Many African countries are strongly informed by orality, meaning that their cultural and literary forms of expression are often based on storytelling, verbal and oral traditions. Thus, knowledge is usually produced and passed on via word of mouth. This is particularly true of traditional, indigenous knowledge which includes knowledge about ways of living together, medicine, agriculture, myths, fairy tales and initiation rites. All of this information is orally transmitted from one generation to the next and rarely fixed in written form.
Strong oral cultures in African countries
In many African countries, the literacy rate is low. Many of its people can be classified as functionally illiterate; although they have learnt to read and write, many rarely utilise these abilities. As such, these skills are often lost to a great extent. In addition, people who can read and write often rely on face-to-face conversations and advice rather than trust written communication (be it printed or electronic). This strengthens oral culture which in itself thrives on the oral transmission of knowledge and myths.
Inclusion in the knowledge society
World-wide, we are experiencing the transition from industry- and service-oriented economies towards those dominated by knowledge: scientific and technical knowledge are gaining in importance in all spheres of life. Due to the internet, increasing amounts of information are available to an increasing number of people. At the same time, the gap between those who have access to this digital information network and those who lack the technical infrastructure, the financial resources, the know-how and the cultural prerequisites to utilise this invaluable tool, is steadily growing. In fact, the practical knowledge and skills needed for everyday living in African countries are more important than ever. For accessible knowledge is necessary to reduce hunger and poverty, to promote health and sanitation and to enable active participation in societal and political processes.
Orality in Literature
Oral culture has always had a strong performance component to it: stories are told and embellished with dramatic inserts, poems are recited in Spoken Word sessions, accompanied by drums and other musical elements, and tales are often told through (the medium of) dance. Contemporary African music is rooted in traditional oral culture to a large extent as well: one need just listen to Rap, Hip-Hop and many other musical genres to hear them take up these traditional elements, only to transform, vary or place them in a new context.
The Goethe-Institut builds bridges
Thus, outside of the internet there exists a parallel universe of orally transmitted, non-transcribed knowledge which is only accessible to a limited number of people. Much of it is relevant to many people, however, and should thus – where relevant and possible - be incorporated into global information networks, so that it is accessible to a wider audience to whom this knowledge may be of interest.
The Goethe-Institut of the sub-Saharan African region is engaging with the topic of orality in order to promote the integration of oral cultures into the global knowledge society and build a mutually beneficial bridge between oral and written knowledge(-dominated) systems. On the one side, people in primarily oral cultures need to be able to participate in and have access to the worldwide knowledge system, and on the other hand, that very system grows and benefits everyone when orally transmitted knowledge is recorded and added to/ integrated into global information networks. A further goal is the promotion of oral forms of artistic expression and the facilitation of networking between artists in African countries and in Germany and Europe.
About the Website
On the website “Word of Mouth” we compile information on institutions and initiatives dealing with the topic of orality in African countries or in Germany. We also provide information on our own projects which deal with oral traditions and contemporary forms of oral expression on the continent.