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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

Oral tradition: From collection to digitization

A. Raphaël NDIAYE
Enda T.M., Dakar
June - July 1999


  1. Oral Tradition

    There are multiple suitable definitions of oral tradition; despite numerous nuances, it represents the complete information deemed essential, retained and codified by a society, primarily in oral form, in order to facilitate its memorization and ensure its dissemination to present and future generations.

    Oral tradition appears then as a heritage which displays the many dimensions of humanity, including reason, intelligence and spirituality; a willingness to live on, allowing Claude Lévi-Strauss in particular to affirm that there are no children among people-all are adults.

    To ensure oral tradition's own reproduction, society has assumed responsibility for it, thanks primarily to the structuring given to it by society, particularly in its political dimension. It presents itself in the form of typologies which organize their constituent elements into one coherent whole, according to the option of a logic defined by the culture that exuded it and which different studies attempt to capture and put together.

    Marginalized as a relic in societies with a long-standing written tradition, the oral tradition continued to live on in pre-literate societies or within those societies which have made only minor developments regarding written expression.

    Access to the modernity, which characterizes our era and the increasingly dominant place given to writing, creates a new context that calls into question the dynamism of oral tradition reproduction and causes critical breaks in its genesis, management and transmission to present and future generations. We can wonder then, and with reason, what is becoming of oral tradition today and what are tomorrow's emerging outlooks, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, our main frame of reference?

  2. Collection

    The concern to know peoples of pre-literate societies, which has given birth to anthropological and ethnological research, has quickly led to the collection of oral tradition as a material required for this approach. This concern was reinforced with the expansion of Western powers from the time they were involved in the colonial conquest. It was, for them, an opportunity to become better acquainted with conquered societies or societies to be conquered, to satisfy a healthy intellectual, even scientific curiosity and also to lay stronger foundations of domination. In that way, colonial conquerors and administrators will set themselves apart in anthropological and ethnological research by being part of, depending on the case, the rigour of a scientific approach, or by revealing themselves as incapable of escaping from the prejudices and presuppositions of the time. But in both cases, it is the project of laying down a sustainable management of colonial power. Alongside independent researchers of the colonial conquest, they will be among the first players involved in the collection of oral tradition. The collection during that period was carried out through simple written expression and publication of compilations of oral texts, or their processing at the level of research.

    The period following this era was marked by the appearance of the reel to reel and the development of photography, for capturing sound and images. The motion picture, followed by the video completed the array of means used for capturing oral tradition, bringing in its visual dimension.

    By accessing international sovereignty, countries where oral tradition has survived ensured the safeguarding of their oral cultural heritage, thanks to those new technical means, which allowed the creation of a certain number of research structures, as well as archiving and preservation of formats concerning the oral tradition. Survey methodologies were developed for an improved collection of elements of this heritage. What has this approach produced and what are the dividends today?

  3. Oral Tradition and Libraries

    Schools of library science offering training in document structures have also attempted to be a part of the management of oral tradition as a source of information and oral character as part of the general contextual framework having an impact on attitudes and behaviours of potential users to win them over to the cause of writing. It was a matter of making professionals aware of the oral tradition issue, requiring them to acquire elements of the general problem of oral tradition, and sometimes skills for its collection, processing and use and the management of allotted collections.

    What teachings has this approach generated? What continuity must we ensure today?

  4. Oral Tradition Today and Tomorrow

    Confronted with the all powerful written tradition and the breaks it has itself recorded, on the one hand in the dynamics of its production and on the other in the links of transmission, oral tradition seems to have taken revenge with the advent of what is known as the "FM revolution".

    In effect, radios - community, free and private, depending on the conventional names- which broadcast in frequency modulation today are experiencing development at lightning speed, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, in both rural and urban communities. This development should become more pronounced in future years, stimulated by the globalization phenomenon, which is increasingly causing ethno-linguistic communities to safeguard their identity, giving their own heritage sustained attention or by adopting an inward perspective of it. Recent and current evolution shows that radio can be an adapted means in this approach, and undoubtedly it is a beneficial situation for oral tradition. However, this raises at the same time a major question concerning the real nature of the "new" oral tradition thus created or stimulated. It is a matter of clarifying new roles radio can play in the safeguarding, preservation and use, broadcast and reproduction of oral tradition.

  5. From Analog to Digital

    Following the advent of the reel to reel, which has had its day, though it continues to be used along with its very practical version, the audiocassette, as well as that of the FM band, the new revolution is assuredly digital, one which will increasingly involve radios. In addition to the unprecedented possibilities offered by digital, there is also absolute fidelity of the product and the existence of new formats with large storage capacities, high weather resistance, particularly to humidity, heat and dust which are so typical in a large part of Africa. There are major opportunities offered to the oral tradition which, at the same time, seems to find a digital means and through multimedia, a kind of dynamic compromise in its confrontation with the written tradition.

    The well-known Senegalese writer, Cheikh Hamidou KANE, author of the famous novel, L'Aventure ambiguë, published in 1961 in Paris, describes the perplexity felt by the members of the Diallobé society as to which option to take vis-à-vis the new school brought by the colonizer and whose efficiency is illustrated through the victory of he who had conquered the colonized without being right.

    Hence this order is given to the hero: "Go learn the art of conquering without being right!" followed by this question: "Is what one learns as important as what one forgets?" Conscious of the extent of the revolution of digital, the author answers this question in his second novel, Les Gardiens du Temple, published in 1995: "The answer is that it is possible to learn without forgetting and even relearn what one has forgotten." [trans.] (p.145)

    To help peoples remember, digital and new formats, e.g. CDs, as well as possibilities offered by radios, will be taken advantage of in countries where the oral tradition is still alive.

