The African continent encompasses a rich mosaic of peoples Essay

The African continent encompasses a rich mosaic of peoples, cultures, ecological settings, and historical experiences (Chazan et al. 1999: 5). There is no such thing as a typical “African” or “African way of life”; Africans are divided not only by the boundaries of countries, but also by ethnic identities, class peculiarity, urban versus rural experiences, geographical obstructions and vast distances (Asimeng-Boahen 2002:126). Also, Societies in Africa have had different conditions and experience—political, social, economic and cultural, in the pre-colonial era, colonial , post-colonial and up to current existence.

Against these societal peculiarities, and also within a broader context of the usage of oral history methodology in humanistic social-historical research in Africa (Plummer 2001)—with a subjective ontology and a constructive epistemology (Symon and Cassell 1998), what insights and knowledge can the collection of memories and life experience of individuals in the past illuminate on African societies?

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To start with, Oral history enhances the development of thorough comprehension not only of the broad history of African societies, also giving insight into the personal thoughts of individuals (Thompson 2000; Hesse-Biber and Leavy 2011)—inarticulate women, working, class and ruling who have been ignored by historians and other researchers who view history in terms of ‘big men’ and ‘important’ events (Okihiro 1983:43;Hoffman 1976) thereby challenging the understanding of history as a series of facts and figures.

In resonance with the above statement and thus with evidence from some African societies as will be shown, Gary Okihiro contends that:

The collective voice of the people once silenced has the right to be heard. Oral history is not only a tool or method for recovering history….it is also a theory of history which maintains that the common folk and the dispossessed have a history and that this history must be written[….]at the same time however, this is not to ignore the importance of elite lore and the history of the ruling class, nor does it intend to equate oral history with the working class and written document with the ruling class…instead the point is that there has been an overemphasis on the elite at the expense of the masses and that, this imbalance has resulted in the writing of mythical histories (Okihiro 1981:42-43).

For example, in the Seed is mine: The life of Kas Maine, a south African sharecropper, Onselen, reaches deep into South Africa’s agrarian economic history over a period of ninety years through the memories of Kas Maine (Onselen 1997; Gutkind 1998). A deep history of race and class in the south African countryside—the racial relations in the share cropping economy of the south western Transvaal and the orange free state is broadly revealed (Onselen 1990). Insights from a Sotho sharecropper (agrarian labour), provides a broader picture of the evolution of all the tensions and bitter conflicts of institutionalized racism in south Africa as mirrored in his life. Most importantly and thus just a part can be found in the archives, the core understandings of south Africa disposed black peasantry and its relationship with the Native land act of 1913 is deeply brought to light in the life history of Kas Maine (Gutkind 1998).

In relation to the above, with insights from the accounts of the natives as ‘testimonies’ (Field 2001; Nuttal and Coetzee 1998; Soudien 2004), some scholars (Klopfer 2001; Field 2010; Denis & Ntsimane 2008; Wieder 2004), argue for the relevance of oral history with the provision of insights into south Africa’s past and how the present has been shaped. In a period where archives were secretive and selective in south Africa and beyond (Klopfer 2001; Stoler 2002; Anderson 2015; Elkins 2015),and thus with one sided history, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) two years after the apartheid—with about 20,000 written statements from victims and 2,000 people who testified publicly revealed introspections into the overly simplified apartheid regime (TRC 1998; Wieder 2004; Field 2012). Although to some extent the TRC did not take into consideration the ethics—guidelines associated with extracting testimonies beyond mass violence or atrocities (High & Baker 2015),with the narrative accounts of the past in the south African context, deep revelations of untold histories were recovered, as Sean Field records some of the accounts of the people with lived experience and eye witnesses of ‘what really happened’(Field 2012).With gathering of evidence and thus uncovering hidden information from both victims and perpetrators, presently have shaped the state of an African society with a complicated history.

