Orality and Literacy: Different Ways of Knowing


In many of traditional African cultures, oral arts are professionalized: the most accomplished storytellers and praise singers are initiates (griots), who have mastered many complex verbal, musical, and memory skills after years of specialized training.  This training often includes a strong spiritual and ethical dimension required to control the special forces believed to be released by the spoken/sung word in oral performances. This power of the spoken word is expressed in the following praise poem of the West African Bamara (AKA: Bambara) peoples:

Praise of the Word

The word is total:
it cuts, excoriates
forms, modulates
perturbs, maddens
cures or directly kills
amplifies or reduces

According to intention
It excites or calms souls.

--Praise song of a griot of the Bamara Komo society

However, this sense of the spoken word’s awesome power has largely been lost in literate-based societies of the West.

Consider the following characteristics generalized for traditional oral cultures:

·        Knowledge is sacred, magical power, immanent in the spoken word (God’s/gods’ word initiating creation and destruction)

·        Time is cyclical, non-linear: you live in the “always” of inseparably intertwined past, present, and future (the community = all past, present, and to-be-born members)

·        Knowledge must be re-called, re-created, re-interpreted constantly, or you lose it; orature “lives” only insofar as it is repeated, performed by the community

·        You are (know) what you can remember, so you must strive to remember, think and orally perform memorable thoughts.  Sophisticated oral memory systems requiring years of “saturated listening” and oral performance training are developed so that people can remember and thereby ensure the culture’s vitality and survival

·        Elders and spoken word specialists who have mastered these memory systems and the community’s repositories of collective wisdom are revered; they are like “human libraries” or walking sacred texts, capable of astonishing feats of remembering for the benefit and survival of the people and their culture.

·        Oral narratives (stories, proverbs, etc.) are practical, flexible, spiritual; these living “texts” have no single definitive version.  They vary, adapt, and change with performer, audience, time, place, situation, and need; and if they lose their relevance and power, their “memory” is discarded.

 “…Oral cultures produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances
of high artistic and human worth which are impossible
once writing has taken possession of the psyche.” –
Walter Ong

Compare the above to these characteristics generalized for literate (writing) based cultures:

·        Knowledge—both sacred and secular--largely resides in books and writing-based repositories of a culture’s information, which many can freely access (e.g. in a democracy)

·        Time is conceived as linear; history is written down with clear demarcations separating past, present, and future events and communities

·        Knowledge is preserved by writing it down, collecting it (e.g. in libraries, archives), organizing and cataloging it so that it can be retrieved by readers and researchers.  

·        Memory is devalued, as are skills of hearing, listening, speaking; instead, people rely on ‘literacy” skills of reading, writing, and conducting research to become educated and knowledgeable—i.e. we need not “remember” everything: we can “look it up” (e.g. in dictionaries, encyclopedias), read about it, write it down

·        The magical, spiritual powers of the spoken word, and its skillful verbal performance, are devalued. (And the elderly are more likely to be confined to “rest homes,” than consulted for their life wisdom)

·        Written texts are published in “definitive” versions, become static--frozen in print and in time.  The written word may be powerful—if it is still read and studied.  Author and readers do not interact directly; their relationship is distanced and individualistic.

Ancient writing traditions do exist on the African continent, but most Africans today, as in the past, are primarily oral peoples, and their art forms are oral rather than literary.  In contrast to written “literature,” “orature” (a phrase favored by Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o) is orally composed and transmitted, and African oral arts are created to be verbally and communally performed as an integral part of dance and music.  The Oral Arts of Africa are rich and varied, developing with the beginnings of African cultures, and they remain living traditions that continue to evolve and flourish today.