    A certain number of initiatives fall into this line, including:

    • the Réseau des Radios rurales locales (RER) (Local rural radio network), made up of approximately forty radio stations in Sub-Saharan Africa, including a certain number which are already equipped with digital CD sound and recording equipment, with a view to safeguarding the oral tradition of communities served. Themes that have already been the subject of a collection, in part on request from the communities are: founding stories of villages, human rights, political institutions (particularly the Constitution of the Mali Empire, drawn up in 1236), pleasant social interaction with kin. The creation of a website is planned; the site will be based in Sub-Saharan Africa with mirror sites in Europe and the United States, to allow data to be accessed and saved on an international basis;
    • digital broadcasting by satellite, initiated by West Beam Worldspace, based in Accra, Ghana and starting in September 1999. For this purpose, the successful launching of Afristar, a geostationary orbiting satellite was held on October 28, 1998 in Kourou, French Guiana. The Worldspace receivers were manufactured by major firms such as Sanyo, Panasonic, JVC and Hitachi and are currently being tested; in this way, Africa will be provided with 14 million km2 of digital radio coverage and subsequently, other parts of the world will be serviced with the launching of three more satellites.

    We will illustrate emerging outlooks through other examples, which, like the two given above, will be opening up on the Internet.

  6. Some Crucial Issues

    In this new context then, document structures are asking themselves a certain number of crucial questions:

    • what direct roles do they plan on playing in favour of oral tradition and what initiatives have they taken to this end?
    • what linkages can they have or would they like to have with the classic research strategy based on the oral tradition or the new approaches that this tradition offers in favour of technical means available today and which would be marginal?
    • what connections would they like to establish, with radios on the one hand, with new popular structures on the other, e.g. resource centres, Internet-type kiosks set up in urban neighbourhoods (Cyberpop CRDI-ENDA T.M.) or in villages (Acacia strategy of the IDRC), with a possible undertaking of responsibility of populations' traditions?
    • for them, what would be the consequences of these essential options to human resources plans, as well as strategies to adopt?

    We intend to deliver a group of elements on the various questions in our communication. However, we hope to keep these open-ended, so that the meeting will allow them to find response elements.


1. An approach to oral tradition

There are numerous definitions of oral tradition which, in spite of different shades of meaning, hold that it represents, in a primarily oral form, the sum of the information which a society deems fundamental, preserves and codifies the information, to facilitate memorization of it and makes sure that is passed on to present and future generations. This information is comprised of knowledge and customs from domains as varied as: history (genealogies of important families, alliances); myths and sacred texts (rituals, prayers, propitiatory expressions and incantations); techniques (leather and fabrics crafts, pottery, wickerwork, jewellery tools...); political institutions (rules of succession, matrimonial alliances, land appropriation and rules for land management, exchanges of goods and services); various rites of passage initiations (circumcision, excision, tattooing); musical harmonies, linguistic exercises, coded languages (slang, talking drum...), etc.

Viewing the oral tradition in this verbal aspect must not cause misinterpretation of the need to put the words of this tradition into relationship with the actions and objects that are intrinsically associated with them. It was in the name of this relationship that an institution such as the Archives culturelles du Sénégal made use of the concept of form of cultural expression, understood to represent all verbal or gestural expression, in association with words, actions and sometimes material data used in the process of expression. For this institution with a vocation to preserve oral culture, executing its mission therefore meant collecting, preserving and using all the forms of cultural expression of all the ethnic groups in Senegal.

Oral tradition therefore appears to be a heritage that displays many dimensions of humanity, including reason, intelligence, spirituality, sensitivity and the desire to remain in perpetuity. This in particular led Claude Lévi Strauss (1952), to state that there are no infant peoples, as all are adults, and also Lilyan Kesteloot to remark that "there is no branch of human activity that does not have a body of oral traditions grouping together the formulas, recipes and experiences of the past"(p.1) 1 [tr.].

The oral tradition developed in the oral societies of sub-Saharan Africa and particularly in West Africa, to which this communication primarily refers. If one can say that these are oral societies, it does not simply mean that everyday life is marked by exchanges using speech, as all societies function this way, even societies known as having a written tradition. They are so because of the fact that oral communication underscores the specificity by being etched into their very soul, their memory, their knowledge, their conduct, their history, etc.

Within such societies, oral tradition guarantees its own reproduction by spreading in two directions, vertically and horizontally: vertically from the elders and the past to the present; horizontally, in a synchronous process between members of the contemporary society. It is controlled through the structure the society adopts for itself, especially in its political dimension and through the distribution of living spaces.

It breaks down into specific types of traditions that are organized into various typologies according to the structures particular to the culture in question and that research investigations are attempting to identify and analyze.

2. Oral tradition and social structuring

On a social structuring level, we can distinguish unegalitarian and pyramidal societies from egalitarian societies with horizontal structuring. Generally speaking, the former are those which have experienced the emergence of a State with the presence of one central power and one administration, as well as the existence of differentiated and hierarchical social or socio-professional classes among which are those that ensure the management of speech functions and the memorization of the collective history as seen from the central power's viewpoint.

There are also societies without a central power, which organize themselves around age classes - as in the case of the Bassari; others in which Village-States exist relatively independently from each other - as in the case of the Diolas in Casamance in southern Senegal; and still others which have a central power - royalty or system of chiefs - but of a sacerdotal and religious type.

Popular oral traditions are spread all throughout egalitarian societies, while in societies with pyramid structures, we see specialized traditions managed by specific social bodies.

In both cases, however, this can be due to the presence of fraternal societies such as hunters and initiates, as can be illustrated for example in Bambara, West Africa, with its six initiation societies2.

In terms of the distribution of inhabited space, there are structured sites for verbal exchanges, in particular the discussion trees and a variety of speech shelters - according to the Dogon expression togu na - that most local cultures have carefully named in their own language, thus attesting to their importance.

To understand the emergence and classification of the oral traditions, it is necessary to have an overview of the structuring of African societal patterns, while remembering that the most decisive element, as Vansina (1961) indicated, remains the political factor.

3. Typologies of oral traditions

In spite of the more or less clear and coherent vision people may have of the oral tradition, it still seems to be a kind of grab-bag in which it is necessary to put some order thanks to a strict typological analysis. This point of view allows a researcher such as Honorat Aguessi to propose a process that organizes the typological ranking by starting with the most common cultural elements and progressing towards the more esoteric.

