( pn87 )

Beyond Orality in African Ethnography


    Peter-Jazzy Ezeh


    Department of Sociology & Anthropology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka

    Face to Face/ On Site - Presence

    John Nwaogaidu


    Westfalische Wilhelme-Universtat, Muenster, Germany

    Face to Face/ On Site - Presence

IUAES Affiliation: Ethnic Relations


ethnography, communication, orality, literacy, Africa, methodological advance


The proposal focuses on the re-imagining of ethnography in Africa to accommodate post-orality realities on the continent. Such methodological advances will make it possible to explore sources that were not anticipated in the classic ethnography designed for non-literate groups. The panel aims to assess the value, if any, of such documented categories as fiction, documentation of cultural experience of a large number of African communities that now abound. The focus is on publications or other forms of documents of ethnographic value from sources other than standard anthropological provenance. This category of documents that is readily available for anthropologists researching on African societies date from 18th century to the present. It seems to be more so for literal communities on the sea coasts where intercourse with Euro-American and Arab traders was easier. Anthropologists as such got in on the act in late 19th century. Their method consisted in observing the social life of members of the host society. Communication for purposes of gathering information was oral for the most part. The societies that were studied were, in the main, non-literate. Apart from independent anthropologists the colonial governments engaged some to work for them. In Nigeria and Southern Cameroon there was a special category that the government named incongruously “intelligence reports”. It was aimed at collecting information on the indigenous social structure and social processes of every community. Among one group alone more than 250 of such survive. As literacy grew, and with the end of colonial governments, communities seemed to have copied those earlier foreign efforts. There is now a large corpus of accounts of social organization by members of diverse communities trying to, as it were, present their “communal autobiography”. Besides these, articles in the media, documents such as minutes of village meetings, and the like, are full of information on customs and other cultural forms, deliberately presented as such. The method we propose has both academic and practical relevance. At the academic levels, it supports the positions that had been adumbrated in works such as those of Austin Shelton who in the 1960s studied four African novels across West Africa and reported ethnographic values in them. Coussy, Bardolph, Durix, & Sevry, (1983) after a similar study described a category of the novels as “quasi-anthropological”. Depending on the concerns in a particular anthropological enquiry, written sources are likely to be relevant. At practical levels, ethnography cannot continue exclusively with methods that were designed for non-literate groups. To remain relevant in a changed world the tools for research must also be diversified to get information that the more familiar ones are not likely to fetch.