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African Oral History Was Superior to the West’s Written Record



I had an amazing 3 hour conversation about African Oral History. It is a conversation where our brains rubbed off so well with each other. If brains had sex, my brain was having an intellectual make-up with hers. Anyway, back to Oral History. One of the things I told her was that African societies failed to scale because they could write.

The invention of writing made it possible to scale messages. Writing brought consistency, writing killed differentiation. That all of a sudden, millions of people could read the same thing. I also told her that writing encouraged dictatorships to thrive. That rules and decrees could only be supported by writing.

Once you wrote it down, all you had to do was keep referring to the same thing. Now this was a good thing, because societies that wrote seemed to civilize faster. Africa on the other hand found pleasure in oral history. And now I have come to a conclusion that there is no better thing that oral history.

There is no better way to preserve history that through that mode. First of all oral history ensures that only the things that are worth remembering are passed on. I only get told about my ancestors who did amazing things. Only important knowledge gets passed on. If knowledge stops being important, the current generation won’t pass it on to the next.

My sweet friend told me there is no need to cry about documentation. That we should take away the pressure of documentation. That Jesus didn’t have to write a book to be impactful or to preserve himself. Through Oral History, Africa ensured that unity prevailed. The rise of writing also brought loneliness and killed humanity.

When you speak to someone, you’re able to get the different nuances to the history, from her body language, you can tell a lot. African oral history ensured that everyone had a chance of building into a story. It also ensured that history got revised as time went on. If for example I had once said, so and so was this person’s father.

Then it turns out otherwise in later years. The people of the later years would correct this version of the story as they told it. It also build mystery around our history. For example it is hard to easily explain a statement; “mitima gyakaluba tetulina Bitengo.” You ought to have understood Luganda well to get the message.

Oral History also meant that to get knowledge one had to be humble and listen. It was also therapy for the old. Because now they had someone to speak to in their old days. If you kept close, they would pass on something interesting. That’s why I am under no pressure to write a book or write down everything in my head. I am an African and it is beautiful to just pass on this knowledge in bits.

Perhaps one of these days we need to celebrate the great collective memory of Africans. Because Oral history only survives through unity and this collective memory. Each generation has a duty unto the next. But oral history also ensures every generation relates in its own unique way towards a piece of information.

The young generation is able to see Idi Amon through another prism. And it can then refine the story about history. In African history, there are different versions to a story, there is no judgement, there is no final world to anything. You can expect that history in Africa keeps getting better. In Africa there was no depression because we talked more to each other. Talking as a form of communication transcends writing.

Societies that talk a lot are more secure societies. Gossip is a form of intelligence gathering. Take away this ability to talk and you expose societies to all dangers. We kept talking about different interpretations to Oral History versus Writing and it was beyond pristine. May God bless her, and her brain. In Africa, we’re all storytellers.

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