65th IFLA Council and General
Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999
The importance of oral tradition for children: case of countries of the Sahel.
Bibliothèque lecture Développement
For a long time, Africa has been regarded as a barbaric
continent, because it didn't possess an extensively rife
Indeed, according to Eurocentrists of the time, "the written
act is the main support that operates in the fixing of
realizations judged fundamental." Then, since, the African
societies are not characterized by writing, the existence of
an African history becomes unlikely, the oral sources not
being trustworthy enough.
African multiplied investigations on investigations, and were
able to find evidence verifying the thesis of the oral
tradition as one of the sources of the African history.
Since, we witness a genuine renewal of interest of "societies
detaining the monopoly of the writing" for the history of
Africa, particularly for the oral tradition of which they
want to know all values, all teachings.
Isn't the chosen topic of this meadow-seminary a long time
after the controversy on oral tradition - writing is over an
illustration to that?
In this communication on the importance of oral
tradition for children: case of countries of the
Sahel, we'll endeavor to deal with the oral tradition
in Africa, the connection between African children's
literature and oral tradition, before insisting on the values
of oral tradition and suggesting perspectives for a possible
cohabitation between the oral tradition and the modern
I - The oral tradition in Africa
Among the numerous meanings of the oral tradition, let's keep
the following: "The oral tradition is the whole of all
testimony types verbally transmitted by a people on their
past."1 It is in this
context that the plural is often used: oral traditions.
1.1 - The content of the oral tradition
The content of the African oral tradition is characterized by
a big diversity: to announce kinds that follow.
a) The tale and the fable
The tale is the most known element of the oral tradition. It
is generally defined as an imaginary adventure narration with
a didactic vocation.
It is popular, that is to say created by and for the people:
it is born and lives the collaboration between the people
listener and the storyteller respectful of his ideology, of
his culture. Traditional, it is orally transmitted from
generation to generation. It closely depends on the culture
and the people's physical geography that produced it.
The tale is generally told kids by old people, at dusk. Among
the numerous explanations on the time of enunciation of the
tale, let's keep this one: "The night is more auspicious to
the dream and the creative imagination, and the mind is more
free after works and diurnal worries." 2
The fable doesn't defer from the tale so. It is an intended
imaginary or mythological narration to illustrate a precept.
The narration, often short and comic, can be assimilated to
b) The myth
The myth is a long narration that is object of strong belief
for the people that produced him. Indeed, to the difference
of the tale in which the sharing of the real and the unreal
has the tendency to balance, the myth, is intimately linked
to the occult. In traditional Africa the myth is considered
as "the serious word" of which no one dare to doubt. Thus, as
soon as the myth stops to become sacred, it can be considered
as a legend. For a long time, it has been reserved for chosen
auditoriums, circles of insiders, until the disappearance of
religions to which it was connected with.
c) The epic and genealogies
The epic or epic narration relates exploits of hero who
really existed and who played a major role in a people's, an
ethnic's history. Their adventures have been embellished to
create the full models of teaching (Samba Guéladio
Diégui by exemple).
Genealogies are the detailed history of a dynasty, of a
people. Destined to please, the epic and genealogies are
often sung by griots with a music instrument. They can
provide historians with numbers and dates, as well as name
d) Proverbs, riddles and enigmas
Proverbs are some vivid truths to which the tale acts as an
illustration the most often. Some storytellers say the
proverb before developping it with the help of the tale.
Proverbs are often told kids by the old people, who still
like nowadays to decorate their speech: they connote
eloquence and wisdom.
Riddles and enigmas are kinds of "game of hide-and-seek by
the word" for grandparents and children. In certain
societies, they are exclusively exercised between kids.
Let's note that either riddles or proverbs are no longer
Songs occupy an important place in the index of the African
oral literature. Some even defined the song as being "the
adornment" of the verb. Songs intervene in all moments of
life, especially on occasion of ritual ceremonies (crops,
circumcisions, etc). Deciphered, they serve today to
ethnologists to locate some historical or social events in a
1.2 - Transmitters of oral tradition
In Africa, the transmission of the tradition is the business
of everybody, especially if it must affect the children's
education. The near family is as well involved in the process
of knowledge transfer as griots, real professionals of the
word, storytellers, singers or the African writers who tried
a few later to integrate the tradition in their works.
1.2.1 - The family
Very frequently in Africa, it is the father who bring up his
son and the mother, her daughter. In some societies, the
uterine uncle plays a more important role than the father in
the boy's upbringing. He is more free with him than with his
father and asks him questions more gladly. The young boy who
goes with his father or uncle to the farm, to the hunting or
the fishing, the little girl who helps her mother, who goes
with her to the well, receive not only a technical
instruction but all ways of information on the natural
habitat or the social life, which pretext is generally found
in the task that they are accomplishing or the meetings made
on the way.
It is their responsibility to transmit the tradition to
children according to wisdom procured by age but also by
their availability. Everywhere, they appear as important
educational agents in fields which are not directly linked to
the economy, particularly, in the oral teaching. Their role
is not negligible at all on the plan of the social
integration. They act as an hyphen between the past and the
present. The little child often lives with them after being
weaned or when, at 4, he begins to notice things and to ask
One notices that to the contrary of the relationship that
links the child to his parents, those he maintains with his
grandparents are characterized by a sort of equality,
complicity, tacit alliance and propensity to joke.
