Oral Tradition

A. F. Iduigwomen


  1. Introduction
  2. What is African Epistemology?
  3. Perceptual Knowledge.
  4. Inferential knowledge.
  5. Wholistic Knowledge.
  6. Extra-sensory or Mystical knowledge.
  7. Premonitive Knowledge.
  8. Ontological Knowledge.
  9. Oral Tradition.
  10. The Place of Oral Tradition in Transmitting Knowledge.
  11. Conclusion
  12. Notes
  13. Academic Tools
  1. Introduction

A tradition is oral if it is undocumented. Following this, it is wondered whether African thought system which is largely undocumented is not merely a continuous alteration. Indeed, critics of oral tradition have dismissed it as unreliable. Their argument is that since oral tradition is not devoid of alteration, to that extent, it is unreliable. They buttress this argument by saying that documentation is vital for a consistent existence of a thought system. They further argue that what one is told may not be true since there may be no way of verifying it.

Against this “anti-oral-traditionalist” position, we seek to argue that one cannot deny the authenticity of a thought system simply because it is undocumented, and that, though oral tradition is not completely devoid of additions and subtractions, it is, nevertheless, a very strong vehicle for the transmission of knowledge in traditional African society. Before these arguments are proffered, it will be germane to first do some conceptual spade-work.

  1. What is African Epistemology?

Anyone who wants to talk about African epistemology must concern himself with examining how the African sees or talks about reality. According to Egbele Aja, the problem of knowledge in traditional African thought is that of ascertaining whether or not what is claimed as knowledge is actually knowledge rather than mistaken opinion on the one hand, and the means or source of acquiring the knowledge on the other1. The means or sources of acquiring knowledge within the context of African traditional thought are many and varied. A few of them are adumbrated below.

  1. Perceptual Knowledge: This can also be called experiential or observational knowledge. It is so called because it is knowledge gained through the senses. Like the empiricists in Western culture, traditional Africans believe that knowledge of things around us comes through the senses. What one sees, touches, feels, hears and tastes, is taken to be first –hand or eye witness account and hence it is treated as certain knowledge. The veracity of what one observes is not tested through experiments. This is where Professor Bodunrin is wrong when he says that anyone arguing in favour of an African epistemology must be able to convince us that there is a method of testing his knowledge which is basically African. Bodunrin is obviously following the tradition of the logical positivists who maintains that any meaningful statement must be subjected to verification. In African traditional setting experimentation is not resorted to if a disagreement arises between two parties regarding what one claims to observe. Rather, the testimony of a third party is sought to settle the difference.
  2. Inferential knowledge: This is an opinion or conclusion reached from facts or reasoning. From repeated perception of a phenomenon, or repeated occurrence of an event, a conclusion can be drawn. And once this conclusion is drawn, it becomes a settled opinion which can subsequently serve as a reference point.
  3. Wholistic Knowledge: The wholistic view of knowledge is the view that in perception, we are neither given an object nor a sense-datum, but a unity of experience in which the subject and object cannot be discriminated. This view is held by the twentieth century tradition of British philosophy, F. H. Bradley belongs to this tradition. Bradley refers to what he calls the ‘felt totality’ in perception. This ‘felt-totality’ he calls ‘immediate experience’. African parallel of this view can be found in K. C. Anyanwu’s work. Let us hear from the horse’s mouth.

    The African maintains that there can be no knowledge of reality if an individual detaches himself from it. Bear in mind that for the African, a life-force, is not a passive spectator(as it is the case with the Westerner-addition mine) of the universe but an active participator of life-events. So he operates with the logic of aesthetics which holds that the whole is real. Knowledge, therefore, comes from the co-operation of all human faculties and experiences. He sees, feels, imagines, reasons or thinks and insults all at the same time. Only through this method does he claim to have the knowledge of the other. So, the method through which the African arrives at trustworthy knowledge of reality ….. is intuitive and personal experience.2

    Although Anyanwu’s wholism is replete with philosophical problems, it nevertheless solves the problem of duality inherent in Western epistemology.

