to emulate their traditions in the present. Thus, context is key when discussing African history. We cannot write, as Trevor-Roper would have wished, African history through the European eyeglass, which would mean writing out of the context of oral tradition, but instead we must embrace the ‘cultural environment’ of Africa, as according to Jan Vansina “the removal of a tradition from its context is a form of amputation”.
 E.H. Carr, What is History: the George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge, January-March 1961 (London, 1964), p. 24.
 H.R. Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (London, 1966), p. 9.
 Stephen Ellis, ‘Writing Histories of Contemporary Africa’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2002), p. 14.
 John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history (London, 1991), p. 206.
 Bill Freund, The Making of Contemporary Africa: the development of African society since 1800 (London, 1984), p. 1.
 John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history (London, 1991), p. 219.
 Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: a study in historical methodology (London, 1965), p. 189.
 Ibid., p. 219.
 Stephen Ellis, ‘Tuning In to Pavement Radio’, African Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 352 (Jul., 1989), p. 323.
 Stephen Ellis, ‘Writing Histories of Contemporary Africa’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2002), p. 19.
 John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history (London, 1991), p. 218.
 Ibid., p. 218.
 Elizabeth Tonkin, ‘Investigating Oral Tradition’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 27, No. 2, Special Issue in Honour of J.D.Fage (1986), p. 204.
 Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison, 1985), p. 186.
 Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: a study in historical methodology (London, 1965), p. 45.
 John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history (London, 1991), p. 224.
 Finn Fuglestad, ‘The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay’, History in Africa, Vol. 19 (1992), p. 315.
 E.H. Carr, What is History: the George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge, January-March 1961 (London, 1964), p. 16.
 Finn Fuglestad, ‘The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay’, History in Africa, Vol. 19 (1992), p. 311.
 H .R. Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (London, 1966), p. 9.
 Finn Fuglestad, ‘The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay’, History in Africa, Vol. 19 (1992), p. 312.
 Ibid., p. 313.
 Ibid., p. 313.
 H. R., Trevor-Roper, ‘The Past and the Present. History and Sociology’, Past & Present, No. 42 (Feb., 1969), p. 3 and Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: a study in historical methodology (London, 1965), p. 188.