A Blessed Pilgrimage
by Dr. Yutang Lin | 1990 | 18,562 words
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A few decades ago, African historians were required to answer questions concerning the viability of their enterprise. Was there a history to tell? Was it possible to construct a credible history out of the oral tradition? By now these questions should lie behind us. Through the work of Vansina and his students from the University of Wisconsin, among others, we know that the oral tradition is a viable source and a history in its own right; and we recognize the custodians of the traditions as both informants and historians. In this discussion we raise an additional question: Is there a philosophy of history in the African oral tradition?
To begin with, what do African philosophers say about an African philosophy? Mudimbe believes there is an "implicit philosophy" in what he terms, "the primordial African discourse in its variety and multiplicity," that is, the oral tradition. Anthony Appiah concedes that a "folk philosophy" exists in Africa, although he believes that oral tradition is not hospitable to philosophy.
We note that Tempels formulated a Bantu philosophy, from the "implicit," "folk," philosophy of the oral tradition of the Bantu. Similarly, Alexis Kagame formulated a philosophy of being from the Bantu languages of Rwanda. On the other hand, we note the case of the Dogon sage, Ogotemeli, as an instance of an 'explicit" philosophy in the oral tradition. These examples provide encouragement for an inquiry into the possibilities of an African philosophy of history in the oral tradition. We conduct our search principally among the communities of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. There is evidence of ideas about history in institutions for the veneration of ancestors and in art. Such ideas are, admittedly, only "implicit," to be interpreted with difficulty before their historiographical meaning can be made "explicit." On the other hand, the proverb text approximates to an "explicit" commentary on the history represented by the African oral tradition.
The proverb text, however, is not without problems, since it is best understood in specified contexts and its meaning is not always unambiguous. The proverb text may, therefore, be characterised as a contested text. In our view of philosophy as the raising of questions and ideas for consideration, the problems associated with the use of the proverb do not make the texts invalid, since they stimulate thought, comments, and arguments on the oral tradition. Therefore, proverbs as contested texts make them appropriate material for the discussion of an African philosophy of history.
At this point, we present for discussion, the commentaries of proverb texts, raising issues in four areas:
- Questions on the nature of history, through the question, who is qualified to tell the oral tradition?
- Discussion of truth, and how we may determine it in the oral tradition.
- Statements on the nature of time: present, past, future, and eternity.
- Ideas on the value of history.
The nature of history
On the question, who is qualified to inform on the past, Niger Delta proverbs point to age as the most important criterion. We cite two Nembe and three Ikwerre proverbs.
- i. More days / More wisdom (Nembe)
- ii. What an old man sees seated / A youth does not see standing (Ikwerre)
- iii. If a child lifts up his father / The wrapper will cover his eyes (Ikwerre)
- iv. A god whose chief priest is a child / Can easily get out of hand (Ikwerre)
- v. However big the male lizard is / The wall-gecko drinks the wine as the senior (Ikwerre)
The first text explicitly equates wisdom with age. The outcome is to equate history with experience, and therefore, to assign knowledge of it to those persons who had the greatest opportunity to acquire experience.
We note that age provides opportunity, and not complete assurance of wisdom or knowledge. One proverb text from the Itsekiri clarifies this:
- vi. The spirits do not kill an old man for not knowing the history of his time.
Thus, some elders had not profited from the opportunities of age to acquire wisdom or knowledge. Yet text (iii.) warns youth against challenging even ignorant elders.
African communities place great store by the reliability of their accounts of the past and the present. The small Birom community of the Plateau region of Central Nigeria stated this explicitly in five proverbs:
- vii. Truth never finishes.
- viii. Truth never rots.
- ix. Truth never rusts.
- x. Truth is worth more than money.
- xi. Lies have their end - But truth lives forever.
African communities were also all too aware of the existence of error and of deliberate falsehood. The Kuteb of Central Nigeria warned against error, even in the best qualified authorities, in the following proverb:
- xii. Even a four-legged horse stumbles and falls.
Other proverb texts caution against judgements based on appearance. The Ikwerre of the Niger Delta did so in two proverbs:
- xiii. The keen ear / Is not as big as an umbrella.
- xiv. A large eye / Does not mean keen vision.
How then do we recognise truth? First, direct eye-witness testimony is to be preferred to others:
- xv. He who sees does not err (Kikuyu).
- xvi. If an apopokiri (fish)from the bottom of the river says that the crocodile is sick / It will not be doubted (Ashanti).
Second, an eye-witness account corroborated by a second witness is to be preferred to an account given by a single witness:
- xvii. I have seen the one who stole the hen / I don't tell because I am alone (Sena).
- xviii. An animal does not fall / Without a second shot (Nembe).
Third, the test of probability based on "the nature of things," that is, on common sense and reason:
- xix. The oldest son does not know his father / Yet the youngest one claims to have carried seven bags for him (Ikwerre).
- xx. "I have killed an elephant," could be true / "I have carried it to the road" must be false (Ikwerre).
The oral tradition recognised the passage of time through its visible results and impact on things, the documents of historians:
- xxi. The year a basket is made / Is not the year it wears out(Ikwerre).
The oral tradition also understood that accounts did not spring out of nothing, but were recalled through their relevance to present circumstances; approximating to the view that "all history is contemporary history:"
- xxii. A storyteller / Does not tell of a different season / tide (Nembe).
Is the past then created out of the present? Or does it have a grounding of its own? One text says the past came before the present, as the ground before the trees:
- xxiii. The earth came into being / Before the trees (Nembe).
The future is defined as a time to be planned for in expectation:
- xxiv. A man who wants a ram slaughtered at his graveside / Should keep a ewe to produce the ram while he is alive (Ikwerre).
Indeed, the future remains unknown and beyond knowledge:
- xxv. Even a bird with a long neck cannot see the future (Kanuri).
One text refers to eternity as even more inscrutable than the future:
- xxvi. God will outlive eternity (Nupe).
First, what are the consequences of ignorance or neglect of history?
- xxvii. A stranger in town / Walks over hallowed graves (Nembe).
- xxviii. One ignorant of his origin / Is nondo (nonhuman) (Nembe).
- xxix. The fly who has no adviser / Will follow the corpse into the grave (Ikwerre).
The cost of ignorance then, is high, from improper behaviour, to loss of humanity, to death. What, then are the benefits of knowledge?
- xxx. The son of the soil / Has the python's keen eyes (Ikwerre).
The historian, the man grounded in knowledge of community history is characterised as "the son of the soil." The Ikwerre term, diali, means son of Ali, the Earth, venerated as a dominant goddess. Such a person belongs, is an insider in every sense. As a consequence, he or she sees clearly as the African python is though to see. In effect, he or she operates efficiently in society with a secure identity. In contrast, the person without knowledge of community traditions is a "stranger in town," without proper identity and open to being treated as being less than human.
This brief discourse should establish the possibility of an African philosophy of history in the oral tradition. Fuller enquiry would require interrogation of community historians as well as the contributions of modern African philosophers who can obtain answers from questioning other sources in the "primordial African discourse in its variety and multiplicity."
Dr. Alagoa is one of Nigeria's pioneer scholars of oral historiography and historical writing.