Challenges of Studying Written and Oral Sources in Africa

Topics: Africa, Atlantic slave trade, Sub-Saharan Africa Pages: 9 (2524 words) Published: October 14, 2014

One of the biggest issues facing African historians is the fact that the study of actual African History is relatively new. A large majority of the sources available are written from the point of view of Europeans, with an intended audience of Europeans.1 In this egocentric method of reporting history, Africans were viewed more as objects: a people with a past but no history.2 The written “historical” sources provided by imperialists robbed Africans of their voice. The principal challenge facing African historians is to find a way to inject the African voice into the narrative, and thus provide a more accurate representation of the continental history. This task presents more profound questions. What qualities make someone an African? Is it sufficient to be a black person living on the continent? Are there levels of ethnicity? Are the descendants of Africans brought to other parts of the world in the slave trade “Africans”? Ultimately, who decides who is “African”? Equally problematic is the issue regarding what represents a credible source, either written or oral. Each presents unique challenges that must be addressed in order to qualify the value of the information they portend to provide. While the more traditional African historical sources are invariably prone to the problem of European bias, cave paintings offer a source that was born out of a desire of an African (not a European) to document their experiences. For example, the rock art of Gilf Kebir in what is present-day Egypt represents people allegedly engaging in the activity of swimming.3 This offers historians perhaps the oldest example of source material regarding African history, but what does this “written” source actually tell African historians? Most importantly, it definitively proves that someone was there, and through scientific dating techniques, it indicates approximately when they were there. This is real, hard evidence, which “underpins all historical research.”4 This is not to infer that there are not problems with the use of the paintings as a source of usable evidence. The older a source is, it is more likely to be inaccurate.5 Were the people in the paintings actually swimming, as scientists believe? Does that mean that the desert where the cave paintings were found was once a land that contained lakes or rivers? Or did the cave painters devise their art from the second-hand memories of others who had travelled to faraway lands? What was the reason they chose to document their experience? Was it graffiti? Was it done for religious reasons? Was it a territorial marking? Archaeological sites are less prevalent in Africa than other parts of the world, which is problematic in having the ability to compare this particular site to others. Further, the available archives needed to compare these archaeological finds are fewer in number in African regions, and sometimes less accessible due to political reasons. The information in the African archives that do exist is often more difficult to translate than traditional archival information in that most African languages are oral, and not written, and nearly impossible to document without the benefit of oral history.6 How can African historians mitigate these challenges and make the information in the cave paintings of Gilf Kebir more usable as an historical source? One suggestion is to actively search for other existing examples of cave paintings and to compare them based on materials, method, content, location, etc. When such comparable examples do not exist, scientists could initiate more archaeological digs, extend communication among scientists to broaden the evidence base, and exert political pressure upon leaders to focus on scientific endeavors, as well as the preservation of the archives. Like historians in other parts of the world, African historians face the challenge of deteriorating archives because of damage caused by the elements, water damage, and insects.7...
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