3. 1. The first typological approach

The author identifies five sectors in oral tradition.

  1. The first involves tales, proverbs, sayings, songs, parables, skits, legends, family mottos and family and village histories.

    This is the category of oral traditions that an average folk culture produces and which concern everyday life as well as the essential factors for the socialization of the individual.

  2. The second sector is that of the toponomy and anthroponomy with the family litanies, people and family groups whose history is linked to the creation of one place or another as well as with the naming of places.
  3. The third sector is that of art and handicrafts, dances, musical instruments, costumes, cooking, painting, theatre, wickerwork, pottery, bas-relief. The author identifies this as the recording of traces of a certain social language.
  4. The fourth sector is that of phytotherapy and psychotherapy, otherwise known as the pharmacopoeia and the healers' domain.
  5. The fifth sector is that of the myths and cultural elements contained in the religious tales and rituals, the language of the cultural drums and the ritual or coven languages which are to be explored patiently and meticulously3.
3. 2. The second typological approach

A second typology is offered to us by Diouldé 4. According to this author, we can approach oral traditions from the perspective of their form by determining whether or not they are prose, rhythmic prose, or sung prose.

He feels this form can be free (tales, epics...), set and stereotypical (ritual songs, esoteric codes such as initiation songs for the circumcised, epic poems).

The typological analysis can also be conducted based on holdings. This more common process enables us to classify types such as historical texts (genealogy, chronicles, historical narratives); epic, lyric and pastoral poems; tales, fables, mottos, riddles, theatre; rites-of-passage texts, etc....

In an approach resembling that of Aguessi, the author also addresses the traditions from the point of view of the depth of knowledge, by differentiating between: the folk traditions; the erudite traditions (genealogy, detailed history of a dynasty, a people, myth, etc.).

Lastly, he stresses the approach which views the traditions according to the breadth of their coverage (history of a village, a kingdom, a region) and which draw attention to the difference between the traditions of societies within states and the traditions of societies without statehood where, as a general rule, there are no specialized traditionalist castes.

3. 3. The third typological approach

Another typology presented by Jan Vansina proceeds to define and analyze types from the double perspective of both form and content. Here is a brief summary5.

Category Sub-category Type
1 Forms Titles
Didactic texts
Religious texts
2 Poetry Official Historical
Private Religious
3 List Place names
Names of people
4 Narratives Historical Universal
Didactic Myths
Esthetic Esthetic (epics, legends, tales)
Personal Personal memories
5 Commentaries Legal Precedents
Ancillary Explanatory
Sporadic Occasional notes

As informative as these typologies and many others may be, they do not exhaust all the data associated with oral tradition, whose message, we must remember, is found at the intersection of two axes - that of the actual instant at which the exchange between two speakers is recorded and that of the duration when the exchange concerns a tradition with a past existence and a current situation to which this tradition applies. This is what allowed Jean Cauvin to write (1980), "Aside from a few major types represented everywhere, each ethnic group, each language has its own types of texts. It is therefore pointless or even impossible to make an exhaustive and totally accurate description of these types throughout Africa. Each person is asked to study what exists in their own tradition"[tr.]. To do so, the author proposes taking an external path through which it is possible to isolate the way the types can be distinguished from each other based on the vocabulary in the language involved, and an internal approach by considering each type on its own and by thinking about what characteristics it has.

We share the relevance of this point of view, well illustrated by our own research experience in the field of oral poetry among the Sérères in Senegal. Where Vansina isolates two sub-categories (official and private) and four types in poetry, we identified 26 poetic types, specifically designated in the language and characterized by criteria functioning all or partly in unison6.

4. The collection

4.1. Historical Overview

The concern for knowing about the people of societies with no writing, which presided over the birth of anthropological and ethnological research, very quickly led to the collection of oral tradition as material essential to this process. The concern deepened with the expansion of the western powers as soon as they became engaged in colonial conquest. For them it was a question of gaining a better understanding of the societies conquered or to conquer, for satisfying a healthy intellectual and even scientific curiosity and at the same time for better instilling the foundations of their domination. Thus, depending on the circumstances, some conquerors and colonial administrators distinguished themselves in anthropological and ethnological research by adhering to strict scientific process or by revealing their inability to escape the prejudices and assumptions of the time, but in both instances, with the intent to establish the sustainable management of colonial power. They would be the first players involved in collecting oral tradition, alongside the independent researchers of the colonial enterprise. During that period, collection was performed by simply writing down and publishing collections of oral texts or using them for research.

The next period was marked by the appearance of the magnetic reel medium and the development of photography to capture sound and images. With the power to capture the visual dimension, cinematographic film and then videotape completed the range of means used to record oral tradition.

When attaining international sovereignty, the countries in which oral tradition survived, especially those in Africa south of the Sahara, ensured the preservation of their oral cultural heritage using these new technical means. For this purpose, they set up structures for researching as well as for collecting, archiving, conserving and exploiting oral tradition captured by these new media.

Sometimes they were supported in this process by UNESCO or encouraged by the initiative it undertook in 1968 to create the Centre régional de Documentation pour la Tradition orale (CRDTO) in Niamey, Niger. The creation of such a centre was an official part of completing the project for writing the General History of Africa, launched by the 14th session of 1964 General Conference of UNESCO. It was also the result of the fact that the so-called Nigerian-Sudanese Africa had attracted the attention of specialists "primarily due to the abundance and variety of oral, written, archaeological and sculptural sources... and the need to coordinate the collection and analysis of these sources associated with the history of the nationalities...". The mission defined of the CRDTO was "the implementation of the Plan for Regional Research on oral tradition and cooperation between the region's institutes and universities" [tr.]. The countries targeted by this initiative were Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Dahomey (now Benin), Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Chad and Togo7.

Similarly, in accordance with the CRDTO mission, survey methodologies were developed for the best ways to collect the elements of the oral cultural heritage.

