Honoring Our Ancestors: How Preserving Oral Histories Keeps African Narratives Alive

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Oral histories are a cherished tradition in many African cultures. They are stories passed down from one generation to another to preserve the wisdom and experiences of the past.

Oral histories tell the history of a community, the lives of its people, and its cultural traditions. They also provide a unique perspective on African history and culture.

There is a saying that if you do not know where you are coming from, you’ll be confused about where you are headed. In this article, we’ll explore oral histories in Africa and how we can preserve the wisdom of the past for future generations.

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Oral histories are a cherished tradition in many African cultures<br>Photo credit freepik

What are oral histories?

Oral histories, also known as oral traditions, are the spoken accounts of people’s lives and experiences. 

If you grew up in an African village setting, you’d remember those cherished moments around a crackling fire with an elder sitting in the middle passing down stories of historical events, experiences, and memories to the younger ones.

I didn’t grow up in the typical African village setting, but my grandfather took me and my siblings on memorable journeys through his stories. He told us of the exploits of our great-grandfather, the history of the community, and other remarkable events that led to the development of the community.

In fact, when I was about to write my undergraduate thesis, I had to travel to my community to meet certain elders who expounded more on the history of kingship in the community and the roles of women in traditional Igbo land.

Today, oral histories are recorded in audio or video format for the preservation of the unique stories and traditions of a culture or community and for easy accessibility.

Why are oral histories important?

Oral histories are important for several reasons. 

First, they help document and preserve African cultures and traditions. In many African cultures, oral histories are the primary way of transmitting knowledge and culture from one generation to the next. And by reserving them, we ensure that these stories and traditions are not lost.

Second, oral histories can be used to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa. Many people in the world have a limited understanding of African history and culture. 

During my undergraduate years, I took some courses that demystified the misconceptions European explorers, who neither knew nor understood African traditions, had and spread across the globe through their writings.

Oral histories help to provide a more accurate and nuanced view of Africa, dispelling the negative stereotypes of naysayers.

Third, oral histories help to build a sense of community and identity. When people share their stories, they are not only creating a connection with each other but also with their shared history. 

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By preserving the stories of our ancestors we honor and recognize their impact<br>Photo credit freepik

How can we preserve oral histories?

One way to preserve oral histories is to record them in audio or video format and store them in archives or other repositories where future generations can access them. This can be done by professional oral historians or by community members themselves.

Another way is to transcribe them into written form. This is particularly helpful for people who do not have access to audio or video recordings. Transcribed oral histories can also be published in books or articles, making them more widely accessible.

Finally, oral histories can be preserved through performances such as storytelling, theater, or other forms of artistic expression. Performance helps bring oral histories to life and also makes them more understandable.

Oral histories: A valuable way to preserve African narratives

Oral histories are not just stories for Africans; they are the heartbeat of the people. This is because of the great importance of the ancestors in the African worldview, who are seen as the link between the living and the dead.

Africans believe that death is not the end of life. Rather, it is a transition to a new state of being. Therefore, our ancestors, though physically dead, are alive, and by preserving their stories, we recognize and honor their impact.

Just as those before us preserved and passed down the traditions to us, we must work to ensure that this wisdom and experience of the past are preserved for future generations. It is our duty to build a more accurate and inclusive understanding of African history and culture.

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