Orality & New Media

This section gives attention to the relationship between orality and modern information and communication technologies (ICT). It explores opportunities offered by multimedia and social media plattforms, for example, to collect orally transmitted knowledge in a participatory process, make it accessible in its original form or available for further use.

Multimedia, Orality and the Future of Knowledge in Africa

Writing is a very important aspect of modern life. Literacy – the ability to read and write – is one of the basic life skills a person is expected to have in order to function productively. The capacity to document human thought and ideas in writing is fundamental to the production and storage of knowledge. Based on this capacity, the library has developed as the storehouse of global knowledge.

Speech remains the preferred means of communication

Despite the various advantages of writing, however, speech still remains the preferred means of human communication. Through most of human history, writing has taken a prime place in the quest to document human thought and ideas. However, by virtue of developments in digital technology it has recently become possible for human thoughts and ideas to be effectively and efficiently documented not only in writing but also in still images and motion pictures as well as in speech and other sound symbols. Low cost digital audio recorders and players are widely available now and many of today’s telephones can also operate as both still and motion picture cameras. Such cameras present new possibilities for the documentation of thoughts, ideas and human experiences.

Reciting histories of families

In Africa, communities among the Fula, Mende and Wolof ethnic groups – mostly living in the western part of the continent – still depend mainly on griots to record and recall the histories of their communities, hence their ‘history books’ are consulted mainly by recitation. In some other African cultures, a hierarchical and elaborate system of cognomen – additional names or bynames given to distinguish members of the same family or clan – referred to as isithakazelo among the Zulu in Southern Africa and oriki among the Yoruba in West Africa captures the rich history of individuals, their families, the clans to which they belong and towns from which they hail, all by memorization and recitation. Among the Yoruba, children would hear portions of their oriki recited to them every morning by their mothers and other relatives in the homestead in response to a good morning greeting. The oriki is also frequently recited at celebrations. In addition, a recitation of oriki is usually part of a process of acknowledging achievements or trying to convince a Yoruba person to do or not to do something sufficiently important to demand an appeal.

New ways of recording oral knowledge

The literary corpus which embodies the philosophy and knowledge of medicine, mathematics and other elements of the science and arts as well as the spirituality of the Yoruba, Fon, Edo and some other West African cultures remains largely unwritten and must be one of the few oral scriptures still in use today. Even though the languages used in some of these cultures are now written, the cultures are still deeply rooted in oral forms of knowledge transfer and therefore continue to be shaped by orality.

Recent developments in digital electronics now make the documentation of ideas, beliefs, experiences and knowledge in the form of speech and images not only possible but also highly productive and easily accessible. Many new media and techniques have expanded the possibilities of recording knowledge. These new approaches to information documentation must be deliberately cultivated to serve the specific needs of oral cultures. They should be seen as an opportunity for technology to enhance the way people live without necessarily altering their ways of life. This calls for a review of our present attitude in which even modern multimedia technology is shaped by the culture of writing. It is now almost impossible to imagine a world without writing, but had mankind invented a means for voice recording before writing was invented, would writing have developed along the same trajectory it now has? Would we have had a Gutenberg revolution if it had been possible to record and reproduce human speech efficiently and effectively before the 15th century?

The library as the storehouse of human knowledge

The library as the storehouse of human knowledge has come to embrace media other than those of written texts, but as we go further into the information age, there is a need to deliberately expand the capacity to document, store and distribute elements of knowledge embedded in spoken rather than written stories, proverbs, riddles and other similar modes of information sharing. Even though writing has contributed in no small measure to the world as we know it today, the offerings of multimedia technology should also be commensurately cultivated and actively developed- That way, the wealth of human knowledge uniquely encoded in unwritten modes of communication and in indigenous knowledge systems shaped by orality can be accommodated.

The sharp rise in the number of mobile phones in Africa to over 600 million within the last decade must be closely related to the fact that phones do not demand a user to be able to read and write. The popularity of phones is indicative of how impediments associated with illiteracy can be circumvented by certain innovations and thus contribute to development. Furthermore, recent global developments in community radio and its rapid spread in rural Africa have made speech recording facilities available within rural Africa, giving millions of Africans the capacity to record their thoughts, ideas and beliefs without being able to read and write. This presents great opportunities to the global knowledge production industry to tap into the indigenous knowledge of various oral cultures in Africa and other parts of the world. The potentialities of the global information community will be increased since there is a diversity of knowledge and knowledge systems available now. Our world will be enriched and the full benefits of the knowledge age will be brought to the whole of mankind.

Therefore, we can now conceive of the library as a virtual space within which people from all over the world can access information and knowledge in various modes of their liking, in the media of their choice and in the languages they are most comfortable with. Since we have the technology to achieve it, we should muster the will to make it happen.
Tunde Adegbola, Nigeria, 2012

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