From Griots to Grandmothers:
Storytelling in West Afrika
In the culture of West Afrika* storytelling is an oral form of art. From highly trained griots (gree-ohs) recounting epics of kings to relatives telling stories to children around evening fires, oration is an important part of West Afrikan tradition. Far from a stand-in for written language, oral tradition in West Afrika is highly skilled and highly respected. Present before the first European colonizers came to the continent, the tradition lasts even into today’s increasingly modern world. The world, however, is changing. The fast pace of the information age has little time or patience for this type of oral art. As Buchi Offodile states in the preface to his collection of West Afrikan folk tales, “The traditional moonlight storytelling culture of the agrarian society . . . has all but disappeared. In its place, a more urban western-type society has taken root. (7)” This is a change that seems almost inevitable. After all, European bards disappeared long ago. Afrika, however, is reluctant to let go of this vital part of its culture and history. Much effort is being put into the preservation of these traditions, taking advantage of many of the very technologies that threaten to destroy them. If these efforts succeed, just maybe both the scholars and children of tomorrow will be able to experience something of the oral storytelling traditions of old Afrika.
While many of the above traditions still exist in Afrika today, changes are occurring. Much of the time that families and communities would have spent listening to stories and epics in the past is now devoted to more modern forms of entertainment like television (7). The griot tradition itself has also undergone change. With the European colonization of Afrika the power of the chiefs/kings lessened. With this change in social infrastructure and the addition of written language came a decreased need for the services of the griots. They began to be relegated to traditional ceremonies such as marriages, enthronements, and funerals of chiefs/kings (1). Some pieces of oral literature have even disappeared because the occasions for their performance no longer exists (8). Many griots have had to find alternative means of supporting themselves such as farming or business (1). Some have even taken their traditional work to a more mainstream audience and sell transcripts, recording, and CDs (4). It is becoming more and more common to hear kora music on the radio and to see griots perform in cities across the globe (3). The subject matter of the griots has also begun to change, and many have abandoned the apprenticeship of knowledge of histories and genealogies (1) and instead address social issues such as religion and politics (4).
*Afrika with a "K"
I have chosen to spell Afrika with a "k" on this site out of respect for both the culture that I am portraying here and out of respect for the Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble who inspired this work (see the Links page and the TRJE page for more information on them). For an explanation of this spelling by Dr. Kwame Nantambu click here.