Oral History


“Oral histories are a dying art, which is sad indeed, for they show the appropriate respect for the lives and experiences of those who have come before. And, just as important, they document those remembrances, for once those lives are over, that personal knowledge is lost forever. Unfortunately we live in a time now where everyone seems to be solely looking ahead, as though we deem nothing in the past worthy of our attention.”

–          Bestselling Author David Baldacci in his Author’s Note as prelude to his book Wish You Well ©2000


Is it a coincidence that this Virginia born author will relate to the importance of oral history in his novels? Did you know that there is a Jamestown in the state of Virginia that was created around the same time that Jamestown was created in Accra? Both have a parallel history.

The Pocahontas story comes from the Jamestown, Virginia when the British sailors met with the native Indians and the Indian princess had the desire to learn of the culture of the foreigner and ended up marrying one of them.

Jamestown in Accra was the main colonial harbor of the Gold Coast and a fishing community developed around it. It was a busting industrial town during the colonial days.

Now compare what has become of both Jamestowns. One is a very well developed tourist attraction whilst the other is still an overpopulated fishing community, almost a slum. Your guess is as good as mine which is which.

Fast forward years on and what has happened to Africa. We who used to solely depend on oral traditions to pass down lessons and history down the generations, to the extent that Trevor Roper contends that Africa had no history prior to the coming of the Europeans because Europeans brought reading and writing to Africa.

What happened to our rites of passage where youth learnt to be adults, what happened to apprenticeship, what happened to drum language, what happened to our tradition and culture?

What happened to our traditional folklore, taboos and myths, our songs that we sing, the tunes we even used to whistle and all that late night under the moonlight By The Fireside tales?

Did we give them all up for ‘modern technology’?

Have we chosen the ‘whiteman’s education over ours?

What happened to sitting at the feet of the elderly to learn words of wisdom?

Oh Africa! What happened to our traditional griots and praise singers, who sang the history of our societies and kingdoms? They sang of great men in our societies worth emulating. They sang of sacrifices made so we the descendants can live the life that we do today.

Now it is all left to just a week in the year, when we ‘celebrate’ our festivals. Festivals are the last vestiges of our identity and culture. And now gradually we are losing that too because these occasions have become occasions not only of grandeur but political platforms to lure people for the ultimate sacrifice of the thumb in the name of democracy.

I won’t belabor this point. Let us do our own bit in learning from the elderly. Their experiences matter. There is an African proverb that says that what an old man sees sitting, a younger person will not see sitting atop the tallest of trees.

Our aged folk have been neglected because we don’t see the essence in learning from them and deferring to them the necessary respect. They are living encyclopedias on the African condition and when they pass on, those libraries are lost if not tapped into.

Unfortunately, we are culprits of the second part of the quote. We live on like we have no past. But Bob Marley (reggae icon) reminds us that ‘in this great future you can’t forget your past’ (if you do not know your past how do you know where you are going (your future).

History is needed so we can learn from the past and correct the mistakes our forefathers made. In every aspect of our lives, there has been a precedent. Why do you think the Old Testament in the Bible is still relevant in The Book even with a new covenant in Christ?

Everybody else is looking into their history apart from those whose future lies in their history – Africans.

 Nana Awere Damoah asks in his new book I Speak of Ghana:  “why is our history looking and sounding more glorious than our future?”

There must be something wrong somewhere. Let us find it together. Sankofa! Let us go back to our history, embedded in our oral traditions and find solutions to our African problems and move on.

The Chinese have done it, the Jews have done it, Europe has done it, the rest of the world has done it, what are Africans waiting for?

Ask the next older person you meet about the past and let’s shape our future.

Like I always say, it begins with YOU!



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