  4. Extra-sensory or Mystical knowledge: This knowledge is believed to transcend common sense. It is knowledge acquired exclusively by diviners, mediums, priests, native-doctors, rain-makers, herbalists, and so on. These people are believed to possess “innate abilities” that enable them to manipulate the spirit world in favour of the natural world. They can tell about future events and possess powers to manipulate forces for the good of the community. These people are dreaded in the society because they act as the mouth-piece of the spirit world, and can use their powers to harm people. It is the belief of the Africans that the special abilities or powers, of these people are not developed from experience or as a result of long period of training, but are innately possessed. They act as intermediaries between the curious inquirers and the spirit world and messages received from the spirit world are treated with reverential fear.
  5. Premonitive Knowledge: This is a lower form of extra-sensory knowledge. Knowledge by premonition is not the exclusive reserve of a special few. It can be acquired by anybody. Premonitive knowledge is knowledge by signs. It is often said that a toad does not walk in the day time for nothing. So, the unexpected shaking of one’s toe is sign that some evil is in the offing; the person who sneezes repeatedly should note that his name is being mentioned somewhere for good or for bad; the person who accidentally hits his left foot against a stone should better watch out for an impending evil.
  6. Ontological Knowledge: Ontology is the branch of metaphysics which deals with the nature and mode of existence of things in the universe. It is sometimes defined as the science of beings as Being. Ontological knowledge is knowledge of the ontological balance of life-forces in their classification and hierarchy in the hierarchy of life-forces. God is at the apex. He is followed by the divinities, then the ancestors, then the elders, and so on, in a descending order.

    Ontological knowledge is associated with old age. It is the exclusive reserve of the elderly in African traditional society. This is why it is sometimes said in Edo tribe of Nigeria that old age is the gateway of reminiscence.

  7. Oral Tradition: Oral tradition is an important means of the transmission of knowledge in African traditional society. A tradition is oral if it has no written literature or sacred scriptures. The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (vol. 3) Defines oral tradition variously as follows:

(i) The process of handing down information, opinions, beliefs and customs, by word of mouth or example, transmission of knowledge and institutions through successive generations without written instruction.

(ii) Cultural continuity embodied in a massive complex of evolving social attitudes, beliefs, conventions and institutions rooted in the experience of the past exerting a normative influence on the present.

(iii) Something existing only in popular belief inherited reputation or memory….3

In order for a thing to be regarded as traditional, it must be widely understood and practiced in a society and it must have been handed down for at least a few generations. Unfortunately, the term is misapplied to represent just anything anyone wishes to give legitimacy. Strictly speaking, however, oral traditions, are those recollections of the past that are commonly or universally known in a given culture. Versions that are not widely known should be dubbed ‘testimony’ while those that relate to recent events belong to the realm of oral history.4

Oral tradition consists of myths, legends, stories, proverbs, beliefs, folktales, songs and dances, liturgies and rituals, pithy sayings, riddles and adages, ideas social attitudes, conventions, institutions, and customs. Some of these oral traditions appear in work of arts and crafts, symbols and emblems, names of people and places, shrines and sacred places. Works of art are not merely for decoration. They usually convey religious feelings, sentiments, aesthetic feelings, ideas and truth.5

  1. The Place of Oral Tradition in Transmitting Knowledge

As pointed out above, oral tradition involves the handing down of a thought system from one generation to another by word of mouth or by practice. The elderly and the wise-men are regarded as the purveyors of the thought system. The study of African epistemology cannot be successfully carried out without an examination of how the African thought system is transferred from generation to generation. Some of the arguments often raised against oral tradition are as follows:

