Oral tradition: Surviving instrument & our culture

By Ilesanmi Augustine

Globalization trend in the world polity has eaten so deep into the fabric of our culture and traditions. This globalization trend is emerging information technologies and systems. This now constitutes a serious threat to the survival of various forms of oral traditions in the study of culture in the society.

As a matter of fact, the new information technologies and systems have grounded some of the ways by which the traditions of various ethnic and indigenous culture in Nigeria passed down significant information from one generation to the next in oral form.

There has been serious controversy on the civilization, lifestyle and culture of the people of Africa as a result of the submission of early European writers on the history and religion of the Yoruba people for example. At the beginning of European occupation of Africa, the Yoruba had not developed means of communicating their lifestyle, culture and religious practices to the world in written form. The European were the first to give a written representation of African people to the world.

Some African writers did not however, agree with the image of the African people portrayed by these Europeans. Since they began to communicate in writing, Africans have fought vehemently to dislodge the views of these forefathers. They contend that their views about Africa grew out of sentiment and prejudice. They had not settled down to understand the African ideology before hurriedly picking their pens to misrepresent Africans.

Scholars of African descent who rose in defence of their culture submitted that the best way of presenting and representing African Religion and philosophy was to take up single subject and make in-depth study of such within the situation of their people but attested to the fact that Africans had a well preserved history, though unwritten, but embedded in their oral tradition, tangible and intangible heritage.

Therefore, the African religion, history and culture could be found, or located in the study of African oral tradition.

However, oral tradition is a body of information of the history, culture and environment of people, handed down by words of mouth from generation to generation in form of myths, legends, symbols, rituals and songs among others. It is a community’s cultural and historical background preserved and passed on from one generation to the next in spoken stories and songs as distinct from being written down. Oral tradition is an indispensable ingredient that helps to explore the core of social orders, institutions and norms in an undiluted and unbiased way.

Notwithstanding the globalization trend, some aspects of Oral traditions have refused to bow. This is because long before the advent of Europeans, Africans had their own system of transmitting ideas, sending and recording messages. These systems might not have been conventional as the Arabic writing or Roman scripts for example but they were definite indigenous systems of transmitting information. Hence there was no developed means of communicating their lifestyle, culture and religious practices to the world in written format the beginning of European occupation of Africa.

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Admittedly, Oral tradition is the body of information concerning the history, culture and environment of a people at any given point time and space. Oral tradition is handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation in the form of myth, legend, symbols, songs, rituals, names, religious beliefs, proverbs, poetry and so on. Thus, in societies where the art of writing is either absent or restricted to the educated elite, Oral tradition remains a major instrument to sustain our tradition and culture.

Oral tradition is the historical and geographical shadow of a group of people. With the exception of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Arab among others, the rest of African peoples had no written tradition. This means that knowledge, wisdom, history, and non material culture, were conveyed orally.

The term oral tradition covers many items, since in illiterate societies nearly every aspect of human knowledge is disseminated orally. Some items are sung, others are spoken in narrative form, and others are simply uttered on special occasions. 

Oral tradition are rooted in indigenous folk cultures and understood by members of the society. They also reinforce the values of the society. They are useful in teaching history, entertainment, social, ethical and religious values. They flow through stories and proverbs and provide legal code. They also play the role of mobilization of the people and evoking deeds of illustrious ancestors.

There are various forms of oral tradition and its relevance in the study of culture and tradition. These are:

Storytelling – These are forms of communication through messages that are educational, historical or entertainment values usually loaded with morals. Under this we have folktales, proverbs among others.

Folktale – This is one of the major aspects of traditional systems of communication which plays a very important role in the sustainance of the traditional culture. The principal aim of folktale is to entertain and teach morals. It is equally used to tell stories of valiant deeds of the ancestors, culture and social life.  It helps to document the social ethics, morals and deeds of ancestors of that particular society through folktale.