The grandmother is the most competent in the oral
transmission of knowledges. Indeed, in all societies, the
grandmother is characterized by a big tolerance, a human
experience that made her be the"human library." She occupies
a place of choice in the traditional values' conservation. In
traditional Africa, the grandmother was the only one openly
authorized to talk to the children about sex. Those ones took
that window of opportunity to ask all kinds of questions.
However it is important to note that in Africa any old people
can intervene in the transmission of the tradition, he might
either be the insider's grand-parent or not. Once free of the
daily chores, old people are available sources who can put
their experience and their memory to the service of the
1.2.2 - Professionals of the word
The griot has been considered as the holder of the word,
therefore the social memory of the group. He keeps facts and
important events of his time but also those of the past
times, left by his fathers to be restored to future
generations. Thus, real professional of the word, the griot
stays up its good transmission. One call him at time of
important events during which he willingly reconstitute a
family's genealogy playing his kora or another instrument of
music according to the type of society. From time to time,
big meetings to esoteric character get together griots
insiders for summing up of the people history. At the time of
these ceremonies, the youngest one acquire new knowledge.
Eldests show them the adapted sites, graves or old altars,
teach them systems of deduction of the time for every ethnic
and old shapes of languages that allow chiefs of subgroups to
Other agents who operate in the transmission of oral
tradition are storytellers who always have messages to pass
on at the time of nocturnal celebrations, but also singers
who willingly draw from the national index.
A few later, one will recover this role at the African
writers. Indeed the painting of the traditional society is
very present in the work of a Senghor, a Birago Diop or a
Mamby Sidibé. Even though this transmission is not
made by the oral channel, it deserves to be mentioned because
the finality stays: instilling in children the traditional
II - Children of Sahelian Africa and oral traditions
The attitude of children towards oral tradition was very
positive in traditional Africa. The social organization of
that Africa was more in favour of the transmission of oral
traditions and the interest of children for these traditions.
What happens know? It is what we try to determine below.
2.1- Present situation
The traditional society is very different from the modern
one. The first is characterized by the mind of group while
individualism, immediate consequence of the urbanization,
occurs in the second. Indeed, the wide family's breaking up,
the irruption of fashions of western life (the school), the
modern channels of information transmission (media) are as
many elements that act in the disappearance of the
phenomenon. There isn't anymore neither griots close to
families, clans to animate celebrations, kassaks, nor sacred
meetings in the forest etc.
So if the African child is lucky enough to live with his
grandmother, he should do with what he has been told after
having learned his lessons. Most children, once their lessons
learned and their homework done prefer to watch television or
to play with neighbours.
If they are really interested in the tradition, they will be
able to turn themselves toward ways of recuperation of the
oral that still exist. I want to mention festivals of tale,
theater, the musical spectacles on television or radio
The famous "Wednesdays of Blaise Senghor" deserve to be
mentioned here. Every Wednesday afternoon, the library of the
"Centre Cultural Blaise Senghor" in Senegal used to organize
a time for children to be told tales. The librarian made a
professional storyteller come to restore stories and
traditional games to children who really enjoyed those
However, even this admirable initiative didn't resist the
writing. Presently, the most current way of tradition's
transmission is the printed material, through the book or the
magazines for kids. What makes us ask ourselves questions
about the place of the oral tradition in the African
literature of youth.
2.2 - Place of the oral tradition in the African literature
The oral tradition inspired the African authors a lot, in
particular those who write for children. Indeed, more and
more number of African authors give oral tradition a big
place in their works. However, we choose to center our
thought on the work of Amadou Hampâthé Bâ
who has always been known as a great defender of the African
2.2.1 - The example of Amadou Hampâthé Bâ
Born in Mali in 1900 and dead in 1991 in Abidjan, Amadou
Hampâthé Bâ succeeded in imposing himself
as a wide person very concerned by the African culture.
Amadou Hampâthé Bâ is especially known for
his attachment to oral tradition, this tradition which is
recovered in his whole literary production of youth.
Let's mention Kaïdara: récit initiatique
peul, Petit Bodiel,: conte drôlatique peul, le petit
frère d'Amkoulel, la poignée de
poussière,: contes et récits du Mali or
again Njeddo Dawal, Mère de la
calamité. Amadou Hampâthé Bâ
listened all these tales he has written for children while he
was young, in his parents' house where lived one of the
biggest masters of the word of the time,: Soulé
Bô called "Koulel", of whom he received his
nickname. "Later, I had been revealed the deep spiritual
sense of these tales "he explained3. That's why he wanted to retransmit them to
This is not by chance that in 1966, Lilyan Kesteloot was
rushed by the UNESCO close to Amadou Hampâthé
Bâ so that he could help her understand some famous
texts of the oral tradition, in particular
Kaïdara, récit initiatique des Peuls.