  1. It is linked with the era of primitivity. But this argument can easily be debunked. That something is traditional not does imply that it is linked with the era of primitivity, what it simply means is that it is an aboriginal and fundamental thing which is handed down from generation to generation and is still being held, understood or practiced by living men today. It is the thing that connects the present people with their past till eternity including their fears and hopes.6 The past is intelligible only in the light of the present. Oral tradition acquires meaning only when it establishes a coherent relation between past and present.7
  2. Oral traditions are sometimes subject to additions, subtractions, exaggerations and distortions. Consequently, it is difficult to separate truth from fiction.8 This argument is derived from the fact that oral evidence changes imperceptibly with time. It is even assured that many contemporary versions of traditions are to some extent the debris of an obliterated past. Inevitably, many traditions cannot be regarded as historical facts.9

    Against this argument, it can be said that what is responsible for alteration in oral tradition are changing circumstances. There seems to be an underlying principle in operation which ensures that those traditions that are best able to outlive changing circumstances are those that exist today.10

  3. Since oral tradition depends largely on fallible human memories, facts often fade into fantasies. In the absence of mnemonic devices in oral societies, the people generally forget about things as they were in the past. Forgetting an event in oral societies means forgetting it forever, since forgetfulness is a disease without a cure. Although members of a literate society can be careless in retaining memories, yet they can retrieve what they have forgotten from the library. In oral societies, this is not the case. What is forgotten is cast into oblivion and not just onto a bookshelf in the library.

In spite of the shortcomings of oral tradition, it has been and is still a very strong vehicle or means of transmission of knowledge in traditional African society. One cannot deny the authenticity of a thought system simply because it is undocumented. The problem of alteration pointed out above can be partly dismissed when one considers that the oral tradition of the African culture is transmitted mainly through traditional education.

Traditional education occupies a fundamental place in the upbringing of a child. Indeed, the African believes that knowledge starts with the understanding of oral tradition. A child who lacks this knowledge cannot be regarded as having known anything at all. It is therefore not surprising that the elderly African sees himself as duly-bound to bring up his children in line with the all-important traditional education.

The traditional African mind is trained to practically handle the problems of his environment. Traditional education enables the African to recollect past activities of the men and societies which makes it possible for the individuals or societies to orientate themselves and the bewildering currents of the society. It also affords the African the opportunity to know the infinite richness and variety of the past and how to apply this knowledge in meeting new challenges and situations, and in solving present problems more intelligently.

From the foregoing discussion, in spite of the shortcomings of oral tradition, we can state that traditional education provides a proper channel for the proper transmission of the thought system of African peoples. While upholding the virtues of the virtues of oral tradition. J. I. Omoregbe, in his “African philosophy: Yesterday and Today”, writes:

But in a culture whose philosophy was preserved by memories, through wise-sayings, stories, methodology, religion, etc., handed down from generation to generation, elderly people (since they are the nearest we can get to the original thinkers) can be of some help. Since the philosophy was preserved by memory rather than by books, the memories of the elderly people should therefore, as it were, be consulted in order to find out the reasoning process that led to those which have been handed down to us. The memories of the elderly people therefore take the place of books. In the Western culture, research of this nature is normally done in the library. Because of the peculiar situation of African philosophy, there is need for field-work in our researches. This field-work aims at finding our the reasoning process that led to the views handed down to us by interviewing the old, elderly and aged … the memory of the aged peasants or court personalities can be of immense help.11

Good as a position as Omoregbe’s may seem, some objections can be raised against it. Firstly, Omoregbe seems to think that the wisdom and memories of the elderly are infallible. But it is common knowledge that what make us human is the vulnerability to errors or mistakes. Contrary to the belief of Omoregbe, it is a truism that old age breeds forgetfulness and sometimes distortion of thinking ability and consequently of knowledge. Secondly, Omoregbe seems to think that the wisdom of the people in the elderly in the society represents the collective wisdom constitutes the people’s philosophy. He fails to consider that philosophy is more of an individual affair than a community affair. Although everybody is a philosopher in the loose sense of the word(the very fact that he reasons makes him so), not everybody is a philosopher in the proper sense of the word. And since everybody is not a philosopher in the proper sense of the word, it becomes improper to link philosophy with the collective wisdom of the people. Thirdly, it can be argued that the insights, beliefs and opinions related by the wise-men and elderly cannot be regarded as philosophy because they obviously fall short of empirical verifiability and logical consistency.

