What I'm going to say should perhaps go into the literature forum, from which HampatĂ© BĂ˘'s traditional (oral) origins might have been humbugged a century ago. But the man who called our attention to the fact that "when an old man dies, it is a library that burns", by his own ardor to preserve the oral tradition of his own home continent, ignited a flame that has not died down a whit since his own departure in 1991 as linguists, folklorists and anthropologists took up the challenge to document Africa's endangered wisdom.
Following is his own interpretation of that proverb.
When I was appointed to the executive council of UNESCO, I was given the mission of speaking to Europeans about African tradition as culture. This was difficult because the Western tradition had established once and for all that where there is no writing, there is no culture. The result was that when I proposed for the first time to take oral traditions into account as historical sources and sources of culture, I didn't provoke anything but smiles. Some people even asked sardonically what African traditions could possibly have to offer Europe! To one interlocutor who asked me one day, "What indeed can we obtain from Africa?" I remember answering: "Laughter, which you have lost." Perhaps today one could add as well: a certain human dimension, which modern technological civilization is in the process of erasing.
The fact of not having a literature does not prevent Africa from having a past and a knowledge. As my teacher Tierno Bokar says: "Writing is one thing and knowledge is another thing. Writing is a photograph of knowledge, but it is not knowledge itself. Knowledge is a light which is in man. It is the heritage that consists of everything the ancestors have been able to know. This they transmit to us in seminal form, just as the potential for a baobab tree is contained in its seed."
Of course, this knowledge inherited and transmitted by word of mouth can either develop or wither away. It develops wherever there exist centers of initiation and young people to receive that formation. It is lost wherever initiation disappears.
African knowledge is immense, varied, and covers all aspects of life. The "knower" is never a "specialist". He is a generalist. For example, the same old man knows as much about pharmacopoeia, "earth sciences" (the agricultural or medicinal properties of different kinds of soil), and "the science of water" as he does about astronomy, cosmogony, psychology, etc. It is therefore possible to speak of a single "science of life" conceived as a whole, in which everything is related, interdependent and interactive.
In Africa, everything is "History". The great History of life is made up of sections which are, for example, the history of soils and waters (geography), the history of plants (botany and pharmacopoeia), the history of "the threads in the bowels of the earth" (mineralogy), the history of the stars (astronomy, astrology), the history of waters, etc.
These knowledges are always concrete and tend toward practical uses.
Knowledges have an order. One begins at the bottom, that is to say, with beings and things that are less developed or less animated when compared to man, and ascends upwards toward man. The earth, considered as "navel" of the world, is the principal habitat of three sorts of beings, or three modes or manifestations of life:
At the bottom of the ladder, one finds inanimate beings, called "mutes", whose language is thought to be hidden, being incomprehensible or inaudible to ordinary mortals. This is the world of all that lies on the surface of the earth (sand, water, etc.) or in its interior (minerals, metals, etc.).
Next come "animate immobile" beings. These are living things that do not move about from place to place. They are plants that are able to extend and spread out their branches in space, but whose stem or trunk cannot move.
Finally, "mobile animate beings", from the most minuscule of animals to man, including all classes of animals.
Each of these categories is subdivided into three groups:
Among mute inanimate beings, one finds solid, liquid and gaseeous (literally: "smoking") inanimates.
Among immobile animate objects, one finds creeping plants, climbing plants, and plants that stand vertically, the latter constituting the highest class.
Mobile animate beings include land animals (among them animals without bones, those that shed their skin, etc., and animals with bones), aquatic animals and flying animals.
These nine classes of beings correspond to specific moments in the educational process, but these modules are not necessarily successive or progressive. Education is connected to life and dispensed according to the circumstances that present themselves. If, for example, a serpent suddenly leaps out of the bush, this will provide an opportunity for the old master to give a lesson about the serpent. His discourse will vary depending on whether his listeners are children or adults. He could speak about the legends of the serpent, or remedies which can cure its bite. If he is surrounded by children, he will very gladly elaborate on the harm a serpent can do so they will learn to be careful.
The study of the earth, the waters, the atmosphere, and all that they contain insofar as they are manifestations of life constitutes the ensemble of human knowledge bequeathed by tradition. But the greatest of all these "histories", the most developed, the most significant, is the history of man himself, who is at the summit of "mobile animate beings".
It is the knowledge of man and the application of this knowledge in practical life that makes man a "superior" being on the ladder of living things. But one can only say this about man if he is in the state of "neddaaku" (Fulani/Peul) or of "maayaa" (Bambara), that is to say, in a fully human state.
The history of man includes, on the one hand, the great myths of the creation of man and of his appearance on earth, including the significance of the place which he occupies in the fabric of the universe, the role which he ought to play (essentially the role of axis of equilibrium), and his relation to the forces of life which surround him and live in him. It includes, on the other hand, the history of the great ancestors, innumerable educational and initiation stories and symbolic tales, and finally, history pure and simple, including the great royal traditions, the historical chronicles, the epics, etc.
