Oral traditions [part 2]: P. D. Curtin and the field research.

When I first heard about Ghettoization, one of P. D. Curtin’s controversial articles, I became so obsessed with his writings. Despite this, you might encounter anything concerning his works in this blog. This compendious post is based on an article in the Journal of Folklore Volume 6.

Background and the introduction.

Writing during the 1960s, Curtin undertook to inform and instruct a group of African historians in America, and Europe as well, about oral tradition and field recording. He showcased for organisation and preservation oral data after the inquiry and recording process. Accessing and recording oral tradition, unlike any other sources, is a rare opportunity, that will, unless recorded, never present itself again in the future. Curtin did not hide that he was showing African historians a way of battling Eurocentrism. His main concern, again, was to manipulate the already utile oral tradition into being a much ‘useful tool’, accepted by many in the African scholarship, by positing the ways of avoiding inaccuracies as well as facilitating the gathering of missing blocks of the African history. It seems, by the time he wrote, a lot of scholarly attention was lost because of the very useful evidence, the written documents, was very scanty and leading to some scholars to give up on studying and writing about ‘Africa with no history of its own’. His article is entirely sweeping, it even imparts ideas to historians adopting oral traditions on how to avoid bias.

Curtin first acquainted to us, the field of study with a convincing definition; “Oral sources are a brand new body of data, writing in greater volume to open vast areas of African history that were previously that were previously obscure”.

“Indigenous​ traditions are completely undependable much beyond the recollections of living informants”~P. Murdock

This inclination towards the falseness of oral tradition by most of the social scientists (Murdock was one of them) originates from their inbuilt perception or the tradition of ‘theory to cases’. Whilst, in comparison, a historian is and was taught to be, cynical over every limited evidence available, as it always scanty.

Why oral sources

‘Standard manuals’ of history tentatively recommends a historian to use any source, as long as it exists, even fictional literature. Luis White was one of the researchers to follow this; dealing with the history of the colonial Uganda he reckoned even rumours as evidence to his claims.i Still on this, Curtin presented a historical canon: Every source is a relevant source, but it is so after being critically examined.

Dealing with Oral tradition: the Challenges

Whilst Curtin advocated for the utilisation of oral tradition, he admittedly evinced how oral sources are always deprived and lacking to correspond to all the historical needs. Traditions are a rare evidence left by the dead who can’t answer any question which set the historian into an inquiry. Every historian understands, the process of collecting oral data is so complicated and burdensome. A historian has to know an African language and a European language used in the areas of his studyᅳ knowing all relevant languages is a practical impossibility. Again, one is obliged to move into rural areas, finding a translator etc.

The future of Oral tradition.

For preservation factors, the change in leadership (colonial to post-colonial) and modernization seems to be, increasingly and negatively, affecting the life of oral sources. Precolonial political structures utilised oral tradition to serve a political function and now it’s no longer necessaryᅳ there are no longer passed on because many of the precolonial structures have been dissolved. Even when the question of preserving traditions is under political discussion mixed opinions hinders. To some politicians, it revives tribal groups suppressed by the government. However, despite this as a limitation, to preserve oral traditions requires the ministries (of education) to create an extensive and ubiquitous network; an undertaking which is expensive and almost impractical.

The author recommended for traditions to be preserved in written form (archival creation) to protect them from extinction. Historians should be obliged to do this even when it has nothing to do with an account they are creating.

He prophesied that even after 3 decades oral traditions can still be found (and useful) in some areas, but that doesn’t guarantee them against extinction.

A historian does two things, as far as traditions are concerned; the collection of evidence and creating an archive using the datum established. “By habit and training,” Curtin interjected, “a historian is an archive using animal. He begins with a question and ends with an answer.” Now, it is the time to create something for posterity that future historians will benefit from.

Fieldwork and Oral traditions.

Here the professor appended to us some field work codes; After the collection of oral messages a historian becomes an archives creator, his recordings and notes can act as a source of history and not only an answer to his problem ᅳ a primary source of its own kind. This way of ‘creating archives’ has never been utilised by a group of non-professional precursors (Colonial administrators, travellers, and so on) of this ‘recent’ group of historians which Curtin has been trying to manipulate. The precursors never tried to preserve anything of the oral tradition but they strived for a way to make their conclusions. Thus they left a paucity of evidenceᅳ, not evidence in the actual form but a series of conclusions and intuitive assumptions.

Recent technologies (recording devicesᅳtape recorders when he wrote) which these precursors lacked should be incessantly utilised to transform the ‘oral archival database’. Albeit a bit problematic (some informants may choose not to speak for posterity), recorders are still very utile.

Documentation of Oral traditions

If a copy of translations is made; the name of the one who created an archival source should not be effaced of erased for future recognition and footnoting. The past, again, should not be annotated, if there is no need to do so, and if annotated it should be not much scholarly or altruistic.

Curtin grouped traditions into three categories i.e. Formal, semi-formal and informal.