These three points of criticism against Omoregbe can be debunked and indeed Anyanwu’s contention can be brought in here. Anyanwu writes:

It is sometimes objected that a philosophy must have recognizeable author and that, just like a bottle of wine without a label, an anonymous philosophy is a suspect. This objection clearly arises from a Western attitude which in Hegesias’ formulation considers the individual man as “the measure of all things”. It is assumed that a great thinker must be able to wrap the universe into a neat bundle of equations and recipes. The wise men who invented the African myths are humbler; faced with exclusive forces of nature in many parts of Africa, harsh desert, endless savannah and oppressive rain forest, they have learned and taught that man is the measure of nothing. This insight led to another one; the wisdom of a people is more important that the man who contributes it.12

Anyanwu’s view seems to have been derived from the view that African philosophy is a culture-oriented philosophy, a “lived philosophy”. Such philosophy cannot be the philosophy of a privileged few expressed in the esoteric language of learned journals. Although the wisdom of the wise-men and the elderly people may fall below critical philosophy and thought it may not be too important scientifically, it nevertheless has relevance for the society in which they live. Specifically, their wisdom and insights in a way contribute towards making life meaningful to the people. Their wisdom, therefore, constitute philosophy in the practical sense of the word. It can even be gainsaid that the individual philosopher merely taps from the collective wisdom.

  1. Conclusion

The point to establish here is that although oral tradition is not devoid of alterations, no successful study of the African thought system can be carried out without due reference to oral tradition. Without a written thought system, scholars interested in African philosophy have to rely on oral tradition as the source of the raw materials for their study.

The question what is African epistemology? Can be asked along with the question – what principles underlie the acceptance of any body of knowledge said to be purely African? The answer is simply that these principles cannot be located in any written works of individual philosophers, but in the oral traditions of the African peoples. There is no way one can explain African epistemology without a reference to the tradition that is orally expressed. What makes a man acceptable in any given African society is the ability to recount those principles of the society’s tradition. It can, therefore, be safely concluded that oral tradition constitutes for Africans a vital source and carrier of knowledge.


  1. E. Aja, Elements of Theory of Knowledge. (Enugu: Auto-Century Publishing Co. Limited, 1993), p. 75.
  2. E. A. Ruch & K. C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy: An Introduction To the Main Philosophical Trends In Contemporary Africa. (Rome Catholic Book Agency-Officium Libri Catholic, 1981), p. 94.
  3. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, vol. 3 (Chicago: William Benton, Publisher, 1971), p. 2422
  4. D. Henige, Oral Historiography, (London: Longman Group Limited 1982), p. 2
  5. A. Ajayi, West African Traditional Religion, (Ado-Ekiti: Omolayo Standard Press (Nig) Ltd., 1981), p. 2
  6. A. Ajayi, West African Traditional Religion, p. 1
  7. P. C. Isichei, “Two Perspectives of the Past History & Myth”, Second Order: An African Journal of Philosophy, vol. IV, No. 2, July 1975, p. 12
  8. A. Ajayi, West African Traditional Religion, p. 2
  9. D. Henige, Oral Historiography, pp. 4-5
  10. D. Henige, Oral Historiography, p.4
  11. J. J. Omoregbe, “African Philosophy: Yesterday and Today,” in Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives, Edited by P. O. Bodunrin, (Ile-Ife University of Ife, Press, 1985), pp. 9 – 10.
  12. E. A. Ruch & K. C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy: An Introduction To the Main Philosophical Trends in Contemporary Africa, p.19

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