Tradition transmitted orally is so precise and so rigorous that one can, with various kinds of cross checking, reconstruct the great events of centuries past in the minutest detail, especially the lives of the great empires or the great men who distinguish history. It is noteworthy that, based on diverse oral traditions, I was able to reconstruct The History of the Fulani Empire of Massina of the 18th Century. In a similar way, comparing oral traditions allowed my friend Boubou Hama of Niger to produce his voluminous works on the history and traditional knowledge of African people.
In oral civilization, speech engages man; speech IS man. Whence the profound respect for traditional stories bequeathed by the past. One is permitted to embellish their form or poetic phrasing, but their framework remains unchanged over the centuries, serving as a vehicle for the prodigious memory which is very characteristic of peoples in oral traditions. In a modern civilization, paper substitutes for speech. It is paper that engages man. But can one say with absolute certainty that the written source is more worthy of confidence than the oral source, continuously monitored by the traditional milieu?
At this point, it is useful to explain that in Africa, the side of things that is visible and apparent always corresponds to an invisible and hidden aspect which is like its source or principle. Just as the day emerges from the night, all things consist of a diurnal and a nocturnal aspect, a visible side and a hidden side. Indeed, each visible science always corresponds to a much deeper science, theoretical and, one could say, esoteric, based on the fundamental conception of the unity of life and of the interrelation, within the fabric of this unity, of all the different levels of existence. Here there is a domain which, just because it is less immediately exploitable, does not mean that it is any less worthy of being closely examined and explored before the last depositories of this science disappear.
As we have seen, African knowledge is a global knowledge, a living knowledge, and it is because the old people are themselves the last depositories of this knowledge that they can be compared to vast libraries whose multiple shelves are connected by invisible links which constitute precisely this "science of the invisible", authenticated by the chains of transmission through initiation.
In the past, this knowledge was transmitted regularly from generation to generation by rites of initiation and various forms of traditional education. This regular transmission was interrupted because of an exteral, extra-African action: the impact of colonization. The colonial powers arrived with their technological superiority, their own methods and their own ideal of life, and did everything in their power to substitute their own way of life for that of the Africans. Just as one never seeds fallow ground, the colonial powers were obliged to "clear" the African tradition to be able to plant their own tradition.
Thus from the outset the Western school began to do battle with the traditional African school and to hunt down the keepers of traditional knowledges. This was the Ă©poque when all healers were thrown in prison as "charlatans" or for "practicing medicine without a license." It was also the era when children were prevented from speaking their mother tongue in order to shield them from traditional influences, to such an extent that at school, a child who was caught speaking his mother tongue had to wear a board called a "symbol" on which was drawn the head of a donkey, and he was not allowed to eat lunch.
The seeds of this new tradition, once sown, have grown and borne fruit. It is for this reason why African youth, born of the Western school, have a pronounced tendency to live and to think "Ă l'europĂ©enne", for which they cannot be reproached because they don't know any other way. The student always lives according to the rules of his or her school.
During the colonial period, transmission by initiation, which used to take place on a great holiday and at regular intervals, sought asylum by going underground. Little by little, the removal of children from their families had the result that old people no longer found around them young people who were able to receive their teachings. Little by little, initiation left the cities and took refuge in the bush. But the final blow was delivered by the advent of an independence based exclusively on European ideas and ideologies. Whereas colonialism actually created skepticism and penetrated little into the countryside, the same European ideas, conveyed by modern political parties, mobilized the masses in even the farthest corners of the bush, so much so that the handing down of tradition almost couldn't find any place to be practiced any more.
At a time when diverse countries of the world, through the intermediation of UNESCO, devote money and effort to saving the great Nubian monuments threatened by the rising waters behind the AswĂ˘n High Dam, is it not more urgent still to save the extraordinary human culture and stock of knowledge accumulated over the course of millennia in these fragile monuments which are men, when the last depositories of this knowledge are in the process of disappearing?
Source: Chapter 2, Aspects of African Civilization.
My intention here was to publish the ASA volunteer workers' catalogue, which lists, among other German projects, the Benin folklore documentation drive (but Amadou HampatĂ© BĂ˘ has fascinated me since I heard him speak at the UNESCO, so once again I got railroaded...).
Another special project for young people is the post-tsunami reconstruction work going on in Sri Lanka. Not exactly the usual freebies on this forum, but I'm sure they can make you feel lots better.
PS: I was actually looking for more initiatives along HampatĂ© BĂ˘'s line of work that are open "not just for Germans" (I see that question coming), so if you know of any, please DO share them. It might just make some Prozian happy this summer.
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