To add another example, oral history also provides knowledge on how some societies during the colonial epoch understood survival and managed life under domination. With more than one-hundred and sixty interviews with former cotton producers and their families, Allan Isaacman using oral history as a grounded methodology, in his book, Cotton is the Mother of Poverty: Peasants, work and rural struggle in colonial Mozambique,1931-1961, reveals the pain, suffering and the coping strategies of survival. The oral accounts of the informants reveal cotton production as the means of livelihood and identified the society’s agency—proactive struggles and creative adaptation under imperialism (Isaacsman 1995). His study brings to view the peasant labor processes in Mozambique. The study also reveals a contradictory spectacle of the material effects of coerced cotton cultivation and how the local people’s cultural understanding of how work should be defined and valued (Giles-Vernick 2011). With what has been described by some scholars as ‘moments of subjective reflections’ about the past on what really happened (Miescher 2001:163),the narrative given by the natives provide unwritten account and other side of the story on a very distinct peasant society—not only the changing notions of the self but also political, cultural and economic processes and practices of the past (Giles-Vernick 2011).

Furthermore, Given the distinctiveness and somewhat, similarities in cultural, social, political and economic dynamics among and within African societies, Oral history as a source and method (Hajek 2014; Dillard 2018 ; Giles-Vernick 2011), provides detailed—deep and reflective account of internal practices in terms of ways of life, social organization, issues about marriage, death, economic activities, livelihood and other broad historical perspectives of cultural traits and patterns of some societies found in Africa.

For example, Marjorie Shostak, in Nisa: The life and works of a !kung woman, provides a more comprehensive vision of !kung cultural pattern through a broad range of interviews from a foraging society inhabiting remote areas of Botswana, Angola and Namibia (Shostak 1981; Warren 1993). Shostak situates Nisa’s life history within a broader context of the !kung society in terms of the intrusion of the modern world, the universality of women’s experience and importance of sexuality. The forage society through the oral account reveals a social dynamic feature of sexual equality as womanhood is at greater length unlike other African societies. Another dynamic trait of the society brought to light through the thick description of life by Nisa, centers on their techno-economics, social organization, and cultural transformation in the face of Herero Herders and south African state expansion(Warren 1983:231).Issues of interpersonal conduits for continuous band formation and fragmentation is very basic to the forage life—as revealed by trial marriages, mutual assessment of co-wives, kin disputes and sexual affairs(ibid; Shostak 1981).Their belief system of healing is also quite distinct. As Nisa’s Father and her brother were healers she reveals the ritualistic dancing—trance mode and other incantations performed to heal someone ill. Nisa finally reveals through her life history, complex portrayal of women’s life cycles and responsibilities—which broadens a cross cultural understanding of the multiple staging’s of adolescent socialization, marriage, sexual maturity and adult development (Shostak 1981; Warren 1983:231).

Too add, the potency of oral history in relation to the above, sets the records straight and sometimes demystifies popular generalizations of a society’s culture through the provision of a nuanced perspective . Before attention is drawn to another classic example of the knowledge oral history produces on African societies, Geiger (1986:341-342) finds that Mary Smith’s work—Baba of Karo, with an oral history in its study contradicts and invalidates M.G.Smith’s—her husband, work on the Hausa society especially on subjects central to the life of the informant in the formers work. Especially on subjects central to Baba’s life such as marriage, divorce, household and compound relations, kinship, and, most particularly, social relationships among women (ibid).

With a classical example from M.G. Smith’s Baba of Karo: A woman of the Moslem Hausa, in-depth Political, social and economic dynamics of the Hausa society in Northern Nigeria in the pre-colonial and colonial epoch are shown from the life history account and experiences of Baba. Smith provides a nuanced picture of the political and economic organization and conditions of the Hausa—warfare, taxation and slave estates (Smith 1954). For instance, in the reflections of Baba’s life history, she explains and provides a nuance description of the tax system even before the British occupation—collection of tax by bags of 20,000 cowries, the incidence of the taxes on different farm products and how revenue was distributed between the king and subordinate chiefs (Douglas 1955:97; Smith 1954). Insights are also revealed on the domestic ritual, marriage, parenthood and divorce. Smith reveals a distinctive trait of the Hausa society; seclusion of married women—which involves compromise by partial seclusion by day and visiting after dark—an arrangement which allows the maximum freedom for illicit love affairs. Nonetheless, Marriage among the Hausa society is arranged and broken up by women (Douglas 1955;196). Finally the bilateral character of Hausa Kinship, the instability of

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