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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

The importance of oral tradition for children: case of countries of the Sahel.

Mbathio Sall
Bibliothèque lecture Développement
Dakar, Sénégal



For a long time, Africa has been regarded as a barbaric continent, because it didn't possess an extensively rife writing.

Indeed, according to Eurocentrists of the time, "the written act is the main support that operates in the fixing of realizations judged fundamental." Then, since, the African societies are not characterized by writing, the existence of an African history becomes unlikely, the oral sources not being trustworthy enough.

African multiplied investigations on investigations, and were able to find evidence verifying the thesis of the oral tradition as one of the sources of the African history.

Since, we witness a genuine renewal of interest of "societies detaining the monopoly of the writing" for the history of Africa, particularly for the oral tradition of which they want to know all values, all teachings.

Isn't the chosen topic of this meadow-seminary a long time after the controversy on oral tradition - writing is over an illustration to that?

In this communication on the importance of oral tradition for children: case of countries of the Sahel, we'll endeavor to deal with the oral tradition in Africa, the connection between African children's literature and oral tradition, before insisting on the values of oral tradition and suggesting perspectives for a possible cohabitation between the oral tradition and the modern culture.

I - The oral tradition in Africa

Among the numerous meanings of the oral tradition, let's keep the following: "The oral tradition is the whole of all testimony types verbally transmitted by a people on their past."1 It is in this context that the plural is often used: oral traditions.

1.1 - The content of the oral tradition

The content of the African oral tradition is characterized by a big diversity: to announce kinds that follow.

a) The tale and the fable

The tale is the most known element of the oral tradition. It is generally defined as an imaginary adventure narration with a didactic vocation.

It is popular, that is to say created by and for the people: it is born and lives the collaboration between the people listener and the storyteller respectful of his ideology, of his culture. Traditional, it is orally transmitted from generation to generation. It closely depends on the culture and the people's physical geography that produced it.

The tale is generally told kids by old people, at dusk. Among the numerous explanations on the time of enunciation of the tale, let's keep this one: "The night is more auspicious to the dream and the creative imagination, and the mind is more free after works and diurnal worries." 2

The fable doesn't defer from the tale so. It is an intended imaginary or mythological narration to illustrate a precept. The narration, often short and comic, can be assimilated to an anecdote.

b) The myth

The myth is a long narration that is object of strong belief for the people that produced him. Indeed, to the difference of the tale in which the sharing of the real and the unreal has the tendency to balance, the myth, is intimately linked to the occult. In traditional Africa the myth is considered as "the serious word" of which no one dare to doubt. Thus, as soon as the myth stops to become sacred, it can be considered as a legend. For a long time, it has been reserved for chosen auditoriums, circles of insiders, until the disappearance of religions to which it was connected with.

c) The epic and genealogies

The epic or epic narration relates exploits of hero who really existed and who played a major role in a people's, an ethnic's history. Their adventures have been embellished to create the full models of teaching (Samba Guéladio Diégui by exemple).

Genealogies are the detailed history of a dynasty, of a people. Destined to please, the epic and genealogies are often sung by griots with a music instrument. They can provide historians with numbers and dates, as well as name lists.

d) Proverbs, riddles and enigmas

Proverbs are some vivid truths to which the tale acts as an illustration the most often. Some storytellers say the proverb before developping it with the help of the tale. Proverbs are often told kids by the old people, who still like nowadays to decorate their speech: they connote eloquence and wisdom.

Riddles and enigmas are kinds of "game of hide-and-seek by the word" for grandparents and children. In certain societies, they are exclusively exercised between kids.

Let's note that either riddles or proverbs are no longer created.

d) Songs

Songs occupy an important place in the index of the African oral literature. Some even defined the song as being "the adornment" of the verb. Songs intervene in all moments of life, especially on occasion of ritual ceremonies (crops, circumcisions, etc). Deciphered, they serve today to ethnologists to locate some historical or social events in a special context.

1.2 - Transmitters of oral tradition

In Africa, the transmission of the tradition is the business of everybody, especially if it must affect the children's education. The near family is as well involved in the process of knowledge transfer as griots, real professionals of the word, storytellers, singers or the African writers who tried a few later to integrate the tradition in their works.