Types of Oral traditions:

Formal Oral traditions

 Are like written literature, they are to be recited correctly, merely, word by word. They have a raw data composed by someone in the past to serve a specific purpose. Albeit having secondary source characteristics, formal traditions are primary because none along the course will try to transform the account in a tradition.

Formal traditions vary in format. Some, like when you ask a Sudanese about Hajj Umar you have to anticipate for a long-lasting narration of up to two hours. Some, like kings lists and genealogies, are shorter.

Longer accounts, with no breaks, are exhaustive but does not offer a selectivity patent to the inquirer. A curious fact is a man can remember and recite a formal tradition more than he can about his childhood. Failure to establish a clear rapport between the inquirer and the informant may lead to a paucity of a datum which the inquirer has set himself for, and a lot of facts out of the historical problem which the inquirer tends to address.

Some societies may lock down some of the traditions, which are believed to be confined to their culture or tribe, and should not be bequeathed to the foreigners. Commenting on the case of Sudan, Makris indicates, “Songs are pieces of poetry or verse unknown outside the circle of the Tumbura cult which has always been extremely closed and secretive.” Some of the traditions are known to few specialists, locating them is a real problem.

Again, when responding to the question the audience around informants influence their answers. When the narrator realises that the narration is to be taken away his response becomes less progressiveᅳ a tradition should be jammed by a narrator’s lexical axioms. More to this; formal traditions are made to be understood by a certain community, leaving the historian with an incomprehensive text, and thus annotations should be made up of the narrator’s words when a series of question follow up to fill up some missing puzzles or uncomprehended information, only which an inquirer thinks to be so, out of the first narration. 

Informal Oral traditions

 are merely inherited, just like formal, but they lack organisation. It is only the inherited narration of the past with no words and structure of the past, thus it tends to vary among the individuals in the same society. Whilst Curtin recommended for a minimal questioning when the narrator is giving a formal tradition, he reasoned intense questioning is sometimes misleading. Informants may give an answer that they believe an inquirer is willing to hearᅳ interpretation is, therefore, a necessary step after collection.

There is no clear demarcation between the formal and informal narration when the narrator speaks one may find some words recited formally in an informal narration (are these semi-formal?). Individuals specialise on various traces of the past i.e. migrations, religion, politics and military. The result is often a sheer quantity outlines each from a different angle (e.g. military/politics).

Informal narrations are disjointed pieces and they are, somehow, dry to address the question and the historical problem. Semi-formal narration over genealogies is condensed than these.

Past through this stage, a historian is tempted to follow selectivity and a winnowing process and jotting down some notes in his notebookᅳ many will find using a tape recorder and archive creation duties unnecessary at this stage.

Consequently, Curtin moves on to systemize the collection of traditions for a better historical outcome. Firstly, he recommended the use of questionnaires. Questionnaires do not only produce a numerical data but they can also be taped.

Some individuals in most ‘non-literate societies’ understands at least one European language and these individuals should act as informants representing the whole society.

Secondly, concerning forgetful tendencies the professor advanced for what he introduced as a Mexican approach (once used in Mexico). Repetition leads to remembranceᅳ asking the informants about his/her childhood experiences, traditions and narrations can be done. Following this approach, it is wiser to have four consecutive interviews before the final oneᅳ to be recorded on a tape. This, again, can help in establishing a clear rapport between the informant and the inquirer. Alternatively, an inquirer can lend his recorder to an informant so that he can only record when he has the time. The final recording is, by all means, a short one, heavily condensed and precise in detail.

The last aspect of dealing with the oral data, before preservation and distribution, is organisation. The author first discussed filing the datum collected. If any, annotations on recordings should include introductions, revealing the subject matter and summaries from the informant or the inquirer. If there is a collection of oral traditions in text format numbering and arranging them in order is great.

More detailed notes, if possible, should cover up on the following:

  • Name, age, occupation and normal residence of the informants.
  • The source of information i.e. data about societies.
  • The place where the data was collected.
  • If many, informants should be listed in alphabetical order.

Side copies should be made in the case of erasure or theft. Nowadays, the changing world allows you to make some backup copies online (e.g Mega cloud storage) for free. In addition, recordings should be sorted according to category: eg musical, cultural etc.

Translation, the second organisation aspect is always necessary even in Africa (English/French). If a translation is done by an experienced person, the one to utilise it later will thus find a more precise, comprehensive and quick-fact information. An experienced translator can compress a 3hr interview into a single hour of words.

Sometimes there is a need to find a linguist (translator) well informed about the region and the language recorded, that is which the informant used. Explanatory notes are written in whatever way that appeals the writer/recorder. The role of human translators should not be undermined because of the recent technologies, they are far way better than google translate.

The outcome is an annotated and processed historical document, full of footnotes, awaiting distribution. Some copies should make their faces into bulletins, some in library and archives, and some can be sent to the countries of origin.

Sources and annotation

L. White “Speaking with Vampires: Rumour and History in Colonial Africa”, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2000.


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