In 1974, the CRDTO left UNESCO's trusteeship to be placed under the stewardship of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), making a slight alteration and creating the Centre for Linguistic and Historical Studies by Oral Tradition (CLHSOT) with a mission to coordinate research in the field of languages, history and oral tradition. In this particular role, it began translating the General History of Africa into the major African languages which are Fulfude, Swahili and Haussa.

The commitment of the CLHSOT to heritage preservation was also expressed in its involvement in new alliance strategies to collect and make use of oral tradition, in particular through new information and communication technologies, which we will present in the following pages (see p. 19).

4.2. Methodological Approach

Oral tradition can be collected by directly covering a given traditional event and/or conducting a survey on it or on a chosen topic.

Without doubt there are many ways of conducting a survey, but it seems to us that at least the following prerequisites should be observed:

  • Topic of the survey: the topic must be considered in its specificity. Certain traditions are public in nature - or fall within public knowledge - while others are esoteric enough that the conditions for collecting them are often different.
  • The environment: its particular characteristics must be taken into account; the type of society, its organizational structures and the social status of the informants.
  • The context of the collection: here, the appropriate time must be considered (period indicated by the calendar of events) if we wish to avoid simply duplicating a tradition on request, which cannot help but give it a certain artificial character.
  • The product: it is necessary to circumscribe the purpose, the level of development and the successive phases this might require; its preservation, how it is used and disseminated.

Above and beyond these precautions, conducting the survey implies an appropriate vision of the oral tradition in the reference society and the typology developed by it. The collection will require different phases that we will review here.

4. 2. 1. Intellectual Preparation

This allows the different parameters that have just been reviewed to be taken into consideration. This preparation can be extended by a questionnaire developed before the survey. In its absence, a set of reference points is necessary through which we can be sure that, at the intellectual level, the topic addressed is approached correctly. In all cases, even when developing a questionnaire, a certain amount of manoeuvrability must be kept in it to ensure that the informants are free to continue their presentation without interruption so as not to lose their train of thought or the logical sequence of the text. This is why, in preparing for the survey, it is necessary to be equipped with a notepad, rather than relying on memory, to record the questions that are raised as the narrative proceeds.

Intellectual preparation also involves considering the different forms that will have to be completed in order to record all the information relevant to the survey.

4. 2. 2. Material Preparation

This comprises at least two aspects: the first involves the technical collection tools, in particular audio and photographic equipment, the consumable supplies, connection cords, microphones, etc., individually identified and the checks required to ensure that they are all in perfect working order.

The second aspect relates to travel conditions and on-site visits.

4. 2. 3. The Partners

The survey will be conducted with resource people. The ideal situation consists of identifying these people and even advising them of the survey to ensure their presence and availability. Unfortunately, the preparation context does not always afford us such guarantees. However, they are necessary for avoiding fruitless travel and for ensuring that we have the desired spokespersons.

4. 2. 4. The Interviewers

The interviewers must be prepared to conduct the survey in excellent psychological and material conditions by being careful of the perception they wish to offer of themselves to the spokespersons. From this perspective, they must take care to minimize the difference between themselves and their subjects so as to enhance their integration into the environment they will be entering. They must have an appropriate level of anthropological-ethnological training and a good understanding of the society they will be entering.

4. 2. 5. Field Survey

It can be extensive or intensive and it is up to the interviewer to carry out the most appropriate option by considering the topic and, in a wider sense, the parameters alluded to above.

The extensive survey approaches a topic in a given space by systematically considering a group of villages or one village, the neighbourhood, the lineage, etc., in a logical sequence, and requires using several interviewers supervised by one researcher who ensures the overall consistency of the process. This type of survey is not necessarily carried out with a selection of preferred informants.

As for the intensive survey, it presupposes the selection of resource people qualified on the topic involved, as well as very good knowledge of the environment in order to maintain the internal logic of the developments in the topic addressed on the one hand, and on the other, to situate the informants as well as their contributions in relation to the environment and the topic.

Once the nature of the survey option is selected and the informants are gathered, the survey must be situated in time and space by specifying the day, the month, the year and the locality involved and also the administrative subdivisions that facilitate its identification. These elements must be recorded at the beginning of the tape so that the information is always part of the recording, while it is repeated on the forms or cases that will contain the media.

Next, all informants will have to be asked to introduce themselves personally: surname, first name, age or year of birth, gender, socio-professional category or function, where applicable.

Once this is done and before giving the floor to the informants, it is necessary to announce the topic on which the survey will focus and sometimes to round out this announcement with a brief description of the context.

The interviewer then gives to the informants the floor. We will see that some eventually have difficulties speaking and keeping continuity in their ideas, and consequently the occasional necessity to encourage the informants to talk by asking them questions each time to help them continue their presentation.

There is also the negative impact the recording equipment can have on the informant. In oral cultures in general, and African in particular, speech is often considered to be a replica of the person who can then be identified. That being the case, taking someone's words from him is like taking his very soul. In addition, by allowing the informant's expression to be repeated to publics that were not the original intended audience, the recording links the work tool to the person accused of being a tattletale. And tattletales are often likened to liars because they relate remarks that were personal confidences, and because they may add to or distort them. These various factors can inhibit the informants and lead to the need for a sort of survey rehearsal to familiarize them with the equipment.

It is also necessary for informants to know what will be done with the product they deliver. Beyond the status of speech so fundamental to humanity, the content to deliver may be esoteric and consequently inhibit the informant. For intellectual honesty and concern for efficiency, it is therefore advisable to announce the goal of the survey and its purpose, even if this results in a form of self-censorship that will be understood with words of the Malian griot and writer, Massamakan Diabaté: "I will say a bit about it and I will keep back a bit." [tr.] But a well known African adage states that "speech doesn't get used up, it gets suspended" [tr.].

Once all these precautions are taken, the survey must proceed after the equipment has been tested to be sure the sound is properly recorded, well modulated and of adequate quality considering the material conditions and the context in which the recording is being made. The principle here is to give the floor to the informants, and if there are many, have them decide the speaking order in accordance with the group's customary rules. This is when, in order to retain these facts as they arise without interrupting the speaker, the interviewer must remain attentive to the content of the narratives, the train of thought, the questions of internal consistency and the questions raised by the presentation. At the end of a presentation, the interviewer may ask for clarifications or allow the next informant to speak while making note of these questions as well as any eventual contradictions after the various resource people speak.

