Biography 26.3 (2003) 504-506
The interview in which the professional historian records an elderly African's oral testimony about the past has a central place in the historical practices of African history as it emerged as an academic inquiry in the immediate post-colonial period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The pioneering academic historians of Africa during this period had to confront the fact that most African societies were preliterate, and that while there was a several century-long tradition of Africans writing in European languages, most Africans did not leave written records, especially not in their own languages. Being without writing, however, did not mean that Africans had no history. All societies have means of recalling and using the past. The important methodological breakthrough occurred in 1961, when Jan Vansina, trained originally as a medievalist and then as an ethnographer, published De la tradition orale; essai de méthode historique (Teruven, 1961), which appeared in English translation in 1965. Vansina established a rigorous methodology for the use of African oral traditions as historical sources. Assuming that all historical sources contain distortions, Vansina argued that some oral traditions are more reliable than others, but that all historical sources must be scrutinized for distortions and cross-checked with other sources. Explicit in Vansina's argument and his method was the assumption that objective historical fact could be extracted from oral historical sources.
Vansina's method led to the opening up of vast areas of African history, especially precolonial history, for which only African oral sources could be tapped. Vansina's method stimulated a profound and on-going debate about the historicity of African oral sources. The volume under review is part of this four decade long discussion about the value and limitations of African oral sources for the study of African history.
African Words, African Voices emerged from two conferences, held first in Bellagio in 1997 and then a month later at the University of Michigan. All of the contributors in the current volume presented their original versions at Bellagio; the follow-up conference included dissertators, but their work is not included in this volume. We hear some of the concerns of these junior scholars in the introduction, when the editors refer to the "remarkable set of polarities" that emerged from the two conferences. Many of these younger scholars, about to conduct field research, seemed remarkably unconcerned about the epistemological and methodological concerns of the past forty years, and probably felt like volume contributor Bethwell Ogot, one of the pioneers of oral historical research in Kenya, when he stated that "Africans know their history and get on with their lives" (17).
African Words, African Voices is, however, concerned with the very issues of what we can and cannot learn from African oral sources. The volume consists of thirteen chapters written by African and Africanist historians and historically minded ethnographers, linguists, and literary scholars. African authors (including a white South African) wrote six chapters; five of these authors are based in Africa. The editors are to be congratulated for their efforts to support and sustain this collaboration between scholars working in Africa with those outside the continent. Most of the chapters are concerned with the tensions between the quest to locate "authentic African voices" that can provide an objective accounting of history, and the "hermeneutics of transfiguring" African words into "historical knowledge and meaning." Chapters by Bethwell Ogot of Kenya, E. J. Alagoa of Nigeria, and Babacar Fall of Senegal are more concerned with the politics of historical interpretation, and less with the subjective rendering of the meanings of experiences, which provide the subject matter for the chapters of several of the younger Africanist historians in the volume, including Tamara Giles-Vernick and Stephen Miescher. The chapters by Luise White and David W. Cohen address the fascinating issues involved in transforming rumor and incomplete eyewitness accounts into evidence. Readers interested in these issues should turn to Luise...