1.2.1 - The family
- Parents

Very frequently in Africa, it is the father who bring up his son and the mother, her daughter. In some societies, the uterine uncle plays a more important role than the father in the boy's upbringing. He is more free with him than with his father and asks him questions more gladly. The young boy who goes with his father or uncle to the farm, to the hunting or the fishing, the little girl who helps her mother, who goes with her to the well, receive not only a technical instruction but all ways of information on the natural habitat or the social life, which pretext is generally found in the task that they are accomplishing or the meetings made on the way.

- Grand-parents

It is their responsibility to transmit the tradition to children according to wisdom procured by age but also by their availability. Everywhere, they appear as important educational agents in fields which are not directly linked to the economy, particularly, in the oral teaching. Their role is not negligible at all on the plan of the social integration. They act as an hyphen between the past and the present. The little child often lives with them after being weaned or when, at 4, he begins to notice things and to ask questions.

One notices that to the contrary of the relationship that links the child to his parents, those he maintains with his grandparents are characterized by a sort of equality, complicity, tacit alliance and propensity to joke.

The grandmother is the most competent in the oral transmission of knowledges. Indeed, in all societies, the grandmother is characterized by a big tolerance, a human experience that made her be the"human library." She occupies a place of choice in the traditional values' conservation. In traditional Africa, the grandmother was the only one openly authorized to talk to the children about sex. Those ones took that window of opportunity to ask all kinds of questions.

However it is important to note that in Africa any old people can intervene in the transmission of the tradition, he might either be the insider's grand-parent or not. Once free of the daily chores, old people are available sources who can put their experience and their memory to the service of the child's education.

1.2.2 - Professionals of the word

The griot has been considered as the holder of the word, therefore the social memory of the group. He keeps facts and important events of his time but also those of the past times, left by his fathers to be restored to future generations. Thus, real professional of the word, the griot stays up its good transmission. One call him at time of important events during which he willingly reconstitute a family's genealogy playing his kora or another instrument of music according to the type of society. From time to time, big meetings to esoteric character get together griots insiders for summing up of the people history. At the time of these ceremonies, the youngest one acquire new knowledge. Eldests show them the adapted sites, graves or old altars, teach them systems of deduction of the time for every ethnic and old shapes of languages that allow chiefs of subgroups to understand themselves.

Other agents who operate in the transmission of oral tradition are storytellers who always have messages to pass on at the time of nocturnal celebrations, but also singers who willingly draw from the national index.

A few later, one will recover this role at the African writers. Indeed the painting of the traditional society is very present in the work of a Senghor, a Birago Diop or a Mamby Sidibé. Even though this transmission is not made by the oral channel, it deserves to be mentioned because the finality stays: instilling in children the traditional values.

II - Children of Sahelian Africa and oral traditions

The attitude of children towards oral tradition was very positive in traditional Africa. The social organization of that Africa was more in favour of the transmission of oral traditions and the interest of children for these traditions. What happens know? It is what we try to determine below.

2.1- Present situation

The traditional society is very different from the modern one. The first is characterized by the mind of group while individualism, immediate consequence of the urbanization, occurs in the second. Indeed, the wide family's breaking up, the irruption of fashions of western life (the school), the modern channels of information transmission (media) are as many elements that act in the disappearance of the phenomenon. There isn't anymore neither griots close to families, clans to animate celebrations, kassaks, nor sacred meetings in the forest etc.

So if the African child is lucky enough to live with his grandmother, he should do with what he has been told after having learned his lessons. Most children, once their lessons learned and their homework done prefer to watch television or to play with neighbours.

If they are really interested in the tradition, they will be able to turn themselves toward ways of recuperation of the oral that still exist. I want to mention festivals of tale, theater, the musical spectacles on television or radio programs.

The famous "Wednesdays of Blaise Senghor" deserve to be mentioned here. Every Wednesday afternoon, the library of the "Centre Cultural Blaise Senghor" in Senegal used to organize a time for children to be told tales. The librarian made a professional storyteller come to restore stories and traditional games to children who really enjoyed those moments.