The exchange that will then take place will be a complementary element to the completed initial presentation. It may be contradictory and interesting, even if some questions cannot be debated on-site but may perhaps require individual meetings with one or certain members of the group, or being reviewed by others outside the group which was consulted originally.

If the interviewer is worried about not accurately noting the questions raised by the informants, or if he or she should wish to have the informants listen to their words, the interviewer can use the double recorder method. The first plays back the reel to the informants and the second records this reading and the informants' comments on their first deliveries.

Sometimes it becomes necessary to listen quietly to the recording again and even begin a first analysis of it to note the group of questions it raises. In this instance, conditions permitting, the clarification phase of the survey itself can be postponed. We ourselves have used this process several times in a row; it allows some distancing from the text, for both the interviewer and the informant.

On completion of the survey there is the question of payment. Is it necessary to compensate the informants and in what form? This is an open question to be assessed according to context.

5. Processing the data

The data collected must be subject to entry on survey forms that contain all the specifications for situating the document in time and space, in relation to the ethnic group and the social body involved within the group. The topic itself must also be indicated, and the informants presented and situated so that a critical approach to their presentation can be taken based on their various roots.

The various survey products must be subject to transcription into the language and according to the alphabet in use, from a literal word for word translation if possible, and from a literary translation. Only then do we have material ready to be made available for a usage corresponding to other objectives.

Obviously, in certain cases, such as the collection of musical traditions or musical instruments, the product may already be used at one level for listening and pleasure, and may be subject to musical transcription for more extensive and broader usage.

6. The oral tradition and libraries

The librarian training schools and research structures have also attempted to become involved in taking charge of oral tradition as a source of information, and of oral character as a general contextual framework having an impact on the attitudes and behaviours of potential users to be won over to the written cause. It was a question of making the professionals aware of the issue of oral tradition by having them learn the elements of its general problematics and some command of managing the collections formed and sometimes, but quite rarely, the skills for collecting, processing and using it.

Therefore, beginning in the 1973-1974 university year, the École des Bibliothécaires Archivistes et Documentalistes (ÉBAD) in Dakar included an initiation to the knowledge of oral tradition for librarians, archivists and researchers. To do this, it included training for them in the common-core syllabus and, starting in the second year of the two and four-year cycles, a 14-hour course on oral sources. But the impact of this training was not measured in practical terms and, undoubtedly, few of the students who took it have found themselves in situations for putting what they have learned into practice.

The West African university libraries have also shown their interest in the oral tradition. During its 1972 session held in Lagos, the Conférence permanente des Bibliothèques universitaires africaines de la zone occidentale (CPBUA) recorded in its resolutions:

"Considering that the oral tradition is a source of great importance for research, university libraries must:
  • encourage or when necessary create participate in the collection of this oral tradition in collaboration with specialists and researchers;
  • organize national seminars that can lead to the creation of oral tradition associations. This way we could examine in depth the problems associated with collecting and preserving oral tradition and look for ways of involving governments and other agencies capable of funding these types of activities". [tr.]

What was the outcome of this generous stand? Did implementation commence? Nothing is less certain!

In the public libraries and in addition to the traditional hour of storytelling, oral traditions are hosted with the participation of knowledge bearers invited to share some of the traditions they safeguard. Recording these presentations helps to build audio holdings, which can expand the library's collections.

Sometimes, the process employed uses a sound recording on an audiocassette read and listened to by a group which then takes part in a debate. In these instances, the cassettes are prepared in advance.

Both these processes are employed in the public reading network in Mali and in sectoral networks in Senegal8.

Moreover, the National Library of Senegal, which will be built shortly, will have to contain an Oral Tradition Division to assume to a certain extent the mission that had been entrusted to the Cultural Archives of Senegal. To this end, a scientific summary of the oral tradition (available production, data banks already created, physical conditions and accessibility of the holdings), the identity of sectors yet to be covered and the definition of collection strategies for the various ethnic groups has to be drawn up. Guiding principles also have to be defined to guide the NL in its mission to collect, preserve and valorize the oral tradition.

A great deal more data exists illustrating the relationship between oral tradition and libraries and could expand the problematic of these relations which require building and strengthening.

7. Oral tradition today and tomorrow: we can learn without forgetting

Marginalized as a relic from the past in societies which have a long written tradition, oral tradition had continued to thrive in societies without writing, or in those with little development of a written record. But the access to modernization that characterizes our time and the greater and greater place accorded to writing have created a new context that challenges the dynamics of its continuity and causes critical ruptures in its genesis, its management and its transmission to present and future generations.

Hence, some like to remind us that the oral tradition is dying, and they are undoubtedly right. In addition to the mighty written word, it has other formidable challengers among which is television. Take for instance the example of Bernard Dadié, a well known Ivorian author, using the example of the tale, being saddened by what tales are no longer told because the courage or the desire to turn the switch off on the small screen is lacking9. Before him, and in denouncing schools as an insidious tool for instilling oblivion and creating denial, the Senegalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane asks in his famous novel Aventure ambiguë , published in 1961: "Is what we learn worth what we forget?". [tr.]

But oral tradition seems to be exacting a certain revenge with the advent of what has been called the "FM revolution". Actually, radio stations - community, free, private depending on what name is used - broadcasting in frequency modulation are today experiencing dynamic growth in both rural and urban environments in sub-Saharan Africa. This development appears likely to increase in coming years, driven by the phenomenon of globalization which requires more and more ethno-linguistic communities to preserve their identity by focusing sustained attention on their own heritage, and sometimes withdrawing into it. Recent and ongoing evolution shows that radio may be a means adapted to this process. It is also undoubtedly a beneficial situation for oral tradition even if it can't help but call into question the true nature of the "new" oral tradition thus created or driven, and the new roles radio can play in the safeguarding, preservation, usage, dissemination and reproduction of oral tradition.

