The Géwël and African Intellectual Traditions

March 11, 2009

Géwëls exist in the center of the circle of their cultural communities. They are vessels of information that link past to present, and present to past. But equally important they are also masters of the art of speaking. The significance of this mastery is often not understood in the 21st century rush to modernity that the world is undergoing. It is particularly muted when seen through the foggy lenses that are used to look at the continent of Africa and its traditions. However, in order to understand and appreciate the significance of the géwël to modern society in Senegal, and on the African continent as a whole, it is necessary to examine the oral traditions that they utilize.

It is often said that Africa is a continent of oral tradition. On the surface such a statement seems to be little more than an observation. However, observations about human activity in the world are never free of values, particularly when that activity is situated in a milieu different from the one the observer has been acculturated into. An examination of the values and world view that underlie observations about African traditions allow us to understand that statements about African orality are not only inaccurate, but also derogatory and dismissive of African intellectual abilities.

The observation that Africa is a continent of oral tradition is usually presented as a way of understanding Africa’s difference from Europe and the parts of the world that base their ideals on European traditions. The European world is presented as one of literary traditions. These traditions are assumed to be more advanced, and thus better than oral traditions. It is assumed that writing takes a superior intellect and involves mental processes that are more advanced than those utilized in an oral tradition. The fact that mastery of literacy, even in the 21st century, is reserved to a small percentage of the world’s population is used to elevate it to supremacy over the oral tradition.

The act of speaking is something that all human beings engage in. A tradition based on such a universal activity is considered to not require mental acuity or any special skills. In a world dominated by writing, the art of speaking which is central to oral tradition has been pushed aside. This is evident in the fact that in the literate world, a good speaker is one who can publicly present a written statement clearly, with few mistakes. To elevate textual recitation to “the art of speaking” results in more than a devaluation of a communication style; it is also a dismissal of the intellectual skills that are the foundations of orality. It also provides another platform from which intellectual traditions in Africa can be diminished and dismissed.

First it should be recognized that language, the human tool of communication, is central to both traditions. However the manner in which they utilize language is different. Before systems of writing were developed, language was spoken. It was an aural activity that required human interaction. The communicative nature of language required that a speaker have a listener, or listeners, who could also become speakers. Listeners could voice agreement, raise questions, present challenges, or issue new statements. It was an interactive process, and thus also served to bring people together in groups.

But language or speech is only one part of the oral tradition. It has to be understood that the oral tradition is not only a verbal tradition. The spoken word is only a modification of a total existential situation and usually includes many other elements. In speaking there are modulations in volume, and alterations of tone; words can be delivered in a rhythm that is fast or slow; they can be enunciated, repeated, or paused for emphasis. Additionally, words are always accompanied by facial expressions, hand gestures, and body movements. And words were always presented in a context that was shared by both the speaker(s) and the listener(s). Words, in the oral tradition, were used to comment on and describe events, and also to help organize and conserve memories about those events.

The literary tradition, writing and reading, alters the human interaction of language and in the process also transforms human consciousness. Writing provides a different way to organize and conserve memories about human activity. Writing transforms language from an oral-aural activity to a visual activity and in doing so it separates words from the living present. Once words are put onto paper, made into texts, they become frozen in time and space. What the written word says, it will say forever.

When words are written the ideas presented can not be directly questioned or challenged. The interactive nature of language is removed in the literary tradition. People are not necessarily brought together as writing and reading are solitary activities. A writer writes in solitude to an imagined audience of readers; readers also explore and contemplate texts in solitude, hearing the words either in their own voice or that of an imagined writer. Writing also makes language context free. When and where the text was written is not a central to an understanding of the written word. Neither is where or when the text is read. In writing, the discourse becomes autonomous.

The change from orality to literacy was also accompanied by a change in thought. The human mind no longer has to remember information that is preserved in written form. While on one hand, this can enable the mind to engage in speculation and contemplation in a different way; it also alters the human ability to retain and recall information.

There are clear differences in the traditions of orality and literacy, but there are also different abilities within each tradition. While there are many people who know how to write, few of them have developed the mastery to be considered professional writers. By the same token while everyone has the ability to speak not many have developed those skills to a level where they can be considered masters of the spoken word. This is the province of the géwël.

The géwël not only remembers the history of the community or communities that they are part of, but they have the ability to use language to bring these memories to life in the present. They make it possible for the community of the present to engage in dialogue with those who lived in and shaped the same physical space centuries before. Through recitations, proverbs, musical phraseology, dance movements, songs, and history they preserve and present the core values and ideals of their society. The intellectual traditions are inseparable from these belief systems. They intertwine with them, providing their foundations. When one engages with the African oral tradition it must always be remembered that there are much more than facts or stories that are being remembered and presented. Wrapped in each word or phrase, in each story or reference to an ancestor, in each rhythm or dance movement, is philosophy, history, concepts of religion, systems of mathematics and science; in short a world view that involves deeply thought ideas about man’s place in the universe.

Oral traditions are a complex part of an intellectual tradition that has not been fully explored. So we should be careful of what we say, and how we say it.

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One Response to “The Géwël and African Intellectual Traditions”

  1. Richard McGhee Says:

    This is great stuff! The oral tradition is more complex than one would think. The ability to transport and inform in the context of when events took place is never discussed. Your insight helps to put it in a context that has been overlooked. Of course, the Euro view has always been viewed as superior to the Afro centric view by Europeans. This helps to install a colonial mentality. However the Gewel’s role in this oral tradition is key to truly understanding this view. Functioning as a “human library” with the ability to recreate in a visceral way is incredible. The written word always has the problem of interpretation when done outside of the writers presence. The oral traditional when presented by the Gewel doesn’t allow for that interpretation. The Gewel is there for clarification and discussion. Also the use of the mind as a receptical of this information is truly valuable and should be emphasized. More information on the subject of the oral tradition needs to be brought forth.


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