However, even this admirable initiative didn't resist the writing. Presently, the most current way of tradition's transmission is the printed material, through the book or the magazines for kids. What makes us ask ourselves questions about the place of the oral tradition in the African literature of youth.

2.2 - Place of the oral tradition in the African literature of youth

The oral tradition inspired the African authors a lot, in particular those who write for children. Indeed, more and more number of African authors give oral tradition a big place in their works. However, we choose to center our thought on the work of Amadou Hampâthé Bâ who has always been known as a great defender of the African oral tradition.

2.2.1 - The example of Amadou Hampâthé Bâ

Born in Mali in 1900 and dead in 1991 in Abidjan, Amadou Hampâthé Bâ succeeded in imposing himself as a wide person very concerned by the African culture. Amadou Hampâthé Bâ is especially known for his attachment to oral tradition, this tradition which is recovered in his whole literary production of youth.

Let's mention Kaïdara: récit initiatique peul, Petit Bodiel,: conte drôlatique peul, le petit frère d'Amkoulel, la poignée de poussière,: contes et récits du Mali or again Njeddo Dawal, Mère de la calamité. Amadou Hampâthé Bâ listened all these tales he has written for children while he was young, in his parents' house where lived one of the biggest masters of the word of the time,: Soulé Bô called "Koulel", of whom he received his nickname. "Later, I had been revealed the deep spiritual sense of these tales "he explained3. That's why he wanted to retransmit them to children.

This is not by chance that in 1966, Lilyan Kesteloot was rushed by the UNESCO close to Amadou Hampâthé Bâ so that he could help her understand some famous texts of the oral tradition, in particular Kaïdara, récit initiatique des Peuls.

Full of wisdom and humor, Amadou Hampâthé Bâ's tales often deal with animals and convey all the values worthy to be known by the young generations.

So, let's note that the written tale plays an important role in the editorial production. It is a real invitation to the reading phenomemon, especially if it deals with animals, what children appreciate a lot. The evidence is that they prefer to identify to hare, symbol of intelligence rather than to the silly and greedy hyena. However, modern storytellers direct themselves toward other different themes: the struggle against racism, the good care of the public thing, the right to the difference, the praise of the discovery and the journey...

2.3-The values of the oral tradition

The oral traditions always have a didactic range. Indeed, from the tale, to the myth, proverbs and riddles and even epic narrations, there is always a teaching to pull, a value to instill in the child.

Themes of instruction are provided more for tales and proverbs. The symbolic meaning coming from these two types is used on several plans: the knowledge of the nature, morals, the social behaviour...

Hero of tales put in evidence a system of values and represent, according to cases, virtues that lead them to the social success or shortcomings that make them fail in their plans. African traditional tales often put in stage animals and qualities that one wants to instill in children- The intelligence -any kind of intelligence- because it is essential for them to defend themselves against the brutal and harmful strengths of the environment.

  • A good understanding of the society in which they are supposed to live, notably attitudes and behaviors of its members. One wants to help children to find their place in this community in which everyone has a specific role. So, the curiosity and the originality are discouraged.
  • The dignity

While growing, children understand this way of efficient morals illustrated by tales. Some of these moralities can be found in the fables of Esope and De la Fontaine. Since they are very young, children integrate these values without discussing them.

On the same way, one notes that proverbs have their roots in the tradition which observes, explains and interpretes the facts, the rules of the nature, the human behaviours to express the social relations. Proverbs take their value from the society which work out its rules of conduct and resist all changes strongly.

Riddles also play an important role in the child's formation. They permit to test his level of intelligence. Indeed, "The riddle is not a problem that one solves thanks to the problem's terms, because in fact, there is nothing to guess but to know." 4

The epic doesn't escape the rule. Long and fascinating, often punctuated of songs, the epic narrations by exalting the hero's action rise a people's history, and instill in the child notions of courage and devotion to the community.

Therefore, it is obvious that the oral tradition plays an important role in the transmission of knowledge. The fact that the oral tradition is deeply characterized by the cultural realities and the social values allow it to perfectly play that role. However, do all these values fit the modern society?

III - Perspectives

So far in the topic, the question to be asked is: which future for the oral traditions? Do the oral traditions belong to the past, or might they cohabit with the modern, scientific culture?