This is undoubtedly the context in which Cheikh Hamidou Kane answers his own question some thirty years later in his second novel, Les Gardiens du Temple: "... Their experience in the country of the Sessene brought the answer to the question the Diallobés had once asked themselves on the threshold of the new school: Was what we were about to learn worth what we were going to forget? The answer is that it is possible to learn without forgetting, and even to learn again what was forgotten!" 10 [tr.]

Having invited the author to our weekly program Espace-Livre on the Senegalese International Radio and Television Broadcasting Network, we asked him, without really believing it, if it had taken him thirty years of thinking to come to such an apparently simple conclusion. He answered that this time frame had actually been a time for maturing that had allowed technology to invent the tools necessary for ensuring the preservation of the tradition's heritage. He further explained his thinking in an interview in the newspaper Sud Quotidien, no 1698 on 3-12-1998. Today, the " ...electronic revolution gives Africa and oral character new grounds on which to meet modernism... provided that the technicians, the present and future generations can draw from these deposits, that they do not disdain them and that they use modern methods to transmit them to the world. If they produce attractive multimedia works, I am convinced they will make African culture known to the whole world... " [tr.].

8. The jump to digitization

By taking us from analogue to digital, the new era opened by multimedia and media that have become commonplace, such as the compact disc (CD), offers the possibilities of alteration and extensive multilocation of oral tradition. The linking of sound, text and images, this kind of dynamic compromise, allows multimedia to embrace oral traditions as forms of cultural expression, in other words, what they represent as the symbiosis of oral text, the gestures that accompany and display it and its material dimension.

Because it is resistant to the heat, humidity and dust that mark our inclement weather, because it is simple to use yet capable of storing a great quantity of data, the CD with its high quality digitization represents an answer adapted to the requirements of preserving and disseminating oral tradition.

In any case, this is what the promoters of the Réseau des Radios rurales locales (RER) (Local Rural Radio Network) believe. They are counting on this medium for the next ten years, considering that, even though the magnetic reel is still present, after years of service it has seen its day.

8. 1. The Réseau des Radios rurales locales and the ARTO Project

Therefore, the Réseau des Radios rurales locales (RER), comprising some forty radio stations in sub-Saharan Africa11, launched into preserving and disseminating the oral tradition of the communities they serve and has provided about ten of these stations with audio digital conversion and CD recording equipment12. This position was the result of a strong demand from the community populations served by the stations which was expressed during a workshop held in Labé, Republic of Guinea in October 1997. Thanks to this workshop, there was a constructive dialogue between traditionalists and the communicators serving in the sub-region's radio stations. The workshop had asked that the process start by collecting, recording and airing of narratives on village foundings, particularly those containing the stations or served by them. The outcome was the creation of an Oral Tradition Archiving project called ARTO and three training workshops in 1998 held in Kankan, Guinea (March), in Dakar, Senegal (May) and in Niamey, Niger (August).

  • As a kind of a demonstration, the first workshop addressed the Charter of the Mali Empire that was drawn up in 1236 in the Kouroukan Fouga clearing, in the current Kangaba circle in Mali. Led by various schools of griots, the Charter was rebuilt based on a confrontation session between representatives of these schools from Mali, Guinea, Gambia and Senegal. Their contribution was clarified by the critical view of communicators, researchers and a legal scholar. Through all their contributions, they were able to write the Charter and divide it into 44 articles13.
  • The second workshop trained station managers in digital audio techniques and digital conversion of sound documents whose sources could be tape recorders, microphone or CD audio. Training also included Internet excerpt transfer simulations. It was conducted on computer equipment which was then assigned to the selected radio stations.
  • While it expanded on this training, the purpose of the third workshop was to broaden the knowledge about: oral tradition, its typologies and collection methodologies; the computer processing and document management of recorded media; the formal characteristics of village founding narratives and the methodological approach for collecting them. It also contained a section related to the expression of civic rights in traditional texts. An experimental documentary format for collecting oral traditions was designed and presented and is still being examined by various players (see appendix).
  • A fourth workshop was held in May-June 1999 in Mopti, Mali, on another thematic orientation of oral tradition, Pleasant Kinship. It is comprised of a production sequence for CDs based on surveys previously conducted by radio hosts in their own locations.

In the end, the oral tradition holdings will be recorded on CDs, managed and broadcast by the radio stations in agreement with the populations served, who participate in defining the programs on these stations. Two copies of each CD will be kept at the station with one copy going to the Niamey CELHTO for secure storage and to expand the regional oral tradition database.

Furthermore, these radio stations have formed an exchange network to support each other and share the data as well as what is being learned through this experience. Similarly, and in association with CELHTO and CIERRO14, there are plans to create an Internet site for the network open to world-wide consultation. It will be located in Africa but will have mirror sites in Europe and the United States for greater security. The design and building of the site have been entrusted to GlobeNet, Paris, and discussions are underway for choosing the network's domain name and Internet address.

By establishing their true proximity to the populations served within an 80 km15 radius, and by ensuring some control over their concerns and local language, the radio stations now offer major opportunities for collecting, disseminating and moving toward the preservation of oral traditions. Some of these stations are already testing the enthusiasm that has been created by launching interactive programs on questions such as the pharmacopoeia or pleasant kinship between ethnic entities, patronymics, etc.

8. 2. Worldspace or Digital Satellite Radio

Another initiative underway, likely to increase the possibilities offered for preserving and disseminating oral tradition, is the digital satellite radio broadcasting launched by West Beam Worldspace, based in Accra, Ghana. Under this initiative, the geostationary orbit satellite Afristar was successfully launched from Kourou, French Guiana, on October 28, 1998. This satellite will provide digital radio coverage to 14 million km2 of Africa with equal reception quality in every location within the beam space. The developers are contemplating targeting other parts of the world at a later date by launching three more satellites.

They have also asked the major firms Sanyo, Panasonic, JVC and Hitachi to start manufacturing Worldspace receivers at prices adjusted to the target public, i.e., rural populations in Africa. The first receivers have already been tested, apparently with real success and Worldspace is planning to launch its signal starting in September 1999.