Full of wisdom and humor, Amadou Hampâthé
Bâ's tales often deal with animals and convey all the
values worthy to be known by the young generations.
So, let's note that the written tale plays an important role
in the editorial production. It is a real invitation to the
reading phenomemon, especially if it deals with animals, what
children appreciate a lot. The evidence is that they prefer
to identify to hare, symbol of intelligence rather than to
the silly and greedy hyena. However, modern storytellers
direct themselves toward other different themes: the struggle
against racism, the good care of the public thing, the right
to the difference, the praise of the discovery and the
2.3-The values of the oral tradition
The oral traditions always have a didactic range. Indeed,
from the tale, to the myth, proverbs and riddles and even
epic narrations, there is always a teaching to pull, a value
to instill in the child.
Themes of instruction are provided more for tales and
proverbs. The symbolic meaning coming from these two types is
used on several plans: the knowledge of the nature, morals,
the social behaviour...
Hero of tales put in evidence a system of values and
represent, according to cases, virtues that lead them to the
social success or shortcomings that make them fail in their
plans. African traditional tales often put in stage animals
and qualities that one wants to instill in children- The
intelligence -any kind of intelligence- because it is
essential for them to defend themselves against the brutal
and harmful strengths of the environment.
A good understanding of the society in which they are
supposed to live, notably attitudes and behaviors of its
members. One wants to help children to find their place in
this community in which everyone has a specific role. So,
the curiosity and the originality are discouraged.
While growing, children understand this way of efficient
morals illustrated by tales. Some of these moralities can be
found in the fables of Esope and De la Fontaine. Since they
are very young, children integrate these values without
On the same way, one notes that proverbs have their roots in
the tradition which observes, explains and interpretes the
facts, the rules of the nature, the human behaviours to
express the social relations. Proverbs take their value from
the society which work out its rules of conduct and resist
all changes strongly.
Riddles also play an important role in the child's formation.
They permit to test his level of intelligence. Indeed, "The
riddle is not a problem that one solves thanks to the
problem's terms, because in fact, there is nothing to guess
but to know." 4
The epic doesn't escape the rule. Long and fascinating, often
punctuated of songs, the epic narrations by exalting the
hero's action rise a people's history, and instill in the
child notions of courage and devotion to the community.
Therefore, it is obvious that the oral tradition plays an
important role in the transmission of knowledge. The fact
that the oral tradition is deeply characterized by the
cultural realities and the social values allow it to
perfectly play that role. However, do all these values fit
the modern society?
III - Perspectives
So far in the topic, the question to be asked is: which
future for the oral traditions? Do the oral traditions belong
to the past, or might they cohabit with the modern,
3.1 - Scientific culture and oral tradition
The modern society is characterized by: a scientific
development, a real technological progress and new attitudes:
the desire to search, to go beyond ones capacities, to
innovate, and the taste for the pure intelligence..
The invention of modern communication and information means,
such as the television, the radio, the telephone, up to date
teaching methods considerably changes past habits, which
pheneomenon is greatly facilitated by rural depopulation.
Individualism rages in the urban area, what isn't at all in
favour of the transmission of the values of the oral
traditions. In the rural area journeys within the country or
from a country to another really modified the ancient order
From now, most of the elements of oral tradition such as
genealogies, mottos belong to the folklore and its values are
more and more disconnected from the reality. The circumcision
for example, has lost its ritual aspect, to be only an
hygienic precaution. In some areas, it's the opportunity to
recover the ancient modes of circulation of goods and to put
together the community in great parties.
Let's add the performances of the modern pedagogy in which
all means are provided (books, K7, CD-ROM) so that the child
understands his lesson quickly but well. So, the modern child
prefers to play with a computer at home, at the library or at
school rather than trying to get the hidden messages of a
quavered voice, broken by years. That attitude of the modern
child shows a strong approval for modernity and cultural
In short, the cohabitation between traditional and modern
culture becomes more and more unlikely, the second having
prevailed over the first. However, why not selecting the
values of oral traditions adapted to the modern society and
make them last?
4.2.1 - What to preserve? Which future?
Of the oral tradition, one should preserve tales, vectors of
social and human morals, narrations and myths for example
those dealing with the creation of villages. One could
arrange a short hour of the tale in schools, libraries, as
well as conferences from time to time.
Medias are also some adequate means for this attempt of
recovery of the oral channel. Oral tradition should be more
present on radio and television. The principle is to further
popularize what is national and to avoid what can be a
ferment of division between families, clans and tribes.
Finally, it would be necessary to succeed in not representing
the oral tradition as the only support of our societies, but
to show that there were also acquirements and technical
innovations very adapted to the field and the needs of humans
of that time. Those things are to be conserved, discussed and
So far in the text, we tried to show the wealths of oral
tradition, its importance for the child's education, and at
last its limits.
What is to be kept in mind is that, in traditional Africa the
oral tradition was closely linked to the child's education.
It was a real pedagogy. However, the evolution of societies,
the scientific progress get the upper hand over oral
tradition in the child's education, even if it still subsists
It's the modern educator's role to catch the strengths and
wealths that still characterized the oral tradition and to
associate them to his own methods.
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