3.1 - Scientific culture and oral tradition

The modern society is characterized by: a scientific development, a real technological progress and new attitudes: the desire to search, to go beyond ones capacities, to innovate, and the taste for the pure intelligence..

The invention of modern communication and information means, such as the television, the radio, the telephone, up to date teaching methods considerably changes past habits, which pheneomenon is greatly facilitated by rural depopulation.

Individualism rages in the urban area, what isn't at all in favour of the transmission of the values of the oral traditions. In the rural area journeys within the country or from a country to another really modified the ancient order of things.

From now, most of the elements of oral tradition such as genealogies, mottos belong to the folklore and its values are more and more disconnected from the reality. The circumcision for example, has lost its ritual aspect, to be only an hygienic precaution. In some areas, it's the opportunity to recover the ancient modes of circulation of goods and to put together the community in great parties.

Let's add the performances of the modern pedagogy in which all means are provided (books, K7, CD-ROM) so that the child understands his lesson quickly but well. So, the modern child prefers to play with a computer at home, at the library or at school rather than trying to get the hidden messages of a quavered voice, broken by years. That attitude of the modern child shows a strong approval for modernity and cultural exchanges.

In short, the cohabitation between traditional and modern culture becomes more and more unlikely, the second having prevailed over the first. However, why not selecting the values of oral traditions adapted to the modern society and make them last?

4.2.1 - What to preserve? Which future?

Of the oral tradition, one should preserve tales, vectors of social and human morals, narrations and myths for example those dealing with the creation of villages. One could arrange a short hour of the tale in schools, libraries, as well as conferences from time to time.

Medias are also some adequate means for this attempt of recovery of the oral channel. Oral tradition should be more present on radio and television. The principle is to further popularize what is national and to avoid what can be a ferment of division between families, clans and tribes.

Finally, it would be necessary to succeed in not representing the oral tradition as the only support of our societies, but to show that there were also acquirements and technical innovations very adapted to the field and the needs of humans of that time. Those things are to be conserved, discussed and transposed.


So far in the text, we tried to show the wealths of oral tradition, its importance for the child's education, and at last its limits.

What is to be kept in mind is that, in traditional Africa the oral tradition was closely linked to the child's education. It was a real pedagogy. However, the evolution of societies, the scientific progress get the upper hand over oral tradition in the child's education, even if it still subsists by scraps.

It's the modern educator's role to catch the strengths and wealths that still characterized the oral tradition and to associate them to his own methods.


  1. CALAME-GRIAULE, Geneviève. - La tradition orale. In: Dossiers pédagogiques no 11-12 (1974, mai-août). pp 4-12.
  2. CHEVRIER, Jacques. - Littérature nègre. Paris: A. Colin, 1984.
  3. HECKMANN, Hélène. - Petite histoire éditoriale. In: Kaïdara / Amadou H. Bâ.-Abidjan: NEI, 1994. pp 92-94.
  4. HECKMANN, Hélène. - Propos d'Amadou Hampâthé Bâ sur la fonction des contes africains. In: Petit Bodiel / Amadou H. Bâ.-Abidjan: NEI, 1987. Pp 83-87.
  5. HIMA, Mariama. - L'éducation à travers le conte. In: Notre librairie: no 107 (1991, oct-déc). pp 38-40.
  6. LAYA, Diouldé. - La tradition orale: problématique et méthodologie des sources de l'histoire africaine. Paris: UNESCO, 1972.-(Cultures africaines; 1).
  7. MOUNKAÏLA, Fatimata. - Aux sources de la littérature orale. In: Notre librairie: no 107 (1991, oct-déc). pp 38-40
  8. NDA, Paul. - Proverbes: ordre et désordre: société et individu. In: Notre librairie: no 86 (1987, janv-mar). pp 32-37.


1 LAYA, Diouldé. - the oral tradition: problematic and methodology of sources of the African history. Paris: UNESCO, 1972.-(Cultures African; 1). p 100

2 HIMA, Mariama. - The education through the tale. In: Our bookstore: no 107 (1991, oct-déc). pp 39.

3 HECKMANN, Helen. - small editorial history. In: Kaïdara /Amadou H. Bâ. -Abidjan:NEI, 1994. p 92.



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