The digital satellite radio does not seem to have an oral tradition collection component, but it does constitute a significant and favourable contextual fact that could offer many possibilities, among which a connection with the RER and other partners, for developing programs based on oral traditions.

8.3. Other Initiatives

Other current facts enter into this same favourable context which brings together communities concerned about preserving the heritage expressed in their languages and the modern tools for storing, preserving and disseminating components of this heritage. This is the case for a certain number of projects with the Resource Centres of the Cyberpop or Bombolon d'Enda project; the IDRC's ACACIA project with its definition of national strategies and implementation in Senegal, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa; the opening of multipurpose community telecentres in Timbuktu, Mali, and in Malanville, Benin, also an IDRC initiative; the Cyberphones more specifically based on health, etc. All these initiatives have a common goal of placing multimedia technology within the reach of the populations in poorer neighbourhoods in major urban agglomerations or villages located in the interiors of the countries involved.

Beyond the initial electronic mail, Internet access, message printing services, etc., the populations will most likely wish to take control of their heritage, to better master the technology of its helper. It is certain that, owing to this new context of adapted technological offerings, oral traditions have new places in the field offered by the digital revolution that is so fertile some have compared it Gutenberg's contribution to printing press.

All these efforts partially beneficial to the oral tradition are being conducted simultaneously with the oral traditions collection, preservation, exploitation and dissemination work pursued by the traditional structures devoted to these functions. Certainly, some, such as the Senegal Cultural Archives, have disappeared under the structural adjustment programs constraints, but some have been modernized with access to new information and telecommunication technologies and the existence of new capabilities for storing and preserving oral traditions.

9. Some crucial questions

In such a context, documentary structures are faced with a certain number of crucial questions and should take a position on them:

  • what roles do they intend to play directly on behalf of oral tradition, and what initiatives have they undertaken for this purpose?
  • what relationships might they have and do they wish to have with the classical research institutions based on the oral tradition or the new processes begun because of the technical means available today and from which they do not want to be marginalized?
  • what connections would they like to establish with the radio stations on the one hand and, on the other, with the new popular structures such as the Resource Centres, a kind of Internet booth set up in urban neighbourhoods (Cyberpop IDRC-ENDA T.M.), or in the villages (IDRC's Acacia strategy), with the possibility of managing the populations' traditions?
  • what consequences will these fundamental options have on human and material resources and the strategies to be adopted?

We are indisputably at a turning point in the evolution of information and communication structures characterized by the availability of highly sophisticated equipment for simplified usage and increasingly open social access. The repercussions of this situation are already clearly felt in the peripheral neighbourhood documentary structures in certain agglomerations in developing countries. They represent a kind of call to define suitable paths and map them with clarity and precision. We must hope that the Khon Kaen conference really is the framework under which such an objective can be reached!

Bibliography of works consulted

  1. AGUESSI, Honorat: "La tradition orale, modèle de culture", La tradition orale, source de la littérature contemporaine en Afrique, Dakar, Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1984, pp. 44-54.
  2. KANE, Cheikh Hamidou. L'Aventure ambigué. Paris, Julliard, 1961. - (coll 10/18).
  3. KANE, Cheikh Hamidou. Les Gardiens du temple. Paris, Stock, 1995.
  4. KESTELOOT, Lilyan. Traditionorale et littérature, 9 p. multigr. (1998)
  5. LAYA, Diouldé. La tradition orale : problématique et méthodologie des sources de l'histoire africaine. Niamey, CRDTO, 1972, pp. 19 and 20.
  6. NDIAYE, A. Raphaël. "Littérature orale et structuration sociopolitique en pays sereer," Revue Ethiophiques, 1985, pp. 65-87.
  7. NDIAYE, A. Raphaël. La culture orale et les bibliothèques. Dakar: Enda 1987, 15 p. multigr.
  8. NDIAYE, A. Raphaël. "La place de l'oralité dans une bibliothèque," Mélanges Jean Bleton. Paris, Cercle de la librairie, 1986, pp. 65-78.
  9. NDIAYE A. Raphael. Communication à la base Enraciner et épanouir. Dakar, Enda, IDRC, CTA, 1994.- 302 p.
  10. Sud Quotidien. no 1698 on 3-12-1998.
  11. VANSINA, Jan. De la tradition orale. Essai de méthode historique. Tervuren, Musée royale de l'Afrique centrale, 1961.- pp. 119 and following.
  12. ZAHAN, Dominique. Sociétés d'initiation bambara Le Ndomo le Koré. Paris, La Haye, Mouton & co. 1960. - 439 p.


ENDA Third World
BP: 3370
Dakar, Senegal
(Raphaël NDiaye)
Digital Audio Training Workshop II, and Archiving, Niamey, August 10-15, 1998
(Revised format based on discussions during the workshop; changes indicated in italics)
July 17, 1998

Proposal for a documentary format for processing oral tradition media, specifically the narratives of the founding of villages

Introductory note

This format was adapted from the basic documentary format used for managing documentary databases including that of ENDA Third World.

A documentary format contains distinct sections called "zones". These zones are divided into fields. The format proposed here contains four zones:

  1. One docket management zone
  2. One description zone
  3. One content analysis zone
  4. One primary document accessibility zone
I. The zones
1.1. Docket management zone

This is for managing the docket (registration number, input date, producer identification, bibliographic management, document type and eventually a confidentiality criterion).

1.2. Description zone

This is used to identify and record the formal characteristics of the document so that it can be easily identified. It contains the following notations: author(s), title, registration date...

N.B.: Zones 1 (docket management) and 2 (description) are mandatory. They represent the minimum docket for identifying the document.

1.3. Content analysis zone

It may be limited to the document's signals and its indexing by descriptors or it may contain a summary.

1.4. Primary document accessibility zone

This zone indicates the document's location in the documentary holdings which may be physical or virtual (it contains the location symbol and terms of dissemination).

