Is Oral History Important? Working in Precolonial Studies

Oral history straddles a line that all history does: the modern interpretation of the past and the bias and inaccuracies this conflict can produce. Even written history’s interpretations and conclusions are effected by the period it was written. This is why primary sources are coveted. You can never get closer to understanding what people were thinking, what was happening, and why than when they are speaking in the moment.

However, with precolonial studies, particularly in Africa, written documents are few and far between.(1)  Oral history is arguably often our best option for primary sources, alongside other methodologies I’ll explore later such as historical ethnolinguistics. Oral tradition’s biases and problems does not mean it cannot be utilized, African historians must simply flesh out and utilize oral tradition methodologies.


Let me demonstrate and simultaneously introduce you to Senegambia. Here is a section of the “Epic Tale of the Waalo Kingdom:”

“You shouldn’t marry a man whose body you would see when he’s washing himself. You shouldn’t marry a man whose body you would see when he is in the outhouse. If the man asks you to sleep with him, the mattress must fall first on the floor before you sleep with him […] Fatumata said to her husband: “These are things you want me to do before marrying any man?” “Yes,” replied Bubakar.

 – Griot Nam transcribed and translated by Samba Diop

Fatumata, the mother of the future ruler and founder of the Jolof kingdom, plays a fundamental role in the Senegambian history and mythology that is retold by the oral historians of Senegambia, the guewels.(2) So what does this story tell us about Jolof history in general? What does the story reveal about the history of Senegambian women? What does Bubakar’s hand in his wife’s remarriage mean in the context of Senegambian culture? How do Fatumata’s reactions and society’s pressure reflect on the Senegambian women’s experience?

To begin, Bubakar lays out guidelines for Fatumata’s remarriage on his death bed illustrating religious and cultural blending in precolonial Senegambia. Generally the Waalo customs would have Bubakar’s family arrange Fatumata’s marriage.(3) Bubakar selecting the guidelines instead is part of Islamic traditions that began integrating into Wolof life in the 11th century.(4) There is some question if Bubakar truly held the power over his wife’s remarriage as Waalo customs took time to incorporate Islam and it is believed that, at the time “the majority of the population [of Waalo] was non-Muslim.” Placing the power in Bubakar’s hands may be a projection of Senegal’s present day Muslim culture.(5) Regardless, both customs were meant to “keep the wealth and children within the deceased husband’s family” illustrating a continuity between the two cultures, the past and present. It also illustrates a consistent trend in which women’s marriages were a function of consolidating family and wealth which motivated Senegambian women to marry European traders in the 16th century. Thus, one line of oral history illustrates melding cultures and confirms the intersections of wealth and marriage that would later lead to the birth of signares.(6)

Fatumata’s parallels to the Islamic figure Fatima illustrates the issues of a living, breathing historical record on factual accuracies. Fatumata Abraham Sal resembles the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima who was also married according to other’s will. Fatumata and Fatima were also similarly instrumental to the birth of a new power, the Jolof Kingdom and Islam. How do we interpret this considering Fatima was part of Islamic history and Fatumata’s story so closely mirrors her own? Could it be that Fatumata is merely a part of the Jolof mythology that is again tied to a projection of modern Islamic culture? How do you reconcile this with other versions of the oral history in which the male leaders of Waalo, not Fatumata, instigate Jolof by sending Njaajan Njay to establish the Kingdom?(7) Or is Fatumata’s similarity to Fatima simply edits of a real woman and her experiences? To be honest there are no clear answers. These are the issues oral history presents. However, it is clear that Fatumata’s introduction into the oral history is a representation of the culture and ideas surrounding Wolof women which is valuable.

Thus, Fatumata is also indicative of Wolof women’s importance to Senegambian political life. The modern perceptions of women in Senegal absolutely inform Fatumata’s tale. However, making a woman’s actions be the primary catalyst of the creation of Jolof speaks to Senegambian women’s consistent importance to Wolof politics. Women functioned behind the scenes many times but they were intrinsic. The Awo, queen, of Cayor’s bride price was the salt pits that were fundamental to political and trade relations with Europeans.(8) The lingeer, King’s mother, of Latsukaabe was considered by even Europeans to be holding the reigns of governance.(9) Similarly, Fatumata catalyzed Njaajan Njay’s move to Jolof through initially resisting marriage and then marrying Mbaarik. Her actions had created such community ridicule that Njaajan ran away, got lost, and found himself in Jolof.

Additionally, it would be fallacious to claim that guewel’s are only interested in flattering their Senegalese benefactors or profoundly taint their oral histories with consistent projections of modernity onto the past.(10) Guewels are trained over a lifetime in music, performance, and history. This history is their own, it is of their people. It is ridiculous to dismiss it because of its fluidity when we continually use extremely racist European’s written journals about Senegambia. Oral history is a literal voice from the past, from the people whose history is studied. It is an invaluable tool to building up and fleshing out the historical record of Senegal, West Africa, and the African continent. Guewels absolutely portray the general roles and culture of the Wolof people in their histories.

Reference map of Senegambia

So let’s examine another section of the oral history and its representation of women.

Fatumata refused to marry all the men who courted her for none of them fulfilled the conditions, those conditions her late husband dictated to her [even when mocked by her community]. […] When Muhamadu [Njaajan] was eleven, Mbaarik Bo came into the room; he found Muhamadu in there. Fatumata was cooking inside the kitchen. You know, in those days, when women were cooking, they stayed inside the kitchen. […] He [Mbaarik] then started cutting the piece of wood. He narrowed both ends of the piece of wood… Fatumata didn’t see any of this for she was inside the kitchen.