The second point worth making is that folktales are usually told after supper or dinner. The reason for this is probably that it is the best time for relaxation, group entertainment, or moral instruction. In other words, folk stories help to sooth children’s nerves at the end of a full day and send them to a quiet blissful sleep so that they may get up early enough the next day strong both in mind and body.

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Proverbs – they are concise statement, in general use, expressing a shrewd perception about everyday life or on universally recognized truth. It is used to enhance the value of statements and the attention paid to messages. Most proverbs are rooted in folklore and have been preserved by oral tradition. The documentation of proverbs showcase and express the people’s perception about their everyday life.

Myths – A story that has compelling drama and deals with basic elements and assumptions of a culture. Myths explain, for example how the world began, how human and animals came into being; how certain customs, gestures, or forms of human activities originated and so on

Legend – Legend is traditional narratives or collections of related narratives, popularly regarded as historical factual but actually a mixture of facts and fictions. A legend is set (heros or heroines) in a specific place at specific time the subject is often a heroic historical personage.

Symbols – Messages transmitted through the combination of symbols and signs. Symbol is another old aspect of Oral tradition that is still very relevant in the day to day of the people and equally very important in the preservation of culture. Symbols enable people to develop complex thought and to exchange those thought with others. Language and other forms of symbolic communication such as art enable the people to create, explain and record new ideas and information.

Songs – Music played a lot of role in Oral tradition and is still relevant till today as an integral part of cultural life of the people.

They accompany the normal farm work, communal building of houses, market, and so on. It equally promotes co-ordination in manual community work and for inspiration and support especially during wrestling context. For example in most traditional societies, drums are used to communicate messages and ideas among members of a social group like when a big chief dies, the expert drummers usually climb tall trees or roofs of houses to deliver their messages. When the drum beats changes the dancers also change the style of the dance. There were other functions performed by drums in communicating information and ideas in the olden days. The takingdrum for example is used among the Yoruba to praise, to motivate soldiers to battle front, to incite during civil strike, to greet or to abuse a well as to pass on information to a receiver who naturally understands what is being transmitted.

Poetry – Poetry is another old aspect of oral tradition that is still very relevant in the day to day life of African. Through this channel, social, moral and educational messages are passed. Traditionally, it is believed that every person has cognomen (Oriki) which contains the positive history of the individual’s extended family Cognomen is a kind of descriptive nickname through which we gain insights into what had happened in the past in each family. Traditional African poets compose poems praising or condemning good or bad deeds.

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From the foregoing, we can see that oral tradition is very important in carrying our research work  because it reflects what people do, what they think, how they live, what values they hold, what joys and what sorrows they experience. It is a full portrait of every aspect of African life and therefore every theme is covered in oral tradition which helps a researcher tremendously when carrying out research work.

With all the rapidly changing conditions of life today, oral tradition is in the very grave danger of getting lost because of the globalization trend and emerging information technologies and systems. The radio, Newspapers, books, internet, urban life and so on drive away people from their traditional ways of gathering data and information. It is true that traditional life was never static, but the changes were usually slow and less radical than modern changes.

Observably, nowadays, due to some impending factors, researchers prefer sourcing information for their researches through the internet books, and so on to Oral sources. This should not be because there are more to oral information than written information. As more and more of the older generations or custodians / eye witnesses are dying day-in-day out and the present generation is losing interest, we will have people who are not as knowledgeable about traditional wisdom, life and customs.

It is very vital that oral traditions should be collected and documented from event ethnic group in Nigeria, so what it will be preserved for posterity future researches before much of it are forgotten or radically changed under the stress and strain of modern technology and urbanization.

In all, when we want to know someone else, we ask that person to tell us something of the story of his / her life, for in this way, personal identity is disclosed. Hence to be self is to have a personal history therefore writing the origin and migration of class of people with a past, the most source of information is their Oral traditions which are events associated with their remote past. These would have been handed down from generation to generation and in the process of which a lot of details could have been distorted through substraction and or addition of facts. These events are often woven around mystical heroes and legendary figures who played important roler in the life of the people such heroes are in many cases, the progenitors (kings) of the given society.

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