Proposed documentary format

I - Docket management zone
Fields Content
ACCESS KEY The machine automatically assigns a registration number at the time of input.
INPUT DATE This is the date of the first input.
PRODUCER CODE This notation is essential when working on a network. It can be the program's code.
CONFIDENTIALITY CODE To be indicated for any confidential document. (optional)
DOCUMENT TYPE Specify whether it is an audiocassette, audio reel, or a CD-ROM; in this instance, a CD.
II - Description zone
COLLECTION DATE Date on which the data were collected. Enter the data in the following order: year in four digits, month in two digits, day in two digits (e.g., 1998/08/14).
COLLECTION SITE Keep the same administrative divisions and nomenclatures used in the country. For example, in the case of Senegal: Village, arrondissement, department and region.
ETHNIC GROUP(S) INVOLVED Specify the ethnic group, sub-group, language.
SPEAKER(S) Specify the ethnic group, sub-group, the socio-professional category, profession, age of the speaker(s) delivering the recorded information. If this is a demonstration/public event, take this information from one or two of the event's organizers.
DATA RECORDED Specify in chronological order and in the language of the speaker, the title and the length of each recording.
AUTHOR(S) The radio station(s) making the recording and the local community where the data collection takes place are considered the authors.
INTERVIEWER Indicate the name of the person in charge of the survey + their title and the radio station they belong to.
TITLE(S) Indicate the CD's general title in French.
RECORDING SITE Specify the location where the medium was recorded (location of radio station).
EDITOR Specify the name of the radio station that provided the recording service.
PUBLISHING DATE Specify the date the CD was cut.
LENGTH + Memory Specify the CD length.
III - Content analysis zone
FRENCH DESCRIPTORS From the document, take all the key words representative of its content in French.
SUMMARY Choice depends on circumstances or option selected.
IV - Accessibility zone
LOCATION SYMBOL Cassette or CD registration number plus the first three letters of the radio station's name, for example, 0001/LAB (for the first document collected by Radio Labé).
NOTES Indicate, where applicable, if there are other complementary sources of information: photos, CDs, brochures...
Documentary software recommended

The CDS ISIS documentary software initially recommended proved to be complicated and hard to manage. WINISIS, which is its Windows multimedia version, was still being tested and whether it will be simple to use remains to be seen.

During the workshop, the radio hosts said they use EDIBASE software.

The software choice therefore remains a fundamental issue and controls the sequence of the docket's elements, especially the digital blocks in the sequence (see below).


1In Tradition orale et littérature, 9 p. multigr.

2In order, these six societies are: the Ndomo, the Komo, the Nama, the Kono, the Tyiwara and the Koré. According to tradition, the child enters the first society around the age of seven and must spend as many years in each of them to actively pursue his training until he is 49 years old. Only then can he claim the title of wise man.

This is how Dominique Zahan (1960) describes the architectonics of knowledge: "Self-knowledge (Ndomo) gives rise to the investigation of knowledge itself (Komo) and leads a man to confront social issues (Nama). From this point are born judgement and moral conscience (Kono). Expanding his field of vision, knowledge addresses the cosmos (Tyiwara) leading finally to divinity (Koré), p. 32 .

3Cf : La tradition orale, modèle de culture, In. : La tradition orale, source de la littérature contemporaine en Afrique, Dakar, Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1984, pp. 44 and 45.

4LAYA, Diouldé : La tradition orale Problématique et méthodologie des sources de l'histoire africaine. Niamey, CRDTO, 1972, pp. 19 and 20.

5In : De la tradition orale. Essai de méthode historique.- Tervuren, Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, 1961.- pp. 119 and following.

6These criteria are relative: to the public or the performers who belong to one or more set social strata; to age and gender; to the accompanying musical instruments (membranophones, idiophones, cordophones, aerophones) and whose use is related to the nature of the social stratum; to the rhythms and melodies with an identifiable existence of melodic cycles; to content and form; to the areas of expression (the concession, the neighbourhood or village square, the woods or the initiation enclosure, the traditional altars, specific sites outside the village; to the time of expression (night or day, certain days of the week, the season and the concerns associated with it depending on the schedule of activities and celebrations). (Cf.: A. R. NDIAYE, in the Journal Ethiophiques, vol III no 3, 1985, pp. 65-87.)

7For details, cf the work by Diouldé LAYA: La tradition orale Problématique et méthodologie des sources de l'histoire africaine. - Niamey-Niger, CRDTO, 1972. - 198 p. In this work, see the list of research and associated structures in the countries covered by the Centre.

8The CICP cases for the environmental education project "A Hope in the Desert", 1989-1997.

9It was during the 1983 conference organized by the African Cultural Institute, Dakar (ACI) and the Pen international on the theme: "Oral tradition, source of contemporary literature in Africa", with the UNDP and UNESCO competition in Dakar, from January 24 to 29, 1983. Minutes published by NEA, in 1984; 203 p.

10In : Les Gardiens du temple .- Paris, Stock 1995, p. 145.

11The network was started by the Agence de la Francophonie with funding from the Swiss cooperation. It was put into operation by Intermédia consultants, based in Berne with the help of various African players including the CIERRO which ensures its coordination out of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

12The stations are located in the following countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.

13The workshop was held from March 3 to 12, 1998. It grouped together 9 traditionists and 18 participants, the majority of whom were communicators working in sub-regional radio stations (Republic of Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger). Here is the preamble to the Charter: The representatives of primitive Mandé and their allies, assembled in 1236 at Kouroukan Fouga (current Kangaba Circle in the Republic of Mali) after the historic battle of Kirina, have adopted the following Charter to govern the great Mandingue people... The 44 articles of the Charter are divided into the following divisions: I Social Organization (art. 1 to 30); II Goods (art. 31 to 36); III The Preservation of Nature (art. 37 to 39); IV Final Provisions (art. 40 to 44).

Confrontations of the schools holding this tradition in other countries within which the territory of the Empire was contained are to be carried on in order to make a true restoration of this major text.

14Centre interafricain d'Études en Radio rurale de Ouagadougou.

15This is the actual range of the transmitters selected.


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