Fatumata’s obedience, resistance, and naivety illustrate the complexity of women’s roles and reactions in general. Fatumata demonstrates total obedience to her husband by refusing to marry men who did not fit her husband’s guidelines. However, her obedience also shows independence as she consistently refuses to marry men despite her community mocking her and Njaajan. Fatumata was then tricked by Mbaarik into marriage because she had been too distracted by her roles as a mother. Fatumata was too busy cooking to see the hidden bed frame Mbaarik constructed. Thus, when Mbaarik “gave a quick and unnoticed push to the mattress” he broke the frame causing the mattress to fall on the floor. Fatumata, though bewildered, agreed to marry him as he had fulfilled the her husband’s last condition. Her motherhood had blinded her and left her vulnerable. She faced mockery by her community for her engagement to Mbaarik. Her son was ridiculed. But again her allegiance to her husband and custom illustrated a conflicting independent obedience. Here, we see that custom and circumstance affected women and often seemed to dictate their lives. Yet, women were also central to the politics of Senegambia and independent in their own ways.

As you can see, oral history is problematic; however, it also illustrates numerous cultural and historical patterns that are vital for our understanding using the historical voice of the Wolof people. There are no historical documents or sources that are not problematic. Statistics, oral history, historical ethnolinguistics, anthropology, geography, written primary sources, archaeology etc. Historians combine all these sources to flesh out the picture and mediate the biases.

So is oral important? Hell yes, it’s everything!


Clarifying “Foot Notes”

(1) I wince at the term “pre-colonial.” Because it assumes African history is split by when the Europeans were there and when they were not, a Eurocentric term for a history that has yet to break free from Eurocentrism and desperately must in order to gain clarity. Oral history must be used for precisely this reason. It is African voices, Wolof voices. Something we desperately lack due to a lack of written language in the sub Saharan region.
(2) Guewel is the gender neutral term for the storytellers, performers, ambassadors, and historians of Senegambia whose closest cultural “parallel” would be bards of Europe. These guewels, griots and griottes, pass on the oral history of Senegambia through generations of meticulous study. Samba Diop completed the recording, translation, analysis, and authentication of this telling in her phenomenal book on oral history in Senegal.
(3) Waalo, featured on the map above, was an outer chiefdom of the Jolof Kingdom. There are numerous debates concerning if Waalo was antecedent to the Jolof Empire and while numerous valid arguments are offered both for an against it is likely Waalo did exist in Senegambia, whether it was a large powerful chiefdom or a village. In this telling of the formation of Jolof Waalo plays a central role as birth place of Njaajan Njay and is clearly placed antecedent to Jolof.
(4) The Wolof people are the primary ethnic group in Senegal, then Senegambia. Waalo was primarily made up of Wolof peoples and the Wolof controlled the Jolof kingdom which ruled over most of Senegambia and its chiefdoms until the 1500s when the chiefdoms became independent.
(5) Modern Senegal is 95% Muslim. This build up was slow and steady beginning in the 11th century and fully permeating through Wolof society by 1400. Islam did not replace Wolof culture though. Additionally, numerous Serer communities maintained animist religions. A homogoneous culture did not exist in Senegambia. Every community and chiefdom had ways of incorporating Islamic tradition into their existing culture.
(6) Signares were female traders. They were often initially jams, slaves, who were married to Europeans to consolidate trade relations. They expanded and carved out their own roles from this. They became wealthy and influential, to the point that European trade companies began complaining about the power the signares held over the new Eurafrican communities and European trade.
(7) Njaajaan Njay founded the Jolof kingdom around 1350. This is the Serer version of his name, Ndiadiane Ndiaye is the Senegalese French version, and the version utilized in this telling is his Muslim name: Muhammadu Aydara.  He was Fatumata and Bubakar’s son. Bubakar was a hero of the Waalo kingdom who established the spread of Islam throughout Waalo and the outlying region to the east, which would become Jolof under his son’s leadership.
(8) The awo was the first wife of the buurba, King. A bride price was similar to a dowry but rather than the wife’s family providing the dowry a husband’s family compensated the bride’s family for their loss. Cayor, also featured on the map above, was central to European trade and salt was another chiefdom of the Jolof kingdom. Salt was necessary European’s food preservation and storage during long voyages.
(9) The buurba was the “king” of sorts. However, his rule was not “determined by the gods” as with monarchs of Europe, the emperors of China, or the pharaohs of Egypt. It was a dual system of lineage, from Njaajan Njay, and merit. If the Buurba did not meet his people’s expectations he was removed. “Inept or overbearing leaders caused people to abandon them and join rival groups” forcing them out. The Lingeer, the buurba’s mother, had considerable formal political power because their formal power of “supervising the royal household” meant supervising even the buurba.
(10) Guewels, much like renaissance painters, had benefactors. They relied on wealthy or prominent Senegalese families for financial support and protection, guewels were not always treated well as they were feared. Diop discusses this quite a bit throughout her oral history text as the guewel who performed was a benefactor of her family. An important fact to note is that Diop’s father was well versed in Senegalese history and genealogy; however, which held the performer to a high standard of accuracy and not brown nosing.


General Resources:

Brooks, George. Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.

Brooks, George. Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Brooks, George. “The Signares of Saint-Louis and Gorée: Women Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth-Century Senegal,” in Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, ed. by Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), 28.

Diop, Samba. The Oral History and Literature of the Wolof People of Waalo, Northern Senegal: The Master of the Word (Griot) in the Wolof Tradition. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

Gamble, David P. The Wolof of Senegambia: Together with Notes on the Lebu and Serer. London: International African Institute, 1957.

Hale, Thomas. Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

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